8 September 2020

The Fantasy of the Novel

David Maroto
The Fantasy of the Novel

In 2016–18, Joanna Zielińska and I commissioned artist Alex Cecchetti to produce a new artist’s novel with the support of the Ujazdowski Castle Centre for Contemporary Art, in Warsaw. Alex proposed a plan that entailed five episodic performances and an exhibition, all at the service of the creation of a narrative that would be then written up as a murder mystery called Tamam Shud (loosely based on the Rubáiyát of Omar Khayyám and the unresolved case of the Somerton man). Parallel to the development of this project, I carried out research in order to examine the creative processes at play in the creation of an artist’s novel. A narrative account appeared to be the most suitable means to convey such processes. In other words: I wrote a novel, called The Fantasy of the Novel, about the process of creation of an artist’s novel. The protagonist in The Fantasy of the Novel is in the position of a detective who tries to understand the conditions under which an artist decides to write, and how such a thing is possible within an artistic setting. In The Fantasy of the Novel, the actual events during the production of Tamam Shud become fictionalized, and those who took part in it (artist, curators, editors, audience) become characters with their own voices and their own conflicting desires. 

Mousse Publishing has recently published The Fantasy of the Novel as Part 2 of a double-volume book called The Artist’s Novel: The Novel as a Medium in the Visual Arts. What follows is an excerpt from Chapter 10 in The Fantasy of the Novel, called “The Ferryman of Hades.” It narrates Alex’s fifth performative “Episode” in the series, which took place in the University of Warsaw’s Botanic Garden, in June 2017.

Walking Backwards was the fifth and final performance in the Tamam Shud project before the exhibition and the artist’s novel publication. It consisted in a guided tour through the botanical garden on a one-to-one basis, in which each visitor, who had previously booked a specific time slot, was assigned her own private guide to take her for a 35-minute walk. With five performers plus Alex it was thus possible to do six walks per hour. Since the piece was spread over the next two days, 29 and 30 June, from 5 p.m. to 9 p.m., it meant that a total of 48 people would be able to enjoy it. Alex trained the performers for three days before the performance. Like many of his previous pieces, Walking Backwards wasn’t new; he had already carried it out elsewhere. But now, in the context of his murder mystery writing process, it was supposed to acquire a different connotation.

When I arrived at the entrance of the botanical garden, around 3 p.m., an old lady inside a booth started to scream “Panie, panie!” I realized I hadn’t paid for the ticket, when Michał, Joanna’s assistant and now also one of Alex’s performers, came to the rescue. After he calmed the lady down, explaining that I was part of the weird gang walking backwards in the garden, he told me where to find Alex. The botanical garden was large enough to lose sight of someone easily. As I moved through flower beds and intersecting paths, I remembered how gray and sad it looked back in April during our preliminary visit. Now, in late June, the bright weather illuminated its lushness. I walked past a couple of performers rehearsing: both were walking backwards, one after the other, keeping a constant distance, never further than one meter apart. The one acting as the guide was a professional actress (a thin, young blond woman, whom I later learned was called Monika) who whispered stories while pointing to this or that plant. It was evident that they had been doing it for a while, because their four legs, moving in unison, had acquired an odd coordination.

I saw Alex from afar, instructing another performer who I presumed was Charlie. Although it had been my idea to hire him, we had never met before. His British accent, audible when he repeated the sentences he had to memorize, allowed me to identify him. Alex was standing behind him, teaching him how to pronounce certain words:

“Sshhaadow, sshheelter, kiissses, woorsship, ssilence.”

They were so engrossed in their rehearsal that they didn’t notice my presence immediately; they only reacted when I was at arm’s length.

“Oh, hi, David,” Alex said in an aloof tone. We exchanged some brief formulaic chitchat, after which he went back to their training: both walking backwards, Alex in the role of the guide, reciting the script that Charlie had to learn. I followed them at a prudent distance, not to disturb them, yet close enough to hear what they were saying. Alex was very focused; he hardly spoke to me again, or noticed my presence for that matter. I quietly admired his capacity for concentration. In his place, I would have engaged in conversation with the curator who invited me, at the risk of breaking the working mood. 

They stopped under a linden tree. Alex said:

“Its leaves have the shape of a heart. You can eat them, you can eat its flowers, and even its bark. You can make tea out of it, it’ll calm you down.”

They resumed their march, only to soon stop again next to a yew tree. Alex asked Charlie to touch its leaves, then said:

“Don’t lick your fingers, don’t suck on them. Only one drop from its leaves killed the father of Hamlet. Only one arrow from its wood killed Richard the Lionheart. When Dante found the gate of hell, which forest do you think he went through? With the wood of yew, the first bow was made. Never rest under this tree, or you’ll see things that are not there, you’ll hear stories that aren’t true, from voices with no mouth. Don’t sleep under this tree, or you’ll never wake up again.”

