The Museum at Purgatory

by Nick Bantock

Published by HarperCollins

115 pages, 1999

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The View From Below

Reviewed by David Middleton


As I was reading Nick Bantock's The Museum at Purgatory, an odd mixture of feelings came over me. A strange combination of dread and fascination at Bantock's attraction to -- and vision of -- the afterlife. A lot of my dread and fascination being that yet again someone had taken matters into their own hands and described another variation of a possible hell. The version uppermost in my mind being Dante's breathtaking guided tour of the ultimate Down Under. (Ladies and gentlemen if you look to your right you'll see pit number 11,441. Here people who cheated on their taxes are being roasted over a bonfire of their own returns while having to do long division by hand. And if you look to your left you'll see a special pit reserved for meter maids, 'nuff said.)

It is possible that all of us, at one time or another, have pondered what may manifest after we have shuffled off this mortal coil, gone to the great beyond, bought the farm, kicked the bucket, snuffed it, and all the rest of that verbal mumbo-jumbo writers, poets and polite members of society have long used to say that we have -- you know -- passed on. Died, as it were.

We have been told that if you're are bad, then you are headed subterranean faster than you can say "hold the fries," and if you are good, it's off to a place where everyone has a set of wings and nobody judges you; even if you played the accordion at weddings in your corporeal life.

I mean, if we had not been told what sort of torturous, bone-smoldering, evisceration-laden, human-flesh pulp factory awaits us after we die (that is if we've been particularly ill-behaved), what sort of incentive would we possibly have for being kind to that neighbor who won't return our power tools? And what, other than the threat of being immersed in tapioca for eternity, would motivate us to be nice to those annoying, yappy little dogs?

It frightens us to think that if we cheat on our spouse, write bad poetry (which in my opinion should be classified as a mortal sin), fail to give up our bus seat to the elderly or phone our mother on her birthday, we might spend an eternity suffering at the hands of someone far less merciful than your average tax auditor. That is, for someone who believes in that sort of afterlife. But what if your take is different? What if you see this après vie as a means to study the whole of your life as though it were some school course? What if you could take a look at it through the eyes of someone who knew it intimately and also see it objectively, almost as though you were watching it from a distance; slightly removed? What if, after you die, you were allowed to judge your own life in as honest a way as you could, in a place that puts no pressure or limits on you, only that you be true to yourself? And that once you were satisfied with the results of your soul searching, you move on to a place were you, and only you, believe you belong.

Where would you be, then?

You would be in Nick Bantock's Purgatory: the afterlife's way-station. In The Museum at Purgatory, your guide and narrator is Non (pronounced like the French word for no ). No, he is not a demon or even someone who jabs at you with a red-hot trident. He is the curator of Purgatory's museum and he is a chaperon of sorts, helping you deal with the problems you had in life through the catharsis of either collecting or creating. He is also an amnesiac, attempting to recall his own life -- for, without doing so, he himself can't move on. And it is through his work counseling the denizens of Purgatory that he is eventually able to make sense of his own existence.

... as the Curator of the Museum here at Purgatory I am required by statute to facilitate, without judgment, the progress of all collectors assigned to these halls. It is my responsibility to act as their souls' guardian, as well as preserver of their accumulated treasures.

You see, the museum has a room for absolutely everyone who ever has or will come through Purgatory, in which is placed all their created or collected artifacts. Some brought with you in death and others collected or created by you in the afterlife. We are guided by Non through a few select rooms, being told of the life and times of each individual. And we get to see the curiosities they have acquired and hear how they have come to accept their individual fates.

Assessing oneself after death is a matter of measuring the information acquired during life. What, we are obliged to ask ourselves, have we contributed to the greater consciousness? The answer to this far from easy question defines whether our next port of call is one of the Utopias or Dystopias

In order to travel on from Purgatory, a spectral being must come to terms with those conflicting elements not dealt with previously. No godlike external judge is going to decide the being's destination -- the Utopian or Dystopian State chosen must reflect the specific need of the spirit in question.

Bantock is probably best known for his bestselling Griffin and Sabine series, where we were allowed to read the private correspondence between two people who pass each other on seemingly different planes of existence. An interesting story, but what really fascinated me about the trilogy was Bantock's slightly schizoid but brilliant artwork.

Like Griffin and Sabine, Purgatory draws on Nick Bantock's ability to create dozens of different works which look as if they came from as many artists. This is the book's true strength, and Bantock's. The art work created for this book ranges from the beautiful to the bizarre. From beeswax encased mummies to postage labels from Valhalla, architectural spinning tops to intricately complex game boards, Bantock runs the full gamut of artistic styles and materials and is comfortable and adept at using them all. From the simplest pencil drawing to the most intricately detailed three-dimensional piece, Bantock fully convinces us that we are looking at the work of several artists instead of just one. Which is what is so delightful about his work; it refuses to be genrefied. As I turn the pages of his books, I wonder what style of art I will see, and I am always surprised and delighted.

In true Bantock style, he has come up with a fascinating story and an unusual but extraordinary art book. I eagerly look forward to his next work. | November 1999

David Middleton is the art director of January Magazine and his good deeds are the stuff of legend.