For a while I thought that the shark at the back of my mind was just one more detail of my intended delirium. But the shark didn’t leave me, even after the press view, and my consciousness didn’t come back either. The shark moved closer, through our blue formaldehyde sea, and opened its jaws, and I disappeared into his darkness.
I had not only been eaten by the shark; I had become it. And yet I was not in full control of what I did; the shark stirred me towards my own regret and past, pushing me to be realistic, to see what I had discarded.
The shark won’t let me rest very much on the edge of life. I’m condemned to see exactly what I’m missing out on in self-destructing so dramatically. You would think that turning into a shark in some formaldehyde coma would be punishment enough for my various sins: it seems that the underworld journey is worse.
As we go back to the nineties, I am reminded of every bad installation I ever did, every failed romance, immoral decision. As we swim through the present and then further into the future, I see the consequences of bad art, the offspring of the YBAs, and all as an invisible, drifting shark. There are worse things, stranger lands, after all, than being a young creative.
I would have liked to be at Früstück in person, but I couldn’t make it, unfortunately, as I was stuck in London with that nightmare exhibition. But Angie went along without me, promising, by my bedside, that she’d be back in a few days and warning me not to go dying on her in the meantime. She always was the melodramatic one.
This event was meant to be Angie’s excuse to leave London, and all associated drama, myself included. But “Früstück” was no deliverance from that; the chaos drifted with her. I did, too, though nobody noticed of course.
Angie had been in Berlin just one day for Brad’s big moment, and already the usual pre-show dramas were promising to distract from anything in the exhibition itself. There were the brawls over finance, the panic attacks over framing, the personality clashes and splintered affairs, all going on in the background, and threatening to ruin just everything. As guests began to arrive.
They were stepping into a big studio in Mitte, into another group exhibition of new artists: orgies on the walls, madness in the sink. People being polite. Lost minds and lost money, delicate egos and blinding flashes—blind love and glittering frowns. The loves of our lives being offhand with each other.
Their perfumes and sweat mixed with the dust, paint, gin, and the tempting scent of prohibited cigarette smoke. Someone called Boris had brought strawberries, and that smell tempted Angie more than the cigarettes. She went over to that table, away from the pungent crowd, and ate one, and wondered what she was doing here.
Then, when others saw her eating a strawberry and came over to have one too, she moved away again, like a shy six year old, and went to the window for some air. She was missing a friend (me!) and in a bad way. She tried not to think about it: another coward in a cocktail dress.
Dubstep Wagner was playing in one room, Suede in another. And in the third room, some German translation of Blondie’s greatest hits, mixed with an undertone of Mahler. There were cocktails in the Wagner room, water in the others. And so most people—various models, tearaways, other artists and a couple collectors—were in the Wagner room, which was also Brad’s room.
Brad was twenty years old and the son of a recently deceased actress whom he never wanted to talk about. Angie had known him a couple of years now. Her mid-life crisis coincided compatibly with his quarter-life crisis and they seemed to have quite a bond. People mildly disapproved at first but they carried on anyway.
And now it was Brad’s first exhibition in Berlin, and his work impressed some of the right people, or at least he did. There were rumors of Damien Hirst trying to sue him for the goldfish in formaldehyde but in general it was a success. And Angie was proud of him, I think, though clearly preoccupied with other issues. She seemed to be in a strange state, unnerved by the morbid pictures on the wall, trying to avoid the drinks table, and trying not to take Brad’s quite obnoxious behavior seriously.
She looked over at her protégé again, and he was entertaining another journalist now—laughing and selling and asking her to be a muse as well. He saw Angie and came over to her. She seemed to be torn between feeling aroused and irritated by his patronizing tone, as usual. She should have made up her mind before, and committed to a feeling. She had talked about it often enough. “It’s not as if going out with someone domineering is new for me,” she’d say. Sleeping with someone twenty years younger was, though, surprisingly.
“I take it you were in charge of drinks, then?” She asked him, after he kissed her, briefly, and smiled. He was wearing black jeans and a creased white shirt, his hair badly cut, his face almost beautiful on account of feral eyes, and obvious, open lips, an ever-insolent drawl:
“I’m in charge of the whole thing—Elvira and Tom have been useless. They’re too busy trying to untangle themselves from the same love quartet.” He seemed genuinely irritated, the assured smile gone all of a sudden, which was rare in him. He was usually so casually, arrogantly, just fine. He was the one to hold things together, in his emotionally stilted way.
“I’m surprised you’re not involved as well.” Angie replied. She was surprised she was not involved as well.
“I’m ignoring it.”
He was also ignoring her: looking over her shoulder as they talked, looking for other people to meet, looking for any excuse to detach himself from whatever it was he had become involved in.
“Well the show’s good. Well done.” Angie said, having only noticed his work as vaguely as he had noticed her.
“It’s a compliment. Why this music though?”
“Elvira’s. I don’t know.”
“It makes me nervous.” She replied.
“I know. Do you want a drink by the way?”
“Can I smoke?”
“Didn’t you quit?” He asked.
“I’ll have an orange juice.”
But on his way to the table with the drinks he was greeted by a man in jeans and a suit jacket, dark hair, a cigarette in his hand, a way of standing, of acting, that drew attention. And as he stretched over to grab an ashtray, Angie realized that it was Jason, her on and off dealer, sort of friend, and my ex-husband.
Angie seemed irritated he was here—that he was taking Brad away, presumably, that he was smoking and not asking first. His general presence. That they had known each other for years but never got on. It was my fault, in some ways, that they’d never known one another properly. I suppose I had been possessive.
