Max is high on something Mackenzie has slipped him while at the fair. As a comfort-zone junkie, he’s left the fair with Ruth, who is suspiciously quiet and seemingly nonplussed by his absence for the past few days. When will she blow her top? Meanwhile, he’s left Nico and her mother doing the fair rounds and their relationship is still up in the air: he still doesn’t know if she’s sleeping with the lion or not, as Louise has hinted. And God forbid, though he might have slept with Sheena, she’s offered him up a chance at a group show at Gogo’s.
The word arose out of the crowd like a text message receipt in a darkened theater in-between acts. It’s recipient, our Max, stood there with less than zero in his head. Ruth nudged him out of his reverie.
- Max, I know you didn’t do this, but other people will think you did…
They were standing just beyond the fair entrance, looking onto the backs of people whose heads were crowned by raging flames. Charcoal smoke shifted with the wind. They moved closer. Was it a public art performance? It was certainly a spectacle worth watching, art or not art.
- The weird thing is that unless someone fesses up to this, everyone’s going to think that you’ve done it.
- Why? No one outside of our friends in Berlin knows about it.
The burning of a BMW parked in front of the fair suddenly got more spectacular, cinematic even. The paint began to bubble like dewdrops on a windowpane. The car looked downright wet. It crackled, it popped. The tires were now on fire, and, one-by-one, they popped loudly, creating a few startled chortles from the crowd.
They were transfixed. It was the perfect moment, one of the very few moments when art that might not be art, might be art. And the even more interesting thing was that this burning car created distinct categories of viewers: 1) those who perceived the burning car as a burning car, and 2) those who perceived the burning car as art, and then 3) those who saw those who saw the burning car as a burning car as a part of the art and, even more complicated 4) those who saw those who saw the burning car as art and those who were watching it as art viewers as a part of the art. The hierarchy made visible was all too perfect, and the fourth perspective neared that of the first so much so that the art nearly disappeared altogether.
The police arrived, the firemen right behind them. The noise was terrible.
- Clear the way!
But the crowd refused to move.
- People, I said, move back!
Even the arrival of the police and fire truck looked scripted. It was all too neat, too clean. It had to be art. The Swiss policeman looked too much like Tom Selleck.
Ruth started to back out of the crowd and grabbed Max’s shirttail pulling him back with her.
- Max, we’ve got to get out of here. Someone here knows your past. Who was it that said that?
It was at that moment that they both spotted Louise in the crowd. Her nose was buried in her phone, her thumb thumbing furiously.
Max was truly beginning to regret having taken up Mackenzie’s mood booster, which was quickly turning into a mood buster. This was not the time to be on drugs.
- I don’t like the look of this at all. Max, do you have an alibi, where were you all day?
- At the fair, of course, but I was pretty much alone.
- Think fast, Max, this is not funny. You don’t remember which galleries you visited? Who could account for you?
- I’m not kidding. Max, we’ve got to get out of here fast.
She pulled at his jeans pockets, so hard that he stumbled backwards. But the more she pulled, the more resistant he became. He was hypnotized and envious that he hadn’t come up with the concept himself.
- The funny thing is, Ruth, is that my immaterial art lives on in the heads of those who recognize it even though I never considered it one of my “works.” I’ve done that in Berlin but why not in Basel too?
She couldn’t believe her ears. She began to rant and in a tone that made people turn and stare. Ruth and Max became spectacle number two. A good portion of the crowd had now turned their attention to them. It was all so contemporary.
- Again? You only think in series. I give up! Another green neon, go ahead…
- Maybe I did do it.
- Max! It’s not the kind of artwork that exactly lends itself to seriality. And ok, so you served your parole, but do you really think a Swiss judge would be as kind?
He turned his head left and right and noticed that they were being noticed. He grabbed Ruth by the arm and led her in the direction of a large group of sculptures that could only be described as a child’s play-dough interpretation of the heads of Easter Island.
- I don’t know why you think that I cannot claim authorship here.
- Uh, well, maybe because this time you’re going to go to jail?
- Would Louise do that? Would she really wish me jail time?
- I think she’d do anything to boost your career. You’d be in the papers, you’d be the talk of the town.
The rest of their argument was lost in the sounds of the now-hissing waterlogged car. People were applauding, whistling, cheering on the firemen. The “performance” was nearly over. A policeman had started taking notes, asking questions, but no one would give them a straight answer. They all believed it was art.
