Friday, November 25, 2011

on Annika Eriksson's Shop Front Coherence

When Berlin Becomes Too Canny

For the moment, Potsdamerstrasse still has a curious charm, the charm of the Berliner Bratwunder (Fried Wonder), the Ave Maria religious knickknack shop, the Surprise Club and Disco, the Pushel Pub. Tatau Obscur neighbors Harb Import-Export and the Turkish outdoor supermarket with its oversized cabbage heads across the street from LSD (Love, Sex, Dreams). It’s the kind of charm that sucked us all into the vortex of Berlin-Mitte many years ago (minus the cabbage heads), the very same vortex that now incomprehensibly sucks flocks of Italians and wheelchair tourists through the bottleneck of the Hackescher Markt, so full of passersby one cannot pass by. Next thing you know they’ll be holding audio guides to their ear with images of the area displayed on their smart phones. But why is that area so beloved by strangers to Berlin? Because it offers them the familiar: the skinny peppermint mocca. Potsdamerstrasse, on the other hand, is the garden-variety of delight. Potsdamerstrasse is uncanny.

I would argue that it is the uncanny that yoked us into this city in the first place, Freud’s uncanny, familiar things made strange, Berlin’s uncanny horizons for the most part, things seen from the level of the street.

To explain: Berlin is a horizontal city. Rather than piling high changes—i.e., the verticality of New York City, Sao Paolo, Hong Kong—changes in Berlin take place along the horizon. Changes are not stacked (1, 2, 3) but rather lined up in a row (A, B, C), without the row being a row. This is what makes these changes so noticeable, no arching of the neck required, nor elevators to scratch the sky.

Recently, I stood in front one of Berlin’s new horizons, Annika Eriksson’s Shop Front Coherence (2011) in the window of the newly relocated Krome Gallery on Potsdamerstrasse. It’s a shopfront window that looks like an objet trouvé, perhaps a window Eriksson found somewhere down the street and transplanted to the gallery. It certainly looks “coherent” with the neighborhood, it jibes with it. But it’s neither an objet trouvé, nor a re-make (appropriation), nor a transplant (readymade). It’s the doubling of the “idea” of an art gallery storefront, and, in specific, the “idea” of a storefront on Potsdamerstrasse. It’s so uncanny, it begs the question: for whom is this window uncanny? You see, Eriksson hired decorators, a window-display firm, to do all the work, and curator Katharina Krawczyk had a heavy hand in helping out. The result is the brilliant conception of what the storefront of an art gallery should look like, created by people in the business of window displays. It is the manufactured simulacra of a nonexistent original. It is coherent yet incomprehensible as its function is reduced to a mere signifier of the thing-in-itself. (The exhibition behind the storefront has nothing to do with Annika Eriksson’s allotted project space).

So what does this “idea” of an art gallery storefront look like? Eye candy. Popping colors. Bright lights. But then one has to consider more closely: the objects on view indicate a workshop, not the finished product. Here is where art is being made, quite literally, with bottles of paints and brushes and easels, to be sure. And a canvas, oddly quaint, with paint brushes nailed to the edges created a variety-show effect, akin to putting light bulbs around a marquee. Scattered playfully across colorful tables stacked on top of one another were the letters spelling out K-U-N-S-T and A-R-T, animated as if dancing across the screen of “Sesame Street.” Naked light bulbs dangling from red cords added the finishing touch; the kind of lighting that screams “This is so Contemporary.” Nothing seemed out of place: and that is what is so uncanny about it. But looking back on it, one has to ask what the red-polka-dotted valise (the perfect case for Crayolas to-go), oversized clothes pins, a small filing cabinet, and a rabbit figurine under a glass cake dish had to do with indicating an art gallery. I absolutely refuse to believe that the valise hints at Duchamp or the rabbit to Dürer or Beuys, no. No excessive associative activity is allowed here. These objects indicated a “coherence” with the neighborhood, the kind of things you’d expect to find in a display window on Potsdamerstrasse. And that has nothing to do with nostalgia for a Potsdamerstrasse soon-to-disappear behind gallery fronts, or for that matter, the disappearance of sex shops, casinos, and the coming of Tofu Bonanza. Rather, in their own odd Potsdamerstrasse logic, they offered up a subtle moment of a coherence with the uncanny, Freud’s uncanny, the diminishing foggy logic which makes Berlin Berlin.

Thursday, October 27, 2011

The Collector: Parts VI-VII

Part VI: Hurt people hurt people.

The last chapter ended with an urgent message, something Louise wants to tell Max. About Nico, he presumes. But why did she snatch Ruth’s cell phone out of her hand? What could possibly be so urgent? Has Louise told Ruth something about Nico? Or about the mysterious girl he woke up next to this morning? It’s making Max nervous. We’re still in the midst of the opening of the art fair and he has yet to see the artwork. His artwork. The green one, he presumes, that everyone keeps referring to for its red. The artwork that the right people are all abuzz about for all the wrong reasons. There’s been a lot of sleeping around, regardless, thank god. It’s time for a sex chapter.

- Hurt people hurt people.

It was one of Ruth’s maxims and the reason why Max and Ruth had decided nearly a year ago to this date that they would keep distance from Louise. Emotional distance. She had a splinter lodged deep and it remained unnamable. “I swear to you. She’s got two life lines. I’ve seen them!” Max poo-poo’d the idea of palm reading, but he believed her, in some way, nonetheless. What Max and Ruth shared was their belief in not making her into an enemy, no matter how vicious or depraved her crimes. She was smart, charming, but more importantly, slippery. She had a nose for who to know, what to know, and how to know it. It was with the danger of Being Louise in mind that Max cut her short on the phone, telling her to wait, he’d be there in two minutes. He was near enough to see who was in the booth. Whatever message she had for him, he’d rather hear in person, and definitely not in front of his gallerist and that Chinese collector.

Ruth grabbed her cell phone back from Louise’s grip, laughing nervously.
-You remember the game we used to play? Remember the evening at the Paris Bar when you picked up Klosterfelde’s phone while he was talking to someone sitting to his right, who was it? I don’t remember. Anyway, you typed in quickly an SMS saying, “I don’t like you,” and then sent it to the first name in his address book. Who did you send it to?

-Agatha.

Agatha was worth a chapter of her own and perhaps she will get one. She was a special breed to the art world, shiny and new, she would have made the perfect dentist’s wife and somehow, now, in 2007, with her good looks and, it must be said, charisma she was able to hobnob with the best of them. Speaking of a famous husband and wife artist pair from Russia, she referred to them as “The Brothers Kabakov” and when she mentioned the well-known institution Kunstwerke, she called it Kunstburger without the slightest hint of irony.

-Is she still with whats-his-name?

-Do you really think that she was ever really “with” him?

-You know what I mean. She was at least always “with him” in the same room, and they always arrived and left around about the same time...

-Right, but never really talking to him. No.
Louise yawned.

-He went back to his wife.

Ruth was glad to hear of it, but she knew that it was better not to comment on it. To Louise. Whatever she said would be conveyed directly back to Agatha. It had taken Ruth a long time to learn just how much to parcel out to Louise to keep the conversation going without providing ammunition for future wars. Even a fish wouldn't get caught if he kept his mouth shut.

-Is she still in Berlin?

-No. She finally got a job, if you could call it that. Director of a Kunstverein in Nicaragua…

-Hard to believe she’d settle for that, or for that matter, that anyone would hire her with her reputation. She knows nothing about art.

-Oh, she doesn’t. But don’t forget, she’s got great hair. I think it gets her places.

Louise thumbed her phone, but carried on:
-And she wouldn’t have taken the position if it weren’t for that panama hat-wearing gaucho that came with the package. She’s usually on the road anyway and the Kunstverein foots the bill. She needed that. What’s taking Max so long?

The art world was small. Same people, different setting. Basel, London, Paris, you’d always end up in the same crowd of actors with the same props in different shapes – and in a different director’s film. Here she was in Basel chatting with Louise about a girl they knew mainly from art openings in Berlin, but even more so through art fair events, not so much Everywhere as Anywhere. Though truly relishing the gossip, Ruth was suddenly struck with the fear of seeing Max in front of the artwork he called his own – which he had yet to lay eyes on. She could see him weaving his way towards them. How would she slip away? “I’ve got to pee.” A closed mouth, as she always said, catches no flies.


With so much attention being showered upon him so early in the day, and with everyone making mention of some mysterious newspaper clipping tacked to the walls, en route to Galerie NN’s booth, Max fantasized the headlines:

Max Decker Makes His Come Back to NYC as Host of Saturday Night Live

Max Decker to Guest Star in Tatort

Max Decker Tours North Korea

When he finally arrived at the booth, he felt he’d been made to be the fool. One look at this pile of destruction and he understood at last what the critic had meant by “investigating the possibilities of the ‘Broken Readymade.’” He walked over to the Italian newspaper clipping, kicking a few of the cigarette butts to the side. He looked at the text spray-painted red on the walls and shook his head. Only one question penetrated the moment, but he couldn't bring it to his lips: Where's Ruth?

Louise pulled Max aside and into the aisle, dragging him to meet an artist who was a "dear friend." She said she had come to know him better when “visiting Tiji,” who had bought a large piece of land in Thailand. The artist had turned this land into a quasi-farm/residency for him and his friends and then called it The Land. She said the word “land” really loud and emphatically, but you could see that she was not saying it to impress Max, but a passerby who was even more important in the New World of titles and price tags. Out of her mouth flowed only first names, or worse, her own nicknames for them – with the assumption, of course, that Max could fill in the blanks. She knew that Max didn't know them, knew that her knowing them would put her in a shining light. What she falsely assumed was that Max would know of them. Gavin, Larry, J.C., they were all anonymous personages who took on weight only because of the drama Louise created by the nature of her telling.

Blathering on about people he neither cared about nor particularly wanted to care about just now, Louise filled the air with her rapid chatter:
-He was supposedly approached by Larry last year in Miami, but J.C. told me that he was sure that his artist wouldn't leave him for a skunk like Larry, so I said, Larry is no skunk, he just makes artists rich, so what's wrong with that, and J.C. told me, Nothing, it's just that he poaches off all of the work that we've done together over the past 10 years.... Anyway, I didn't want to push the issue any further and Larry’s very close to Dascha, you know, so I thought I'd better not say anything more until Gavin arrived. Point blank, I asked him if he was upset about losing Alfred to Larry and he said, Not all of my artists leave me. Those who decide to go are free to go.

Gavin had a knack for making every situation look like he had kept to the high ground. Not unlike Louise, in that matter, at all.

Max looked back to the booth, thinking he'd seen the apparition of Ruth disappearing with the gallerist behind a door, a tiny box of a room for private showings. It was the way the gallerist had taken her elbow that made him feel the pang. He turned back to Louise who was still skating over superficial details, her red lips spitting out 360 details:

-That beard looks so good on Gavin you know, like a sign of intelligence. He's the only one I know who can carry a beard like that and not look like a cop from a bad TV show.

-Louise, said Max, already on the impatient side, what was it that you so desperately wanted to tell me?

A few years ago, she would have held him captive with her know-how. But now that Max was going around with Nico, she’d fallen a notch or two. If she was a Porsche before, she was a Ford Fiesta now, and the only thing she had on him was hesitation, delay, mystery. She began to rustle through her bag, then told him that she had to make just one quick call, would he mind waiting?

As he turned his back on her, he could hear her ask “Oh and what dinner will you be at tonight?” but pretended he didn’t hear her and kept walking. Didn’t it occur to Louise that he might be attending his own dinner just this once? He waded his way through the masses of glittering people in the aisles back to the booth. Increasingly, his disappointment became more pointed. Snippets of conversations picked up along the way didn’t help assuage this sudden feeling of estrangement from the uneasy glitz sans sequins: “… the Steinbach, no, a frightfully difficult decision. In the end, we just didn’t like the Geraniums.”

