before the fall: gary indiana on the new york art world, circa 2001

"the few authentically educated, earnest people in the art world wake up contemplating suicide five mornings a week”

 


For a summer show, the gallery draws a crush. A familiar throng. Here and there, an unfamiliar Spaniard in the works. It is a small world, the art world. Small-minded. Smarmy Fake. Backbiting, corrupt, meretricious, shallow, howlingly preten­tious, infantile, devoted to a worship of wealth and celebrity that reduces everyone in it to the mentality of a concierge or a subway pickpocket. The few authentically educated, earnest people in the art world wake up contemplating suicide five mornings every week. 
    All the same, it has its reverse, perverse side. A smudge of quixotic idealism. A hangnail of parody in relation to the eco­nomic system. Worthless objects become conduits for millions of dollars. The superrich are conned by their own ignorance into shitty, tossed-off junk that hangs all over their posh houses, which resemble mausoleums, and pay through the nose for it. The artists hold out the better pieces, for museums. Once in a while, something important is exhibited and celebrated. Im­portant to what, you tell me.

I notice the show’s title stenciled on the foyer: Napalm und Pudding. This defrosts a frozen memory cell. Of course. It’s the title of an Ulrike Meinhof article about someone’s attempt to smash a bowl of pudding in the German chancellor’s face. Or perhaps the target was Franz-Josef Strauss, the Kleine Hitler of Lower Bavaria.

An assortment of evenly spaced light boxes runs in a straight line across three of the gallery’s four walls. Clear plastic color images clamped to the glowing boxes like X rays. Computer-manipulated press photographs of Ulrike Meinhof, Gudrun En­nslin, Andreas Baader, Holger Meins, and other members of the Red Army Faction.

"Classic," I tell Leo."Miles gets an idea, broods about it for ten years, eventually somebody else does something with the same idea."

"Who is Miles?" Leans eyes scour the room for boys.

"You know Miles."

"Remind me," says Leon, but his attention wanders to a tall Jamaican guy in John Lennon glasses he recognizes at the drinks table. "I take a glass o wine," he says, moving off as a fortiesh art critic cuts through blue-rinse collectors to say hello. The critic is a mole, pale, slouchy, like most critics out in public pretending he’s guarding a nuclear secret. He wears a stricken expression, as if openings were funerals.

"These are okay" He approvingly nods. Shrugs, smiles like a Komodo dragon. "Not bad."

"I wish I could see them better."

On the critic’s advice I zigzag to the wall for a better look. This is logistically difficult. Not because there are that many people around, but at any New York opening the problem is figuring out how to cross the room while avoiding certain individuals without being obvious about it: not one of my better-developed skills. On closer view, texts in Helvetica type overlie the transparent images in English, French, and German. CAPITALISM PROVIDES US WITH THE TOOLS WE NEED TO DESTROY OURSELVES.

I saw the famous Gerhard Richter paintings in Paris, in 1993. These boxes are the only recent works about Baader-Meinhof, I’m pretty sure. If the show gets a lot of attention, it’s sure to sully Miles’s nebulous project; he has to be counting on the "transgressive" surprise of the subject. Miles once worked up a head of steam, though nothing less vaporous, about a Titanic opera, years before the Broadway musical scooped him, a mu­sical quickly eclipsed by the blockbuster movie.

Anna M. materializes.

"Hey," she says, punching my arm.

"Hey," I reply, gripping her bony frame. She feels like ribs will shatter if I hug too hard. I haven’t seen the face attached to the telephone voice for half a year. It looks chemically en­hanced. "How are you?"

"Okay. Fucked up. You know. How’s shit in Indianaville?"

"I wish I knew Everything feels a little off. I’m surviving. Do you know this artist?"

"Yeah, we met him, like, last year. He’s close to that guy who lives in Barcelona? Marc? You met him at our place." "Marc—"

"Super cute guy, he’s got warrants out on him, domestic abuse of his dickhead boyfriend? Felony assault?"

I remember Marc. A smoothie, as they used to say. One of those guys so blessed with looks that he confuses them with brains. He projected a Genet-like criminal sophistication. I as­sumed he was a spoiled turd from Connecticut.

"This guy Ernesto, you’ll meet him—Marc’s living in Spain until the statute of limitations runs out or the boyfriend drops the assault charges. He slips into New York, you know, travels in black, like that night you met him. Pretty rad shit, huh?" She means the light boxes.

I see Malcolm hovering near Gracie Mansion, the art dealer, moving his video camera back and forth. He called me a couple nights earlier to tell me that Anna’s previous boyfriend had joined them in a three-way

"I fucked her ex in the ass," he said with a giggle, knowing it would irk me. We have nothing to do with each other that way, but I dislike hearing about his conquests: it makes me feel ancient. "So I guess I’m the man, right?" He’d sounded rabid for approval. "I’m the man."

"You’re the man, Malcolm, but you’re also such a little girl,"

I told him.

"So? I can be both, can’t I?"

Keith Sonnier. one of my favorite artists, rolls his eyes for my benefit at the opposite end of the gallery Hovering beside him, talking a blue streak, is a world-class bore Keith and I have shared a little joke about for twenty years. The bore has to stand on tiptoe to read Keith’s ear. Keith seems to be the tallest per­son in the room. He endures his ennui with inflexible Southern politeness.

"You should see us," Anna’s saying.

"You should answer your phone once in a while."

"We’ve had trouble with that phone," Anna says.

"So has everyone who tries to reach you, I’m sure," I say

"Listen," she says, moving her face close. "I need a favor."

"Anything," I say Except, I think, B&E on some corporate headquarters.