When a policeman approached Ruth and Max from behind, it was Ruth who did all the fast-talking.
Some minutes later, they were alone on the banks of the river Rhine. Max broached the subject, knowing that Ruth must be angry with him, and she was, but she didn’t want him to elaborate on the details. She told him that she was by no means perfectly innocent either and asked if they could just drop it and get on with things.
- What do you mean by that?
- Everyone apparently liked the work I did on your behalf, so let’s just call it constructive anger and forget about the rest. At least for now. We’re already late.
When Max and Ruth arrived at the dinner, they found themselves amid a vertigo of interpretation. There was a group gathered at the bar, and the restaurant was much fuller than Max could have hoped. Too full even. Who were these people? And the friends that had previous engagements? Why were they suddenly here? Sheena, the expert crasher, and Larry, her tag along. Or rather the reverse: Sheena was Larry’s symbiotic sharksucker. It was Sheena who knew how to find Max’s dinner, not Larry, and certainly Larry didn’t crash dinner parties given by other gallerists? Nico was there too, but aside from a handful of artist friends, Max recognized only a few faces. He felt as if he’d arrived at a dinner for someone else. His own party crash equation was coming back to haunt him: 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. Two negatives yielded a probable positive.
- Pyromax, his gallerist whispered, pulling him to the side.
- That was a close call. Do you think you can tell me about your next stunt before it happens? I could have sent a few collectors out there to see it.
Max could see Nico approaching, and he wasn’t really listening.
- See what?
- You know what I’m talking about and now we’ve missed the opportunity. I could have sold that work at least five times by now.
The gallerist broke off to greet Nico with kisses in the air. She then took her place next to Max.
- I’ve sat you next to one of our better art critics. I hope you can teach him a thing or two.
He winked and then turned his attention to Max.
- Listen, why not sell it as a certificate? We’ll call it Repetition and Difference?
- And what? Get the collector to agree to having their own car burned?
Max hoped to involve Nico in the conversation, namely, so that she would change the subject. The last thing he wanted to talk about now was claiming authorship to burning cars. But she seemed all-too-keen to talk more about it.
- A certificate! Sign me up. I want a new car anyway.
Being German, both Max and the gallerist seemed to have missed her joke altogether.
- That can be arranged, I’m sure. What kind of car did you have in mind?
- No. I only meant… she paused. Pressing her finger to her lips, she then said capriciously:
- Oh hell, why not. A Lotus Elite.
- Isn’t that a yoga position?
- It was thanks to your assistant, by the way, that I found out about our Max’s latest work.
- Louise? Oh God, what’d she do now?
Nico rolled her eyes. Her tone was that of feigned boredom, but you could tell she was on the edge of her seat.
- It’s probably thanks to her that all of Basel is talking about it. I mean, she sms’d me while the car was burning. It was weird. How’d she get a hold of my number?
- No doubt, from Nico’s roladex. She works for Nico now, remember?
Though Max was at his own dinner, he remained glued to the spot at the bar closest to the door. It was only by default that he had ended up talking to Nico and his gallerist. And it was only because of neglect that he neglected to see that he was ignoring Ruth. The band-aide over the rough spot was coming loose.
Meanwhile, Ruth had downed two glasses of champagne quickly while greeting as many people as possible, even the complete strangers. Alas, a soul arrived who didn’t know anyone else in the room, and Ruth jumped at the chance to talk with him again: the Chinese collector, who had acquired the work at the fair. She asked him about how his further tour in search of “bad” art went and he in turn asked her how she knew Max. She explained that they had been together for the last 10 years, and that as he became more and more successful, she had become his head assistant, directing his studio. He asked her then what she knew about some of his early works.
- Max is well known, you see, for having burned a BMW 1 parked on the corner of Tucholsky- and Torstrasse.
He nodded but seemed only vaguely interested at what she was saying, barely listening to her now as his attention skated across the crowd. He turned to the waitress who was carrying a full tray of full flutes.
Ruth continued, incredulous that he seemed so blasé, repeating herself slowly, loudly:
- I said, HE BURNED A CAR.
Still no reaction. He took another sip of the bubbly, but remained flat.
- And it was not far away from her house.
She pointed to Nico who was still holding her place next to Max. She stopped the waitress who was passing by again with one last flute on her tray which Ruth gulped down.
