By Chris Katsaropoulos
Luminis Books Copyright © 2015 Chris Katsaropoulos
All rights reserved.
"YOU CHOSE THIS LIFE," she is saying, her dark eyes staring back at him like two placid obsidian mirrors. "You wanted to come here." Jacob considers the implications of this and finds there is nothing he can say in his own defense. In that way she has of disarming him with ultimate reality, her attacks have always benefited from the casual elegance of an Asian martial artist, leveraging his own misguided words or deeds into the momentum that serves to bring him crashing down to earth.
The most he can do is offer an explanation, which is not the same as an excuse.
"I had to come here." He allows himself to sink deeper into the blank reflection staring back at him. "There was something I had to do."
He steps back now, trying to regain his balance and find a way onto the front foot — what was the last thing he said before she accused him of this, of engineering his own downfall? They have been in the last frantic stages of getting dressed for the party, the few guests who have managed to show up already milling about downstairs amidst the muffled noise of greeting one another and their own two children — teenagers — seating them at the dining room table, offering them cocktails or glasses of wine. The noise echoes terribly in this old stone house, so even five or six people talking at once could make it seem as if an actual party were underway. She had been about to go downstairs and attend to the guests, while he finished buttoning his shirt, and his own misgivings about his work had started them off — what was it he said?
Maybe Rafa was right. Maybe it was a mistake. No one is coming to the unveiling — no one will see it.
Yes, that was all it took, finally putting into words what had been troubling him the past three or four weeks, the sense that he has made the biggest wrong turn of his career, dragging them both here to this quaint and isolated village in the south of France to work on his new piece, an installation at the very peak of the huge outcropping of rock — not quite a mountain, though some of the locals do refer to it as such — on which the village is perched. Along with the painstaking attention to detail involved in executing the final finishing touches, along with the exuberance and satisfaction of completing the work, had come the slow realization that he has taken a very big risk in locating the piece at the top of a largely inaccessible chunk of granite, miles from the nearest town of any size. He has taken the view that if he built it, they would come, such has been the weight of his reputation in the world of modern conceptual art within the past fifteen years. But maybe Rafa was right. Raphaël de Guttierez, his manager back in New York, who had told him he was about to make the biggest mistake a modern artist could ever make. "Don't go off into the wilderness. You leave the scene, the patrons, you get out of touch. People forget." And now, tonight, the evening of the unveiling, he has been presented with tangible evidence that there is no scene here in Entrevoir. The guests who have arrived include primarily a few of their local friends they have met since moving to Entrevoir nine months ago, as well as a couple of the has been painters who come here to dabble in oils amongst the hills of the surrounding countryside — old codgers whose work is a living, breathing cliché from a century or two ago. Even Raphaël couldn't make it tonight. He is curating this week at a new multi-artist multimedia mash up in Brooklyn featuring several bleeding edge talents who are likely to get a nice mention in the Sunday Times cultural calendar and probably even an above the fold review. Rafa of course had duly mailed the hand-lettered parchment invitations to the unveiling here in Entrevoir to his list of wealthy and influential patrons in New York and London and around the world, and no less than a dozen of them RSVP'ed, but now it looks as if none of those who did will bother to show.
"We've tried things you wanted to do before," she is saying, sensing his imbalance, pressing her advantage, "and they haven't turned out very well."
He has to give her credit — they have been married seventeen years now, and she knows exactly which words will do the most damage, every time. She knows him as if she is him. Marya, his lovely Marya, dark and lovely and still filled with all the danger that has lured him to her and kept him off balance over all these years. Which is what he must have wanted, what he must have known in his deepest inmost self when he met her: that she would always be a challenge to him, would always make him second-guess himself, feel that gnawing anxious empty pit in his stomach that makes him brood and pace and sit in coffee houses and stay up all night in his studio conjuring the breakthrough idea behind his next masterpiece of ideological, conceptual, phenomenological, highly experiential ... art. Or what passes for art these days. Jacob grew up a painter, classically trained and naturally gifted. He could draw beautifully from the time he was three, completely breathtaking pencil still lifes he would draft on scraps of paper his mother gave him, portraits so stunning by the time he was six that even his father, an insurance salesman from a small Midwestern city, knew that he had no other choice but to nurture the boy's talent — teachers would call Jacob a prodigy — and so after Jacob graduated from high school his father allowed him to abstain from college and go directly to New York to live out his vision.
