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.
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.
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.
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?
- 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.