- Indeed, she swallowed, it might have been her car.
His eyes lifted. He began to look interested.
- Her car what?
- That he burned it!
It was clear at this point that Ruth was more than a little tipsy. Her speech had become even louder. Larry had approached the Chinese collector, and it seemed that she was about to lose her audience. Pointing towards Nico, she said:
- She’s a neoliberal conceptualist.
Nico, in turn, gave Ruth a look which looked like she was filling out a form while standing in line at customs: Boring. Check. Next.
She then swiftly turned her back to Ruth and said to Max:
- Your girlfriend is making out as if you’re part of the Brigado Rosso.
The guns were drawn, the duel was in low gear, straining uphill.
Ruth carried on, caught up in her own panic-stricken production, taken aback by having been thrust in the defense:
- But at the time, Miss Penthouse wasn’t living in Berlin. That was when Berlin was still cool, when a penthouse connoted the notion of life in a magazine, when in all of the apartments behind the scaffolding were … were… laminate floors.
- New, she stressed, laminate floors.
It was a weak argument, but somehow, it got her the attention she wanted.
- But whose car was it then?
Larry leaned forward, intrigued.
Max’s gallerist unintentionally put an end to the crescendoing cat fight, summoning everyone to their seats, clapping his hands together: dinner is served!
Just as Ruth was about to return to her story, she was interrupted again by the arrival of the lion. He walked in like he owned the place, and made a beeline for Ruth, kissing her on the cheek and taking her by the hand. No one noticed this sly gesture of affection. Except Max.
Max was seated next to Nico who was seated next to an art critic who jumped off the conversation with:
- So today while I was going through the fair, I started making a list comparing philosophers with products.
He twisted and turned in his seat, finally pulling out of his back pocket a folded piece of paper with a million tiny notes scribbled all over it. He turned the page this way and that before he happened upon what he was looking for.
- Ah, there we have it. Derrida is Samsung. Deleuze is Lexus. I’m thinking Habermas is a Trabant. And I have yet to figure out who Apple is. Max, what do you think?
- Apple is a Mini-Cooper.
The drugs, apparently, had yet to wear off. He introduced Nico to Ralph, and though Ralph recognized her for the young star collector rarity that she was, his next words were direct, blunt, to the point, feigning ignorance: What do you do?
Nico looked uncomfortable. She pretended not to hear him and took a sip of wine. She didn’t answer him and nor did Max. Instead he offered up Ralph’s profession to Nico, hoping to bridge the uneasy silence.
- Ralph here also lives in Berlin. He’s a writer, an art critic.
She seemed distracted, but managed to come out of her rut by commenting politely, “How interesting,” and then managed to generate an apparent real interest in continuing the conversation.
- Who do you write for?
- Oh the usual. About every magazine you can think of and some you’d never heard of.
- Like what?
- Like Paper Monument and Butt.
- That’s funny. A magazine named after a preposition.
- “But” is a conjunction, technically. But no, it’s got two t’s.
Again there was an awkward silence filling the gap between classes. In the art world, if the collector is king, the writer is the serf. While one spends days panicking about the ebb and flow of numbers in the bank, the other spends days wondering how and if they will have enough potatoes on the plate. In other “worlds,” rarely would the two meet. But in the art world, it’s not such a rare thing to have a collector sitting next to a critic at a post-opening dinner. One hand washes the other.
- Butt is actually quite a good magazine. So what do you do, sorry, I missed it….
- Nico is a collector.
- Oh, of what?
This is every collector’s wet dream question, or so one would think. But asking a collector what they collect is akin to asking them to show you their underwear. Nico, however, responded irreverently and only partly in truth.
- I collect cars.
They all three took a sip of wine. Ralph picked up his philosopher product thread again, asking both her and Max which philosopher might be a Porsche.
- That’s easy.
- So who?
- Tobi will tell you.
Tobi was passing behind them, heading towards the toilet.
Max clued Tobi into their little parlor game and they all sat there awaiting his reply while he massaged his beard, looking every day a little more like Friedrich Engels.
- A Porsche, eh? No question about it. Zizek.
- Ah, come on, said Max.
- You can do better than that. Zizek’s a Porsche with a flat tire.
- Or a Porsche on fire?
- That’s a more interesting question. Who’s that?
Now, apparently, any burning car was seen as being a Max Decker trouvé.