He saw a handshake and a pat on the back.

The gallerist’s eyebrows arched optimistically…
-Max, let me introduce you!

Horror of all horrors, please no, said his expression, which he tried in vain to suppress.

Had the gallerist sold his work without having an inkling about what it might mean? Where was Ruth? She had some explaining to do. It was not that he didn’t like the damage she had done, but rather that he was irritated at the insouciant air of its being a commodity. The press text hadn’t changed, but it was vague enough to be read in a vacuum, he supposed. It was as if her changes represented a subliminal text between film frames. If there were 24 frames per minute, Ruth found a way of creating a 25th without making it into a video. She’d done something new and instead of being happy about it, Max felt interchangeable, infinitely ersatzable. At this moment, he felt like a glorified interior decorator, a mere foot soldier in the service of wealthy excess. He fantasized that “his” artwork would now end up decorating the foyer of some large glass and steel highrise in Shanghai. The definition of being an artist waffled in his mind. The next step, Max thought, was being commissioned to do the floors, the children’s room, the only empty wall in the hall.

As always, when Max felt stilted, he took to the streets. Walking made it easier. En plein air, he could ponder the duplicity of art and its uneasy slip into decoration. He made a dash for the door. Past the mechanical bull underneath a chandelier, past the oversized sunglass stand, past the robot vacuum cleaners sucking up glitter littering the floor. How had he completely missed Gallery Box’s most recent “Stressed Situationist” when he made his way down the aisle before? Basel was like that. You’d think you’d have your exit strategy all laid out and then boom, some booth you hadn’t seen before would throw you off the mental track. He had to get out of the fair and fast.

The sun was pounding down, high noon. He looked to the pavement and saw a laminated piece of paper stuck to the ground announcing the title to the piece accosting him, “Insulting the Audience.” A performance artist standing on a makeshift soapbox was shouting out questions to the meager crowd of three in front of him – “What does art mean to you? Why are you here?” …

Beyond that was a sculpture emitting a blaring horn in fifteen-minute intervals, meant to “comment” on the noise of urban life that ended up simply adding to it. Max chanced upon it at exactly the wrong moment (or right moment, if one believed in the artwork’s intention). He could see Nico and another woman getting out of a car, or rather what resembled a car in function but looked more like an armored tank in form. They were clutching their ears and making terrible faces. The one with the Standard poodle perm must be Nico’s mother.

What would he say to Nico? He had already said so much about the artwork that was plainly not there. And her mother, Frau Mutter Bibi von Stroheim? He had yet to meet her and this was bad timing. Something Nico had said to him in Venice while standing in front of the Hungarian Pavilion was still bothering him. They had just seen a video (labor practices in the third world) which they both liked. At the same time, Max had just received a call from Pepe in Basel who was being paid 25 bucks an hour for sitting around and doing nothing, waiting for a crate which had yet to arrive, and it made Max worried. Back in the day when Max was an assistant, assistants commanded no more than 10 per hour. Now the good ones were so in demand, one had to shell out what was a mini-fortune for Max. He had tried to get in touch with Ruth, but she had a different SIM card just for Italy and Max had lost the number somehow. In any case, a distracted-Max was not the Max-Nico-wanted, so she said quite fleetingly, and what Max perceived as rather harshly, “Don’t you have enough free interns to do this kind of work?”

It made Max swipe back:
-You mean unpaid sherpas, like the ones we just saw in the film?

He hopped on the first tram that came and took it just a few stops into the anywhere that wasn’t the fair. The shattered glass door of the Post Office – which looked like it had been penetrated by a gargantuan warring worm – seemed like the right place to get off. Who had wanted to rob a Post Office and, holy smokes, what sort of instrument had they used to penetrate its door? A barring ram in the middle of medieval “downtown” Basel? It was only then that he began to read the signs, quite literally the shop signs lit up in neon at night, more closely. Whether the signs were a signal of insistence or indecisiveness was impossible to discern. On one short block alone, the signs seemed to double back on themselves, bumblingly uncommitted:

Restaurant Café

Bauermensa Cafeteria (the farmer’s canteen cafeteria)

Café Cucina (the café kitchen)

Bäckerei Café (the bakery café)

Grillhaus Bistro (the grill house bistro)

Multi-shop Kiosk (not a freestanding “kiosk” at all, but rather a 24-hour quick shop)

At the Hoppe Repro Bistro Edel Café Bratkartoffeln Copyshop, he grinned: why decide on what you want to be at all when you can be everything at once? Why only one girlfriend and not two? Somehow, he’d work out the details later. Not that he need advertise it, but he saw no reason not to delve into the multi-shop kiosk mentality at least for now, today, this afternoon. Why make a problem out of a situation? He saw the tram approaching. Half-way up the steps, he stepped out and hailed a taxi. “Kurzstrecke. To the Messe,” he said.

But even in the short time it took for him to arrive back at the fair, he’d had time to regress into the cabinet of second thoughts. From the taxi window he saw a bike leaning against a wall, a donkey bike bogged down with plastic sacks similar to the one that Nico owned (the 80,000 dollar artwork). Similar but not the same. The taxi driver pulled to a stop and Max asked for a receipt. For 4 Euro. Before he could say “never mind” the driver handed him over the small slip of paper. To compensate, Max handed him over a 10 Euro note as a tip while glancing at the glamor-seeking artist he could see in the distance. There he was, Edward Scissorhands, hard at work. The ancillary work necessary to an artist these days, courting collectors, seeking funding for larger projects. He was in the outdoor fair café having cappuccino with the collector Agnes Troublé (agnes b.) and waving to Courtney Love at a table nearby. She was being interviewed by a journalist who didn’t dress the part of a journalist per se, but the Art Unlimited bag handed out at the press office gave him away. Mid-sentence she returned Scissorhands’s wave with a blown kiss. Was this the kind of life Max yearned for? Or was it rather that he yearned for it out of spite? Out of spite for his more successful colleagues and former cohorts, the ones he drank with night after night at Bar 3, the ones like Edward who talked to Max only when he was a) talking to someone important, or b) scheduled for a show at a venue where Edward wanted to show too.

Max showed the guards his pass while nodding to the fair director. Bald and definitely bored, his pale freckles gave him the air of eternal youth necessary to deal with the tedious art advisor rattling off to his client: “A foolproof color would be something monochromatic: If your dining room is orange, then you’d want to pair the paintings with a hue and a shade from the same slice of the color wheel. Again, I wouldn’t recommend anything flamboyant but those stripe paintings we’re about to see do match with a variety of interiors….”

Back at the booth of his own gallery, Max stared at the cigarette butts, evidence of Ruth’s digressions into seven-and-a-half minute pleasures. Pauses for thought. Obviously, doing what she did was not an easy thing for her. She’d given up smoking, after all, some three years hence. Where was she now? He wanted to see her, to confess, to ask her for time, for permission to “pause.” He couldn’t make up his mind now and surely she’d understand that. “I’m a multi-shop kiosk,” that’s what he’d say. She knew the way he worked, better than he did himself. His meanderings, his inability to commit. “Channel-surfing even in your career,” she once half-sincerely joked. Even preparing for this chance to show at Art Unlimited was marked by an ambivalence. Was it too early in his career to be offered such an opportunity? In his studio, he'd dilly dabble in one work, and then lose patience in lusting for the next, a series of repetitive one-night stands in which each night he'd eliminate all of the work from the night before. Each canvas, each sculpture, each piece was a chalkboard of equivocation. "That is not what I meant at all."

Hurt people hurt people, he said under his breath before approaching Louise, who was still in limbo nearby Galerie NN. “No, she did not buy a cell phone for her dog, I promise you. Do not, I repeat, do not put that in print.” With her telephone wedged between ear and shoulder, she thrust an envelope in his hand. He opened it thinking that he’d find the money that Louise owed him for the piece she sold nearly 18 months ago. Instead he found a riddle scribbled on the Trois Rois La La hotel stationary: “Tiger, tiger burning bright, ask the Lion whom he slept with last night.”

He remembered back to the day not long ago when he had delivered Nico’s underwear and Louise’s warning, “I wouldn’t go up there if I were you.” Slowly, paranoia set in. Recently, Nico had acquired a work from an artist who later won the Lion’s prize at Venice. Is sleeping with that artist, the “lion,” is this what Louise is hinting at? It could be true, he supposed. He and Nico had yet to have that discussion, the awkward one, the one about possible fidelity. At least for the short term. Not that vows had been declared or needed to be, but they had exchanged a lot of I-like-you-a-lots. His assumption that they were possibly beginning a relationship might have been just that: his assumption.

He remembered back to her parting words in Berlin, the ones that had given him hope.

I like you a lot, said she.

I like you a lots too, said he.

Lots?

Yes, a lots! I like you a lots.

Then I like you a lots too, said Nico with a giggle.

The joke was lost on poor Max. The extra “s” on lot was the reason she had repeated herself. Not that she wanted to emphasize, but rather that she was enjoying her private joke on her new German friend which she repeated often enough that it made Max believe that she actually felt something large for him. The plural of lot.

He needed to find Ruth. The someone he had liked a lots for a really long time. Where had she gone? In search of sculptures, no doubt, for her “bad art” collages. Paul McCarthy’s chocolate butt plug dwarf inside a James Turrell light projection? He was pulled out of his reverie by the sight of bad hair. Not his. Hers! The mysterious “her” between Venice and Basel. Shit.

“Hey du,” she said cheerily, kissing him on both cheeks. “Looks like you didn’t get a haircut yet after all,” she said, referring to his hair, not hers.

He pulled back before her hands could reach up to ruffle his, yes, still uncut hair. How would Sheena know that he was feeling bad about having bad hair? And why was she being so cosy with him? It suddenly hit him. Sheena? It was Sheena’s hi-lited head that he had seen underneath the duvet. He remembered that she had been at the party that night, he remembered her lounging on a couch in a position not conducive to that of wearing a lycra miniskirt, no matter at what angle one was standing. But he could not remember the sex. If he had had sex with Sheena he would have liked to have at least remembered it – for the sheer horror of it. The memory was vanished in a vacuum. A vacuum sucking up glitter. Had he worn a condom? Oh Gott. He couldn’t believe that he had done something so bad and not remembered it at all. He’d strayed from the path dependency. The editor of his film had left a slice of his life on the cutting room floor.

-Maxi, why are you being so distant? And what dinner will you be at tonight?

Didn’t it occur to anyone that he would be given a dinner of his own by his own gallery? He stood silent, hurt. Sheena took him up by the arm and pointed in Larry’s direction.

-I’m with Larry. Should I introduce you? He’s a huge fan of your work.

Suddenly his having slept or not having slept with Sheena was not such a bad thing after all. If Sheena was sleeping with Larry too, it didn’t surprise him. What surprised him was that such a fact might even help him. Certainly Louise would know more. Not that he would ask her. He tried suppressing his worries about his erratic sex life and tried to ignore the number looming just behind his forehead: 90. He calculated a 90% chance that his first words with greenbacks Larry would botch his chances of showing at his gallery.







Part VII: Supressing the Relevance of a Well-Placed Cornichon

We’re still at Art Basel and Max is all a muddle about his relationship to Nico and uncertain he wants to meet her poodle-hair mother, especially now. Louise has handed him a riddle: “Tiger, tiger burning bright, ask the Lion whom he slept with last night.” Meanwhile, he’s still unsure of whether or not he “slept” with Sheena last night or if he just slept with her, or if it was Sheena at all. In any case, Sheena’s about to introduce him to a gallerist whose name connotes more than just a gallery.


