For María Charris, the darling of my eyes.
The bluish light of the computer began to outline the room.
The sound of the catflap announced the arrival of Duchamp, returning from his customary stroll on the roofs to demand his dinner.
I felt that the studio was too tidy. Such cleanliness indicated one of those biological pauses in the artist’s activity prior to the combat against materials and ideas, prior to the hunt for miracles, sometimes rewarded with insignificant pieces and sometimes with white rhinoceroses.
Canvases stretched taut, brushes cleaned, files neatly arranged: a great invitation to disorder, an engine waiting to be set in motion.
When I went and sat in front of the computer, the usual image on the screen had been replaced by a large yellow note, one of those electronic post-its that we sometimes used to remember appointments and things to be done.
I saw that something strange had happened: the yellow note reminded me of one of those oracles hidden in fortune cookies in certain Chinese restaurants.
“I’m a long way away. Not running or hiding: not disappearing.
I’m making a journey to the future. I don’t know how long it will last, or what I’ll find on the way, but you know I always come back. In the end my sensible side always wins, my absurd loyalty to the principles of the Good Boys’ Constitution. But I need this challenge flung at fate, which is both so generous and so tyrannical. Feed my tortoises.
You’ll be hearing from me. Mateo.”
What on earth was my idiotic brother talking about? Why the stupid melodramatic tone? Running away, hiding, disappearing—those were not the words I was expecting to hear at that moment.
I only calmed down slightly by convincing myself that it was all some game that Mateo was up to, making fun of the anxiety I’d been feeling in the last few days when I saw there was no way of starting the exhibition to which we were committed.
It must be a joke. I would certainly make him pay somehow for the hours of sleeplessness and apprehension, for the great sack of fleas that he’d flung on my bed when he decided to write that wretched yellow note.
The following day I tried to find him. Nobody knew anything about him among our family or friends or at our gallery. His house was empty and he hadn’t turned up at the studio.
The days went by in a mixture of uncertainty and checking out possibilities: hospitals, police, discreet phone calls …
I decided to wait a few days before telling anyone about his strange absence.
The next news came by e-mail from some strange place in South America.
I know you hate what you call my cinematic gestures, but you’ve known me for ages (ever since you were about ten minutes old), so I don’t know what you’re so surprised about.
Futuro is a wind-lashed harbour with rusty buildings and travellers in transit.
When they ask you, tell them I’m in Benidorm.”
The message had been sent from the Columbus Residence in Futuro, Tierra del Fuego, an operetta destination worthy of my brother’s wanderings.
It was one of those journeys that, despite being tremendously inconvenient, was filling my brother’s head with all kinds of featherbrained ideas. The very ideas that we needed so desperately to make our paintings take wings.
I didn’t know whether I wanted to kill him or throw my arms around him, whether to break his house up with an axe or sit down and watch the nostalgic Super-8s of our childhood.
I didn’t know whether to love him or loathe him, and I can’t wait another minute to tell you the reason why.
You may have heard of the McCharris brothers. Or maybe not—I’m not one of those artists who think that the whole world has a duty to know who they are.
At any rate, we are among those artists who are set on launching their toy aeroplane into a sky crammed with toy aeroplanes.
The only peculiar thing about us is that we are an artist with two members—like Gilbert & George or Equipo Límite—and, what’s more, we’re twins.
The art world has decided that my brother Mateo is the thinker, the brains, the ideas man, and that I, Ángel McCharris, am the craftsman, the hands, the form. A categorisation simplistic enough to delight the art establishment.
So Mateo is the smart clumsy good guy, and Ángel is the stupid skilful bad guy.
I’m prepared to accept that basically that’s the way it is, and that neither of us amounts to anything without the other—not much more than a prattler and a dauber—and that only when we are together can we get close to doing what we want.
Let’s say that things were going relatively well at this stage in our career—which was beginning, still just beginning—and that we were facing one of those challenges that would strengthen us or cause us to perish in the attempt: our first solo exhibition for a major museum—an appointment with glory or an invitation to disaster.
