The Object (excerpts)

God was never born in me. He must have already died all around me, in everyone I believed in. Even the godless want to believe, in the noble savage, in the common good, in more steps forward than back. I couldn't enjoy my TV dinner with hungry Africa all over the news. I couldn't eat until everyone else had a full plate. For this we needed a new world order. I was too young to vote but already I walked at the head of every demonstration. I carried the flag and shouted the slogans. We would overcome and tomorrow we would divide equally all the wealth and all the suffering. Already we ruled a few distant territories, it was still far from perfect, we sent millions to their deaths but at least we meant well.

My questions grew and grew until my questions became a betrayal, my first and final crisis of faith. How was I supposed to enlighten my generation when my time came? I could only dream of that sweet day when the revolution would strip down their plastic lifestyles, when I could tear off the heads of those who had mocked and bullied me, and drink to my new power from their vacant skulls... Dreamer turned despot, all in the course of a few years of high school. I saw that power had corrupted me, long before I even tasted it. Power is a dirty word to those who hunger and thirst for righteousness. A taboo that grows in the dark, in secret pacts and bureaucracies. But to the ruthless, the only true ruling class, appointed by creation and eternally re-elected by evolution, power is the hidden sacrament. The order of nature is the order of humans. The invisible tangle of terror and privilege that holds together every pack of dogs, every band of rebels, every colony of insects, every utopia. How can we ever win? We are our own worst enemy.

I still eat but I no longer watch the news. The comrades haven't given up on me yet, once a year they send me an invitation to their great gala of international solidarity. Another day of sleeping through speeches, picking fights with old comrades and scribbling my name on petitions against the collective unconscious... I flip through the pamphlet. Just as I'm about to throw it away, on the second last page, I see they've added something new. "Powerful or Powerless?" An art performance. A shot of culture to wash down all the cheap rhetoric and overpriced beer...

What do I know about art? Where I come from, an artist isn't something you just become, you have to be born into it, like royalty. A separate class of humans. Where they get it from, no mortal knows. Science and politics are tricky enough, but with hard work and raw brainpower, well within reach of the common genius. But starving in the attic, sweating in the dark, waiting for something like inspiration to happen? And hoping your peers, or at least some future generation, will share your idea of what's ahead of its time, and what's just a waste of time?

So what do I know about art? Not much at all. I know I'm looking at a performance which is not the same as a painting or a sculpture because the artist and some kind of audience must be together at one time and place for it to exist at all. So the woman on display inside the scaffold on the stage must be the artist. I see her naked, thin and pale, veiled in a transparent membrane of plastic and sweat. An unborn body already defiled in the darkness of the flesh. The hard shadow of something human, a black machine that never tires, falls and rises rhythmically between her opened thighs, driven by lines connected to her own hands. All around me the comrades are searching each other's faces for a clue. Oppression? Decadence? Obscenity? No, there's nothing to worry about, can't you see, it's only art... But this art is not an instrument for uplifting the masses, not the illustration of some collective dream. This art is the mirror of the beast. She lies there suspended in the spotlights like a pinned-up butterfly, all alone against a room full of aversion. But she's far from helpless, almost invisibly she controls this ritual that's going nowhere since it's nothing but repetition... The violence of boredom. She humiliates the spectators by humiliating herself so openly. No one can go away, the darkness holds them down in their seats. The conscience of a nation is breathing like a tormented animal. They can't leave, they can only wait, until at last the bravest among them end the torture by leading the others in a loud, long round of applause.

The attendant clicks on the light of everyday routine and the masses are themselves once again. The tension quickly dissolves in a stream of drink and chatter. I'm the only one still looking at her work, the only one to see the machine come to a full stop on her belly, her eyes naked and defenseless, a living soul on the dead side of the Styx. Our gazes meet across a room full of words and gestures. Silence stands out among noise. My face forgets to blink, the room fills up with tears, nothing exists outside the shaft of light that connects our eyes. It's too much, I can't take in all this light, I want to see more but my head already turns away. When I look again she's gone.

No talking now. With no one. Politics mean as much to me right now as the rites of some primitive tribe. My thoughts bubble on but my focus goes to the silence that lingers on inside. Three days per minute have passed since I burned my eyes staring into her fire. What I need now is a place without people. I end up in a deserted lobby smelling of old shoes and old coffee. In the back there's a time-beaten door marked Private No Entry. I sit down in an armchair near a window and light a cigarette. The sun falls in slanting rays through the glass, revealing the secret life of the dust. I drag on my cigarette and blow a wave of confusion through the floating particles. Behold, I am the god of the dust, for as long as it lasts. Until a new stream of air seizes power. The sun will soon go down, that much you can count on, every day for the next few billion years at least. Then that too will come to an end. Then this corner of the galaxy will be dusted off again for a while. My head too is full of dust. Words and formulas, weights and measures, aeons and light years... Under the head it's all empty. A body of glass the background shows through. I'd rather focus on the world inside my head. The head can guarantee a high return, arrange zeroes and ones for money. Lots of money. But it doesn't often speak with a mouth of its own, the thoughts are too filthy and too painful for words.

The door in the back bursts open, my smoke dissolves, the dust is seized with panic, I can no longer follow it. I don't even want to follow it. I'm looking up into two black round lenses, bottles filled with darkness and bottles filled with light... The moon in the water shivers a lost reflection of the ball of fire that lives inside us. The face of a blank canvas upon an operating table. Soft little feelers that notice everything that others don't see, and don't notice what everyone else sees... Unmistakably her.

"You're the one who looked into my posthumous self. I'll never forget those eyes. Right now they seem quite lost. If you're trying to remember something, start by trying to forget about it for a while. What would you think of a glass of wine. I still have a bottle in the dressing room. I don't like to go home straight away after a performance and the comrades are beyond all hope."