Were you really naked all the time?

Those were not Max’s first words to Larry Gagosian, that much he knew of the known knowns to himself if not to others.

Do I really want to show with Larry Gagosian?

This was the question forming an invisible wall between him and the man standing almost nearly in front of him. He would have asked Ruth had she been there, right there, right now, right next to him, that much he knew of the known unknowns.

Was Larry really interested in showing Max? Did he think Max’s work was worth showing? What were Larry’s criteria for choosing an artist anyway?

These were the unknown unknowns.

In Max’s eyes, getting a show with Larry was a shortcut to Easy Street: endless production funds for artworks that would be placed in the best collections. Max Decker’s Didada sold at Sotheby’s for gazillions.

But if a question had formed an invisible wall, then it was a discussion Max had had with Ruth late one night at Bar 3, not too long ago in Berlin, that formed the muddy trenches.

-Ok, so if an artist is offered a show with Larry Gagosian, does he show there?
-Ruthie…
-What? I’m serious.
-Why wouldn’t an artist show there?
-Maybe because it’s not about making money but about having your existence, your work be what you want it to be and not dictated by some need to create a series of works, which bores you…. Producing one after the other, like a factory. Socks, socks, and more socks. This time argyle camouflage.
-Warhol did it, but he did it as a commentary…
-So the question is, if they were given the opportunity to actually sell works but it would mean that they would have to sacrifice content or their own desire…
-Wait, why would they have to sacrifice content?
-Cause they’d have to produce works that actually could be sold. Richard Prince’s Nurses for instance. That painting would be just as good if there were only one in existence, but because one sells for X millions on auction, it makes sense that the artist produce a series of Nurses which can be sold by the dealer thereafter at a higher price.
-Its value having increased as the demand is greater.
-Not that the demand is greater but that the product itself has a higher value placed on it as it was deemed being worth six figures by the auction public.
-A public, which is to say, at least two people.
-Right. That’s nuts.
-Two people can create an astronomical value for a painting.
-Totally nuts. An 8000 euro painting turns into one that is worth 600,000 because of the demand created by two people. Two!
-And one of them is Larry Gagosian.
-So wouldn’t it be easy for Larry to convince someone to bid against him to create an artificially high value placed on any particular artist that he might be dealing with or plans to show?
-Exactly! But it’s not just Larry. There’s a whole ring of players out there.
-But let’s not get into that. The point is, your artworks could be over-valued based on the desire of one person who can create a hype.
-Once one work gets sold and it’s headline-breaking news, the rest falls into place. The world loves the sensational easy buck.
-And everyone’s then interested in getting in on the game. Collectors always want whatever other collectors have already. Buy a work from a dealer for 50,000 with the promise of turning it over on auction for 500,000 in two year’s time, let’s say hypothetically.
-Which is an entirely new situation…
-Again, that’s another discussion altogether, let’s not go there. The question remains, if offered to show at Larry Gagosian does he say yes? Is it really a good gallery?
-It depends on what your definition of a good gallery is, and if the artist has to pay rent.
-Let’s say a good gallery provides you with a family of likes, a place where you can experience what you want to experience.
-Experience is immaterial violence.
-Whoa. Wait a minute. Where’d you come up with that?
-I just did, just now….

A pause ensued. They kissed. Pauses like this happened less and less of late, and Max had attributed it to the stress of preparing for Basel. The bar was getting too smoky. It was time to go home.

-I mean, how many artists show there, what 50, 100? How much attention can an artist get if he is one in a hundred being shown by the gallerist, how well does he know his dealer, how much of a relationship is there?

The discussion continued on the walk home, with both Ruth and Max pushing their bikes through early morning puddles and falling into bed with a series of dangling thoughts in the speech bubbles above their heads. The immaterial experience of conversation. As long as they kept talking, they’d never part. Or so they thought.

***

Everything was happening too quickly that morning. With resolve, Max repeated to himself: I am a multishop kiosk. But he was unsure of why he needed to define himself with an “I am…”. And did he need to be a multishop kiosk in his choice of gallery too?

It dawned on him that he need not make a problem out of a situation again. It was a productive problem. If Larry wanted to show his work, he’d make showing at Larry’s gallery the overarching concept of the show. He didn’t know how, but most of his work originated in a question to himself and this one seemed big, vague, messy, smart yet dumb enough to be interesting.

Just before Sheena could introduce Max to the famed gallerist, Wayne Borius of Vienna came bumbling between them, extending his hand, which Larry didn’t take. Nervously, Wayne retracted his hand but held it midair like the limp leaves of a bundle of carrots and blurted out:
-I wanted to show you a project you would be interested in…
Scrambling in his rumpled backpack, he muttered,
- I am very corrugated.
-Like cardboard, said Max. Wayne misfired words that had been misfiled. His vocabulary was large yet its application misplaced.

Wayne made the segue to meeting Larry all the easier. Larry liked jokes.
-I meant coordinated.
-If you’re coordinated, then … I am the Deutsche Bahn.
No one said anything. Larry looked confidently blank yet busy, and Sheena’s intent stare was directed to her phone. No one cared what Wayne was doing. So Max continued:

-Benjamin said that the duty of every leftist thinker is not to ride the train of history but to apply the brake.

-I don’t know if I dare ask what that might mean? (God, these Germans can be weird.) Oh sorry, it was good to meet you. Max, that’s your name, right? Sorry, but I have to take this call.

Coitus interruptus, the vibrating apparatus intervened again. Or did it vibrate at all? Though it might have been a guise, in any case, the first official meeting with Larry Gagosian was called to a close.

Max was left standing with Sheena alone. He wanted to ask her, but what? What would he ask? Are you the girl I found in my bed last night? He couldn’t bear it. There was a 50% chance that he was completely wrong. Maybe it wasn’t Sheena. There was a small chance indeed that he was one of the few who hadn’t slept with Sheena.

-I’m curating a show for Larry and maybe you have something that might fit in. Let’s talk about it later, ok? See you at the Kunsthalle later tonight, right?

He calculated that the 30% chance that she was telling the truth was enough to not send him into a complete and utter depression. In the end, he could “show” with Larry without really showing with Larry. No solo show but a group show curated by Sheena. It depressed him. Or rather there was a 70% chance that this depressed him. He wondered if the artist list would be composed entirely of her former bedfellows.

Turning the corner, “I am the Deutsche Bahn” nearly collided with Nico and her mother bending over to read a label. He looked at what they were looking at, a painting of a woman in a grass skirt in a gilded frame. Nico had raved about her mother to Max, her bohemian mother Bibi. “In Nantucket, she’s always naked. Totally naked all the time," said Nico to him one night under a serious moonlight in Venice, "and my grandmother too." It was an image completely incongruous to the mother standing now in front of him. She had hair like a doorstop. He couldn’t decide if it were more a wedge or a cube of the tightest curls he’d ever seen.

After Gauguin, said her mother out loud slowly, only she said it in an accent incomprehensible to Max who parroted her back:
-Gowjewin? You mean…
-Yes, the painter, he does all those Tahiti paintings. We saw them all at the d’Orsay.

At least she was able to pronounce the museum name correctly, he thought. She bent back down to look at the label again, her bangles of gold jingle jangling, no doubt in search of the price. But he was already bending over himself to doublecheck the label and they nearly bumped heads (or rather hair-dos). It was an odd exchange that left them both with the mutual conception that the person standing opposite was a moron. For the moment she was willing to overlook the fact that this friend of her daughter did not know one of the 20th century’s most important painters—he looked shabby, poor, state-educated—and he was willing to overlook the fact that she could not pronounce Gauguin—she was American, after all. He supposed that this was not the right time to spring the question, Were you really naked all the time?


At every booth they entered, dealers would spring out of their Bertoia chairs, bored by the parade of hoi polloi to attend to the needs of the von Stroheims. The von Stroheims, you see, were part of the nouveau mega-collectors grazing the planet for the new, the emerging. It had been reported that Mrs von Stroheim dolled out some three mil’ per year on (mostly contemporary) art and she didn’t like advice or advisors. She bought according to whim and wind, and trusted mostly the whims of her daughter, who was no small fry in the tiny world of top-dog collectors herself.

Following them around for a few hours, he could only hear snippets of their conversations, reactions to artworks that made him cringe:

-Look here, Nico, isn’t that just snazzy?
She pointed out a square panel covered with mirror tiles, a disco ball that lost its ball, but wasn’t disco either.

-Well, said Max, I guess you could see it that way. I think it rather resembles an ironic grammar of historical form.

Nico gave him a look like a semicolon in front of the end of a parenthesis.

Max continued:
-My approach is quite simple: to think through some of the metaphorical, relational and historical parameters of one of the signal discursive clusters with which work engages.

Of course, when he needed to speak like this, he never did. It was wasted on an audience of ellipses. Or a parenthesis hugging a question mark? Bingo, he thought, her wedge of curls were manifest question marks spurting out from her skull. This, too, he considered best unvoiced and grinned instead.

Turning towards a chandelier placed on the floor, Bibi motioned to her daughter an excited yes. We don’t have one that big. This would be great in the foyer.

Nico nodded in accord.

-He’s an award-winning artist, I’ve met him in Berlin. He’s from Vietnam. But won’t it come into competition with the Calder mobile?

Collecting art is a hit or miss game. But when your shopping buffet is Art Basel, it is hard to miss. Despite the platitudes coming out of their mouths, it was hard to deny that the von Stroheim collection was one thing: Great. Max chimed in, cheerful, happy to help, when they came across a series of shelves upheld by various decapitated bric-a-brac,

-What you are seeing here is more of an archaeology of the self…

- An archaeology of the shelf. I like that.

-But what I said was “the self.” It has nothing to do with the shelf.

Bibi pursed her lips. She gave him a stubbornly mute stare.

Max’s thoughts floated again above her hair, which he decided now was more like a shelf, he thought, an empty shelf for flower arrangements and bibelots, not books. The dealer approached them, eager to elaborate. Somehow Max had to figure out how to get Nico to the side, so that he could ask her about the lion, Louise’s riddle. Touching her elbow, he bent towards her quietly. He wanted to show her something.

-There are twenty-five worlds out there and I’m wondering if we’re in the same one.
-I’m here Max, what is it?
-Did you fuck the lion?
-Excuse me?
-Did you fuck the lion or did you have fun with the lion, I don’t know. Or did the lion fuck you?
-What kind of question is that? Are you jealous?
-Of course not.
-Ok, then why does it matter?
-I don’t know where you want to go with this…

Her mother’s comments kept coming in from the background like a bad infomercial.

-Sumptuous!
-Stunning!
-Oh, I’m gonna have to indulge myself. It’s got such personal touches! Nico, dahling, come look at what I’ve found for you! It’s the gift of a lifetime, honey.
I like it because it’s got such unique characteristics. Isn’t this just the ultimate luxury? Standing in front of a truck-size triptych painting, Nico rolled her eyes, her emotions unvoiced, which her mother read as criticism.

-I wouldn’t worry about its size. You can customize it to your heart's desire, I’m sure.

A group of pale and haggard installers passed by in the aisle wearing t-shirts that read FREE FINNISH LABOUR. They looked tired. This was no work of a leftist hobbyist. It was a productive distortion of the once revolutionary strategies of conceptual art. He could bear it no longer and wanted to find Ruth. He’d made a terrible mistake. He was not a multishop kiosk. He was Grill Loyale.

Nico had taken her mother to the side with a look of reproach.
-Mom, I would never even consider undermining aesthetic autonomy of the artist. It’s outrageous that you should suggest so. You’re embarrassing me in front of Max and I want for you to behave.

He turned to the champagne cart rolling down the aisles and asked for 3 glasses.
-That will be 48 Euro, sir.