But Jacob doesn't paint much any more. And when he does, he no longer displays the work, or bothers to try and sell it. It would only cheapen the value of his "real" work — those absurd and yet sometimes absolutely gorgeous manifestations of high concept social commentary he has become the master of cranking out, one after another. Installations in the most unlikely places — ephemeral pieces such as his last exhibited work in a refrigerated meat-packing plant in Queens, which juxtaposed the bleeding sliced-open carcasses of sows and cattle with shimmering rays of sunlight he channeled through the killing machines and notches of the animals' spines. At the very end of the line the patrons had been confronted by a full-on view of an eviscerated cow belly, with most of the organs still in place, illuminated by stunning pallid sunlight directed in a spotlight effect through a precisely placed system of mirrors and lenses, as if the act of even viewing such an atrocity were being judged by the eyes of God. The installation had only been in place for a month, but the time constraint and the publicity from the strong warnings at the entrance to the exhibit space urging viewers to consider carefully whether they wanted to subject themselves to such a "deeply disturbing" experience, had served to build the fervor around the piece to a reservation-only waiting list of art world high rollers and cultural cognoscenti.
Jacob's work has always been about light. Even when he was still painting and first met Marya, his canvases were mainly an effort to bottle the most transitory effect a ray of light may have had on the stainless steel counter of a fast food restaurant, a derelict housing project, or a woman's shoe. He will never forget the first words Marya spoke to him, at one of his initial solo exhibits in a basement tavern on the surliest edge of the East Village: "You must see with great vision — I never met a painter who could see like that." With those words, and with those eyes of hers, she had him hooked.
But that is not what she is saying now. Now she says, "You know your works are installations. They have to be presented in the right place. Where people can see them."
"This is the right place. For this piece."
"Maybe. But there's nobody here. If you wanted to move to France, we could have at least lived in Paris, where there are still a few galleries and some semblance of an art scene — not to mention people." She turns her back and steps away from him now, about to let him fall. Getting the last word in before she heads downstairs to meet the guests. "Yes, maybe Paris, instead of this Godforsaken rock."
It is not God-forsaken — she is wrong here, for the first time maybe, she is absolutely wrong. This is why he has brought them here, to this obscure village he has chosen, to place himself at the top of this mountain, where he has attempted to construct a work of art that will enable human beings to see the face of God. Of course, he has never mentioned this to anyone, especially Marya, or Rafa. Unlike most other modern conceptual artists, he leaves the commentary to others, lets the curators and critics decide what his works are supposed to mean. It is the mystery of the piece that sells it, brings it to life. And this, in his view, is what has distinguished him from other less prominent artists of his day — he leaves the mystery in place, lets each viewer of the piece decide what it means to them. Most of his fellow artists weave long commentaries to be printed in pamphlets the viewers receive at the door of their exhibits, or on a placard next to the piece, explaining in droning, pretentious technical language the "metastory" behind the work, and in many cases this conceptual blather is more artfully conceived and compelling than the installation itself, for it is the concept that sells these days — the high-minded social commentary that makes or breaks the work.
