I believe that each of us is given one sentence at birth, and we spend the rest of our life trying to read that sentence and make sense of it.
Li Young Lee
I meet the artist, who does x, for a snack one afternoon. We have the kind of conversation it was more necessary to have previous to the existence of the Internet. We exchange general info about the world.
I am attempting to experience a feeling of warmth. It’s general, too. The artist who does x is commenting on the method by which thermostat fixtures have been incorporated into the bakery’s wall décor. She expresses amazement. Possibly she’s struggling.
I cannot remember if the artist who does x says that we should do this again. She offers a few tips for improved existence, evidently intending that I remember and deploy these in a eulogy, should I, at her expiration, have acquired sufficient cultural capital to merit a speaker’s invitation to the funeral.
In this fantasy, she is buried in state.
Why, I ask myself, are so many of the artist who does x’s thoughts about what will happen after one, or both, of us goes away? Why do I understand this so well?
It’s true I’ve been thinking about writing out a list of all my enemies, including brief descriptions of their unique powers and weaknesses. The artist who does x would not appear on this list—and is very unlikely to appear on any subsequent lists of this type—but her behavior suggests that she is concerned about the possibility of a public airing of such a document. For in her mind, she may well have made it. In this fantasy, she lives forever and suffers eternally under the tip of my poison pen. I see she wants to be ready, should it come to pass that my list is aired and she is at the top, number one, where permanent marker forms an escutcheon of loathing. Arrows point! Emphatic asterisks! Random flowers! Stars. “She is the worst!” my list might say.
And yet it doesn’t.
How can the artist who does x not know? How can she not tell that I have no intention of putting her on the list of “Folks I’d Like to KILL” today, next week, or ever, really? We’re just meeting at a mediocre bakery in Chelsea. I’m listening to her talk about her life.
It should, by the way, be obvious that I am not an artist. And it would be nice if everyone I know recognized this, yet no one does. I have the opposite problem of almost everybody in this industry. Everyone has been calling me a closet conceptualist and “mail artist” and performance artist of institutional critique and a post-Internet artworker since day one of my career in gallery admin, but really what I am is a person who, for various complex and private reasons, mainly feels comfortable with menial tasks and who is, meanwhile, of above-average intelligence. If these facts alone make me an artist then, fine, so be it, I am an artist, but I kindly request that somebody for once concede that this is probably not the case. I do not make art. I do not have a personal website. I do keep my desk neat, which some passersby term art. I use adjectives in email. I don’t own many clothes. I am tall and thin and speak softly.
I’m also significantly younger than the artist who does x, though I’ve already aged out of my current position at the gallery. Indeed, my current position is not a career and is not intended for individuals of my advanced age (31). Luckily, as I have no dependents or other prospects, I’m allowed to stay on. I’ve been told I save them the trouble of training a third intern. But since I’m the one who does said training and spends a great deal of her time emailing with, and identifying the clerical errors of, said interns, I’m not sure what this means. I like to think it means that I’ve been fully absorbed, that I’m irreplaceably part of the gallery’s vital human architecture, but I know that come the next financial crisis, the first pink slip, written haltingly out in shaky Japanese felt tip and not without tears, shall be mine.
In this sense, my friendship with the artist who does x, who is represented by the gallery, is either a piece of professional security with which I am padding my impending fall, or it is emotional labor the gallery farms out to me because it can reasonably be assumed that I am someone for whom a friendship with the artist who does x has its advantages.
I don’t love these alternatives.
Meanwhile, the artist who does x and I exit the bakery.
We’re done snacking.
She looks elated that we’ve made it out of confined quarters and are soon to be free of one another. I study this in her, along with her expensive hat. She has begun telling a story I realize, with a sharp slide into nausea, is inappropriately long given the impending leaving-taking, the timing of cross-walk signals, not to mention her already apparent wish to be out of my presence.
“Years ago,” begins the artist who does x, “I was working on a poster installation. It was during my minimal era when I was trying not to do anything, when I was trying not to make art, you know? I wanted to be something else, then. I wanted to be anything but an artist, and I was under the impression that if I did little enough, if I did barely enough, the world would just let me go. And maybe I was even a little angry about that possibility? Of being disposable? And so I had these posters, and they weren’t even of anything, they were these bad images I had taken of other posters, at the movies, or the hairdressers, for shows and things. But of course you know what I am talking about already, you know this was ‘Limelight,’ and actually when you look back this was what made me, not in that sense of some blue-chip fantasy of fame, but this was the time I did the thing that was me, that said me, more than anything before, that wasn’t an imitation of some hero of mine and wasn’t me attempting to do what I thought everyone else wanted and it only happened because I did it, and I was so angry at that time, and so fed up, and so, or so I thought, beyond anything at all, I was feeling, what was the point? However this was what I did and it worked so fucking well I was able to work for the rest of my life, which, as you know, I have. It’s a miracle. It’s so funny that it came out of this moment of truly intense self-loathing. I wonder if you can understand that. But the other night I was lying in bed at home, in my country home, it’s quite quiet there, you know, you can really hear things, and I have this skylight. It’s not directly above the bed, but I can see it, and I can see whatever light comes through, and I like to think about, well, what might be going on in the sky, and I thought about what might be located there because others have seen it, what could possibly be there just because others have seen it, you know? Others who have lain awake looking? Oh, it’s impossible, of course; of course there’s nothing. It’s just an idea I’m having and probably you’re late, Justine, yes? You need to get back? No? You have a minute? Well, I was lying there, looking at this sky I could not see, or thinking about actually looking at a kind of sky that does not exist, one that bears, in itself, all the insignificant marks, the ashes and the contrails, the frothy little wakes, the flecks and pits, from the looking, you know, all that looking that’s got to be so impure! And that’s what I’ve always been thinking about in my work, I realized, the way a thing looks because it’s been looked at, the way a place looks, how it’s changed—and that’s, you know, that’s what’s got me thinking about the sky. Is there anything else in the world that’s been, you know, so looked at?