And while it may seem that up until now our Max is Humpty Dumpty, stumbling, fumbling, ever about to fall, he had a heroic reputation among a small group of friends for having committed one single radical act: burning the car of someone who was not just someone.
His good friends Christophe and April had dabbled in make-believe anarchism. They’d hatched a plot to blow up the MoMA show in Berlin at the Neue National Galerie so that the paintings would be destroyed and Mies’s architecture left in tact. But the plot was called to a sudden halt when Christophe was arrested for careening through the city streets wearing a ski mask over his head. Ever since, both of their telephone lines were tapped, and they’d been frightened back into a corner of cowardice.
But Max was regarded as a true anarchist. He had invited them to come and watch while he shoved a few articles of gasoline-soaked clothes under the car, lit a cigarette and then watched the thing go up in flames. They had all stood their ground in front of it as if they’d simply happened upon this burning car. It was the first of May and all of the police were lined-up for duty in Kreuzberg, leaving Mitte a fertile ground for Max’s homegrown activism. Louise had even taken pictures of the whole process when the police arrived some 20 minutes later, and had asked them if they’d seen the instigator.
Later on at a bar his friend Bernie, a really good artist who was simply far behind his time, began to tell a story about how he’d taken a welding torch to the busts he’d been working on, but that he’d never thought about filming it or considering it an “action” like what Max had done to the car that night.
Max objected to the sentiment.
- Bernie, you’ve got it all wrong. Don’t you get it? It’s not art, he said. It’s a means of protest, point blank, no further discussion.
That Max had been unhappy with the way his career was going was no secret to his friends. But to a greater public he’d always have to put on a smiley face as if everything was ok.
He wore that same face tonight at his dinner, ignoring the fact that his gallerist wanted to commodify the dissent that was not even his. But Ruth’s take on it was not unlike that of the rest of the crowd that had been chatting about the rebel with an undefined cause, even though her reasoning was slightly more complicated.
She was talking now with her ex-beau Tobi, the lion:
- The only thing that interests me anymore is not art.
- Yes, I know, you told me last night, bad art.
- No, not bad art. Not art.
- Readymades, yeah, ok, I see. So what?
- No. You don’t see. I mean Not Art.
Ruthie was on to something and was on nothing but a lot of the bubbly. She stamped her fist on the table:
- I hereby claim authorship to the Not Art movement. I’ve made a bunch of Not Art objects.
- Ruth, where are you going with this?
She ignored him and carried on:
- And they are not going to be for sale! No, the irony of the whole concept is its complete non-salability. It’s gonna make me rich. Rich and famous!
- Uh, huh. And who’s going to feed you while you go about making Not Art that is not for sale?
- Did you see the vacuum cleaner tied up with a bike chain to the lamppost outside? I did that. The kid’s bike with the missing front tire? I did that.
Mackenzie skirted past them, giggling, while staring into her phone:
- I tube. Do you tube?
The mystery man following her said:
- No, you pad, man. Man, are you stoned. Sorry. I’m mentally diminished myself. What kind of wine is this anyway?
- I burn. Firestarter. That shit is crazy.
They were all in the comfort zone. Countless glasses of champagne followed by a heavy load of red wine and all of this before the second course. Everyone was slurring, many had red heads but the candlelight dimmed the rouge of overindulgence. The after-effects of a happy evening were far from being felt. They were in the middle of the buzz.
The question is, Max, did you start the fire yourself or did one of your assistants do it?
- I did it, said Ruth.
- No you didn’t, said Louise, I did it!
Soon the whole table was proclaiming their guilt. Even Larry said he’d done it too. It was a sympathetic moment, but one that irked Max. Everyone’s joking about it was taking the fire out of his fire. The burning car was not to be viewed in terms of the work of Max’s “applied fantastic.” It made light of the situation.
The reason Max had been so unhappy with his career before burning the car was quite simple, and it wasn’t for a lack of exhibitions or for a lack of work sold.
Every time a work would sell, his former gallerist would present him with a bill for last year’s dinner, the costs of printing the invitations, the cost of storage, or the cost of shipping work to a fair. The art world was full of handshakes and gentleman’s agreements. The notion of having a written contract was viewed as plebeian. And belonging to a gallery meant having a brand name stand behind you, and Max was too young to stand alone. But at some point, he’d had enough.
It wasn’t just any car. It was his former gallerist’s car.