My brother and I decided that the word “anthological” smacked of early retirement, so we decided on a large solo exhibition: dozens and dozens of pictures that would be as fantastic as the ones from our previous work that seemed fantastic to other people. Our firm decision silenced the doubts of the curator, Oskar Grosz, our dealers, Raimon and Leopoldo, and all those who trusted in us, while at the same time sharpening the knives of our beloved detractors.
We planned the work conscientiously, establishing timetables and priorities: all very European and professional.
The studio gradually became full of canvases and stretchers, boxes of paint and good intentions.
Every day we met to look for the key that would set the perfectly-oiled engine in motion. We searched everywhere for it, in books and in our notes, in the street and in museum galleries, but we couldn’t find it anywhere.
My brother took it very hard—remember that it was his job to do the thinking—and I felt incapable of doing anything without knowing what or why.
Our boat drifted on with a huge hole in its sails.
The falling pages of the calendar formed a thick blanket over us.
I couldn’t blame my brother for running off, especially since I knew he’d gone to the world’s end to hunt for the damned key.
The curator was on the point of coming over to Spain to see the first pieces for the exhibition. Our dealers were beginning to get nervous, and all I could think of doing was to keep tidying the studio.
A little pressure always helps, but with my brother’s disappearance I could see that any second I was going to burst: the canvases in the studio would be an Informalist explosion of matter: in the middle of the gallery there would be a hand clutching a broom.
The sound of the doorbell interrupted my ruminations just as I was starting to compose my obituary in my mind.
“We are the dealers of the sensation of the year 2000!”
“OK, I’ll throw down the key.”
It was the first time I’d been glad that the studio was on a third floor without a lift, and that the entryphone was broken. It gave me the time I needed to turn round the immaculate canvases and compulsively disarrange the tell-tale tidiness.
“Come in, and mind the oil paint.”
Leopoldo and Raimon sat down in the mess I’d managed to create in a couple of minutes.
“Sorry, I couldn’t find the key.”
“No problem. Where’s Mateo?
I could feel one of those snowballs beginning to roll that end up in an avalanche of unforeseeable consequences.
“Benidorm? And what’s he doing there?”
“Taking photos. We need them for a couple of pictures.”
Raimon got up and went over to a pile of stretchers.
“No, no. They can’t be seen.”
“Don’t be silly. I’m dying to see what you’re up to.”
“They’re half-finished. It’s bad luck.”
Lying is certainly not one of the fine arts for which I’m particularly endowed.
“I’m sorry. And if Mateo finds out he’ll kill me. He’s awfully superstitious.” This was the kind of nonsense that people might attribute to the eccentric artistic temperament.
“Never mind, we don’t want to put a jinx on them.” Leopoldo was the conciliatory, discreet one of the two.
“Leopoldo’s right,” I said with relief. “Wait a while. It’s better to see them when they’re finished.”
Raimon was suspicious, but he had some news that he was itching to let out of the bag.
“Sit down, there’s something I’ve got to tell you.”
I sat down more calmly as I saw the storm receding.
“You’re going to exhibit at the MCAC.”
The Museum of Contemporary Art in Cockaigne was one of those contemporary art centres set up with the backing of an autonomous region: a prestigious, renowned temple of modernity.
“I’m deeply moved by your eloquence,” said Raimon, who was expecting a more effusive response from me.
“No, really, it’s fantastic. Just wait till I tell Mateo. But … has it been confirmed?”
“Tell him about the c with a cedilla,” said Leopoldo laconically.
“A trifle. I’ll tell you in a minute.”
Raimon accidentally trod on Duchamp and the cat screeched and jumped up onto a cupboard.
“The MCAC is organising a grand exhibition for the start of the century. It’s called Thoroughly Modern, and you’re all going to be in it.”
“All the people who ought to be.”
I had a vague idea of what he meant, although I wasn’t sure that all the people who ought to be in the exhibition would be.