Max dutifully brought the champagne to the ladies von Stroheim, who were joined now by Mackenzie. Beach blonde and tan without the slightest hint of Miami vice. Mackenzie’s tan conveyed less tan, more terracotta. Enhanced happiness. She was always laughing. Always, that is, when she wasn’t coughing up last night’s fun. At 32, she had the salty voice of a 62 year-old smoker. Mackenzie took up the third glass of champagne and took Max to the side with a vertiginous warning about what Louise told her about what Ruth had done. “Chocolat or choque au lit, as the French Swiss say, eh Max?” Then, without even waiting for a response, an excuse, some form of defense or mystification on his part, she offered him “the rest” of what she found in her purse, a high-tech mood booster. Max refused. He liked to schedule his artificial substances, he said. In the middle of the fair? No. Later. No. Ok. Yes. She slipped it into his hand unnoticed.

He spent the rest of the afternoon roaming the hall from one booth to the next, no plan, taking in as much as he could but talking to no one. Buzzed, half-articulated ideas on the tip of his tongue but too paranoid to move it. He kept the cavity encasing it squeezed tight. Coordinated collaboration within the realm of the applied fantastic, maybe that’s my line.

When he ran into Mackenzie again, she was still gallivanting about. He could overhear her explaining her unexpected exit from some gala dinner, leaving her place and two others at the round table of six empty. “It was like a Hong-Kong gangster film.” Something about having escaped through the kitchen window with x and x artists trying to escape, among others, Edward Scissorhands sucking up to Moby.

Max wished he could be as entertaining as Mackenzie. But her mood booster had rendered him mute. He ducked behind a black curtain. In the dark, no one could watch his determined efforts to relax his clenched teeth forming the frontier between him and embarrassment. A sunrise with subtitles, a donkey in a nondescript terrain, he was unable to concentrate on what he was seeing.

He ducked out and then quickly into another blackbox adjacent. A Xerox machine upclose, a play of light, nice. But he was not alone. A figure in a baseball cap growled at him, which Max took as a compliment. When the sliver of light was at its strongest, he could faintly make out the source of the growl, the astronaut who’d lost contact with Major Tom. Max had worked as one of her scared-stiff assistants for exactly seven days before a getting a stipendium. He’d witnessed the tentative tenure of working for this great artist, whose temperament was legion, her glance leaden. One morning he watched her dismiss an assistant for failing to procure the right toy dinosaur. “That’s a minute newt. Get out.”

His happy tank needle nearly indicated empty. He ducked back into the bathroom for another quick dose, then headed out to the center courtyard for some air while checking for messages on his phone. He thumbed, I am a cappuccino latte, but Ruth snuck up behind him before he could press send.

-Not all bad comes from bad.
-She gets her nails done at the Soho House, he blurted out, then tried to keep his jaw from moving by adopting the thinker pose, forefinger nooked in the crook of his chin, thumb pressed under it, hoping to keep his bloody mouth shut.

Scanning the various catered tents rimming the courtyard, Ruth said:
-I want a bowl of Captain Crunch.

Max’s interim grin was quickly replaced by an absurd attempt at a serious face. Could she tell he was high? He furrowed his brow.
-You cannot very well be a Marxist and be with someone who does that, can you?
Ruth seemed absently present. She was there, but she wasn’t saying enough. She pulled her hair out of its ponytail, keeping her steady gaze on the completely forgettable and utterly unremarkable crowd surrounding them.
-I don’t think it has anything to do with nail polish. I just think you’d get bored with her fast.
-Boredom is not necessarily negative. It’s a… precursor to creativity. Or procreation?
Did he just say procreation? There was a 10 percent chance that he didn’t say it. He didn’t want to ask her, fearing he’d give himself away. Surely she thinks I am sober. I hope she thinks I am sober. Jesus.

An amused smile curled between them as FREE FINNISH LABOUR walked by.

-That’s the second time I’ve seen them today. Do you think people are getting it?
-It’s great that someone’s daring to do a work like that. If you can call that work, of course.
-[…]
-Thank you, Ruth.
-Thank me?
-You were right about not taking the safe route.
He felt sober. He sounded sober. But he started to feel his jawline jitter.
-I’ve seen way too much high-definition video.
Ruth stared at a sparrow jabbing the pavement, not unhappy, quiet. She no longer wanted a confrontation. She was just glad he was there.
His emotions felt low-tech, analogue, even though they were spiked.
-My dinner. Are you coming? You are, of course, I mean, will you come? Please?

Nothing said could express the true remorse coursing through him. Things had gotten out of hand and he seemed unable to control himself. He put his hand around Ruth’s back while being confronted by an unpleasant flashback of the evening with Sheena. His hand was shaking, so he pressed it firmer into her back. But he couldn’t press the image out of his memory. Sheena had been standing next to the buffet table when Max had approached her. Too much prosecco. She had taken a cornichon in her mouth and placed it in his ear.

-I’d like to visually thwart what’s going on in my head right now.

Ruth agreed but a heavy silence reigned between them. At least for her. She was looking at Mackenzie standing amidst a power throng, enthralled by her stories. The best gossip in Basel, no doubt. For a second, Mackenzie returned Ruth’s stare, nodded and smiled, then returned to her shared conspiracy of “news.” Max’s next sentence broke her out of her paranoid reverie.

-You know I met Gagosian today.
-And?
-And nothing. Thank God. I was looking for you. I met him twice actually. Once in the bathroom. You figure guys like Larry don’t use the fair toilets. It’s like, where’s their private jet bathroom, right? Whatever. I still think that guy shits in a Bentley. Anyway, I got all clammy and weird stuff came out of my mouth. And our Gogo discussion came back into my mind.
-We all pay rent to Bill Gates now.
-I’ve just decided that I don’t know if I’ll ever be a communist. I don’t know if I can do too much more art fair either. It’s like being on a package holiday.
- It’s all too much, though I’ve only been here for the last hour. Let’s go to the river.
I was there all afternoon, naked.

Friday, April 22, 2011

The Collector, part V:

Event Horizon

“In Basel, you like even people you thought you hated.” Once best friends forever, Louise and Ruth meet up at the fair to find that they both need each other in order to get revenge on Max. It’s a game of Chinese Whispers: Ruth feeds lies to Louise hoping that whatever she tells her will be the talk of the town by the end of the day. Max, in the meanwhile, has yet to see his own work and continues to meet with people at the fair whose comments befuddle him.


It was shortly before 10am, and Louise was orbiting the entrance to Art Unlimited. She was of firm belief that she could activate her telekinetic powers to move the pawns into place, her mission being to get into the preview before opening, to download the info needed to execute a plan. For Louise, her cell phone was less an instrument of communication, than an instrument of remote control. But that the slouchy female figure crouching against the cement wall with a plastic bag in front of her could serve Louise’s purpose in entering the commercial space she so desired was a frequency she had neglected to tune into.
- Louise, why are you circling?
- I’m not circling. I’m circumgyrating.
Louise, clever girl, was a space cadet in the emergency zone imputing thought waves into one of her three phones.
- Where were you last night? I didn't see you at the Kunsthalle. Not that I was there for long myself, but…
Still focused on her three handheld beam-me-in devices, Louise was looking for a way in, before the in-crowd was allowed. No time for small talk, the moment was dedicated to short-message-services. But it was as if Ruth had pressed the auto-seek button on the radio. She tuned into Louise’s station.
-You want in? Should I show you what the devil did? I have an extra worker pass so I can get us in now if you like.
In Basel, you like even people you thought you hated.
The two ex-friends thus waltzed together through the turnstiles towards Galerie NN’s stand whose pink neon light guided the way. But as soon as they had made it past the guards, Louise said:
- You stink.
- What? Oh right, I’ll explain that later. What I want to show you is… well just wait. You’ll see.
Past the robot vacuum cleaners sucking up glitter littering the floor, past the oversized sunglass stand, past the mechanical bull underneath a chandelier, they arrived at the outer edge of Gallery NN’s booth, to gaze at the mess. Louise began to decode the signs in silence, her thoughts as haywire as the heap in front of her. It looked as if Max’s signature work had taken a new turn, and if it mattered before it screamed of anti-matter now, and that was an exciting thing. Or was it just a mess?
- And now? The opening is now. Who’s going to clean all of this up?
- You don’t get it, do you?
Instead of answering, she looked at an incoming message on her phone: “Who are you?” Poker-faced Louise maintained her poise in front of her former friend and said:
- Listen, Ruth, where’s Max? I just got an important message that I should show him…
- Max is not here. He had nothing to do with the work.
- You mean to tell me that you did this?
- Yep. And, no, sleeping overnight in the artwork is not part of the “process” of the artwork. Though maybe it should be… but how? How would we mention that?
Ruth walked away as if she were seriously contemplating bringing in some relatively irrelevant theory (Somaesthetics?) into the mess in front of them.
- All by yourself, you did this?
- It was late and I couldn’t find Pepe and whatshisname. So yes, I did this, but of course some of the ideas were Max’s, I mean, the work is still his. I just “edited” it.
Louise stopped in front of the beer bottles in the far corner, then looked towards the newspaper clipping, careful not to step on the cigarette butts scattered across the floor, on tiptoes. Ruth sniggered.
- So nice of you to take such care, Louise. The rest of these idiots don’t realize that those cigarette butts are made of porcelain. It was Max’s idea. You know, sure, it’s copied from another artist, not sunflower seeds but just a few cigarette butts made out of porcelain – it’s not a bad idea, you have to admit. So anyway, I didn’t just overnight here because, well, because … I had to guard these butts. I was afraid the clean-up man would come around and sweep them all away.
Ruth could barely keep a straight face. Porcelain cigarette butts? The ah-ha moment in Louise’s face: a new twist in Max’s work. Her mind began to churn. Handwork. An a-sculptural form? Or put in a more banal way, merely a part of the folk art ceramic craze? Put it in ceramic or bronze and it’s gotta be worth something. Low (folk) or high (expensive), it added a hook for the critic to latch onto.
- It’s like, said Louise, musing out loud and holding her fingers to the air, quote unquote, “… Not similar to something, but just similar.” Or like the appreciation of a photograph that was not a photograph, but a “critical” document of process. A no-longer existing handmade sculpture, paper and scissors, process and destruction of the original.
- Eggsactly!
And well, no, she thought to herself. The artist was the one that Max and Ruth had always referred to as Edward Scissorhands. They called him Eddie, in their private code. Eddie was also a “critical” artist, loitering between two mediums. The sculptures he made were based on places with a political charge: the bathtub of a drowned politician, the stairwell where Andreas Baader once slept, the front door of a serial murder’s mobile home. In the end, all that was exhibited was a photograph of a bathtub, a stairwell, a door – and you had to read the label or look closely to see that it was actually a photograph of a structure made completely out of paper.
Louise didn’t bother to check on the butts, taking Ruth for her word. As for her overnighting in artwork, well, that explained the bad breath. The half-open crate with bubble wrap trodden flat to the ground, an empty coffee cup, a grey blanket used for shipping. Now the signs made sense, practical sense.
- I think it’s great, and I’m going to tell Nico. She should be collecting your work, you know, and not Max’s.
- But that’s not the point, no, no…
Louise jumped to another topic altogether:
- How was Venice for you? I didn't see you at Militardis’s party...
- Oh, of course, I didn't go. I had a small dinner to attend and a case of Retarditis rewarditus.
Ruth’s last words indicated a small and not insignificant sonic breakdown in their bitchiness. At one point, they had been the closest of friends. Retarditis rewarditus was one of their many private jokes, something which they had said most of the artists of Gallery Box had suffered from. A whole gallery with artists who had psychological issues: bestiality, incest, patricide. Serial killer art. Psychastheniacs, the whole lot of them. The “Stressed Situationists.”
But despite their shared history, neither Ruth nor Louise was willing to lower their guard. Not yet.
It was shortly after 11 now, and the hall was beginning to fill up with the invited preview VIPs. The gallerist made a gesture of approaching them, but then quickly turned, making a beeline for the powerpack, Gagosian and Deitch, heading towards the booth. In Basel, the hierarchy was clear. Ruth and Louise were clearly defined by the categories: assistant to an artist and assistant to a collector. You had to be nice to them, but the etiquette of being unpolite was one that they would “understand” when they saw whom he would be talking to: A-list dealer and A-list dealer cum Hollywood Museum Director. It was all in the interest of Max’s career, and wasn’t that what they all lived for?
Try as they might, Louise and Ruth couldn’t hear a word they were saying. But the smiles and laughter and the way Galerist NN brushed the dandruff off Larry’s shoulders was enough to know who was the Alpha dog.
- It’s easy to tell who the ruling rooster is here, said Louise.
- Rule of the roost, you mean.
Louise’s telephone beeped again, and Ruth meandered over to the next booth. It was a message from Nico. She wanted Louise at the front entrance in a half an hour, and why was her driver late?
Ever since witnessing Max’s sexual congress in Venice, Louise had a plan in mind that she could only execute if she was sure that she could control all of the strings. If Ruth had created a Gesamtzerstörungswerk then Louise was sure to do the same to his love life.
A curator, who was now out of a job but was once someone, approached Louise.
- Hey Louise, did I just see you and Ruth talking? Like old times, eh?
- Oh no, she just wanted to borrow money from me. Again.
- But there are more bank automats in Basel than in Moscow, he said, before turning to greet a curator who was still someone.
She turned her gaze back to one of her phones and nearly collided with the gallerist, who had a Chinese collector in tow.
- It’s a real breakthrough, a new genre even…
- I’m very interested in creative art.
- Creative, yes?
- Yes. Bed art.
- Uh-huh, so what have you seen this morning that has taken your interest?
- An elephant made of cow skin and an elephant made of incense sticks. Chinese…
- And Indian, I see…
But the Chinese collector kept repeating and smiling,
- Bed art.
Taking out his pocket notebook, he said,
- The titles are “The Elephant of the Alamo” and “The Skin Is a Scent.” He chuckled.
The gallerist laughed nervously.
The collector bent down, sticking his head deep into the packing crate.
- Bed art?
- What did he just say, said the gallerist in an aside to Louise in German. Ruth, who had wandered back at this point, overheard and clarified it to them both:
- Bad art! Of course, yes, you mean this is “bad art”!
In the near distance, she caught a glimpse of Max. He was on the phone and at that moment her own cellphone began to ring.
- There you are.
- Where?
- Never mind.
There was a long moment of silence. She took a deep breath and tried to concentrate on what was in front of her eyes instead of the invisible emotional soup stirring her head. Ruth knew that if her first contact with Max were to become a shouting match, if she were to begin in anger, he’d hang up. So instead, she threw him a curve ball.
- Listen, Max, I had this idea…. I’m thinking of working on a series called “Bad Sculptures,” and it would be a series of collages that bring at least two “bad” sculptures together…
- Living or dead? Why collages? Why not reenact the sculptures in a space by using live actors? You know, Gilbert and George gone slapstick?
It was as if everything was ok between them when they talked only about ideas. Like a game, they bandied about fictional artworks as a way of communicating between the lines. Their fiction was one that outsiders wouldn’t follow.
- You mean then that the collages would be considered the “drawings,” or drafts of the proposed performances? No. The first thing that came to my mind was putting together, say, the Kiki Smith sculpture, the wax one with that long stream of piss coming out of her legs, you know, the one where she is on all fours?
- Ja. But what would you combine it with?
He was hardly listening at this point and had poked his head into a bad video booth.
- Let’s say, I put Schwarzkögler cutting off his penis behind her…
- Bad. That’s not a sculpture.
- Does it matter?
- Of course it matters if you want to call it “Bad Sculptures” then it cannot be a sculpture and a photograph of a performance…
- But all performances end up getting photographed anyway, so what does it matter?
- I’m just saying that if you want to call it “bad sculptures” you should stick to bad sculptures. I also don’t think that Schwarzkögler work is bad.
- It becomes bad when you combine it with the feminist work.
- But are you making fun of feminism? Ruthie, I don’t get your point. Where are you anyway?
- I don’t know what kind of game you think you are playing here with me, as if I didn’t know what was going on…
She was doing loops, at this point, around the elephant made of cowhide. A video monitor was turned on its side depicting an oil rig in the middle of a desert. A small model of the Eiffel Tower was perched on top.
- What’s going on then? You’re coming up with bad ideas for bad artworks?
Louise snuck up on Ruth from behind, snapping away her phone.
- Max, this is Louise. There’s something I have to tell you…

