Category: New Yorker

W. G. Sebald, Humorist

James Wood writing for the New Yorker
WG Sebald from the New Yorker

In the New Yorker, James Wood explores the eccentric sense of playfulness in W. G. Sebald’s writing.

I met W. G. Sebald almost twenty years ago, in New York City, when I interviewed him onstage for the PEN American Center. Afterward, we had dinner. It was July, 1997; he was fifty-three. The brief blaze of his international celebrity had been lit a year before, by the publication in English of his mysterious, wayward book “The Emigrants.” In a review, Susan Sontag (who curated the penseries) had forcefully anointed the German writer as a contemporary master.

Not that Sebald seemed to care about that. He was gentle, academic, intensely tactful. His hair was gray, his almost white mustache like frozen water. He resembled photographs of a pensive Walter Benjamin. There was an atmosphere of drifting melancholy about him that, as in his prose, he made almost comic by sly self-consciousness. I remember standing with him in the foyer of the restaurant, where there was some kind of ornamental arrangement that involved leaves floating in a tank. Sebald thought they were elm leaves, which prompted a characteristic reverie. In England, he said, the elms had all but disappeared, ravaged first by Dutch elm disease, and then by the great storm of 1987. All gone, all gone, he murmured. Since I had not read “The Rings of Saturn” (published in German in 1995 but not translated into English until 1998), I didn’t know that he was almost quoting a passage from his own work, where, beautifully, he describes the trees, uprooted after the hurricane, lying on the ground “as if in a swoon.” Still, I was amused even then by how very Sebaldian he sounded, encouraged thus by a glitter in his eyes, and by a slightly sardonic fatigue in his voice.

During dinner, he returned sometimes to that mode, always with a delicate sense of comic timing. Someone at the table asked him if, given the enormous success of his writing, he might be interested in leaving England for a while and working elsewhere. (Sebald taught for more than thirty years, until his death, in 2001, in Norwich, at the University of East Anglia.) Why not New York, for instance? The metropolis was at his feet. How about an easy and well-paid semester at Columbia? It was part question, part flattery. Through round spectacles, Sebald pityingly regarded his interlocutor, and replied with naïve sincerity: “No, I don’t think so.” He added that he was too attached to the old Norfolk rectory he and his family had lived in for years. I asked him what else he liked about England. The English sense of humor, he said. Had I ever seen, he asked, any German comedy shows on television? I had not, and I wondered aloud what they were like. “They are simply . . . indescribable,” he said, stretching out the adjective with a heavy Germanic emphasis, and leaving behind an implication, also comic, that his short reply sufficed as a perfectly comprehensive explanation of the relative merits of English and German humor.

Comedy is hardly the first thing one associates with Sebald’s work, partly because his reputation was quickly associated with the literature of the Holocaust, and is still shaped by the two books of his that deal directly with that catastrophe: “The Emigrants,” a collection of four semi-fictional, history-haunted biographies; and his last book, “Austerlitz” (2001), a novel about a Jewish Welshman who discovers, fairly late in life, that he was born in Prague but had avoided imminent extermination by being sent, at the age of four, to England, in the summer of 1939, on the so-called Kindertransport. The typical Sebaldian character is estranged and isolate, visited by depression and menaced by lunacy, wounded into storytelling by historical trauma. But two other works, “Vertigo” (published in German in 1990 and in English in 1999) and “The Rings of Saturn,” are more various than this, and all of his four major books have an eccentric sense of playfulness.

Rereading him, in handsome new editions of “Vertigo,” “The Emigrants,” and “The Rings of Saturn” (New Directions), I’m struck by how much funnier his work is than I first took it to be. Consider “The Rings of Saturn” (brilliantly translated by Michael Hulse), in which the Sebald-like narrator spends much of the book tramping around the English county of Suffolk. He muses on the demise of the old country estates, whose hierarchical grandeur never recovered from the societal shifts brought about by the two World Wars. He tells stories from the lives of Joseph Conrad, the translator Edward FitzGerald, and the radical diplomat Roger Casement. He visits a friend, the poet Michael Hamburger, who left Berlin for Britain in 1933, at the age of nine. The tone is elegiac, muffled, and yet curiously intense. The Hamburger visit allows Sebald to take the reader back to the Berlin of the poet’s childhood, a scene he meticulously re-creates with the help of Hamburger’s own memoirs. But he also jokily notes that when they have tea the teapot emits “the occasional puff of steam as from a toy engine.”

