He lit his cigarette. He knew his restlessness was only partly connected to tomorrow’s opening. He had hoped New York would inspire him, but so far none of his sketches had caught alight. He felt exactly as he had after his show in London: unable to focus, alienated from everything round him. He sensed he was searching, waiting for an angle, a juxtaposition, a confrontation even that would fire him to begin painting.
Far out, he watched a boat passing. Its trajectory disturbed the lanes of light the metropolis cast onto the river, causing them to shiver, bleed into each other, dissolve and reappear. Yet they reformed differently, he noticed: the boat’s crossing altered them. Ripples of black now streaked the red, yellow shone amidst pure silver. A purple plume illuminating a spire caught his eye. Lights came on, went out; the city was never still. He stared into the murky water. Even the river was moving, slapping the sides of the esplanade.
He started walking again. This activity was what was missing from his pictures. He had wanted to call his show Still Lives to draw attention to the singularity of the English art term, but now he saw the joke was on him. His own language might have taught him. French coined the phrase Nature morte to describe set pieces in painting – literally dead nature. He stared at the winking panoply of lights. He was on the wrong side of the river, too far away to see how all the millions of lives the lights represented interacted with each other. He had crossed the river in the hope of escaping the city’s teeming, frenzied chaos, when what he should have done was immerse himself in it. His endeavour to distance himself and find a point of perspective was borne out of a futile desire for control. He needed to go back and focus on the intersections, to paint life in all its randomness and unpredictability. He tossed his cigarette end into the glassy water and hurried towards the station.’
Peeter stared at the installation.
‘Money has replaced the water so the fish has died. But I do not understand why all the notes have been torn in half. Is the money real?’
‘I’m sure it is.’
‘Then it is a waste. The fact the money is real adds nothing. Besides, it is a very simple idea.’
‘Can’t art be simple?’
‘Yes, but the simplicity must do something. This is a cliché.’ Peeter wrinkled his nose in disgust. ‘And the fish is going bad.’
‘Ah, that will be part of it. The smell of the rotting fish. We experience our revulsion viscerally as well as with our eyes. Perhaps the idea is not so simple after all.’
‘But how is it art?’ Peeter wanted to know. ‘Even if I were to agree with you that the idea is a good one – which I do not – anyone might have done it. There is no talent, no skill involved. This is designed to shock.’
‘Isn’t that what art should do? Make us think. Jolt us out of our complacency?’
Peeter appeared sceptical.
‘What will happen to this “art” when the exhibition is over?’
‘It will be bought,’ Marion told him. ‘Perhaps by a gallery, more likely by a private collector. All these artists are unknowns. Don’t worry, while the owner waits for the artist to become established the fish will be replaced by an imitation one.’
‘So it will no longer shock us “viscerally”.’
‘It makes me angry,’ Peeter interrupted. ‘The artist will be paid for something which does not deserve it by someone who only buys in the hope of making money. This is not what art is for!’
‘You don’t like it because it isn’t beautiful,’ Marion teased him, remembering the jewel-like koi they had seen in her garden.
‘No,’ Peeter assured her. ‘I do not mind about that. Schoenberg is not beautiful, parts of Beethoven are not beautiful but they move us. I mind because this is a trick.’
People were staring.
‘Let’s read this,’ Marion suggested, steering him towards the plaque. ‘Perhaps we will discover what the artist intended.’
‘If the work is good I do not need to learn what the artist says.’
The next piece was a metal trolley on top of which a model heart, several foil-wrapped packs of butter and a scalpel had been set in a line. Sensing this would not appeal to Peeter either, Marion led the way upstairs. There was a video installation in the first room they came to. Two screens were projecting simultaneously. In the first, a man was addressing a filled auditorium; in the second, a typed text consisting of the words ‘me’ and ‘blah’ ran across the screen. The piece was entitled ‘Civilization.’ They moved on to a painting.
‘What is Kerashi?’ Peeter queried, deciphering a series of mauve, shocking pink and lime green letters across an otherwise blank canvas.
‘It’s the name of a fashion house.’
‘This I do not understand. Is it advertising for them? If not, why use a brand name? Or did they sponsor the artist?’
‘Probably,’ Marion answered. ‘I’ve seen another piece by this artist. She specialises in using the alphabet in her work in innovative ways. I expect she’s done a deal with Kerashi. You don’t approve,’ she observed, reading his expression. ‘Someone has to pay for art.’
‘But not like this! Governments pay for art, charities perhaps…. Of course people pay for it too, but not this blatant kissing with commerce.’
‘And do you imagine governments and even charities don’t have their agendas?’ She pointed towards the exhibits. ‘What do you think when you see all this?’
‘The pop songs on everyone’s ipod, television.’
‘How?’ Marion was curious.
‘Yesterday I watched part of a film at a friend’s lodging. It was about a woman who is made to work hard then all this changes because she falls in love. It was Cinderella with everything dark cut out.’ He gestured round the room. ‘This is the same, except here all you see is the stepmother made to dance in the red-hot shoes. It is the other side to all the sugar.’