Dear James and James
Once again, I’ve been on another odyssey with the Hun as a faithful captain. She leads us into uncharted seas and forgotten lands that long for remembrance and discovery both. Sometimes her words are poignant jagged daggers that provoke the heart—aren’t they necessary sour nourishments in every mother’s milk?
You might remember I wrote to you about Bargel One, which took place in London during the last Frieze. This time our boat of droll curiosities, named Bargenale — why be banal by calling it Bargel Two? — invaded the Isle of Certosa during the Venice Biennale.
The chef aboard was twenty-three-year-old Dieuveil Molonga, a young man from the Congo who was adopted by a German priest after his family was dismantled by the continuous torment that region of Africa endures. He started cooking at age fourteen. To say the least the mixture of African spices with Germanic disciple, combined with a spiritual finesse of presentation, reached heights anyone who dares call herself an artist strives for, and many would envy him for. Allow your taste buds to image sweet potato puree infused with bourbon vanilla and coconut’s milk, octopus cured in a blend of masala spices served with a roasted tomato sauce with a hint of Ethiopian berbere, then sweeten your palette with a mango mousse atop a crumble of toasted nuts and chocolate parfait. This is like capturing the full impact of a gorgeous sunset in a photograph—nothing I can do will ever make you experience the brilliant ballet that unfolded in my mouth.
This “place to be,” created by Michele and long-time architect friend David LeClerc, was a combination of scaffolding, black-stained wood and army blanket or camel skin-covered cushions. From a distance, blazing light from the barge was a beacon calling every eye towards it. As you got closer it looked like a rock concert was about to happen; fittingly every time I walked onto the barge, I found myself singing Peaches’ ‘Rock Show’:
You came to see a rock show
a big gigantic cockshow
you came to see it all!
you came to hear it
you came to seal it
you came to do it all!
Absurdly, I didn’t see any of the art at the Biennale itself—I’ll explain why at the end of this letter. In previous letters I shared flurries of pix of oeuvres with commentary. Today I only have few images to impart with you and none of them have to do with the art I’ve seen. They are of the art I’ve made. I can only use my most detailed language, my visual code, to describe the major events and precious moments this voyage entailed; it was that thrilling, that inspiring: it mutes keyboard and tongue.
The Hun launched her barge concept with the idealistic aspiration it would be an ark of peace, a safe haven, or simply a breath of fresh air, where contemporary dandies can rejuvenate from their busyness and the self-perpetuating arm’s race to an eternally receding top. She welcomes an unlisted guest list to enjoy in the felicity of community and the simple joy of sharing a free meal among companions and strangers alike. This was to be a willfully spiritual experience, where higher-ups and unknowns become equalized in their very essence of being human. One thing that binds the French and Americans through all manner of discord and disdain is their serious passion for humanist principles like égalité.
Artists may simply need to nurture themselves literally by feeding their bodies with a Congolese/German mash-up. They might not be in the mood to think or be provoked with a muse-mother’s jagged daggers that day. But the muse in the Hun is a hard siren to resist. It’s hard not to let the mind expand while bumping through that dense forest of spirits and opinions that she grows where she pleases. What a relief it is to step into her world and out of the cacophony of disparate virtual realities from around the world.
The man I call Illya Kuryakin, Anatol LaFayette, and I were asked to create an installation and ritual for this ideal of peace, to manifest the ideal palpably, to root it in tangibility. I’ll spare you details of the rapid-cycling mania that comes with making a piece of art; there are added layers of passion, doubt and introspection when your creative partner also shares your heart and bed.
The experience resulted in three plots of dirt, erected and dug into the heart of the scaffolded floor of Bargenale. Plot one contained a plantation of bone arrows, the second a bush of crystalized hands reaching towards the heavens, the last a deconstructed reconstruction of a hedge from dead twigs, completing the cycle of seed to fruition — everything that is decays; everything that will be feeds from decay.
But what does it mean to be at peace? How to quiet the internal turmoil, to create an occasion that furthers humanity, without being too ‘smugger’ Bono or Geldof, while at the same time acknowledging the contributions of activists and their idealisms?
The ceremony of installation itself was as simple as pea soup. In the plantation of bone arrows, guests were invited to bury the past, a pain, any sense of blockage or restraint by writing them down on sealed red-ribbon cards. On the heaven-reaching crystallized hands a wish scribbled on an apple-shaped card was tied and sent on the wings of wind.
When we told people they could bury away their pain, many asked for the whole box of cards, they had so much to release. One page would not be enough. The apple-shaped card of aspiration often drew a momentary blank or self-questioning look.
Anatol and I sought to evoke the deep-rooted and across-the-board habitual longing for belonging. If you are a bit confused about what that is, after being persuaded to read and catalog the anonymous pains and wishes of the ritual’s participants, we found the underlying thread throughout the experience of A Matter of Life and Death revealed the suffering and aspirations of love. If all is fair in war and love, is there any single thing that can lead us to the balance of peaceful deliverance?
