I keep tabs on many of the promising young artists in the area. Jean-Baptiste Rasputin(neé Benjamin Brown) was in the forefront; what with his boozing and whoring and excesses he was an artist in the old tradition.
The thing I find most people get wrong about performance art is that it cannot, should not be repeated. What part of the performance is art? Is it the moment captured in still-frame, dissected and rendered lifeless by the shutter? Is it is the flurry of moments, each blink in time where movement and light and Kismet come together to form a one-of-a-kind configuration?
Jean-Baptiste was a born performer. I and my colleagues could tell. He was spoiled and crude and loud and magnificently human.
Verdigris phoned me up on a Tuesday: “Did you see him at the Pigeon Club?”
Seen? I had been. He tried to pay for a drink with a napkin scribble, after his would-be patron had abandoned him to the check. He’d taken out his private parts and rubbed them on chairs, stacking them into a tower of Babel crowned by one unfortunate diner’s Bichon Frise.
“Some idiot recorded him with one of those cellular phones.”
One trip to the internet confirmed my worst fears. He was on one of those streaming video websites, labeled “drunk f***er steals dog.” The filming of the King beating set a dreadful precedent, now no one is “there” unless they have video proof. We (not a club, only a loose consortium of like-minded individuals) abhorred the hollowness of these pseudo-repeat performances. One might as well double a canvas in a mirror.
I told him to meet me at the usual time and place and hung up. I am the collective’s man-on-the-spot insofar that I know my way around an address book and aren’t too cool to write things down. I tied my scarf into a Duncan-proof knot and caught a ride behind the motoboy from the Thai restaurant near my home.
The place was deserted(we place high priority on being fashionably late, of course) except for Lady D. Mrs. Dumont had been pretty once, and the curse haunted her to this day. Her face refused to fall into any interesting formation of wrinkles. She made up for it with Art-deco Jet jewelry and an arrangement of rejects from the bargain bin at Sears. She addressed me with aching dignity.
“Something must be done,” she told me, trembling with such passion her black topknot threatened to topple. “Baptiste has been…discovered.” her disapproval withered the word.
“My feelings exactly, Midge,” I said, “but it’s just not done to go bombarding houses with sarin gas for being tacky.”
She sniffed. I was in no position to stop her, indeed, I might even applaud her secretly as they escorted her away, but we as a collective were allergic to public attention. We were observers, don’tchnknow.
Claude blew in with Metz, eyes bright, piggy cheeks shining with warmth.
“He was streaking through the carwash,” he told us in a breathless whisper. His scarf removal revealed the failed Chicago necktie he’d gotten at the Vectrie exhibit. “He had a chicken in hand that he used as a shield when the attendants tried to reason with him.”
“A chicken?” Lady D sniffed again. It was her favorite pastime. “How very Duchamp.”
“It was one of those Polish hens,” Metz countered, “no foster farmer’s wet dream. The man knows what he’s doing.”
Lady D sniffed again, but seemed mollified.
As the others streamed into the warehouse we used as this week’s meeting grounds, I marked out a contingency plan on the brick wall with a chunk of plaster. With all the shouted suggestions it ended up looking more like Jack the Dripper, but the plan evolved beyond two dimensions by that point.
“He isn’t just a single-performance artist anymore, he’s become an art generating machine,” Havanna piped up.
“It’s in our best interest to feed that machine, keep it going.” Some crater-cheeked soul who had wandered in with Frisley and Oates.
“But if we tip our hand too much, it might ruin the whole thing. Prime directive.” Claude’s old lover who changed names from week to week, still a bit put out at being replaced with Metz. I think he called himself Metz this week out of spite.
Lady D laid it down very slowly and deliberately like a battle-worn general. “We all agree that personal interference only increases the danger of going native. However—” she took a breath to sharpen her tongue, “the danger of discovery has forced our hand. His skill and talent will no longer be exclusive.
“That’s what happened to Warhol,” Sister Mister added sagely.
Dumont nodded. “Then we are in agreement, something must be done. But we must minimize the chances of his publicity. Ergo, one of us must volunteer.”
It wasn’t that I stepped forward, more like everyone else stepped back.
“You’re wanting I should lose the hippest thing since Gorbachev?” I said, “I ain’t got half the glasnost that you do, sister.”
Lady D acknowledged the compliment, but pressed on. “You have the experience, since disarming Kretsky’s infernal device.”
I knew Kretsky would come back to bite me on the ass. Literally, but those scars have long since healed. This was a fresher danger.
“This ain’t a fireside sing-along, if I get up and start belting kumbaya, heads will roll. I’m not an actor, I’m a pit pony. ‘sides, I go up there and introduce myself, I lose this great relationship of observer and observee.”
“It’s either this,” she said, “or the slow slide of mediocrity.”
The lady made a point.
“I’ll do it,” I said, “but I’ll probably hate meself in da morning.”
For this jaunt I wore the disguise of a health-happy pedestrian. The sneakers pinched through my pigwool socks, but I refused to remove the last vestiges of my fashion sense. At least they’d had a teal tracksuit in my size. Lady D and a few others had set up a duck-blind of vagrant’s possessions on the corner across from Baptiste’s apartment.