(…)

The Art and Activism of Grace Paley

Alexandra Schwartz for The New Yorker
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Alexandra Schwartz explores the relationship between Grace Paley’s politics and her fiction.

She spent her life as a protester. How did she find time to reinvent the American short story?

There’s a case to be made that Grace Paley was first and foremost an antinuclear, antiwar, antiracist feminist activist who managed, in her spare time, to become one of the truly original voices of American fiction in the later twentieth century. Just glance at the “chronology” section of “A Grace Paley Reader” (Farrar, Straus & Giroux), a welcome new collection of her short stories, nonfiction, and poems, edited by Kevin Bowen and Paley’s daughter, Nora. 1961: Leads her Greenwich Village PTA in protests against atomic testing, founds the Women Strike for Peace, pickets the draft board, receives a Guggenheim Fellowship. 1966: Jailed for civil disobedience on Armed Forces Day, starts teaching at Sarah Lawrence. 1969: Travels to North Vietnam to bring home U.S. prisoners of war, wins an O. Henry Award.

Such political passion may seem in keeping with those times, but Paley didn’t slow down once the flush of the sixties faded. In the mid-seventies, she attended the World Peace Congress in Moscow, where she infuriated Soviet dissidents by demanding that they stand up for the Asian and Latin-American oppressed, too. In the eighties, she travelled to El Salvador and Nicaragua to meet with mothers of the disappeared, got arrested at a sit-in at a New Hampshire nuclear power plant, and co-founded the Jewish Women’s Committee to End the Occupation of the West Bank and Gaza. And that’s not the half of it. She called herself a “somewhat combative pacifist and cooperative anarchist.” The F.B.I. declared her a Communist, dangerous and emotionally unstable. Her file was kept open for thirty years.

Paley was an archetypal Village figure, the five-foot-tall lady with the wild white hair, cracking gum like a teen-ager while handing out leaflets against apartheid from her perch on lower Sixth Avenue. She also lived in Vermont, where her second husband, Bob Nichols, had a farmhouse. In May, 2007, they drove to Burlington to protest their congressman’s support for the Iraq surge. Paley was eighty-four, undergoing chemo for breast cancer. Three months later, she was dead. “My dissent is cheer / a thankless disposition,” she wrote in her poetry collection “Fidelity,” published the following year. That incorrigible cheerfulness carried her to the very end. No one was more grimly adamant that the world was in mortal peril, or had more fun trying to save it from itself.

(…)

Project Exodus

Anthony Lydgate writing for the New Yorker
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Elizabeth Colbert on NASA’s latest OSIRIS-REx mission, for the New Yorker:

The ancient Egyptians believed that the universe emerged from an ocean called Nun, boundless and inert. At the beginning of time, a mound pierced the surface of the waters and rose from the void. Upon the mound stood the sun god Atum, who summoned the cosmos into being. Slowly, nothing became everything. Atum had two children, who had two children of their own: Geb, the earth, and Nut, the sky. They fell in love, as divine siblings often do, and conceived two sons and two daughters. The firstborn, Osiris, was the rightful ruler of Egypt, but his younger brother, Set, was consumed with jealousy. He murdered Osiris and dismembered his corpse, scattering it in pieces across the kingdom. The remains fertilized the Nile and made the desert bloom.

