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 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.
-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:
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.
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?
-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.
-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?
-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.
-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.
-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 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.