“It’s cost me blood, sweat and tears to make them accept a figurative style like yours—you know how they are with the new media and all that—but I sorted it out by sending them some photos of a monitor on which they were showing a video of your work.”
“Photos of a monitor with paintings?”
“Maquiavelo Art Gallery, that’s what we’re going to call ourselves from now on,” commented Leopoldo incisively.
“Well, it’s all settled. But there’s a problem. You know how they all are with their nationalisms. So I told them your ancestors were from Cockaigne and that your surname was really written with a c with a cedilla, like all the other surnames from there.
“McCharris with a cedilla? Where? On the first or second c?”
“On both. MçÇharris.”
I was beginning to believe that we were really caught up in one of those eccentric courts in Gulliver’s Travels.
“Wait till my father finds out.”
“He’ll just have to put up with it.”
Raimon jumped at the sound of a car hooting in the street. He was badly parked.
Leopoldo played the part of the friendly policeman in interrogations as far as relations between the gallery and its artists were concerned.
“Don’t take any notice of him, I expect he’s joking. He’s got a good heart really.” And he added with a twinkle: “But it’s a bit tough in the middle.”
“As the century proceeds, this small notch in the mighty helm helps to give patinas of respectability and mildew to great words: new, novelty, modernity …
The ‘new’ theories and tendencies now belong to the last century, faded youth that has to demonstrate its worth far from the freshness of adolescence.
All belonging to the twenty-ninth century:1 installation, conceptual, postmodern, cubist and surrealist, dada and neo-postist, painters and cyber-artists. All at the start of a century that should not award carte-blanche with the same ease with which kings are crowned in magazines of real-life romance stories.
Tradition grows, swallowing up anti-traditionalists and devotees, hawkers of chimeras and archaeologists with their Roman numerals.
But also it forgets, sets aside, spits out, dances on tombs, restores Cinderella to her rightful place, sets light to bonfires …”
The cryptic messages that my brother sent by e-mail were the only connection between us. I tried to answer them, but his trail slipped away like time in an hourglass.
“In painting, for me, above all you have to deceive the eye, make a window in the wall, illusions, representations, distortions, caricatures, pouring, delirious ornamentation, sadism and incisions, therapy … clowning, acrobatics, heroics, self-pity, blame, anguish, supernaturalism and subhumanism, divine inspiration and daily expiration … mannerism and techniques, communication and information, magic tools, tricks of the trade, structure, pictorial qualities, impastos, plasticity, relationships … and irrationalism, low level of awareness, return to nature, reduction to reality, holding the mirror up to life, abstraction of everything, nonsense, commitment, and above all blending painting with what is not painting.
McCharris about, according to, after, against, because of, between, for, from, of, without Ad Reinhardt.”
I detected changes in Mateo’s cerebral activity: a kind of mental indigestion and a high temperature.
I knew him very well, and so I noticed his efforts to move forward slowly in the encumbering quicksand into which we had stumbled. I felt his neurones waking and reorganising themselves in some indeterminate direction.
I knew this was going to go on for some time, so I resorted to an old tactic from my childhood.
It was important for everyone to believe that there was nothing wrong, so I revived the classic game of swapping places that used to cause our parents and teachers so much confusion when we were kids.
By making a few alterations to my hair and sideburns and checking out the wardrobe I could become Ángel or Mateo according to whatever I fancied at any given moment.
There were not many people who could tell the difference, and I was not planning to see any of them while all this continued.
My first public appearance as Mateo McCharris was at the launch of a magazine for which my brother had written an article.
I tried to be as discreet as possible: not talking much and doing a lot of listening, with that charming nonchalance that I had picked up from Duchamp (the cat and the artist).
But one cannot organise one’s attitude all the time, and almost without realising it I ended up being interviewed for a cultural programme on TV.
“How would you define the art of the twentieth century in a single word?”
And there I was, caught up in one of those impossible questions that certain interviewers like so much, obliged to be brilliant, condemned to appear stupid, and not understanding why works of art—poor things—should be affected by the silly pedantic utterances of their creators.