The story of our solar system, as astrophysicists know it, is not so different. It begins with another vast expanse of inert stuff—a cloud of gas and dust. Some 4.6 billion years ago, the cloud stirred, perhaps troubled by a passing star or the shock waves of a nearby supernova, spreading out into an immense disk that began to spin. At the center of the disk was a white-hot mass of plasma, which devoured most of the material around it and became our sun. Its energy and gravity sorted the rest of the disk by kind. The hardy substances, like rocks and metals, remained close to the center, where they coalesced into the inner planets: Mercury, Venus, Earth, and Mars. The more fragile compounds retreated to the far reaches of the disk, beyond what astronomers call the snow line, forming the gas giants (Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus, Neptune) and the frigid remainders beyond (Pluto, the comets, and the embryos of planets that never materialized). The story ends, of course, with life. It’s what happened in the middle—what made the desert bloom—that still has scientists flummoxed.

For a cell to survive, it requires three ingredients: nucleic acids, like DNA and RNA, to guide its development; amino acids to build proteins; and a lipid envelope to protect it from the elements. When life on our planet got its start, nearly four billion years ago, Earth was short on these ingredients. Where did they come from? The prevailing theory centers on a period known as the Late Heavy Bombardment. It suggests that, at the time, the solar system had not reached its current equipoise; the giant planets were on the move, and their gravity jostled free large numbers of asteroids and comets. Some drifted away into interstellar space, but others rushed inward, battering Earth with rock and ice. The onslaught lasted many millions of years, and though it brought unimaginable ruin it may also have seeded our planet with the chemical precursors of life. Very little now remains of that primordial Earth, but over the years meteorites have provided tantalizing clues of what might have fallen here, Osiris-like, from above. The Murchison meteorite, for instance, which struck rural Australia, in 1969, has been found to contain more than a hundred varieties of amino acid, along with the building blocks of lipids.

(…)

Darling Nikki

Maggie Nelson writing for the New Yorker
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Author Maggie Nelson recalls her first and most formative encounters with Prince, for the New Yorker:

 In 1984, when I was ten, my father died. He was a small man, five-five tops, jammed with energy. I understood. Energy felt to me then, as it does to so many kids, like an unstoppable force run through a kaleidoscope of affect—at times electric, then liquid, popping, burning. Above all, it felt uncontainable. The miracle is that our skin contains it, for the most part. Was I sexual at ten? I don’t know. I know my father died, and then, suddenly, there was Prince.

1984 was also the year of “Purple Rain.” We saw it in the theatres and then my sister and I watched it innumerable times downstairs in our TV room. Our lair. I had already watched and would watch a lot of rock musicals—“Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band,” “The Song Remains the Same,” “Tommy,” “The Wall.” I liked parts of these movies and had moments of cathexis, but nothing really stuck. Maybe because they were full of white British men whose angst was fundamentally inscrutable to me, and seemingly tethered to Margaret Thatcher, whoever that was, or grossly thefted from American blues. Maybe it was because the girls in the movies were sticks—who wanted to be Strawberry Fields, chained up while Aerosmith sings “Come Together” at you menacingly? And while, God knows, I wanted to be the hippie chick conjured in Led Zeppelin’s “Going to California,” I already knew that was just some guy’s dream, because the hippie girls I knew that fit the part either had to go along with their hippie-fascist boyfriends in a haze of suppressed agency or they spoke up and the dudes lost interest “pronto.” Anyway, that girl was pretty and probably liked to get fucked in a field of flowers, blond ringlets spread out on a velvet blanket strewn with empty goblets, but she wasn’t seething with electric energy, she didn’t talk, she didn’t grind.

Then there was “Purple Rain.” Did I want to be Prince or be with Prince? I think the beauty is, neither. He made it O.K. to feel what he was feeling, what I was feeling. I wanted to be a diminutive, profuse, electric ribbon of horniness and divine grace. I bought a white shirt with ruffles down the front and wore it with skintight crushed-velvet hot pants, laid a full-length mirror on the floor, and slithered on top of the mirror, imitating Prince’s closing slither on the elevated amp in “Darling Nikki.” Yeah, he’s telling Apollonia to come back, but you can tell he doesn’t really give a shit about Apollonia. He’s possessed by something else, his life force onstage. Half naked, wearing only black bolero pants and a black kerchief tied over the top part of his face, his torso slick with sweat, Prince is telling us a story. An important one.