Angie picked up an orange juice herself, and then walked over to Jason and Brad and smiled and was polite in a way that came off as pretentious.
“Jason, how lovely to see you!”
“Angie—what are you doing here?”—Angie smiled awkwardly and turned to Brad, who seemed surprised she knew Jason so vaguely and intensely:
“Brad invited me.”
“Angie’s a muse.” Brad said.
She smiled. “So flattering.” (So patronizing.)
“Which work in particular?” Jason asked, looking around at the nearby pictures of baby animals decomposing.
Brad thought about it for too long. “I couldn’t say.”
Angie smiled, but was eager to leave. “You two talk about it. I’m just going to get some fresh air.”
“Ok.” Brad replied—“Well, it was good to see you. Thanks for coming.”
Angie smiled awkwardly again and left and went outside. Jason followed her out of the exhibition, into the street, and said,
“Angie, I only heard about Jonah yesterday. I’m so sorry. I didn’t want to talk about it in front of that idiot.”
“He’s my boyfriend.”
“He’s about twenty!”
“You sleep with twenty-year olds as well, Jason.”
“And they all sleep together, I’m sure.”
“I don’t care.” Angie replied.
“You sound like them.”
“Leave me alone.”
Then after about a minute of fresh air, Angie went back into the exhibition, standing next to Brad, who was listening to a sculptor talk about how he loved Berlin:
“I don’t know what it is—maybe—the liberating melancholia—the soft lunacy—the bullet-holes next to graffiti—the moon,”
“The moon’s the same as in London,” Brad replied
“No, no, it’s not.”
“Brad, can I talk to you?”
Brad sighed, left, and stood next to a picture of a calf’s head with Angie. “Why did you invite him?” She asked, dramatically.
“I didn’t know that was a problem.”
“I want to leave.”
“I don’t want to go to the hotel by myself.”
“Well I’m staying here.” He replied.
“Do you like what I did with the flies?”
“I feel depressed.”
“No, not about your work, about my life. My best friend’s in a coma; I have no one to talk to anymore.”
It was nice that she missed me—that I was being talked about—(that I could listen in). Brad rolled his eyes though:
“Well, you can talk to her… She might even be able to hear you? They say that, about coma patients.” (So true!)
“It’s not the same. She doesn’t seem to listen at all.”
“She never did.”
“How would you know? You hardly met Jonah.”
“I just remember you saying, “Don’t take all that Xanax, it’s bad for you,” and she didn’t listen. All I know about Jonah is that she didn’t listen.”
“She said she knew what she was doing. She said it would save her career.”
“And she didn’t listen when you told her she was crazy?”
“I didn’t tell her that.”
She implied it, though. And a bunch of other people questioned my sanity when I said that being unconscious in an art gallery would be an interesting metaphor, a 3D Portrait of the Artist, a non-revival of the nineties.
I should have known myself, anyway, that not only was this a risky idea, but it made little sense. We were all so used to thinking of titles that sounded interesting, and then building artworks around them that didn’t actually fit, or make any sense, that I forgot to focus on concise ideas and execution. And we were all so used to flirting with death with each repetitive bender, that risking life for art seemed funny rather than morbid—laughing at death rather than willingly succumbing to it.
I suppose it would have been helpful if someone had actually, seriously, taken me aside and said: “Don’t risk your life for bad art. It’s not worth it.” But I was determined and stubborn, and I can’t blame any of them for this situation I got myself into.
When the gallery realized I was unconscious beyond my own control (or theirs), they called for an ambulance—and then had to cancel the public opening of “Art Disease” when the hospital said I’d fallen into a coma.
I could see and hear everything, though, drifting around the room as the doctors spoke and disapproved of me. I wasn’t very happy about my change in environment, either—though the clinical décor of intensive care wasn’t all that different to the Saatchi, really.
People came to visit me, which was nice. Journalists came to visit me, which was nice until I read what they wrote about me. Apparently I was a symptom of the idiocy of modern art, I’d let PR ruin my life, I’d let hedonism poison me, and so on. They acted as if I didn’t already know that, that somewhere along the line I had actually chosen it.
In some ways, “Art Disease” was a huge success: lots of publicity, more visitors than were allowed, and some lively debate about the end of art. It was the high point of my career, certainly. And yet, sometimes, I wonder if I peaked too late; too comatose to really enjoy it.
As I float further away from the hospital bed, and watch Angie and Jason talk and laugh and miss me, I do wish I could join them—and that I’d joined them more before. And as I see the bright new work around them, I wish I could have been a better artist, too, I suppose.
I could keep feeling bad about not seeing my friends more before the coma, and how absurd my career ended up being, but instead I enjoy drifting here, invisibly—voyeuristically. I suppose it is simply a pleasure to see them again, to be close to them, however disembodied and fleeting.
After Früstück ends, I drift back to London, and back to thoughts of the past, that minor Retrospective.—All the things I decided never to regret; those who inspired all the work I never did. Exhibitions flash before me: a subjective, disjointed history of trying to do art, and failing at life—with only a looming, silent shark as company.
Christiana’s third book, Death of a Ladies’ Man, was published by 3:AM Press in autumn 2012, having previously been serialized in 3:AM Magazine in spring and summer 2012. Christiana is also the author of The Wrecking Ball (Beautiful Books UK, and Harper Perennial USA, 2008) and the graphic novel The Socialite Manifesto (Beautiful Books, 2009). She graduated from Cambridge in 2011.