The Tribe of Exiles

The two women talk incessantly throughout the fifteen-minute film at the Ai Weiwei Sunflower Seed installation at Tate Modern. The film shows the people in a village in China painting one hundred million bits of moulded porcelain in the shape of sunflower seeds. Each seed is hand-painted. Each seed looks different. The film documents the entire process, from making the porcelain to laying the unimaginable number of porcelain seeds on the floor of the Turbine Hall at the Tate in London. As you arrive at the exhibition, there is a new sign that tells you Ai Weiwei has been arrested by the Chinese authorities; nobody knows where he is and nobody has had news of his wellbeing. Nobody, that is, except the Chinese authorities. Ai Weiwei could be dead. In the film, he is a rotund man. He seems centred and driven and magnanimous, deeply aware of what he is doing. Watching the people paint each sunflower is a moving experience, and seeing their village and the way they work. It’s almost breathtaking. It is humbling. Ai Weiwei is aware how this undertaking that he has brought to the village will probably create a myth in the village and the surrounding area for generations to come. The Myth of the One Hundred Million Sunflower Seeds.

Throughout this all, the women talk. To listen would be to absorb, to acknowledge the enormity of the task, the political significance and the sadness. Now he has disappeared, been arrested. And the women keep talking. Oh, about this and that. Boyfriends, shopping, whatever. Afterwards, in the cafe upstairs, and then later while cycling across to the Waterloo sauna, I think about what one can do to create work of significance, work that would make a difference to people’s lives, the people involved in the making, the people witnesses, and that would transform the maker himself. How can a writer do that?

What can a writer do to make a difference to people’s lives. It’s just a book. What can a book do? How can a book make a difference. Ah, but what about the Bible? What motivated those people to sit down and write the Bible? So long ago that it exists without an author, as if created out of nothing. How do you tell a story that would mean something to people? Does the story have to come out of a tribe, a people, a community, and be written for those people? And what if, like me, you are not part of an entity, at least not a geographical entity, you are not from a place that welcomes you, no country, no tribe. But the tribe of queerness? Is that your tribe? And the Jews? Aren’t they your tribe? And the countries you grew up in? What about them? But here, in exile for fifteen years on this island, defecated out of the continent of Europe…

I can speak of the queers and what we do. Of gay men, in particular. Queer in exile. So many of the men I meet in the saunas and sex clubs, even on online, are exiles in this place. Who are you? is what it boils down to. Where are you from?

“Are you a foreigner?” I say to the man on the bench below me as I massage his shoulders.

“I am,” he says. “From Holland.”

“Yes,” I say. “That’s foreign enough.”

He is an older man. Old, even. He had walked into the dry sauna and sat down on the bench at my feet so that his back was between my legs and the guy next to him looks at me and says, so, and I say, what, and he says, so, give him a massage.

“What,” I say. “Are you the cruise director?”

But I do. It is an act of kindness and I feel kind. Not profoundly magnanimous, but it feels like doing a good deed. He is not an attractive man, but his shoulders are nice to massage. They are smooth and tense and knotted. There is work to be done. The three of us talk calmly between us, gentle banter, references to opera, a kind of ease that sometimes happens in the dry sauna (more than the steam room). Men being nice to each other. The room is small, and the two younger men who come in while we are talking stand near the door.

“The Two Armoured Men,” the Cruise Director says, and divides up the roles from The Magic Flute amongst us.

“I don’t really know it,” I say.

But the Dutchman does, and they debate who will be Tamino, and who Papageno.

“I can be the Queen of the Night,” I say.  “I don’t mind.”

These moments are good moments. At some point I recommend the Marble Arch sauna to the Dutchman, and tell him to ask for Marcos, to tell the massage guy that I sent him.

Eventually we disperse, each to our separate hunt, which, in my case, leads me to several men, but to one in particular, who takes great pleasure in being on his knees in a cubicle with the door open so that people can see him sucking cock. And he sucks with gusto, with a kind of devotion that wants to obliterate the self, to vomit out everything and to remain empty, a vessel, full of devout submission. When he is not doing this, we kiss and play with each other’s nipples, and I finger his arsehole a bit and we stroke each other’s back and the sides of our bodies while we are pressed close together. We are in one of the smaller cubicles, but one that you can stand up in, which you cannot do in the bigger cubicles along the other corridor. We do not speak, do not ask questions, do not exchange words. For those fifteen or twenty minutes, we are two men in a cubicle fucking in silence.

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