(…)

Chloe’s Scene

Jay McInerney on Chloë Sevigny for the New Yorker
Chloe Sevigny

Jay McInerney, writing in 1994, on the It Girl of the day- Chloë Sevigny. The actress ‘can speak with some confidence about what’s happening in the street. Some say Chloe is what’s happening in the street.’:

 It’s weird, this happens all the time. Chloe Sevigny is sitting at one of the outdoor tables at Stingy Lulu’s, on St. Mark’s Place just off Avenue A, absorbing a mixed green salad and devouring the just-out September Vogue. A black girl and an Asian girl huddle anxiously on the corner a few yards away, checking her out. The two are about Chloe’s age, which is nineteen, and they seem to be debating whether or not to approach. Do they recognize her from the Sonic Youth video—the one filmed in Marc Jacobs’ showroom, which was kind of a spoof of the whole grunge thing—or did they catch her modelling the X-Girl line last spring? Maybe they saw her photos in Details, the ones taken by Larry Clark, who has just cast Chloe in his new movie, “Kids.” The girls pass by once and walk halfway up the block before they turn back, clinging to each other, and stop just behind Chloe’s right shoulder.

“Excuse me.”

Chloe looks up, wrapping her arms tight around herself in an instinctive gesture of protection, as if to reduce the exposed surface area of her body even as she manages a smile that is shy and skeptical and indulgent all at the same time. It’s not like this hasn’t happened before, but it’s still a little, you know, weird.

“Can you, um, tell us where you got your, uh, shoes?” the black girl asks.

Chloe giggles with relief. She looks down at her jellies—transparent plastic sandals. Now that practically everybody’s wearing big, chunky, cleated boots and platform sneakers—even people who shlump every day to offices uptown—Chloe has moved on. She’s already gone. And the two girls standing on the sidewalk in their big black Doc Martens want to follow her. Chloe tries to remember where she got the sandals.

“I think it’s right around the comer, on Avenue A. I can’t think of the name. Something Something.”

“Like, that way? Over there?”

“Yeah.”

The girls thank her and practically run up the street. Chloe fires up a Camel Light and resumes her study of Vogue. Watching Chloe read a fashion magazine makes you think of Alexander Woollcott devouring a ten-pound lobster à l’américaine or Casanova undressing a servant girl. “This Marc Jacobs dress is beautiful. . . . Helmut Lang is my absolute favorite. . . . God, Armani is so old-ladyish. . . . Lagerfeld ruined the house of Chanel; Coco would never have done miniskirts. I watched this documentary about her. She was so great. . . . I’m like a fashion-magazine junkie. I love them, but they’re usually pretty lame. By the time they print it, it’s already happened. The British magazines are much further ahead in terms of what’s happening in the street.

Chloe can speak with some confidence about what’s happening in the street. Some say Chloe is what’s happening in the street. In addition to her jellies Chloe is wearing a very short white dress made of a shiny, flame-friendly space-age synthetic. It looks sort of familiar (Gaultier? X-Girl?), although you won’t see anyone else on the street wearing one, at least not yet, with eight weeks to go till Halloween. Maybe you saw it a few years back on the little girl from the next building who came around with her father and held her pillowcase open for the mini Snickers bars. It says “Cinderella” in floral-pink letters across the chest, above an image of a magic slipper and a cheerful pink-and-blue rendering of the fairy-tale princess inside her pumpkin carriage. All that’s missing is the plastic mask. The funny thing is, it looks really good on Chloe. Several people have already asked about it today, and she’s told them she scavenged this number in a Brooklyn thrift shop. Two dollars. She accessorizes it with a fake Chanel bracelet from Canal Street, which she wears around her biceps. At this moment, she is five feet eight, weighs a hundred and ten pounds, and looks, in her current short coif, quite a bit like a skinny Jean Seberg. Her nose is perhaps a bit blunt, and she points out the crookedness in her posture, which is the result of childhood scoliosis, but this doesn’t prevent downtown style-chieftains and scenesters from comparing her to Twiggy and Audrey Hepburn and Edie Sedgwick.