“Arcimboldi,” I said, just for something to say.
“Arcimboldi. Too many Arcimboldis for one century.”
“Could you explain the concept for us a little?” The interviewer seemed quite interested.
“Too many Arcimboldis spending all their lives making portraits of fruit, courtly games, bright ideas exploited to the nth degree, fragments of fragments of a human being’s life.”
I think it was the first time I had managed to string together a sentence that had some kind of meaning in the presence of a journalist. It was as if I had become a ventriloquist’s dummy for my brother, moving my mouth until the words formed sentences and expressed ideas …
“The left hand turning its back on the right hand, form running away from concept, concepts running away from matter … Artists concentrating on ever-diminishing areas, turning into specialists, becoming molecular scientists, not knowing about anything except their study of the African flea, the albino African flea …”
“What do you think the next century has in store for us?” asked the interviewer, looking at his watch.
“Total art of total humanity.”
And I felt just great.
“Something has happened recently that has made me think of oracles, coded messages and warning signs.
One night last week I was sitting in the porch of the small hotel where I’m staying. Absorbed as I was in the book by Arthur Danto about the end of art, I didn’t notice a shadow creeping up.
When I raised my eyes, a bloodstained woman flung herself at me.
After the initial shock, I recognised Ely, a transvestite who worked in a little makeshift bar in the harbour, who had come to ask for help and had stumbled and fallen on top of me.
We carried her to her room and called the doctor.
Some drunken sailors had started taking the mickey out of her and the party had ended up with a beating to emphasise their manliness and normality compared with Ely’s strange ambiguity.
I’ve been visiting her during the last few days, while her bruises were healing and her eyes reappearing between swollen eyelids, and she told me her story.
Ely, who has all the signs of being a native, was a trade union leader with Allende and fodder for Pinochet’s torture squads, an outcast homosexual with no money who now wants to be a woman in a macho society.
Ely is an art lover, so yesterday I took her to a see a nice reproduction of Saint Sebastian which I’d come across in a junk shop. Her face lit up and for a while she forgot about the pain and liniment. In her little room we travelled to Tuscany and the Renaissance, joked with Artemisia Gentilleschi and tasted Leonardo’s polenta.
Isn’t that what art is? Simply consolation for the blows of outrageous fate, a ticket to other realities, an exit visa …
And we are simply pedlars of miraculous medicines in the fairground.
I would never be able to beat up those Yugoslav sailors, so I was already thinking about pictures and exhibitions, about Hans Haacke and Alfredo Jaar, and about Ben Shahn.
I’ve got a book on philosophy with bloodstains on it, life stains, and that reaffirms what I was telling you the other day: you have to blend art with everything that isn’t art.
At the end of our chat, Ely told me sadly that she liked pictures and stories of saints very much, and added:
‘It’s a pity that I’ve decided to become Jewish.’
And I saw her walking off down the path of solitary strollers.”
While Mateo’s messages came trickling in, I began to occupy my time with things that would keep me entertained.
For years my brother and I have been collecting little dolls and figures, models and scenes: all sorts of bits and pieces.
Our enthusiasm started when we were children, when we used to make the usual Nativity scenes every Christmas.
We had acquired a certain skill in making streams with chocolate wrappers and vegetation with coloured cork.
Our collection of miniatures had become increasingly eclectic and varied with time: ranging from the extremes of kitsch internationalism to the colourful world of cartoon films.
I used the empty tables in the studio to bring together figures and backgrounds, creating impossible encounters and miniature worlds. I bought some ready-made boxes and began to stick the little scenes together and paint them.
And without any effort on my part the stories that my brother relayed to me suddenly took their places in the boxes. Between what was politically or cynically correct, between the enchanting indifference of modern art and naïve enthusiasm for tradition the boxes selected their own path: the yellow brick road of the McCharris brothers.
