Megan Dunn takes you on a journey – from her first infatuation with Strawberry Shortcake dolls, through her fixations on various other mass-produced toys, later wearing them on clothing as “beacons of burgeoning sexuality”. She attends Elam School of Fine Arts, the Intermedia department, she accrues a whopping student loan and becomes a video artist. She founds an avant-garde gallery in Auckland. She has waitressing jobs, and then is a receptionist/bartender at various massage parlours. She farewells Aotearoa – and then comes back for the heart of the story. Megan Dunn appropriates and edits her own life to create a resonating work of art.
Like the author’s brilliant Tinderbox, Things I learned at art school defies classification. It is a memoir, an essay collection, and a novel. It is full of facts. Facts about the conception and production or various toys, about the making of Splash and other movies, facts about TV themes and popular songs, about famous works of art. It describes what it was like to be a conforming non-conformist at art school. Where she and her cohort were unoriginally intent on deconstructing (ripping off) the originality of others to give the finger to the establishment. To be fair they were living in a time where a model of a balloon artist’s dog could sell at auction for US$58 million.
The book has a beginning, two middles, and an end. Many essays are structured into a narrative with characters. Her character lives through various guises, she is Alice in Wonderland, a massage parlour logo, Patricia Arquette, a mermaid. The narrator writes in the rhythms of the Jabberwocky, in the style of Genesis. Growing up she is bullied, and she has a sad view of the desires of ‘old’ people. Later she has fluctuating weight. She is hyper-impressionable to certain movies and authors. She is insecure, realising at best as an artist she is someone else’s “leap of faith”. She recognises public self-harm might not be an artistic statement but rather an expression of private self-hate. She breaks down during a psychosynthesis course, and she’s never been able to “feign affection” for herself.
Megan the character grows up with wisdom posters: Desiderata, The Serenity Prayer. She lives by appropriated catch phrases: “Are we having fun yet?”, “You’ll smurf what to do when the time comes, Smurfette”. “Everything retro can be brought back, thinner the second time around.” She has the required snobbery for art school: “art like so much else in our society has its hierarchy” and her cohort thought the mainstream was “beneath us, intellectually and emotionally”. The bubble of creating art works purely from appropriating the works of other artists, sometimes themselves appropriated, finally pops. The narrator becomes a reviewer and essayist. Her father describes an early piece as “a bit of a word soup” – “I’ve been making it ever since”.
After her time working in massage parlours, the author packs up for London. Saying goodbye to the beginning and two middles. And then there’s the end. Things I learned at art school says much about art, and true works of art are found adorning hospital walls, created by people in memory of their dead. She spends time with her mother, and the book falls into perspective. Her mother, who was always there when she needed her, despite her daughter ignoring her, or even disparaging her. Her mother sent the author a poem when she finally left home: “One / Lonely / Toothbrush”.
“Art is about everything surplus to requirements – that’s what makes it so essential”, a line that reminded me of Ryūnosuke Akutagawa: “there will always be those that say that art is excess and surplus to existence … Yet surely what makes humans human is always this excess and this surplus we create”. Things I learned at art school is wonderfully created surplus. I admit to being one of those thinking this was going to be Dunn’s ‘mermaid novel’, and quickly found it wasn’t. But in a way it is – with the author describing the emerging and submerging of artists, events, lives. I absolutely loved this book: “I’m drawing a picture from life. See?”