(…)

 

Gerry Adams’ Baffling Book of Tweets

Mark O'Connell for the New Yorker
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Sinn Féin have published the collected tweets of Gerry Adams, perennial president of the Irish republican political party. Words such as ‘bizarre’ and ‘incongruous’ are simply too light for such an occasion: we advise that you read Mark O’Connell’s brief review of the book for The New Yorker and, as a companion piece, read Patrick Radden Keefe’s article, Where The Bodies Are Buried.

A man is sitting at a desk. He is gray-bearded and bespectacled, and his shirt sleeves are rolled smartly to the elbows. He is sucking on a lollipop, this man, and momentarily adrift in quiet reflection. He pulls the stick from his mouth and evaluates the diminished state of the confectionery, sucked down to a mere glistening fragment. There is a strange look now in his eyes, an expression of melancholy whimsy. Or is it something darker? We can never know the minds of others, but the mind of this particular man is especially unknowable. He sucks the last of his lollipop, places the stick gently on the desk before him. His current state of lollipop-induced wistfulness leads him to think of a song from long ago, a children’s song by the variety entertainer Max Bygraves. On a whim, he takes out his iPhone, and opens up Twitter, and types the lyrics of the song:

When u come 2 the end of a lollipop. 2 the end. 2 the end of a lollipop. When u come 2 the end of a lollipop. Pop goes ur heart. Xo TGBE.

He presses send, and he leans back in his chair, taking his own advice (“TGBE” presumably stands for “Tóg go bog é,” a phrase which means “Take it easy” in his native Irish). He watches the likes and retweets roll in, and he is, for all we know, at peace.

All Possible Humanities Dissertations Considered As Single Tweets

Stephen Burt in the New Yorker
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As the title says:

‘This pedestrian term is actually the key to my historical period.

A disputatious panel at last year’s professional conference revealed the surprising state of the field (it’s as bad as you think).

My historical period, properly understood, includes yours.

What looked like a moment of failure, confusion, or ugliness in this well-known work is better seen as directions for reading the whole.

A problem you thought you could solve defines your field; you can’t imagine the field without the problem.

The only people able to understand this work properly cannot communicate that understanding to you.

Those two apparently incompatible versions of a thing are better regarded as parts of the same, larger thing.

Quantitative methods have an unexpected use.

Analytical tools developed for, and strongly associated with, a well-defined set of things in fact apply to a much larger set of things.

A public event simultaneous with, but apparently unrelated to, a famous art work in fact shaped that work’s composition or reception.

This famous thing closely resembles, and therefore responds to, that slightly earlier, less famous thing.

If you teach that old thing in this new way, your students will like it.

If you teach that old thing in this new way, your students will like you.

Before a given date, a now obscure, once omnipresent theory meant that all of culture was somehow different.

After a given date, a new technology meant that all of culture was somehow different.

The name we’ve been using for this stuff is anachronistic. Here’s a better name.

(…)’

D. T. Max profiles Hans Ulrich Obrist

In the New Yorker
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In the new issue of the New Yorker, D. T. Max, David Foster Wallace’s biographer, profiles Hans Ulrich Obrist. It’s a somewhat ambiguous portrait, with some back-handed compliments (from Ed Ruscha, for example). The story of how he started out is particularly impressive:

Obrist was born in Zurich and grew up in a small town near Lake Constance. His father was a comptroller in the construction industry, his mother a grade-school teacher. An only child, he found school “too slow,” and other Swiss found his vitality off-putting. “People would always say that I should go to Germany,” he remembered. His parents were not particularly interested in art, but on several occasions they took him to a monastery library in the nearby city of St. Gallen. He admired the antiquity of the books, the silence, the felt shoes. “You could make an appointment and, with white cloths, touch the books,” he said. “That’s one of my deepest childhood memories.”

