“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.
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.
- 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…