Nicolas Poussin used to make models with the figures and backgrounds that would later appear in his compositions. Now none of them remain, but I think they would be fairly similar—allowing for the passage of the centuries—to the ones I made during those days.
I enjoyed making them so much that I was sure that it was art—or perhaps sin.
One eye on Poussin and the other on Joseph Cornell: a nice intellectual alibi.
Things like this only used to occur to my brother, so I put it down to the sense of abduction that I had begun feeling on the day when I was Ángel and Mateo McCharris at the same time.
“I imagine you’re anxiously awaiting my return. I suppose I feel remorse, even though I know that what I’ve done is right.
Perhaps you’d like to accept the challenge that I offer you.
I’ve taken a lot of photographs with my digital camera. A traveller I ran into in Punta Arenas let me use his laptop computer, so I prepared some digital collages which I’m sending you in a file attached to this e-mail.
They’re negatives for making gum bichromates, like the nineteenth-century pictorialists, Stieglitz and Co., the representatives of troglodyte photography.
I provide the 21st century and you provide the 19th. Stir and serve in a tall glass.
I’m also sending you a text for you to send to Charris so that he can publish it in his Naval.
It’s an ‘Ode to Internet’.
We don’t seem to realise how absolutely incredible it is that this medium has burst into our lives. I imagine that when Gutenberg was printing his first books life went on unaware and uninterested, indifferent to the vaccine that was being inoculated into its arteries: a vaccine against stupidity, tyranny, intransigence, …
I’m beginning to long for a more generous sun and a less foreign style of cooking.”
The loneliness of working in the studio leads artists to group together with other specimens of their herd, even forming collectives, brotherhoods, lodges irremediably condemned to failure through the very nature of their members: a union of the non-unionised. Sometimes the meetings and discussions end up as crusades which some of their members—the more decisive or energetic ones—launch against any windmill they come across. Often these meetings are a huge pretext for a long Mediterranean after-dinner discussion with wine and liqueurs, with utopias and revolutions that are silenced by the sound of coins clattering on the collecting-plate.
The meal to which Cristiani invited me on the terrace of the Yacht Club sounded just like that. I was the first to arrive, so I ordered myself a good dose of sea breeze and fried fish.
Cristiani arrived later, with a file full of papers and preoccupations.
“I want you to read the manifesto before the others get here. We’re thinking of publishing it in the main art magazines, even the ones of the other side.”
Cristiani was particularly prone to paranoia and conspiracy theories.
“At the end there’s a list of those who’ve already signed.”
I began reading it while I was starting on my second beer. At first it looked like a thoroughly solemn document, with lots of words standing out in bold.
“We are about to usher in a new century. The criteria considered most progressive by historians and museums clearly support installations, montages, videos, projections, performances … in an attempt to dump painting in the attic once again with the other old knick-knacks. Any creative effort that smells of oil paint and turpentine and any movement that sets out to support it is immediately branded as being reactionary and anachronistic. Any attempt to review history that does not follow the hackneyed paths of official history is irremediably condemned to receive the not always well-intentioned barbs of the high priests of the temple …”
I was beginning to get some idea of what the battle was all about.
A boat on its way back from fishing came into harbour. Dozens of shrieking seagulls fought for the scraps that the sailors threw into the water.
“… Any hint of paying any consideration to painted work, even without going into the question of whether it’s figurative, is guaranteed to be greeted immediately by the launching of a crusade in defence of the noble principles of modernity, with the immediate adhesion of the journals, the art theory departments in the faculties, and the artists of sectarianism. Richard the Lionheart and his friends undertaking the defence of democratic ideals against the attempted coup of Painting, which once again threatens with the schoolmaster’s cane of aesthetic absolutism, reviving the spectres of the most ancient academicism.”
“Tumty-tumty-tum, and lots of signatures.”
“What do you mean ‘tumty-tum’?” asked Cristiani, sounding somewhat peeved.
“No, it’s fine. We’ve talked about it lots of times. And you know how I go on the warpath when I come up against rigid minds like the ones you’re talking about.”