The forbidden door is still open. She walks ahead of me, divine as a beast, her clothing tight and shiny like it's painted on her naked skin, her shoulder-long black hair slightly marked by the white age... She's older than the world and younger than the day. Clearly lives according to her own clock. Carves her own life line. For that you need a strong skin. To keep the filth of the world from getting in through your pores. My breath follows the shifting of her legs, up some stairs and down another hallway. I want to register every image, every detail, for later on when I'm back home, all alone with my dirty clothes... The camera behind my eyes stands ready, but the shutter doesn't fall, not yet. Only when I see her from all sides at once do I release the action. The right picture at last... The dressing-room mirrors reflect her back and forth, deeper and smaller, until the deepest depth where they swallow her up. They swallow her transparent membranes, her stage colors, her thousand little things on the table, her movements that no longer mean anything because there's so many of them all moving at the same time. This isn't a dressing room, it's a spying room...

But she doesn't see me. The whole world is nothing but an audience to someone like her. Once again I'm invisible like dust without sunshine. Invisible with eyes, big dry eyes. And what does it even matter, and why should I even bother. I've already seen it all so many times. I don't have to go through it myself to know that it turns around in circles and ends up nowhere. The older I get, the more thoughts I have that I can go on repeating. If that's my future, I'd rather chop it all off right away. Love, where do they sell that? Do they throw in the boredom for free? Window dressings full of empty boxes, beautifully decorated, flowers, birds, paradise... They smile at you and bite at you, pay and pay again, your cash, your blood, your soul. Into the box you go, then they seal it with a ribbon and turn off the lights. And then you get what they have the most of. Nothing. But the urge never gets enough of nothing. As long as it comes in the desired shapes and textures. I'll probably end up importing some eastern sex doll, trained from birth to remain a mystery forever, no nagging and no demands. She cleans my feet with her tongue, anoints them with her grateful tears, me, her master, her sweet lord, who saved her from starvation.

"You don't talk much, do you? But you're far from silent. You just prefer to keep your noise for yourself. Or maybe you're like all these mirrors, full of echoes, and spying me just as shamelessly. But mirrors know they shouldn't think too much. Don't try to understand me. I don't want to fit in your mind. There's nothing more trivial than being understood. Let's remain strangers to each other. You can drink to that." She raises her glass without even looking my way, like she's talking into an invisible telephone, to the madman I've tamed and hidden deep inside.

"You've caught me at my very worst. My art pimp, I mean my agent, is getting desperate. Keeps booking me for ridiculous gigs like this. Don't worry about your percentage, I keep telling him, as soon as I die you'll be rich. Then you can auction my underwear and use the proceeds to set up a foundation for village sluts who want to become degenerate artists."

She must still be talking to me, I don't see anyone else around here. A hole without a voice is what I am. Why should a hole have to understand? A hole is only a hole when there's nothing in it. Ready to talk into, nothing to say. She must think I'm a good listener.

"He who laughs last is your pimp. That's what they call success. After your death, that's when the great murder really begins. They kidnap your soul and lock it up in a mismatched frame. Give you a number and a price. Keep you at a constant temperature and humidity for all eternity. Your insurance alone costs more than you earned in your whole life. An alarm goes off every time a fly lands on you. They preserve you in their books. Designers turn you into wallpaper. You might as well paint your suffering straight onto some t-shirts with the blood of your severed ear. Then any barbarian can carry you around on his overfed stomach, but at least you're being productive. That's why I stopped making anything that went on existing after the moment I finished it. Art shouldn't be for buyers. You can't sell light. You can't frame fire. I can no longer keep the weight above the ground. Everything that's real has the same pain. To be marketable you either have to repeat a replication, or even better stop breathing. No one wants to see art being born. No one but a maniac can keep that up. There's only one way out. You have to be your own audience, only then can you be free of all that ready-made applause."

She turns her dark glasses towards me. I see myself in a double mirror image, too stooped and too small.

"Have you ever been a model for an artist? No? Good. Do you know anything about my work? No? Even better."

She grips me in her beam and probes me inside and out with the speed of light.

"I'll tell you this much. The human beast is my material. The way Doctor Truth cuts out your heart and holds it throbbing before your eyes, so you can watch yourself die... Except I do it with the soul. You understand of course I have to do everything myself, I can't expect the same perfection and dedication from anyone else. And still, the work constantly demands new fields of tension. And nowhere are there greater tensions than between the sexes. I myself am of no importance of course, I only serve the work. But men, I don't have to tell you anything about men... I don't work with bricks... If only..." She turns her face away from me and her voice fades out.

Is there life outside the anthill? Bite out my blood and I'll lick it from your teeth. I want to drown this daily life. Without habits you can't die. Death is the longest habit there is and every other habit exists only to prepare you for the coffin.

"Are you by any chance looking for a job?"

I'm never looking for a job, jobs are always looking for me. I earn more in one month than most artists do in a year. I'm just waiting out my time. If there's anything at all I'd still want to find, it would be a reason to go on living.

"Look, here's the address." Her hand veiled in lace grips my wrist. My palm stretches itself out to receive the cold sharp touch of her pen. My thoughts wait in the air above my head for my brain to resume service.

"We're done here. I've already instructed the comrades to trash the installation. I'm riding home on my motorcycle. No extra helmet for you. You can finish up the wine, enjoy it, it's the last you'll be tasting for quite a while. That is, if you get the job. You can use the back entrance. I'll see you there in an hour."

You can read another excerpt from this chapter here.

All words and images copyright 2008 by Vanita & Johanna Monk

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