Friday, February 18, 2011

Work-in-progress on THE COLLECTOR, a novel

PART I: The Laundrette
Max is at the apex of his career. His artworks have been placed in the world's best museums and private collections. Hopping from one exhibition invitation to the next, Venice, Basel, Beijing, he lives in Berlin and keeps a pied-à-terre in New York. The road to success is a crooked path. What happened in the last five years -- what brought him from a Berlin basement apartment to being listed on the Art World's Power 100? After his ex-girlfriend Louise introduces him to Nico, an art collector on a grand scale, his life takes a turn into a collective chaos of Machiavellian machinations and manipulations of Max's social space.



He was barely buttoned up when she burst back into the room saying, “In New York, all Londrettes are run by the Chinese.” At least that’s how Max heard it. Before he could protest, she had thrust a perforated blue ticket into his hands, cutting short his fleeting fantasy of a petite London-ette being dragged by her ponytail through the streets of Chinatown.

Although Berlin was only Nico’s second residence, it was increasingly becoming her first, especially with the advent of minor amenities previously unknown to the post-Wall minimal-amenity city. Miss Ping’s. In her mind, everything was a copy of something that already existed in New York. And the Chinese Laundrette, or so Miss Ping’s had come to be known, copied in its own fashion the many dry cleaners that freckled lower Manhattan. Only instead of a price list tacked up high behind a few neon lights, in Berlin, the price list was to be found by deciphering a series of picture-lightboxes featuring photographs of Miss Ping’s daughter and son decked out in various Chinese garb. If a 12-year-old in a long satin dress was meant to be understood as “evening gown for 19 Euros,” it was a matter of logic learned by trial and error. Miss Ping’s answer was always and inevitably a benevolent yes. In that way she was more Indian than Chinese.

For the Germans, Miss Ping presented a yes-saying conundrum. For Max, even more so. For him, everything was a Yes that day, even though that Yes appeared to be backwards or in reverse, he couldn’t decide, on that sunny Tuesday in Berlin. That he, and not her assistant, was picking up her clothes. That they were her clothes and not his. That they were her underwear and not her clothes. That his underwear had been left on her terrace for her to find and not the maid (Tuesday being her day off). That the second “her” in that sentence was not the “her” of the first four, the former being the collector and the latter being “her” assistant. Yes, it was Louise who would find his sundecked underwear that morning before he could even remember that he ever had any to put on, as was often the case with Max, who preferred wearing his jeans in the buff, unten-ohne, especially in the summer heat of June. Her terrace was, of course, “hers” and not Louise’s. Louise, of course, having a balcony and not a terrace.

That he had forgotten to duck when going down the stairs, banging his head on the red sign with golden Chinese characters, on which someone had chicken-scratched with a black marker, “Watch Out!” was nothing unusual. That he was picking up the underwear of Nico von Stroheim, was.

The phone in his front pocket was vibrating. Ruth again. He put it back where it came from, unable to answer. He was next in line. He handed over the ticket to the fine lady with the proprietor’s name pinned to her smock.

- Under what name?
The vibrating phone kept niggling his nerves. Why’d she need a name when she already had a number?
- Pansies, pants, panties, underwear... I mean, lingerie.
That Max could spew out a veritable lexicon of undergarments was a true showing of how his mind worked when under pressure.
Who had the idea of constructing a contraption that would vibrate in your pants pocket? More of these things should exist. The haptic had always been close to his heart. Contact conveyed a connection. But now it was the wrong time. Instead of pressing red, he pressed green. A connection with the wrong contact.

What could she want right now? He thought he could better deal with the situation by turning it into a delayed situation. Later, not now, no now, not later, now. He could make out Ruth’s scratchy voice.

-It’s me.

-I see.

Listen, Ruth, I have to call you back later.

Ruth was his girlfriend. That was why he could hang up so quickly without the usual niceties. Ruth would understand. Ruth was an artist too and Basel was soon.

He pressed red just in the knick of time for the return of Miss Ping, shaking her head.

-Lingerie is unknown, sir. Very sorry. Next!

-Wait, I mean, not Lingerie, but von Stroheim or simply Stroheim. V or S, I don’t know. Does it matter, today, I mean, do you really put your laundry under “von” if you are a “von” or do you defer to democracy?

A man behind him kept saying “Man.” Like a mantra. To make him move faster, think faster, talk faster, panic faster.

Miss Ping shook her head in doubt, saying yes, yes, yes, almost as if Miss Ping were a priest and Max standing in the confession booth. She could see into his mind and what was there was not easy. She returned soon enough with a package of ladies’ underwear and bras. Underthings. In a see-through plastic sack. The phone began vibrating again, but this time under the sign Unknown. He picked up. Jittery. Buzzed. Hungover and silly. He hoped it was Nico.

But no sound came from the other side of the line. Miss Ping pushed the laundry towards him.
- 45 Euro.
- For 6 thongs and 3 bras? That’s 7 euros per piece!
-Yes, said Miss Ping, ever unwavering. Math not a strong point for either.
Holding the phone in one hand, he tried prying open his wallet with the other.
- Max? Where are you?
There wasn’t a trace of suspicion in Ruth’s voice; rather, it sounded like pure worry as he sounded rather frazzled, like he might have been talking to a handworker at the studio about the high price of tongs these days.
He didn’t have the 45 Euro.
Without waiting for an answer, Ruth continued,
- The people in Basel keep ringing. All morning. I thought you might have fallen asleep at the studio last night, so I tried reaching you there, but your battery must have gone dead. Anyway, I have you now…

Basel? His work for the fair was done, as far as he was concerned. Why should he be bothered with taking care of every little detail? With an assistant, maybe two, yes, with teams of assistants traveling around the world to set up his exhibitions, that was the future.

- Max, they need the measurements again. Can you give me the numbers?
Miss Ping was waiting for the money with a starched grin.
- 45? He grumbled.
- Special treatment. Stains, said Miss Ping, pursing her lips together.
- Why 45? Height? Width? That can’t be. What are you doing?

-Man, Man, Man!
He couldn’t figure out where the microphone was on his (now) stupid phone. He wanted to whisper aside, Put it on Stroheim’s account, super suave. If he had only read the instruction booklet, he would have known which hole was the right one. Which hole betrayed his voice.
- The connection is really bad. Ruth, Ruth, are you still there?
He slipped the phone into his jacket pocket, which kept spitting out her voice on loudspeaker.