“That’s why I was counting on you—on both of you. By the way, what’s Mateo doing in Benidorm?”
“It’s a long story. Let’s get back to the point. I’ll sign. I’m delighted to be together with some of the people who’ve signed your letter—they’re probably some of my favourite artists—but then there are also all those cave-dwellers, those pin-heads who smear oil paint on their toast …”
“Don’t react like that.”
“I’ll sign whatever you like, but you must realise that this week we’ve signed another manifesto: Against Painting.”
“Well, three really. There was another one to get rid of the Ministry of Culture and use its budget to pay off the debts of the Third World. And the third one was to abolish the Ministry of Defence and use its budget for the Ministry of Culture.”
Cristiani gathered together his papers and set about convincing the fried anchovies. The others started to arrive and arguments gave way to laughter and people singing out of tune. In the end, Cristiani’s pieces of paper were used to make hats for a chorus of drunken Napoleons.
The days continued to go by with monotonous precision.
I had managed to put off the arrival in Spain of our Austrian curator, but the new date was also getting perilously close.
My behaviour, apart from driving me mad, was beginning to arouse suspicion.
One evening a confused telephone call came through from a payphone.
“It’s me, Mateo. I’m in Santiago de Chile. I’ll be back in a couple of days.”
And, instead of relieving me, the call began to increase my anxiety. My brother was going to come back with a bagful of fantastic ideas that I would have to lick into shape. Some would be thrown out as being impossible, others would come up in discussions and chance encounters.
The days of being shut up in the studio were coming, with hard work and renunciation, labouring under the weight of the pressure and timetable. Our spirits would spin round like a capricious Ferris wheel, doubts would lure us towards the rocks with their siren songs.
I felt an immense giddiness and a twinge of pain in my willpower. I knew that everything would be all right in the end, one way or another, that the exhibition would open and people would see the pieces—which would please some and not others—and that nobody would know what each of them was concealing: pieces that were frivolous or solemn and dramatic, amusing or obscure …
I knew that I would experience pleasure and suffering, that there would be excitement and disgust, stimulation and enjoyment, but that also the syndrome of the truant would make its appearance: loneliness, anxiety, desperation.
There was a week to go before we would have to provide explanations, a week for the curtain to fall and a new curtain to rise, with no rest or interruptions.
I snuggled down into the armchair for a while and fell at once into one of those dense, deep dreams of the kind that cover reality with a thick layer of dark mist.
I began to hear noises in the studio. People were coming in wearing masks with my face on them—or perhaps my brother’s face. They had numbers on their backs and on their chests the words “Thoroughly Modern”. They wandered round commenting on the blank canvases, and in the background I could hear Leopoldo and Raimon trying to sell some of the pictures. A critic who looked very much like the White Rabbit was stopping in front of every picture and declaring “Hopper and Morandi! Hopper and Morandi!” Someone emerged from the bathroom and shouted: “I’m sorry, I’ve broken the cistern!” And alphabet soup began to flow out under the door. Soup that gradually flooded the room with its random words, its stock phrases and its indecipherable discourse. The critic paused in front of the fire extinguisher and murmured “Hopper and Morandi! Hopper and Morandi!” I was just beginning to get dizzy when Hergé and Arnold Böcklin grabbed me by the arms and dragged me out into the fresh air.
I woke up soaked in sweat. On the table there was a catalogue of Spilliaert which I began to browse through. I found all the peace I needed in his night views of Ostend, so I connected with Internet and got a ticket to Tintinlandia.
I wrote a yellow note which would be the first thing my brother would find when he turned on the computer.
“I’m a long way away. Not running or hiding: not disappearing.
I’m going to Benidorm.
1 Translator’s note [sic]: We have put “twenty-ninth” (instead of “twentieth”, belonging or related to the 20th century) because it is closer to the word “nineteenth”, with which it is related in the context.
Catalogue Ángel Mateo Charris. IVAM. Valencia, 1999.