"My dad’s coming over to visit," she says. "They’re letting him out of the, uh, spa. Like, soon. Maybe a couple weeks. I was hoping the three of us could have dinner. I mean four, if Mal­colm comes."

I shrugged. "Sure," I say "But why me in particular? Why not a bunch of people, have a little party?"

"He’ll like you. He won’t like our other friends. You’re kind of an established person, you’ve written books. That will im­press him. That I have friends at your level."

"I doubt if my level would impress your father," I say

"No, no," she protests. "You’re like, a celebrity"

This is getting awkward.

"Maybe to you, but in the larger picture, I’m absolutely noth­ing."

"That’s just not true." Malcolm’s voice sends shivers down my back. His camera lens fixes on me like a Glock automatic. "You’re like, really admired," Malcolm says.

"Super admired," Anna amplifies.

"Why don’t you just admit, you want me to meet him be­cause I’m the only friend you have who’s close to his age?"

"Well," says Anna, "there’s that, too."

"Okay, fine," I say. "I mean I’d like to meet him. As long as he doesn’t tell me when I’m going to die." Anna laughs.

"Dad keeps that kind of information to himself," she says. "Come see us. If my dad comes soon, I’ll call you, and set something up."

Leon is making himself interesting to a pencil-thin youth with ash-blond ringlets, and a face out of Zurbarán: Ernesto, the artist. Smiling, wide-eyed, feigning excessive modesty, dazed by the turnout. Femme, I decide. Leon’s type.

"This is a very … ballsy show," I tell him.

"You think the show is balls?" he asks. He makes a hurt face.

"No, no," Leon explains. "In America, this means bold, brave."

"It made for me a lot of trouble in Europe," Ernesto says. A touch of smug there.

"If you’re lucky," I say, "it will make a lot of trouble for you here as well."

In my journalist days, I would have rung up a right-wing reptile at the Post, or some turd at The New Criterion, and lit a fire of indignation under his or her ass, to bring Ernesto a little profitable scandal. I used to do that sort of thing all the time, assuming the identity of a basket case I knew in a VA hospital on Long Island. Hydrocephalic members of the press always fell for it.

"I served this great country in Vietnam," I’d rasp manfully into the phone between tubercular coughs, "and lost both legs, I’ve got shrapnel in my ass and lost half a lung and it wasn’t to defend this kind of outrage. This anti-American Marxist-atheist crapola. Freedom of speech isn’t the same thing as a license to defecate all over our flag or our country What is this telling our young people, what message does this give people, is what I’d like to know."

On two occasions, I was able to mobilize actual picket dem­onstrations against various cultural artifacts that would other­wise have come and gone unnoticed. My indignant-veteran impersonation launched numerous scathing, brainless tabloid editorials, and reviews in a range of publications of such foam­ing viciousness that crowds rushed to the scene of the crime—among them, usually, two or three collectors with deep pockets.

It was my idea of fun.

Scanning the gallery, I count nine people I never want to see again in my life. The gigantic white space generates a familiar pinball-machine confusion.

"Many people have forgotten Ulrike Meinhof," Ernesto la­ments, more to Leon than me."

"People forget everything," Leon answers brightly, "except their childhood wishes and dreams."

This is probably intelligent. In fact, I think Leon stole the line from me. But I want to gag, to run out of there. I’ve noticed a particularly slimy writer lurking in a corner, picking his mo­ment to pounce on me. He often does, locking me in a stran­glehold of boredom without surcease. A half hour is the absolutemaximum I can stand any opening. Nothing resem­bling normal social interaction happens at these things. Every­one pirouettes on display for everybody else, asserting that they still exist, whether other people like it or not.

"I’m going," I tell Leon.

"Oh, but you must come to the dinner," says Ernesto. It occurs to me that, apart from Leon, I am probably the only person in the gallery who has the slightest idea what the Baader-­Meinhof Gang was. The crowd, I think, has turned out because the gallery has cutting-edge cachet, and powerful air­conditioning.

"Forgive me," I sigh. "I’m very tired. If you’re in New York for a while, get my number from Leon, we could meet for a coffee. I just can’t do anything tonight. Congratulations, it’s a beautiful show."

I think Leon stands a fair chance of nailing him, since they both speak Spanish as their first language, and Ernesto might as well have BOTTOM printed across his green silk shirt.

On the sidewalk I run smack into Miles. He has already looked at the show, he says, went for a beer, and is going back in. I don’t know how to interpret his contented look. I guess he feels relieved that someone has usurped his current mania.

"This guy’s really talented," Miles says. "He’s also saved me a lot of work. You know, Squat Theater did a piece about Ulrike Meinhof back in the late seventies, I’d forgotten all about it until the other day, she had a rubber penis glued to her forehead and shot a guy dressed as Andy Warhol. Maybe that’s where they got the I Shot Andy Warhol idea from. One thing I don’t want to be is redundant."

"I think they got the idea from the fact that someone did shoot Andy Warhol," I say, but Miles ignores it.

The frazzled smile, the shrugging acceptance of another proj­ect aborted, isn’t unprecedented. Still, something’s changed about Miles, some major shift in his gear works. I glimpsed it the day he dropped over. Now I recognize what it is.

"You don’t think there’s room for a play after this," I say.

"I can’t write that play" Miles confesses, shaking his head, still smiling, as if it’s always been obvious to everyone but him.

I have seen this change in others. A subtle inner movement from stubborn ambition marred by ambivalence, to the dark acceptance of utter, hopeless, permanent defeat. It comes with the ruined cheer of someone who doesn’t mind letting go, as if he’s swallowed futility as he last bitter pill. I have seen it in people who killed themselves: the film producer Dieter Schidor, quite a few others.


—from Gary Indiana, Do Everything in the Dark

 

 

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