When he was around twelve, he took the train to Zurich, where he fell in love with “the long thin figures” at a Giacometti exhibition. Soon he was collecting postcards of famous paintings—“my musée imaginaire,” he calls it. “I would organize them according to criteria: by period, by style, by color.” One day, when he was seventeen, he went to see a show by the artists Peter Fischli and David Weiss at a Basel museum. He was engrossed by their “Equilibrium” sculptures—delicately balanced metal-and-rubber constructions. He had been reading Vasari’s biographical sketches of the artists of the Renaissance, and it struck Obrist that he could try to meet creators, too. He reached out to Fischli and Weiss with this rap: “I’m a high-school pupil and I’m really, really obsessed by your work and I’d love to visit you.” He told me, “I really didn’t know what I wanted. It was just this desire to find out more.” Fischli and Weiss were amused by the precocious Obrist, and welcomed him to their Zurich studio. They were filming their now famous short film “The Way Things Go,” in which an old tire rolls down a ramp, knocking over a ladder and setting off a chain reaction. On his visit, Obrist discovered a sheet of brown wrapping paper on the floor with the entire Rube Goldberg schema drawn on it. “It was almost like a mind map,” he said.

Soon afterward, Obrist was entranced by a Gerhard Richter exhibition in Bern, and asked Richter if he could visit his studio, in Cologne. “That took courage,” he said. He travelled on the night train from Zurich. “When I arrived, he was working on one of his amazing cycles of abstract paintings,” Obrist said. They talked for ninety minutes. Richter was astonished by Obrist’s passion: “ ‘Possessed’ is the word for Hans Ulrich,” he told me. Richter recommended the music of John Cage. “We discussed chance in paintings and he said he liked playing boules,” Obrist recalled. A few months later, Obrist was in a Cologne park, playing boules with Richter and his friends.

Obrist doggedly arranged to meet other artists whose work he admired. He went to see Alighiero Boetti in Rome. The feverish Boetti may be the only person ever to complain that Obrist didn’t talk fast enough. (In his new book, Obrist writes with delight, “Here was someone with whom I had to struggle to keep up.”) When Obrist asked him how he could be “useful to art,” Boetti pointed out the obvious: that he was born to be a curator.

Obrist wasn’t sure what the job entailed, but he was intuitively drawn to the power of organizing art. As a teen-ager, he visited an exhibition at the Kunsthaus in Zurich: “Der Hang zum Gesamtkunstwerk,” or “Tendency Toward the Total Work of Art.” It highlighted four selections from the past hundred years of modernism: Duchamp’s enigmatic glass construction “The Bride Stripped Bare by Her Bachelors, Even,” and one painting each by Kandinsky, Mondrian, and Malevich. The works had been placed at the center of the Kunsthaus, heightening their effect. Obrist was struck by the intelligence of the man who had organized it: Harald Szeemann. Also a Swiss, Szeemann was one of several curators who had begun to bring a new inventiveness to the age-old job of selecting art to illustrate a theme. Obrist saw the show forty-one times. (Later, of course, he interviewed Szeemann.)

Obrist did not yet feel qualified to put his stamp on the art world. He had the autodidact’s anxiety about not knowing enough. For all his energy, he was not a revolutionary; he was an accumulator of information. But how to find out what artists were doing? “There wasn’t then a place to study,” he said. “I knew of no curator schools.” So he designed his own education. He enrolled at the University of St. Gallen, and majored in economics and social sciences. When not in class, he set out to see as many shows as he could.