This new piece, titled Entrevoir, which he has been constructing the past nine months, and dreaming about on and off for the past thirteen years, goes beyond anything he has ever attempted to create before. He has been thinking of it as his masterpiece, the defining work of his life. Something that will not be taken down after a month. Something that will live on the top of this mountain forever, that people will be journeying to see a hundred years from now. He likes that it is in a difficult place to reach — that is part of the allure. Maybe it will never receive the initial fanfare most of his other works receive, but over time — yes — after decades perhaps, it will be recognized as one of the greatest works of art ever created by man. To do something like that, he has had to take some chances, coming here to a tiny village in the south of France, hiking up a rock-strewn path to the wind-blown peak of the summit this village is perched upon day after day, purchasing the acreage from the ancient family of Provençal sheep-herders who have owned it since the sixteenth century. He has envisioned the viewers of this piece as pilgrims in a way, journeying here because they are paying homage to something bigger than themselves, coming away from the experience transformed forever. They have to be willing to work for the experience, knowing full well that they are in for an ordeal, willing to sacrifice a part of themselves for something everlasting in return. So, yes, it shouldn't really be a surprise to him that the usual cast of characters who flock to his installations in Manhattan, Brooklyn, London, Moscow, and Shanghai haven't bothered to turn up to the unveiling — perhaps they never will. So be it. If this is the worst mistake he has ever made, at least he will have failed in a grand manner. And he can always go back to what he did before, go back to Manhattan and regurgitate more of those extravagant deconstructive gestures that have earned him so much wealth and adulation.
Now he simply wants to bask in the feeling of accomplishment, fill his mind with the pure emotion of what this work really means to him, what he has felt each day as he trudged up the windswept path that leads to the top of that rock a hundred meters above their heads. The path that leads to that rocky plateau where he has situated the piece is treacherous in places, with views of the town and river below that make him feel as if he will be lifted off the rock and cast down, into the chasm of open space.
When he first began planning the piece, he wondered if he might have underestimated the engineering challenges of constructing it. The ground there on the plateau is not altogether level, and for weeks he had grave concerns that he had chosen the wrong spot. When he tried to place the foundations for the first of the pylons that serve to anchor the framework of the installation, he had to try at least a dozen different spots before he found enough solid footing to support the load. And then there is the wind. He had always expected the wind to be an integral part of the work — the interplay between the wind and the light. But he had not counted on such consistently high winds, always streaming across the exposed face of the rock, drawn there by the temperature gradient between the Mediterranean some thirty miles to the south and the first jagged peaks of the high Alps to the north. He had underestimated all of these things, had wrestled with the elements through winter and into the spring, had almost given up on several occasions when the framework and all it held had come crashing to the ground. And yet it is finished. It exists. It lifts him up, to the top of that mountain, up and out of himself. He stares at the back of Marya's head, as she turns to leave him, and he remembers again what he experienced earlier this afternoon when he reflected upon the completed piece for the final time before the unveiling, gazing at it in absolute peace. Once more he is lifted up, to the top of that mountain and beyond it, lifted away from himself he closes his eyes and feels his body falling away his body no longer his anymore he is rising up and out of it, he is lifted away to a place that may not exist for he sees now in his head and in his only certain knowing a field of stars laid out before him, a tapestry of gems each strung upon a latticework of light, spread out upon a faintly pulsating violet web these jewels are glowing, casting forth their lights of every color to him. As he scans this field of light, he is drawn to one of them, one of the jewels pulls him towards it. There is no fear, no dread or longing, for he no longer has a body, nothing he can fear to lose. In sense or sensitivity he has shaped his shifting nowhere self to some other realm inside him or inside of every other. Confined no more restricted dragged and pulled away inside a genuine unveiling thoughts assembled tossed aside the shell that once constrained him rent asunder the body he once called his own and named himself as this no longer serves him. Now a new thing — the full-force understanding that I am not the body, I am not the shell that served me. The veil of the temple is rent asunder, cast aside and opened to reveal. The jewel which pulls him towards it is but another form, another life he has chosen to conceal. (Continues...)
Excerpted from Entrevoir by Chris Katsaropoulos. Copyright © 2015 Chris Katsaropoulos. Excerpted by permission of Luminis Books.
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