“I didn’t want to get out of bed. It wasn’t that I wanted to go see the sky. I just wanted to be able to hold it in my mind, this idea, of this sky, this version of the sky—that there was something that was so obviously there, but that you couldn’t see—that I couldn’t see. It was, if you’ll forgive me saying this—I don’t know what this even means these days—it was like trust—not feeling it, you know, because actually I seldom feel it? But it was like the notion of trust, which has always been in my life if somewhat out of reach—and for me it is, and perhaps this is part of the problem if not the simple strangeness of it. Trust is like an image and I am forever trying to see it. I can feel the outlines of it, you know, really can feel imaginatively that there is such a thing as trust, that fixedness of it? But I can’t ever see it, at least, not in real life. Maybe I’ve dreamed about it? I’m not sure. Maybe I haven’t, probably not. I don’t think so. There are lots of worlds in my dreams, but not one of them ever contained trust. And so I think that is why, that must be why I so enjoy conversations with you, Justine. I think a lot of people might find you scary, because there is so much to risk, so much at stake for you, and not even because you really mean it. I imagine you don’t mean to risk so much. I feel a kind of responsibility toward you, and not one that I would really have sought out for myself, given the choice. But somehow we’ve just come to start meeting in this way, haven’t we? I remember when I saw you, that time we met, how terrifying that was. You really told me everything. And I don’t want to say that you shouldn’t trust in that way, because it should be beautiful, it could—”
The artist trails off. The light advising us as to the advisedness of crossing the street has transitioned between foreboding and denial, denial and continuous permission, perhaps ten times during the course of her speech. My face is tight. Probably I want to pee, but I have to make sure that she is done.
I have to let the artist who does x continue speaking because this is what she expects. She expects not only to say these things, but to have them absorbed as tidings of great value, which, in some universe they probably are, since what she means is that I clearly do not know how to act. And never will.
I calmly thank the artist. I begin to bid her farewell.
Anyway, she is right. I recall how an acquaintance, another toady of the gallery system, was recently sitting with me in an overpriced vegan deli, talking about how people don’t care about the artist who does x’s work.
“She’s obsessed with how uninterested people are in her work,” the toady was insisting. Then the toady was describing her own impending marriage to another toady also employed by the gallery system. They were plotting their escape. They would move to the countryside and start a nonprofit and cease to be toadies (except, of course, in memory). They would be moving shortly after the wedding, which would take place on the country estate of one of the toadies’ childless relatives, not a parent.
“She is very, very honest about it,” the toady was saying, of the artist who does x. “She’s just like everyone else, except she’s so totally honest. It’s amazing you can make a career out of that.”
It is true, I think, the artist who does x is honest.
And, as we are kissing the air in front of one another’s faces on the corner of 18th Street, I recall another meeting with the artist who does x, one which took place a year earlier, one which the artist herself clearly has not forgotten. During the course of this meeting, the artist who does x acknowledged that she was aware that I was in the midst of becoming divorced from someone I had married when I was in my early twenties, a thing not really done in these parts—the child marriage, I mean.
We were in a bar and restaurant, farther downtown. The artist who does x was comfortably ensconced on an upholstered item. I knew her less well, then.
“He wasn’t,” I remember telling her, “very nice to me.” I meant my former husband.
It was a euphemism.
I watched changes transpiring on the face of the artist who does x. If I had known the artist who does x better at this time, I would have known that the artist who does x was attempting to gauge the required amount of remorse. I did not know then that she is like a paid griever, a mourner for hire. She will exchange the favor of sadness with you, but you must offer something in return.
Because I am poor and essentially useless to the artist who does x’s career, what I had to give in this moment was information.
“He didn’t,” the artist who does x wanted to know, “hit you?”
I remember that time became slushy and dim. I looked at the artist who does x’s eyes, which were like two lacquered raisins, merciless and slightly too small for her face. I knew that if I said no, the artist who does x would turn away from me, and that this turning away would be for all time. I knew that the artist who does x did not wish to discuss with me the politics of domestic economies, various forms of entitlement. She was not interested in my identity or gender, any more than she was interested in the identity or gender of anyone else. These were mere representations, and representations were not her concern.
The artist who does x wanted to know what had happened. And I saw that in this moment she was giving me an out. She was letting me know that if I could demonstrate to her satisfaction that my current lamentable status in the world was not a predicament of my own devising, she would be willing to withhold at least 15% of the judgment she was otherwise planning to level in my direction.
Oh, how I wanted that 15% mercy. And oh how I wanted her to share a bit of sadness with me.
So I paid.
Lucy Ives is the author of the novel Impossible Views of the World (2017), as well as several books of poetry and short prose. In 2019, her second novel, Loudermilk, or the Real Poet, or the Origin of the World, will appear. She is currently Fellow-in-Residence at the Center for Experimental Humanities at NYU.
Li Young Lee