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mark rothko national gallery

Sunday Church with Mark Rothko

The other day, I went to National Gallery and stared at a Mark Rothko’s painting. This is what I do each time I run into boys troubles – which, for those who know me in real life know that it’s every week.

It’s a symptom of being born Sagittarius. I know my best guy friend and same sign horoscope buddy X goes through the same cycle as me. By Monday, a girl has captured his heart and by Sunday, he would be either bored, annoyed, or broken. Either way, he would be sad.

When X and I lived in the same city, every sunday, we would meet up for some iced lemon tea trà chanh on the street stools and lament about our love life. So who was our victim this week? Or who did we become a victim of? It was our church ritual.

I have this similar church ritual in every city I’ve lived in. Five years ago, when I was 20 and living in the “center of the world,” my friends and I would gather every sunday for All-You-Can-Drink brunch. By 3pm, we would be drunk, puking on the streets, cursing some guy but ready to fall in love again. It was an unhealthy but simpler time.

Now that I want to learn how to be a responsible adult, I put myself in “rehab” mode and move to a remote town with few distractions. Or so I thought.

“What I’m trying to do with my work of art is you’ve got sadness in you. I’ve got sadness in me and my work of art is places where the two sadnesses can meet.”
– Alain de Botton paraphrasing Mark Rothko interview with Time Magazine

mark rothko national gallery

I know I sound like an elitist for loving Mark Rothko’s paintings. The first time I saw a Mark Rothko at MoMA, I didn’t “get” it. I dismissed it as one of those abstract art that people like to be trendy. Then, last year, the first time I visited the National Gallery and walked by a Rothko. It stopped me and pulled me in. Oh.
It’s not something to “get.” It’s something to feel. It was a religious awakening moment. Like the first time I visited my favorite city. Like the first time I experienced “love at first sight.”
The two rectangles of dark black on a backdrop of intense red hues could reflect any emotion I feel. If I feel happy, the red seems like a light dancing mood. If I feel pain, the red transforms into bleak dripping tears. This is not abstract art. It’s experiential.

Owning a Rothko would be equal to owning a thousands of paintings, freshly new each time you look at it, mutating accordingly to the moment. If I had $72.8 million to spare, I would want to buy one as well. Fortunately, I live in a city with great museums. Since that instance, I knew Mark Rothko would be my new church therapy ritual.

On that Sunday, I don’t remember the specificity of my sadness. It was a mild aching feeling. I remember fondly our first night out – the enthusiasm, the soul-connecting talks, the serendipity. Hours went by; we have explored all parts of the town and now accidentally catching sunrise together by the lake. Magical like a movie.

Then, the last time we ate together. He cooked. “Do you like it?” Yes. I lied. We sat in silence.

Chemistry has evaporated. The magic is gone.
Not his fault.Not my fault. Perhaps Cupid’s fault.
I don’t know.
It just made me sad. and mad. but mostly sad.

After my therapy with Rothko, I walked to a nearby cafe and took a solo lunch. Virginia Woolf would insist on the importance of “a room of one’s own.” And I would insist on the importance of eating on your own – something every girl should learn. It’s my routine of self love.

I ordered French Earl Grey tea with honey. The cashier laughed. No one drinks tea like that. For variety, I ordered the special plate of the day.

– Are you French?

The waiter asked as he cleared my plate, pointing at my book L’Été by Albert Camus. (Yes, I sound like an elitist again, carrying a French book by an existentialist author around).

– Oh no. I used to live in Switzerland.
– Which part?
– Geneva
– Ah ouais. Je viens de Genève…


– …What year are you at ANU?
– Second year of bachelor’s
– You’re 19?
– No. 20.

I laughed.
The young Swiss student smiled, took the receipt on my table, and wrote down his number.

I walked out to a sunny, chill first day of autumn. The sun is beaming. The sky is crystal blue. The air is crisp. The wind gently scrapes my bare cheeks, whispering how life would be so boring without uncertain adventures.

I remind my fragile self that no matter what, no matter how many more times the rollercoaster might end wretchedly, Mark Rothko would be here to absorb any aching broken piece. And so, I took out my phone and started texting 0414….


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