He leaned on the counter towards Miss Ping so that he could see her kitten high-heels and the ginger candies tucked under register. She leaned forward into the smell of dry cleaning fluid and rice noodles. He whispered,
- Can I put it on Stroheim’s account?
He fumbled to pull the telephone out of his jacket.
- Max, where are you?
- I told you already. In the studio.
- Then go to the thing and give me the measurements.
He stepped to the side and pressed his nose to a calendar on the wall featuring nouveau concrete Chinese cities. Twelve of them, all with an instant population of over 10 million. The month of June depicted a collection of nondescript high-rises grouped around a bus stop, a few crippled trees dipped in fog, definitely autumn. He found a few numbers in-between other undecipherable signs on a billboard at a generic intersection.
- You there? 87 by 52 by 115.
He held his breath.
- Ruth?
Maybe it was the right moment to tell her.
- Yes. I’m here. Sorry. Someone keeps ringing under Unknown on the landline.
He liked her voice. Like fine-grained sandpaper. He couldn’t say it, but he said it in his head, slowly. Ruth, I am leaving for Venice tomorrow. That part of the sentence was easy. It was the prepositional phrase that was the killer: With the collector.
It was the muted detail.
-Max, those numbers make no sense.
-It’s an installation anyway so why do they need to know?
- Maybe for the catalog, I don’t know why. Wait, I’m coming over to help you. You sound overwhelmed.
In his fast-forward world he rewound to yesterday’s conversation. Year-before-last, he was in Venice with Ruth. Looking forward to this year’s promised extravagance, Ruth had asked him innocently if he had booked out a room in Les Bains for them. Yes, I mean, No. You know I’ve got my hands full with Basel. I can’t, he had answered vaguely, before running out the door. The words were there, but the meaning was missing.

The Delivery

Nothing was crossed off his to-do list. And there were certain unknowns that had yet to be known, or even listed. And certain knowns that he was uncertain of. He had passed the "Kua-fur" on Torstrasse on the way out the door this morning and wondered if he'd trust them with his mop, a known unknown hairstyle. He was unwashed, unshaven, nothing was packed, and his hair was in a funny phase: at least those were the known knowns. But what was he going to tell Ruth, when would he tell it to her, and how? These were the known unknowns. But that he'd be popping corks on a yacht tonight with les boatpeople, as Ruth once snidely called them, rather than stuck to a beer garden bench in Berlin was a known that he was uncertain of.

The way to Nico’s was paved with obstacles. People he knew, everywhere he looked, dark patches from his past. Lavender lace underwear on wire hangers in see-through plastic is a magnet to attract every last alcoholic critic and B-list artist you ever once bared your soul to with the coming dawn. He stopped for a numb moment, staring at a tattered old balloon in the street. Ruth was on her way to his studio, the collision moment would be soon. A pin-striped, cashmere and ascot figure of perfection jerked him out of his panicked yet paralyzed reverie with a cheerful slap on the back, whom he later recognized as a well-known London gallerist whom he thought he was sure he didn’t know. He smiled and let the fellow rattle on, facts and figures, “23 Million for a work from a living artist, good heavens!” Max had little to say to the matter, grinning now because of the trophy in his hands. No work of his had yet reached the astronomical sums of the auctions. It was “too conceptual,” a dealer once told him at a dinner. His attention, nonetheless, remained focused on the balloon, but he resisted putting in his pocket. It would have been the last thing that he wanted Nico to find on his person.

Turning the corner was like turning the century forward. Two years ago, he’d barely taken notice of her sky-top palace. He’d seen the cracks in the pavement rather than the fringe of a rooftop garden. He remembered how he’d stopped exactly at the same spot with Ruth on the day he found out that his first work had sold. She had taken his head in her hands like a telescope directing it towards that other world.

-You see. The collector who bought it lives up there.

He remembered the distinct impression that he should have seen something where there was nothing to see. Nothing extraordinary, at least, except for a bit of greenery draping over the terrace edge.

From across the street, one could nearly get the distance necessary to see that the building looked like a skinny man wearing an oversized bowler hat made of glass. Bubble-headed. Extreme.

What had made him not refute her request? Saying No was no option for Max when it came to Nico. The silly sound installation in her corridor embodied Max’s dilemma. Pressing one’s ear to a loudspeaker, he could make out the faint sounds of a congregation of old men endlessly affirming and denying an unknown situation: Ja, ja, ja, ja, ja, nee, nee, nee, nee, nee.

It wasn’t Nico who greeted him but Louise.
- Ach. It’s the delivery boy.
- You could at least thank me.
She pressed her hand against his chest and said,
- I wouldn’t come in if I were you.

PART II: The Elevator
Run, run, run, and always with the mobile at hand. In New York, all laundrettes are run by the Chinese. But why must our protagonist run for the underwear of his new American collector Nico? Max, a successful artist in Berlin in the year 2007 (perhaps), is confused: bubble-headed buildings with Beuys installations in the foyer and purple lingerie in plastic sacks are but just a few of the new things in Max’s tumbleweed life. Let the Grand Tour begin here with Part Two, when Max leaves for Venice then Basel. He’s already carrying one suitcase too many: a girlfriend, an ex, and a newbie, or at least he thinks so.


In this chapter we introduce Louise (who thinks, like Copernicus, that the world revolves around her! Or wait, is it the other way around? If she's not Copernicus, then who? Ptolemy, right, sorry. Now that really sounds pretentious. Can we begin again?).
In the elevator Max was full of doubt. In the mirror he saw a man with messy hair. Rumpled. His portrait betrays much of his former life, not much of the new. He will have to give up a few things if he is to install himself upstairs. The elevator began to move. In the Renaissance, the hair illustrated the soul. His soul should be wild, no question. Momentum was the most important thing. It carried him upstairs. But the mood could change in an instant: a bad detail, a wrong word, a crooked look, a dumb snapshot, an illegitimate child. The world was a precarious place.
He felt a light pressure in his head as if it were shrinking some millimeters. When he was a child, someone had told him that his brain was a sponge (beige, not yellow or blue) that sucked up ideas and impressions. One day on the way home from school, while he was thinking thoughts (math homework), he began to hop on one leg, then two, jerking his head about erratically in the hopes that he could replace those thoughts with others (painting the cat’s claws with his sister’s collection of nail polish).
It was during his early childhood Storm and Stress period that his parents had presented him with various painting utensils and watercolor boxes, charcoal, and creative tools (a spoon), in order to excite his experimental energies. After such indoctrination, it took quite a while before he realized that the heroes and geniuses of our time are not artists, but those who produced sellable products or sold unsellables. It didn’t matter if it were gas station nozzles, hair volumizers or power window-openers. These are the things that distinguished Max from a millionaire. Gladly he would have dropped the senselessness of making art to sell liverwurst and pickle sandwiches on Oranienburgerstrasse, or to thrust himself into the market for making hand-carved TV towers (out of oak, spray-painted silver) in order to conquer a new niche for making money (Schmerzensgeld).
In the end, he would remain a visceral realist, an ethereal industrialist, a walking-talking theorix whose concatenation of thoughts led to a proliferation of ideas over images and objects. Who would have thought that what began with his miraculous horse-head sculpture (context: parental interpretation) in the foam of the bathtub at age three would lead to an intangible vocation to produce art? He’d check the details in his dog-eared Vasari later. He’d underlined a detail or two, a detail he could implement in his own life. Did Gigiotto marry his “collector,” his patroness, morphing his main squeeze into his main squeeze?
He was under the impression that as a child he had seemed to be more conscious of things, more conscious, at least, of time, of duration. He even remembered that at the age of five he had thought his life had lasted too long already. He had had the feeling that he would soon disappear from the earth. The elevator ride seemed an eternity now in comparison to those first five years. Retrieving his own underwear before Louise would discover it was the immediate goal he’d nearly forgotten.
The telephone rang pulling Louise back to her desk, as if on an invisible leash. En route to pick it up, her heels click-clacking on the marble of her office, she said hurriedly, “That must be Tim.” Tim was one of Berlin’s better gallerists.
- Didn’t Nico tell you?
Entering Nico's penthouse was like entering a soundproof recording studio. The carpet was a deep purple and it swallowed anything that came near it. Moonwalking was rendered impossible. The lilies in the oversized vases flanking the elevator on both sides overwhelmed the senses. He was standing now alone, face to face with a large canvas covered in bubble wrap, leaning against an antique Chinese armoire. Through the plastic, he could make out a haggard bunch of children's scribbles underneath. If the painting were smaller, Max could have stuck it under his arm. Criminal energies coursed through him if only in fantasy. Further along the long corridor, a round table covered in a heavy tapestry served as a pedestal for family photos: Nico as a child, snow-plowing down from the top of Piz Nair, her father kneeling in front of a dead rhinoceros in some high African grass, a flashed snapshot of her mother sitting next to Elizabeth Taylor at an AIDS gala.
Louise was nearby hammering out details on the phone. Her commando tone echoed in the adjacent room, a steady background of muzak made mad.
- Where is the machine? Not tomorrow, and not only today. Now. Pronto. Presto.
Max stopped dead in his tracks. She wasn’t talking to someone as great as “Tim,” but rather to a lesser species, in her eyes, an assistant, a lackey, an intern, a one-euro worker. She was talking about Venice, about the plane. He looked around, nowhere in particular, and saw himself standing in the Venice airport with nothing but a plastic bag in his hands. No toothbrush. Great and not great, but then again, almost heroic. His plans for the afternoon were shot, the list was nixed. A haircut? Remeasuring an artwork? Momentum stood in its stead.
- At 10. Who says that? Where? In Vicenza. No, I can’t do that. I can’t get another flight, the call came in just this morning. Yes. On the yacht. No, she’ll be alone.
Max swallowed hard. Two days ago, Nico had invited him to come with her to Venice, raving about the suite she had secured, something about a Doggie, she said, “A palace!” He stood in the hall with the lingerie in his hand.
Louise stepped back into the doorway, hand perched on her hip.
- What are you still doing here?
Ignoring her, he turned and headed for the stairs.
- Max, you can’t go up there, I told you already before.
Her hair was pulled back into a bun, tight and uptight, more so than usual. The impulsive, yes, strangely childlike movements of her body had evolved into those of an extremely regimented working girl.
- Didn’t Nico tell you? Listen, Max, I’m under a lot of pressure here and I need to talk to Tim. If you want to visit me then you should come by another time.
Max shook his head and held his tongue. Visit Louise? Why? Because of the piece she sold and never paid me for? He didn’t dare say anything out loud. He just stared at her blankly. Whatever he said, she’d turn around to use for her own benefit. If he said something about the money she owed him, she’d tell Nico that Max was in need. Nico would walk into the room and Louise would say, could say, most definitely, would say, “He’s only here for the money.”
He had to be careful. Louise laid bombs.
At this point, the social plastic of Max's immediate surroundings is unclear. We think we know that Max has slept with Nico, Louise, and Ruth but not necessarily in that order. What Max doesn't know is that Ruth slept with Louise and also with George, Max and Ruth's professor, but not necessarily on the same night. Whether Louise and George ever slept together was presumed but not necessarily true. Did Max ever sleep with George? He couldn't say.
* * *
Hair uncut, Max arrived in Venice considering a color. He attempted a relationship-system diagnosis.
“What are you thinking about?” Ruth asked. Far away, beyond the lagoon, the towers of Venice plucked the haze and heat of sweaty June.
Late last night he had passed by the studio to watch everything disappear, packed into bubble wrap and crates destined for Basel. He would have liked to have done something, anything to the why of it: packed, painted, playdoughed, rubbed and rounded out, plussed and minused, something, anything to make the work more resistant, not resistant to critique but critically resistant to the norms applied to its whatness. He left it alone with its anxiety of communication.
He tried to convince himself that it was so much better to be in Venice with his girlfriend, Ruth. The ferry pulled forwards then backwards, while Max pulled his arm away from Ruth and answered, “Nothing, I'm just a little tired, that's all.” They were sitting in the back of the ferry where the wind put Ruth's hair into disarray. It smelled of gasoline. Max pulled his mobile out of his pocket.
Nothing was there. He shook the phone with two hands like an automat that had refused to spit out a gumball. Still nothing. He held the phone high in the air, hoping to catch a better wave of reception. Still nothing.
- You need an antennae extension, said Ruth.
- I wanted to meet up with Liam at the Bauer at some point.
- There's that party at the Greeks.
- I can't say yet if I want to go.
- Do you mean you don't know what you want or you cannot say?
It's complicated, he thought.
- Only if we go with a water-taxi.
- We're supposed to meet up with Ana and the others on the Rialto Bridge, and from there it's only a five-minute walk.
Once in their hotel room, he began to remember the endless discussions with doormen, make that back-doormen, two years before. The truly important guests arrived via the canal. The era of using the alleyway entry is over, Max pronounced to himself firmly, loudly, and at the same time came in a beep, a notification of a notification of the whereabouts of Nico, while shouting, “Now!”
But he didn't want to pick up his mobile now to read Nico's message in front of Ruth. As soon as she disappears into the bathroom, he can finally check. He stepped over to the window to better receive his instructions from a higher power, like a corner painted black. The SMS read: "Welcome to Italy. Roaming calls cost only .51 cent/min….”
- What’s now? I know, I’m hurrying as fast as I can, she said while undressing.
- Is there such a thing as a Greek Pavilion?
- Maybe it's the Albanian.
- How should I know? There's a party at the Palazzo Papaharalambos. Remember, the one with the gigantic lily pad pond with red frogs where we came for that collector Trotzki's party?
- She wasn't called Trotzki, she said, while running out of the bathroom, cold feet on the marble floor.
Standing naked in front of him, she added, “The Greek Pavilion is just a temporary project.”
He looked at her dumbly, thinking that's not the only thing that's temporary here. But the look was exchanged for one of “what are you doing?” She was putting on her jeans without any underwear.
- What? We’re late and you’re not going to start dictating me about.
Two hours and 8 SMSs later, there was a convergence of Berlin in Venice on the bridge, not only Ana and Jan, but also a host of former collaborators and neurotics, Horst, the director of the next Peruvian Biennale, Sarah, and oh god, the Gorilla, her ex, which was going to make this really uncomfortable. Two others stood quietly at the edge of the group, names unknown, nonetheless having formed their own community by wearing stripes, vaguely French Nouvelle Vague.
- The temporary pavilion, yeah, Tsoriasis is doing it.
- You mean that party Alexis Dannakis does every year?
Max listened, had heard the names somewhere before. His brain, he noticed, was trying to send him an instant message. Two circles appeared in front of his eyes, one red, the other blue, one hers, the other his. The space where they overlapped, the purple part, was getting smaller and smaller.
The synopsis, no, the synapse, no, Max knew the syntax of the connection: the collector Miltiades.
Miltiades was the guy who had resold his work to Dannakis who had sold it to Nico, six months ago. He had thick glasses and eyes the size of eggs that stared with difficulty into the tiny peepholes Max had drilled into his artwork. He had been selecting work for the Greek Pavilion, yes, now he remembered….
- All pavilions are temporary, he said, while thinking that at least this one might contain a Nico.
Her last words to him in Berlin had created a perceptible zone of hope.