“Get in close to him,” the lady advised, “try to flatter him, so he’s receptive to your pitch.”
Our artist was hanging half-out of his apartment’s fire escape, drunk on Maker’s Mark and tossing lamps at a young woman who seemed to bear an unfortunate resemblance to his ex-lover Elise. I shot them the hi-sign and began my trek to glory.
There is a specific school of Raku firing that breaks from tradition in the most dramatic fashion possible, yet it may be the closest in terms of original intent. The potters construct their pieces with a series of holes so that when they yank the pieces red-hot from the kiln and drop them into water, the pots scream and steam the rest of their short lives away before exploding in a terrific fashion. This emphasis on impermanence and raw, primitive joy always did something to me.
His apartment door was closed, but someone(probably the artist himself) had destroyed the deadbolt and then fixed it with a stray piece of wire. I cannot communicate my joy as I swung open that apartment door. It was everything I’d hoped for, the mess, the stale smell of garbage and cigarettes and a life lived poorly in the physical world and deeply in the metaphysical. I breathed deep this fleeting moment, when everything was fresh and exciting. Say not that we art admirers dwell vicariously in the lives of artists, we live in the moment just as much as they.
Baptiste was slurring to the sidewalk, “I hope yer happy. I zjust wanna know if yer happy.”
I tapped on the window. “I hate to bother you, but could I steal a moment or two, dear boy?”
I shook a half-full bourbon decanter, which reached him faster than the words.
“The hchell do you wan?” he said, quickly uncapping and taking a swig. “My dad send you here? Fuck you, prole.”
“No, I haven’t had the pleasure,” I said. “I’m an…I guess you could call it ‘admirer.’”
He sized me up with boozy meanness. “You like my paintings?”
“You paint?” I said, “No, I’m more of a fan of your work.”
He nodded at nothing, probably not even listening. “I tol’ em, I said, ‘I don’ give a shit who you think y’are, my paintins are good. Good.” He took another swig.
“I understand,” I said, “I’ve lived a lifetime of tiny minds and wagging tongues who know nothing of ars gratia artis. They think paintings are created for patrons, not the other way around.”
He blunk at me. I don’t think he expected to be understood. It riled him.
“If yer not here for my paintin’s whadda fuck is you here for.” He had a bike chain necklace and a safety pin through one earlobe. I wanted to tell him how beautiful he was, but I’d already lost something by moving from audience to performer. To comment would be to make the dreaded step to analyst.
“Did you know, dear boy,” I said, “that you are gaining an audience?”
He heaved to and fro. “Szo?”
“So?” I said, “so you are gaining attention, which you crave, but from the entirely wrong place. Can you imagine Warhol finding fame as a billboard artist? Caulder being known as a helluva chair carpenter?”
He had the good sense to shudder. “Fuck, no man.”
I nodded. “Wilde was wrong. The only thing worse than being talked about, is being jeered about. They laugh at you, they don’t appreciate your raw talent.
He sniffed. “That’s so true man.” He had retreated maudlinly into himself.
“But you have grown a small contingency of loyal followers.”
He looked around, as if other people were hidden behind the bars of the fire escape. “Where?”
I was pushing the envelope, but I was the one up here, not them. I pointed to the duck-blind on the ground.
“There. Just there.”
He waved sloppily to them. Even from this distance, I could see lady D’s eyes shining.
“They’re all fans of your work. We all love what you do and want to save you.”
His eyebrows disappeared into his hair. “You do?” My, he was just full of intelligent questions.
“Yes,” I said, “preserve you as you are, here at what we believe to be your peak.
He was crying, now. I don’t think he’d ever expected to receive praise. That was what made him so attractive, this little nobody, this little malcontent, this dimestore Diogenes in tattered jeans.
“Fuck, man.” H hid his eyes in his hand. I put my arm around his shoulder. “Fuck, you’re gonna make me cry.”
I could’ve whispered something profound in his ear, or some blasé one-liner pun, but I’ll never tell. This is my coin, my payment for services rendered. Using forward momentum, I rolled him over the rail.
He shrieked like steam as he spun out over the moments, landing neatly on a page in time’s scrapbook.
Lady D stood up and applauded.
“Bravo! Bravissima!” she called. I did not bow, that would be gauche.
Instead I quietly beat a retreat to the fire stairs, as the shrieking young miss on the sidewalk ran for the police. I had seen the inside of a prison during the draft and had no intention of repeating the experience.
What was the performance? Was it his journey to art school, despite his obviously lackluster talent? Was it the triumph of his ego under the relentless hammer of reality? Was it the endless division of moments, spanning from inception to termination? Was it the floral arrangement of his corpse on the sidewalk, a collage of disparate elements pasted together with blood to form the portrait of art’s own harlequin?
I say it was the whistle, that final spin out in the wake of inevitability, as his body was suspended in air, his face in-between terror and elation, his body in-between moments, forever suspended in my memory.
I whistled all the way home. Salut!