Switzerland is well situated if you want to make impulsive trips around Europe. Obrist spoke five languages: German, French, Italian, Spanish, and English. (His English was given a boost by Roget’s Thesaurus, and he still keeps a vocabulary list in a blue notebook that he takes with him—among the latest words are “forage” and “hue.”) He took the night train to avoid hotel bills and arrived in a city the next morning. “I would go to every museum and look and look again,” he remembered. Then he visited local artists. He found that he could improve his welcome if he brought news of what he had seen, plus other artists’ gossip and opinions. “I would go from one city to the next, inspired by the monks in the Middle Ages, who would carry knowledge from one monastery to the next monastery,” he said. At Boetti’s suggestion, he also inquired about unrealized projects, as every artist had some and felt passionate about them. Above all, he listened. “I was what the French call être à l’écoute,” he told me. His youthful intensity sometimes raised concern. Louise Bourgeois, after meeting the teen-age Hans Ulrich, sleep-deprived and suffering from a cold, called his mother in Switzerland and urged her to take better care of her son.

In 1991, Obrist, in his early twenties, finally felt ready. By then, he estimates, he had visited tens of thousands of exhibitions and knew more artists than most professional curators. He chose to hold his first show in the kitchen of his student apartment. “The kitchen was just another place I kept stacks of books and papers,” he recalled. The minimalist gesture seemed appropriate, both as a reaction to the engorged art market of the eighties and as a reflection of the economic slump across Europe. It was also a playful homage: Harald Szeemann had done an exhibit in an apartment.

The idea of the show was to suggest that the most ordinary spaces of human life, cleverly curated, could be made special. Among the friends he included was the French painter and sculptor Christian Boltanski. Under the sink, Boltanski projected a film of a lit candle; the flickering could be seen through the gap in the cabinet doors. “It was like a little miracle where you expect it least,” Obrist remembered. He publicized the exhibit through small cards and word of mouth; still, he was relieved that only thirty people came over the three months it was open. “I was still studying and couldn’t have coped with much more,” he said. Among those attending was a curator from the Cartier Foundation, a contemporary-art museum in Paris. Soon afterward, Cartier offered Obrist a three-month fellowship. Obrist took it, leaving Switzerland for good.

Obrist quickly became a figure on the European art circuit. He was a clearing house for news and relationships, and he was generous—no sooner had he met someone than he helped that person connect with others in his widening circle. If he stayed in a hotel, he cleaned out the postcards in the lobby and mailed them to everyone he could think of. “He had these big plastic bags,” Marina Abramović, who met him in Hamburg in 1993, recalled. “I always wanted him to empty them and list all that was inside. . . . He would have information of every single human being—every artist living in a favela!” She remembered him as astonishingly innocent, an adjective that many still use for him. Many artists saw his unchecked commitment as a counterpart to their own. The French artist Philippe Parreno said, “For me, there is no difference between talking to him and talking to other artists. I am engaged at the same level.” Obrist once conducted an interview with Parreno while driving him from the Dublin airport to Connemara, and became so deeply absorbed that he didn’t realize he was on the wrong side of the street.

Obrist continued to set up shows in unusual locations. He put on an exhibit of Richter’s paintings in the country house where Nietzsche wrote part of “Also Sprach Zarathustra,” and a show in a hotel restaurant where Robert Walser, the Swiss writer, used to stop during long walks through the mountains. A third took place in Room 763 at the Hotel Carlton Palace, in Paris, where Obrist was then staying. In one part of the exhibit, called “The Armoire Show,” nine artists created clothes for the closet. With Fischli and Weiss, he toured the Zurich sewer museum. “They had toilets and urinals on plinths and had never heard of Duchamp,” he marvelled. This inspired him to put together “Cloaca Maxima,” which featured art about lavatories and digestion. The show opened in 1994, in and around the Zurich sewers.

The Dark Arts

A short story by Ben Marcus
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Ben Marcus is a contemporary writer everyone should be reading. ‘The Dark Arts’, first published in the New Yorker in 2013, forms part of his latest book, the superb collection Leaving the Sea (published by Granta Books in the UK).