PART III: The Stairs
At the end of part II, Max was on his way to what promised to be a mediocre party at the temporary Greek Pavilion in Venice; a party, however, where he thinks he might bump into Nico. We left him with his thoughts of her last words to him in Berlin. Here we travel back in time, when Max – confronted with a series of “if-then” situations – pretends to be a spy in Nico’s penthouse, daring to climb the stairs despite Louise’s warning, “I wouldn’t go up there if I were you…”



Upstairs had long remained a mystery to him. Not that there was an upstairs, per se, but what was upstairs, that was the mystery. Many had been upstairs, Max included, but for a long time, Max had only seen others going upstairs but had never been upstairs himself. He had also seen many coming downstairs, but had never been coming downstairs himself as he had yet to go up. Now that he had been upstairs, a new chapter could begin and Max liked new chapters. He liked beginnings and endings. It was only the middle that ever gave him trouble.

Nico wasn’t exactly what you would call a party-girl, but she was famous for her parties. Not Holly-go-lightly parties where ladies’ hats catch fire, but parties of 300 or more officially invited guests, none of whom truly knew the hostess, for to Berlin she was new. Max would only learn later that she’d hired a public relations firm to handle her personal relations firmly. Making decisions about whom to invite required political party thoughts, as the pie chart of the art world was a difficult demographic. It was not that she was too lazy or naïve. She was of the belief that in order to be accepted in the art world she had to do the right things, collect the right works from the right (leftist) gallerists. She had consorted with a number of her Frankfurter friends, for example, before hiring the right p.r. firm.

Max had crashed several of her parties with a success rate of 4:1. Crashing parties required the consideration of many factors. If you knew host x and were not invited, you were unlikely to attend. If you didn’t know host x and had not been invited, you were more likely to attend. That is, two negatives yielded a probable positive. But there was an “if-then” constant which negated the above considerations: if an uncertain variable of friends were going which might approximate a quantity known as an infinity, then adding yet another uncertain to the equation was inevitable. Even though he didn’t know x and the number of his acquaintances among the attendees by no means approached an infinity, he hadn’t been anxious about crashing Nico’s first party, until he saw the night-shift concierge, who nonchalantly waved them off to the 12th floor. The feeling was that of having run across a pothole in comparison to the true anxiety that washed over him when stepping out of the elevator. No Nico was there to greet them, but instead awaiting each guest were a man and woman holding clipboards, wearing the uniforms of flight attendants.

First he tried arrogance: “I’m Max.”

Then silliness: “Max Horkheimer.”

The attendant didn’t blink, but instead searched out the page dedicated to the letter H.

It wasn’t until his third time there – or fourth if you count two steps into the foyer and a pencil-tapping rejection – that he had discovered the stairs to her interior upstairs at all, let alone the stairs to the rooftop. Max was someone who would go to a party and hang on to one guest for the entirety of the evening, not moving any further from the front door or the bar than absolutely necessary. But at the last party, he had been dragged beyond his path by Ruth, more the peripatetic voyeur than the talking statue.

It was only then that he discovered that Nico’s penthouse was a penthouse duplex plus rooftop. He watched the steady stream of curators and what looked like other young collectors go upstairs. They did come down, not to make a mystery of that, it’s just that they came down differently than they went up, usually stuffed with all manner of things that would either slow or speed up their journey. Standing there with Ruth that evening, there seemed to be an invisible scrim holding them back. Rather, it was a pretentious silk tasseled cord that blocked entry into the mystery upstairs. “Your artwork must be up there,” said Ruth. “I’m not in the mood to cross the line.” “Look. There’s Sheena! She’s been bragging to everyone that she slept with Jocelyn Wildenstein!“

Seeing expert-crasher Sheena go up the stairs gave Ruth all the guts she needed. Ruth began ascending the stairs behind her. Max held his ground, looked doubtfully around. He was stuck in the conference room of his mind, in search of a memo, to, from, regarding. From the top of the stairs, Ruth screamed down: “Max! I found it!”
* * *
Louise’s shrill tone snapped Max out of his reverie of last night’s party and back to the daytime reality show of Nico’s empty penthouse. “It’s not like I am asking you to dig a hole in the ground to catch a cow.” It was her humor that had dug the trap of his falling for her, he remembered now.

Max lightly kicked the bicycle that was leaning against the wall, as if he were kicking himself, mindlessly in all manner of mild frustration. But to call it a bicycle is to hark back to the origins of this Thing, which had become more of a donkey on wheels. Sagging with the pain of overstuffed plastic sacks hanging from every existing hook or bar, it resembled more of an object that used to be a bike without changing the definition of it excepting, of course, its net worth at 80,000 Euro. Max couldn’t stand it, this “it” being the artwork: not because it wasn't good, but because he hadn't thought of it first.

Standing in front of the silk cord, he felt like a serf who has been made into a servant of the court, waiting downstairs until he is called for. A circumstance that seemed more a chore, the longer he waited. If only he were as cheeky as the artist who had made the bicycle. He lived in Hamburg and for his exhibition in Frankfurt he had simply taken a taxi for the almost five-hour journey. When he arrived, he handed the museum director the bill, and even worse, he left the taxi just outside the museum entrance and removed a wheel, so that the taxi was going nowhere, but the meter was still running. (Didn’t he turn the engine off? Yes, and the meter was left running, like a ticking time-bomb.) That was momentum. For the taxi-trap artist, Max thought, there would have been no hesitation.

With this in mind, Max climbed three stairs, then quickly back down two. Then up four stairs and back down five. Now he was standing on the other side of the rope. He ducked underneath it to the eternal return of the downstairs, the place where he was, pacing, waiting, hoping. A cigarette could give this in-between time a purpose, a way of doing something without doing anything, but he'd long ago given up the habit. Nico or Ruth, today or tomorrow, Venice or Berlin: it was the "or" that was weighing him down when he would have been happy with an upper "and." Did he have to make an "or" situation out of an "and" situation? Could he go with Nico to Venice and still be in love with Ruth in Berlin? He shook his head. He was a new man, but not that new. Upstairs was quiet. No, he said to himself, and then quietly, drawing a hardline with his foot on the floor: I am leaving.

He pressed the elevator button, just once, as if not to summon it too urgently. What was his inner hubbub all about anyway? Why should he make such a fuss? Two years ago, he had been with Ruth in Venice. They spent the night spooned together in a sleeping bag placed in the narrow corridor of a friend’s place in Mestre. At five a.m., they were woken up by drunken friends stumbling over them.

He was downstairs from the downstairs now, out the elevator and out the door, back to the past with his back to the future, standing in front his own bike, the bike he had left here last night. It was his own. Ruth had found it at a flea market and had given it to him with a grin one day pointing to the writing on the bar in bright yellow cursive, the single word, Adventure. It was time that he should buy a new bike instead of having this bike in quotation marks, this inside joke between him and Ruth. Adventure!

He pressed the buzzer twice. “What’s wrong?” Louise said. “I forgot something.” “What?” Good question. What had he forgotten? He had forgotten to think of that. He had forgotten himself. Louise didn’t wait for his answer but buzzed him in anyway.

Upstairs everything was the same. Louise was still on the phone: “I sent the fax three times already. Should I scan, email, and DHL it too?”

Another phone began to ring so loudly it resounded in the hall like an alarm. He stood for a moment in the elevator, hesitating to leave its mirrored abyme. Then, like in a film, he sprung out just as the doors were closing, securing right, securing left, imaginary handgun in his hand, he would take this place by force, stealthy, like a cat burglar. He snuck past the office door where Louise was still rattling into the phone and stabbing her pen onto a block of sticky notes. He mounted the stairs, hopping two or three at a time without making a sound.

He felt like Roger Moore. This was his new life and a new life needed a new gadget, a new mobile phone with eighty different functions from toasting bread to boiling eggs, from sanding to shellacking, from putting out fires to pumping air into tires. Something with a heat-detector to distinguish the living from the dead, to distinguish the living from the mannequins wrapped in brown plastic tape he stood facing now. He had met the brown-tape Bataille artist at the party last night, and all he could remember were his horn-rimmed glasses and how he kept going on about the democracy of the destitute in a funny Swiss accent. To his right was a life-like figure in a suit with his head stuck in the wall. Nico’s penchant for artworks employing the human form made navigating the second floor (at night, at least) a little creepy. There were clothes scattered everywhere, but this was no artwork. Obviously, the cleaning lady had taken the day off, or maybe Nico was nearby, engaged in the work-in-progress of unpacking her closet into packed bags. Behind a door was a long corridor leading to the bedroom. Max stood quietly and listened to the dead air. No voices, just the daunting sound of empty space. Footsteps swallowed by the plush rug, he crossed the room to arrive at the Florida room drenched in sun. Max stepped up to the French doors leading to the rooftop garden. He stretched his arms upwards. He could feel at home here, get rich, get fat. Mornings he’d read the papers and have fresh squeezed orange juice brought to him with two croissants, still warm. No more muesli, he said to himself in a whisper.

