Opinion

John Bird: Piet Mondrian – one man can't change everything all by himself

The artist Mondrian was hugely relevant, but more so than the man who cleans the toilets? Sometimes the mundane is also essential

On November 7 last year, I asked an oral question in the House of Lords about Japanese knotweed, a pernicious plant that upsets gardeners – and peers – big time.

You have to ask a question in that part of the proceedings, but most make a statement dressed up as a question.

I asked Lord Gardiner, the minister, whether it possible for Her Majesty’s Government to imitate the late Anita Roddick, who took a very novel attitude towards cyclamen.

The plant was blocking the water courses and streams of Nepal. And no one seemed energised to do anything about it. Anita wanted to turn a minus into a plus.

Japanese knotweed has been raised 148 times in the Lords since 1989. The House is full of experts. Shouldn’t I be concentrating on homelessness?

So she got someone to make paper out of cyclamen, and therefore placed a value on something that no one could be arsed to clear away. Cyclamen had become a crop worth harvesting, with rewards in the marketplace.

I suggested that we get people to be paid for knotweed here, as we could then turn it into a product, like paper, to be sold and used to raise money for charity.

I was met with bemusement. That wasn’t how Fallopia japonica oral questions usually went. It’s been raised 148 times in the Lords since 1989. The House is full of experts. Shouldn’t I be concentrating on homelessness?

I was reminded of my knotweed question last week when I cycled from my campsite in Delft to The Hague. Going through the magnificent city of Delft, full of little shops and beautiful 17th-century buildings, an absence of cars, I was struck by the canals. Uniformly they were full of little green plants, growths that covered the surface of the canal.

I went down close to the water, put my foot in and encountered little plants that bound together to form a surface of great complexity. Made by millions of little leaves.

If I had had a springbok rake, one of those long ones with thin teeth to clear up leaves, I would have harvested a whole load of the stuff. Alas I had no such implement on the back of my bike.

What astonished me was that in the middle of this beautifully well-preserved, well cared for, loved city, was an ecological disaster. For this sort of mass growth on the surface of the canal would not have been good for fish and the general health of the water.

Earlier at the campsite I had had the following conversation with a man whose job it was to clean the toilets:

“Are you fucking blind or something? Didn’t you see that fucking sign there saying ‘cleaning in process’?”

His assumption was that I was English. Perhaps only the English ignored the signs.

I replied, “That sign wasn’t there when I went in.”

“It fucking was.”

“I would have had to step over it to get in. It wasn’t there.”

He then made some comments in perfect English, the Dutch speak it as well as us sometimes, about maybe I should get myself some new glasses. I commended his grasp of insulting in English. He was boiling.

But he was boiling because he had a ‘shit job’ in hot weather. And the public often ignored his struggle to keep the place clean. On my ventures into loo-cleaning I can say I was astonished at how often what was supposed to be washed away was left for another to witness.

A possibly educated man was stuck doing a repetitive, but incredibly important, job. The fact that he was overlooked added to his sense of emptiness

I was in Delft with my family to cycle and play but also to visit an exhibition at the municipal museum in The Hague. The exhibition grandly entitled itself Piet Mondrian, The Man Who Changed Everything. I cycled up to the exhibition along the fast-flowing main canal that went between the two cities. There was no weed on the surface because it needs quiet backwaters, like in the centre of Delft.

Did Piet Mondrian change everything?

The father of a kind of abstraction that is basic colours in squares and straight black lines you can see his influence in IKEA, and other design houses that use simplicity. But “the man who changed everything” seemed a big claim. A claim that art can change everything.

Mondrian to me is a rare beast among artists; because everything he did, from his early days to mature days, seems relevant. It’s fascinating to see his tree drawings become more abstract, more squared, more regimented. As a lover of drawing trees I can see where he is coming from and where he is going.

But the man working the toilets, a grown man, a possibly educated man was stuck doing a repetitive, but incredibly important, job. The fact that he was overlooked added to his sense of emptiness. And I walked right into that.

The fact that no one will put effort into cleaning the waters of the canals, or do countless other mundane and unsophisticated tasks, picking up litter for instance, shows that what is essential is degraded. Degraded by supposed social differences.

Perhaps we should imitate Mao Zedong, in one thing and one thing alone; getting students to help farmers bring in the harvests as a break from their mental toil.

Perhaps we should see that some of the most important tasks on earth are mundane and essential. Perhaps we need to give all the chance of cleaning up their own shit.

Aside from the outrageous claim that Piet Mondrian changed everything, it was a brilliant gathering of his work, 300 pieces; and worth a visit to The Hague to see.

Main image: Detail from Piet Mondrian’s Untitled A

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