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The Be-jeweled Cosmos: Art and Antiquities in San Francisco

The Be-jeweled Cosmos: Art and Antiquities in San Francisco

by Binoy Kampmark

The day after. Slightly worn, a touch weak like William Burroughs after a narcotics gaze. Have a hankering for something restorative. It is San Francisco, and your correspondent is recovering in the galvanic city which has released another burst of current. The bed no longer swims. The universe is gradually restored to its balance. The unsteady hand creeps across the sheets to the glass of water.

Within a small radius, San Francisco packs more charge than most perimeters on this planet. In a country where pleasure is often frowned upon (the Puritan ethic is sacrosanct – much work, and heavily circumscribed play), San Francisco is free. It is packaged sin, punch drunk with wealth and cosmopolitan excitement. One goes to New York to taste scale, dimensions and watch youth wither before crowds and skyscrapers. One comes to San Francisco to die in ecstasy, to live the drawn out life, to fight the onset of age.

An ordinary ‘party’ evening is encyclopedic. There are numerous entries, registries, readings, inspections. One leafs through the correspondence (or, in the modern era, taps the keyboard). The invitations are issued from a secretive cabal of socialites who operate the levers of contacts. The amorphous central committee acts much like a politburo of pleasure, dispensing invitation and knowledge like ration packs. The hungry await, desperate to gain entry into the inner sanctum.

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A strategy is hatched early on to deal with the slew of events. There are several in an evening. What to do? For one, assume a clinical disposition. Cull, expunge from the list what is not plentiful, what doesn’t flow with milk and honey. Is a donation expected? (Toys are all the range around festive occasions.) Is there a cover charge? Is there a host bar? The tendency of the human animal is to maximize the minimum. If it is free, then the event is bound to entice. Yet, even the gratis event can prove unsatisfactory. ‘I expect my money back,’ complains a person after going to the latest promotional event for a magazine launch, drenched in novelty Chambord-flavoured vodka. But, dear fellow, there was no money that exchanged hands.

This evening: art and antiques. There is much abound. The first, Art People gallery ensconced in the Crocker Galleria (think Charles Crocker, think railroad magnate, colossal wealth), a sort of collective of gallery and artist. What is impressive about this gallery is that the artists own it. There are no middlemen or women creaming the profits. On show: floral themes on one side, with a strong accent of hibiscus. ‘Need it for my office,’ exclaims an office manager. She does not state what she does in that office apart from manage. Presumably, flower gazing is intended to calm visitors. ‘I like the creamy colours.’

On the other wall, it’s themes of dazzle – work of the ‘be-jeweled’ queen herself, Elizabeth Gibbons, an agent of cosmic power with a fascinator so feathered it looks alive. Her face is heavily made, every wrinkle buried, cheeks rouged and daubed, fixed with a permanent smile – the smile that the scalpel renders permanent. ‘I have begun teaching at a Cosmic academy,’ or words to that effect. She has crafted a spade as well encrusted with ‘jewels’, a shovel of galactic powers that cannot be replicated, though she will take commissions should you wish to have your own home be-jeweled spade. Even the cosmos needs shoveling from time to time.

A call. Your correspondent receives word from the socialite cabal. ‘Antique row is buzzing,’ comes the wine-soaked voice, crawling out of the phone. The antique section on Jackson Square. Prints that gaze at you at the Arader Galleries wishing to walk out as a companion for your next bourgeois indulgence; furniture at Design within Reach to spice up the interior with a Scandinavian flavour. (Much of it, seemingly, out of reach.). There are kitchen models people will buy but never use at Kvänum. Millions of dollars compacted into a segment of the city.

The police have sealed off the area – it has become a kaleidoscope of patrons milling about with wine and cocktails. There are packs given out, the mandatory sweeteners. A wheat field blonde called Petra flashes the contents of one collection. Book, catalogue, brochures, and a complimentary bottle of water gaze out from the bag. Then, with an alabaster grin, she chooses her next target, dragging her aging mother with her. The be-jeweled cosmos is within reach.


Binoy Kampmark was a Commonwealth Scholar at Selwyn College, Cambridge. He lectures at RMIT University, Melbourne and is currently in San Francisco. Email:

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