On a dark winter morning at the Müllerhaus men’s hostel, Julian Bledstein reached for his Dopp kit. At home, he could medicate himself blindfolded, but here, across the ocean, it wasn’t so easy. The room stank, and more than one young man was snoring. The beds in the old gymnasium were singles, which didn’t keep certain of the guests from coupling when the lights went out. Sometimes Julian could hear them going at it, fornicating as if with silencers on. He studied the sounds when he couldn’t sleep, picturing the worst: animals strapped to breathing machines, children smothered under blankets. In the morning he could never tell just who had been making love. The men dressed and left for the day, avoiding eye contact, mesmerized in the glow of their cell phones.

Julian held his breath and squeezed the syringe, draining untold dollars’ worth of questionable medicine into the flesh of his thigh. He clipped a bag holding the last of his money to the metal underside of his bed. His father’s hard-earned money. Not enough euros left. Not nearly enough. He’d have to make a call, poor-mouth into the phone until his father’s wallet spit out more bills.

He left the hostel and took the stone path down to nothing good. This morning he was on his way, yet again, to meet Hayley’s train. Sweet, sweet Hayley. She would fail to appear today, no doubt, as she had failed to appear every day for the past two weeks. It seemed more and more likely that his lovely, explosively angry girlfriend wouldn’t be joining him in Germany—even though they’d spent months planning the trip, Julian Googling deep into his unemployed afternoons back home, Hayley pinging him sexy links from work whenever she could. A food-truck map, day treks along the Königsallee. First they’d destroy England and France, lay waste to the Old World, then drop into freaking Düsseldorf for the last, broken leg of the journey.

It was meant to be a romantic medical-tourist getaway, a young invalid and his lady friend sampling the experimental medicine of the Rhine. But they’d fought in France, and he’d come to Düsseldorf ahead of her. Now he waited not so hopefully, not so patiently—dragging himself between the hostel, the train station, and the Internet café, checking vainly for messages from Hayley—while seeking treatment at the clinic up on the hill.

Treatment—well, that perhaps wasn’t the word for it. His was one of the incurable conditions. An allergy to his own blood, as he not so scientifically thought of it. An allergy to himself was more like it. His immune system was confused, fighting against the home team. Or his immune system knew exactly what it was doing. These days, autoimmune diseases were the most sophisticated way to undermine yourself, to be your own worst enemy.

Back home, he’d tried it all—the steroids, the nerve blocks, the premium plasma—and felt no different. He’d eaten only green food until it ran down his legs. Then for a long time he’d tried nothing. He’d tried school, then tried dropping out, living, in his mid-twenties, in his old room in his father’s house. Through it all, though, he had mostly tried Hayley, as in really, really tried her, and he could see how very tried she’d become.

It was Hayley who’d pushed for this trip, so that Julian could finally have a shot at the new medical approach they’d read so much about, a possible breakthrough with rare autoimmune disorders. In Germany, a shining outpost on the medical frontier, doctors tried what was forbidden or unconscionable elsewhere. And for a fee they’d try it on you. Massive doses of it. You could bathe in its miracle waters. You could practically get stem-cell Jell-O shooters at the bar on Thursday nights. So long as, you know, you waived—yes, waived—goodbye to your rights, your family, your life. It was not such a terrible trade.

On Julian’s first day, the clinic staff had brandished a very fine needle. It had gleamed in the cold fluorescent light of the guinea-pig room. From Julian’s wheezing torso, the doctors had drawn blood and marrow, his deep, private syrup—which they then boiled and spoon-fed back to him until he sizzled, until he just about glowed. Of course, the whole thing was more complicated than that, particularly the dark arts they conjured on his marrow once they’d smuggled it out of him. They spun it, purified it, damn near weaponized it, then sold it back to him for cash. Zero-sum medicine, since he’d grown it himself, in what Hayley, digging into his ribs, had called “the Julian Farm.” Except that the sum was a good deal larger than zero.

And after a few weeks, or so the idea was, you’d be better. In his wellness fantasies, Julian always pictured himself scrubbed clean, nicely dressed, suddenly funny and charming. Better in every goddam way. But, of course, throughout these treatments, as he’d discovered, the frowning doctors hedged and balked and shat caveats, until the promise of recovery was off the table, out of the room, nowhere near the building.

(…)

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