From far off he could hear the muzak version of “Caribbean Queen,” Nico’s mobile tone. He stood still in his tracks looking towards the TV tower, like a beacon of meaning whose signals lacked a receptor. Then he heard Nico’s voice, coming close, tense. “Louise, I'm not in search of the miraculous!”

It reminded Max of his first close encounter with the collector. Late in the night as the last guests were parting from Max’s party crash no 2, he finally exchanged words with her. She was gazing at him gazing at a series of blurry photographs of a man on a boat.

“I wonder why he didn’t title it with a more secular wording, ‘mind-boggling’ or ‘inexplicable.’ Why do you think he resorted to the religious overtones of the ‘miraculous’?” Her question, though intelligent, was borrowed not bought.

“I don’t know what this ‘mind-bottle’ is, but what I always wanted to find out was the point in time when someone who has gone missing is officially declared dead. The point in time where an overdue boat, becomes a mysteriously sunken one. The point in time where the unknown is relegated to the known, where the uncertainty of the uncertain becomes certain, as if one could pinpoint that anguished moment when a late-arriving dinner date becomes a stood-up one.”

Max stepped back, unsure of how his adventure should end. If he should hide behind a door like a court jester or if he should disappear as mysteriously as he had arrived, before making his mayday connection to another identity? “Is this a secure line?” he wanted to whisper into his mobile.
Nico approached the terrace doors, but screamed in the direction of the stairs: “Only Max. Find him. Now!”


PART IV: Basel
In part IV, we finally get to meet Ruth. Max has gone missing in Venice and so she’s left alone to finish up the installation at Art Unlimited in Basel. At the end of part III, Max was confronted with a series of “if-then” situations – here, he’s only confronted with a series of questionable realities.



Ruth pulled her bags out of the train and into the tram. The hotel booked in Basel was for a double with Max, the last person she wanted to bunk up with – and she was so fraught, she decided that she'd head straight for the fair and throw herself into the work. She'd sleep overnight on a bed of bubble wrap if she had to, but she knew she wouldn't be able to sleep anyway, so what was the point in trying to find another room?

Inside she ran into Max's gallerist who was on the phone, doing loops around the empty booth. She couldn't hear what he was saying. He mouthed something mysterious to her. She wondered if he knew already. The halls dedicated to the Art Unlimited section droned with drilling and the staccato shouts from men with hammers and screwdrivers hanging from their primary colored overalls, red, green, blue. They pushed crates here and there on dollies but it was the huge crane nearby that seemed to generate most of the noise. Pop, pop, Ruth stepped on top of a mountain of bubble wrap to shout at the crane operator:
-How much longer is that going to take?
The answer came back in unmistakable Schwizertitsch:
- bis dass dr Ruedi’s gfötälät hät.

She walked back to the booth wondering why Dr Rudi might need to feed the artwork, wondering when she would ever learn Swiss German or if she even wanted to. Imagining what you heard was just too good.

The gallerist approached her, still talking to his phone, air kisses from the man who seemed completely oblivious to the high costs of "roaming," he thrust a paper into her hand. The work description. She scanned it quickly:

"... beyond the Zeitgeist, time and space meet here in a discourse dedicated to a social practice which the spectator engages with differently, each time they approach the work."

Normally she would have re-written it, but this time, no. Let Max sink in his own alphabet soup.

There was an empty space where Max’s work was meant to be installed already. Two scaffolds stood there like the skeletons from the infamous anorexic twin artists. A few lamps were hanging already, colored lights that made the cigarette butts on the floor look like cigarette butts on the floor and nothing more.

Back in the spring when Max was planning the work, she had warned him that it seemed as if there were too many neon artworks out there,
as if bright-lights sold better, the Kosuth (the dictionary) or the Flavin (religion), and, more recently, the witticisms: neon words (Strike) or neon on the floor (political deconstructivism). But then the Portugese collector Pinteaux had bought a neon work of Max’s last spring – “an attempt to constitute a discourse, which though political does not efface the dimension of the personal.” After that, Max decided he’d make the same work but in green. Series, he said, a series. Ruth despised the idea of doing anything safe. Success made artists conservative.

She shook the scaffolding and a neon fell down. She tried to catch it, but it was too late. Before it could crash, the electric cable cut its fall short as it now dangled before her, strung up instead of hung.

She found Max's assistants sitting outside in a plot of grass smoking a joint.
- Matterhorn doesn't have a horn, you dork.
- It doesn't matter man, that thing is gonna blow its top soon. François told me he saw a documentary about it on YouTube.

It was sunny and her sunglasses veiled swollen eyes. Nothing veiled the redness of theirs. Glassy, they looked happy … until they saw her.
- A box is missing. It wasn’t delivered.
- You guys are aware that the collectors arrive for the Preview tomorrow at 11?
- Ja, so? What should we do?
– Think of a solution, said Ruth, unable to keep her temper.
Neither of them responded and Pepe took another toke.
* * *
Basel was too expensive for the "just looking" art fan club. They'd arrive with the rest, tomorrow. She'd been to Basel before, knew where to find the chutes and ladders, the hammer for 75 Euro an hour. Her ex-beau Tobi had also exhibited here and she'd helped with the installation, sanding and sanding late into the night before washing up in the public toilet, her wet head under the hands dryer. The build-up to opening day were the best nights out ever: all artists and their assistants who were usually artists, no collectors, no career stress....

She drank that evening, perhaps too much. Instead of heading back over the German border to find a Zimmerfrei with lace curtains and dwarves in a garden of geraniums, she snuck back to the hall just before they locked up at midnight walking, sneaking in behind the delivery of Max’s last crate. Back in the booth alone, she grabbed a crow bar and pried it open just as the lights began to flicker out like a flag half-mast, and silence reigned supreme.

Max had disappeared in Venice. He had sent her a cryptic SMS (On way to Palladio Villa on the river Brenta). With whom, whatever, she hated it when he did this. Since then, he’d been unreachable, but at least he'd paid their hotel bill. She pulled out her phone to call him again but what would she say? I’m here in the hall alone with your work locked in for the night don’t worry ‘bout me?

Ruth, who was brought up never to touch a banister, would be sleeping in the halls of Art Basel. She heard the voices of two workers approaching.
- Art sure is ugly.
- Shows how much you know about art. The uglier, the more it's worth.
- This must be worth more than a picture of Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie's baby, man.

She was awake early the next morning with the vague aftertaste of a dream, Max having a penis like an electric eel and every time it penetrated Louise’s ass, she'd scream in pain. From the inside of the crate she could see her bag, which she pulled in and pulled on fresh clothes. The hall was still closed and the only sounds were her own, the cracking of a bulb under her full weight, things pulled out of the new crate and thrown about haphazardly. The sounds of spray paint. She put two empty beer bottles in the corner for decoration and as a finishing touch, hung her bra on one of the unlit poles and tacked a clipping from an Italian newspaper to the wall. It looked great. Nothing safe about that work at all.

* * *
- Where are you?
Max sat up in bed and looked out the window. Mountains. Who was the lady on the other end of the line who wanted to know where he was? And why with such agitation?
- Are you here in Basel yet?
He hung up.
Basel? That’s a clue. Was he in Basel? Was he still on the Greek’s yacht? He had spent most of his time during the Venice Biennale on the yacht of a collector he’d only heard of by name. There was a plan, he remembered, to make a stopover in the Swiss Alps before heading to Basel during the three days between the two events. Between Venice and Basel are 500 kilometers of mountains. He supposed that he was somewhere in between both kilometers and days, 250 kilometers and 2 days?

Underneath the thick duvet, something was moving. The phone began vibrating again on the side table.

- Ja, ja, what, who’s there?

- Gallery NN.

But the line was breaking up and he was unsure of what he'd heard. He bent over the mysterious curve at least to try making out the hair color. Mixed blonde, not natural. It didn’t occur to him immediately to whom this head might belong. NN, nomen nominandum, “not knowing the name,” anonymous. The gallery assistant at NN had similar hair.
- Who am I speaking to?
- With the assistant.
Max remembered the lady that they had hired about a half a year ago. He imagined her face. The blonde hi-lites definitely would fit to her multi-toned head. He never would have landed with her in bed, or so he thought on second thought, decapitated maybe. She had, let’s say, other qualities. But the last few days were a blur, a mistake. Like neon in daylight. He couldn’t remember a single artwork from the biennale. Did he ever even make it to the Giardini? Memories of the last biennale and the one before that came immediately to his mind. But what interested him was what was under the duvet and if the woman next to him was the gallery assistant?
- When can you be in Basel?
Something was not right. How could she be calling him if she was in bed next to him? Was that possible? He hung up.

Whose bed he was in? He tried to wake up, sober up, or at least pretend to. The first word that came to mind was the word pfadabhängigkeit, path dependence. He opened his eyes hoping to determine which mountains he was looking at. Then he looked at the hair strewn across the pillow case. Picking up his phone again, he saw that he had 62 missed calls and 279 unread SMSs. He opened the browser to Wikipedia, typing in "path dependence”:

Path dependence explains how the set of decisions one faces for any given circumstance is limited by the decisions one has made in the past, even though past circumstances may no longer be relevant.

It didn’t help. Either it was about taking one path or others. When there are alternative paths, those paths are plural. And it’s only a path once I’ve gone down it, not before, he thought. It must have been a path. His telephone vibrated again. The person in bed next to him moved. He caught himself in the act of dreading that this sleeper might wake up.

An hour later he would be on a train from Zürich to Basel. As he shut the door behind him he looked down at the names on the buzzers. Just in case. He’d found a path, but none that he believed he’d been down before.

Basel Badischer Train Station, arrival 14:35, footpath to the fair, ca. 8 minutes.

The first person he bumped into was a critic:
- There's certainly a lingering potential there, a field of tension, deconstruction and construction like I've never seen before in your work.
Max had no idea what he was talking about.
- Are you ok? You seem a little scattered.
He quickly ducked into the crowd, dodging further conversation with the critic. But it seemed like there were swarms of critics around him. He bumped into yet another, who said,
- Max, hey, loved the work. You know, there are artists that deal with life as if it were a dart board, but your work tends to open up a much wilder field that brings ghosts back. Did it really all begin with that clipping from the newspaper on the wall?
- Uh...
- The one with the woman who died of a tongue piercing? I had to laugh about that.
Max pretended to know what he was talking about by nodding his head and giving him his best grin. The next person he bumped into was a writer-turned-curator of one of Germany’s better Kunstvereins, who was on the phone, but motioned to Max.
- When you’re interested, you should propose something to us!
Max wanted to slip past him, hoping to get a glimpse of the work it seemed everyone had seen but himself. The Kunstverein man interrupted his phone conversation again.
- One minute, sorry… Max, hey, I really thought that was great. You've really encapsulated all of the conflict of what it means to be involved in a collaboration. All that red – and were you being serious about the non-profit educational group?
Basel was a landscape of opinions, none of which seemed to make any sense or in any relation to his work.
- Um, for me it was more about a kind of "applied fantastic," yet it when I was doing it, it seemed created out of necessity more than out of any particular events. I like to encounter the work without a strategy, still working within the non-narrative modes....

At last, the short, bald, dwarf-collector: he thought he'd have it easy, here. This guy was more for the dance floor than for any arching critique.
- Fashion as class camouflage? Max, really, you've really outdone yourself this time. Nice work!
The more people Max met, the more he began to feel like distressed leather. Acid washed.