Clearly it is easier for us to proclaim the faults of our personality than be responsible for the depths or heights our hearts long for as being simply natural, a part of being human. Like many red-blooded Americans, we patriotically raise flags proclaiming the sins we think we have committed, while our aspirations only reach half-mast. Why do we find it so difficult to be worthy of our innermost intentions?
I need to stop and contemplate why the words ‘whole’ and ‘hole’ are so closely related in sound and appearance. When I don’t feel whole it is because I feel a hole inside me, so I long for a holy experience. Kneeling or in lotus position, I pray for a reminder of the entire being I call my ‘self’. The only thing that can banish that hole-some darkness you sometimes feel within is a wholesome personal light. Its shine can make you acknowledge the cowering truths that hide within.
As a member of the membrane that created the cathartic event aboard Bargenale, I would like to hide the heart-wrenching process that engrossed me and us as a couple. Nevertheless, imagine a scene of star-crossed lovers crying while shredding their masks and every aspect of identity known to man or woman. As Juliet I redefined my own name while Anatol as Hamlet questioned the purpose of life in the decadent decor of richness and abandonment that is the contemporary art world. Struggle we did to hold on to the meaning of things while we faced each other as reflections of each other and our inner mirrors shattered and reformed and shattered again, never the same self-image or image of the Other as before. From the Lido apartment where we sojourned during the event, the endless ebb and flow of life and the Adriatic Sea took pride in reminding us that everything is so effortlessly fleeting, a message in a bottle that no one may ever read.
Though it was a concern that the ritual of the installation would become “kitschified” in the setting of drunken diners, the event was overwhelmingly embraced by the Bargenale patrons. That felt so good! You can never please everyone: I only encountered an insipid distaste from two young ladies who truly had nothing to impart, for better or worse. But personality-wise they were as fertile as a menopausal man. Entirely remade in plastic, their eyes reflected blank-sheet paper souls. It was brittle paper, too, its pulp run dry. Like Dorian Gray’s portrait, if life is going to touch these two it is in a far room locked away.
The Isola della Certosa, where we were docked, is a lush garden where Venetians bring their families and barbecue. In 2012 the park was destroyed by a tornado. The famously slow Italian manner of rebuilding this island as a recreational center has allowed for the small population of rabbits to follow their true nature: to fuck like rabbits. The instant my rabbit-hunting dog Eating Disorder smelt the fecund surroundings, he was off into the wilderness like a bolt of Zeus’s lightning. Or like Elmer Fudd chasing Bugs Bunny.
This plot of land surrounded by lagoon was really the perfect place for some doggy freedom. Nonetheless, even though I am not the natural mother of this four-legged creature, after he ran of a-rabbiting I found myself worried and alone in the pitch darkness of night calling his name to the silent wind. Now and then I was spooked by scurrying leaves, which always happened to be the motion of a handful of scared rabbits panting beneath the trees as they fled E.D.
In every moment there is a lesson to be learned. At Bargenale it was the strange but potent cocktail of trust and the blindness of fear. The deeper I crawled into that darkness I realized the fearful scenarios of an unlikely event were only distracting my mind from the present unknown before me. The more I worry about the future the less in the moment I am. Simple enough. Out there in the lightless night with the scurrying bunny leaves, I was present to the difference between fantasies and clear and present danger.
While I was steadying myself with these meditations, I got the call: my happy and confounded beagle had found the way back home before me. Because he has instincts not fantasies, scents rather than sense.
Some will understand that after a few days of being gleefully social, of having a creative work well received, one feels totally drained. How many times can I repeat and re-greet my raison d’être? Endless gratitude for being alive is finite in its truthfulness. Our safe haven from the refuge that the Bargenale was intended to be was an abandon sanitarium, which we stumbled upon while staying on the Lido. Secured within its decaying walls, we redirected our attentions away from art and its world. For the first time, I used spray paint to draw upon walls—I’ve never had much time for the medium or much regard for street art. Shame on old me: it became the means to reclaim and redefine my own expression.
“Nothing can beat them all,” said the face of the beast who blocked every boat taxi from arriving at the luxurious Excelsior Hotel so that we could attend the main Biennale event. Every line of his scarred faced narrated the tale of every man and woman he had maimed physically and mentally over his long life. James Bond has never encountered a viler villain—he would be too much even for Hollywood. Nothing could break his unwillingness to help us. Money was useless, as were our desperate complaints. The unfortunate, frightened hotel bellboys fearfully tried to appeal to his lost good nature, while striving to appease the confused and angered hotel guests.
After two hours of complete bemusement of this HBO-worthy situation, I realized that trying to get to the event was a lost cause; unless you can walk on water, in Venice you’re a castaway in need of a boat. Confronted by this, the scariest Scarface mafioso I’d ever had the strange fortune of meeting, I gave up the idea of seeing art and surrendered to my true desire, to bask in sun kisses and enjoy the simple pleasures of life surrounded by loving friends. Like our peace boat and its art pieces, I was reminded of when to push and when to give in.