There it was, once more, the juxtaposition of nurturing, calming, loving references, synthesized in the linden tree (which I associated with the values that Alex attached to the memories of his mother) and the yew tree, which served to introduce Hamlet’s father, as well as stories about death, poisoning, and violence. Although Shakespeare never specifically said that Hamlet’s father was killed by yew (rather, he mentions a mysterious poison called “hebenon”), Alex identified the description of the symptoms, which the ghost describes to his son, with those associated with poisoning from a yew:

Upon my secure hour thy uncle stole,
With juice of cursed hebenon in a vial,
And in the porches of my ears did pour
The leperous distilment; whose effect
Holds such an enmity with blood of man
That, swift as quicksilver, it courses through
The natural gates and alleys of the body;
And with a sudden vigour it doth posset
And curd, like eager droppings into milk,
The thin and wholesome blood; so did it mine;
And a most instant tetter bark’d about,
Most lazar-like, with vile and loathsome crust
All my smooth body.
Thus was I, sleeping, by a brother’s hand,
Of life, of crown, of queen, at once dispatch’d.

A question crossed my mind: Did yew kill the Somerton man as well? The coroner suspected that he died by the effect of an untraceable poison. For some time I thought it to be ricin—for no particular reason, just because it was the only undetectable poison I knew about, thanks to Breaking Bad. However, it turned out that evidence of poisoning by yew may be entirely absent too, so Alex’s assumption about Hamlet’s father’s death could be correct after all and, why not, applicable to the Somerton man as well. I wondered if Alex would follow this plot line in the artist’s novel.

What did he say? “Only one arrow from its wood killed Richard the Lionheart. With the wood of yew, the first bow was made.” This was the second occurrence of bows in his story. During Episode 1 Alex said, “I really would like that my last memory was me in my mother’s arms . . . and my little bow, aiming proudly at a faraway haystack. ‘Come on boy, shoot. If you shoot, mommy will give you the thing that you want so much.’” Alex, as a little child, accompanied by his mother, shooting an arrow that would kill a king. And, what would be the reward, what could a child possibly want so badly? You can’t get it more Oedipal than this.

We continued the tour. Alex and Charlie halted again after some twenty meters.

“Belladonna. All young ladies from Florence know what it’s for,” Alex said. While standing still behind him, he introduced a dark berry inside Charlie’s field of vision. “One berry, and your eyes become so big and pitch dark as an endless starless night. Two berries make your lips so fat, so red, ready for a kiss. Three berries and it doesn’t matter if your lover is ugly. Your heart will beat as fast as if you’re in love. Berries are for the first night; they open your body like a flower. It helps. But a girl thought the king would be a big king, and the night a long night, and she took five. Poor girl. On her first night with a king, she pissed on herself, on the bed, and on the king. ‘I like it,’ said the king. ‘Can we do it again?’”

“But, Alex, I don’t see any belladonna plant around,” I said.

He pointed at a spot a few meters away, “It’s over there, but so fucked up that I can’t let the visitors see it, so we tell the story from here.”

I walked in the direction he indicated. It was true, the poor belladonna was completely eaten up by some kind of parasite. Beside it there was an equally devoured specimen of mandrake. When I was a child I saw a movie set in medieval Europe, called Flesh + Blood, that opens with a scene in which a young couple meet under a gallows tree. The girl digs in the dirt under a decomposing hanging man, where a mandrake has grown. She unearths the root, which looks like a human figure, and asks the boy to eat it with her, for when a couple does that, they fall in love forever. The young man accepts and explains the reason why mandrake grows at that specific spot: it is said to sprout from a hanged man’s sperm when it drops onto the ground, following an erection at the point of death. I wondered why Alex hadn’t included that plant in his narrative tour. The mandrake’s association with death, love, sex, and the Tarot-like reference to the hanged man were impeccably Tamam Shudesque.

I was so absorbed in my own thoughts that I didn’t notice Alex and Charlie leaving. I caught up with them in time to hear Charlie repeat “Calluna, Calluna, Calluna,” as they passed by a bunch of low plants. As I learned later, Calluna was used centuries ago to brew a kind of beer called gruit, produced extensively in the south of Europe before the use of hops. Its effects were aphrodisiac and stimulating, as opposed to the sedative effects of hopped beer, favored by the Protestants. None of this was spoken by Alex, but the allusion to inebriation was obvious, further emphasized when we walked by a grapevine, “Grapes find the right drugs to keep us working for free.” I instantly associated the mentions of beer and wine with the Rubáiyát ’s dictum to enjoy the pleasures of life:

Awake, my Little ones, and fill the Cup
Before Life’s Liquor in its Cup be dry.

And when, soon after, we passed by a hydrangea flower bed and Alex said, “White or yellow, hortensia will turn blue when it absorbs calcium from the soil. I wonder, who’s buried beneath?” I couldn’t help but recalling Omar Khayyám’s original verse lines that Alex had adapted almost a year before for Episode 2’s e-mail invitation:

I sometimes think that never blows so red
The Rose as where some buried Caesar bled;
That every Hyacinth the Garden wears
Dropt in its Lap from some once lovely Head

The fact that Alex called the flower hortensia triggered an involuntary memory in me. Arthur Rimbaud’s exhortation, “Find Hortense!,” which I read in his poem H long ago—when I was the same age as Rimbaud when he wrote it—resonated in my mind. It was strange how the tour, even when experienced from a distance, was able to make me look back into my past. First Flesh + Blood (a movie that I had completely forgotten), and then Rimbaud, who, in spite of being one of the heroes of my youth, had long languished in a corner of my memory.

We reached a crossroads. One path was leading back to the garden’s entrance, the other one to the exit. Michał, Monika, and the rest of the performers joined us. Alex went through the last lines for everyone to learn:

“Do you remember the first time you ever saw something like this? You were little, you weren’t even walking. You were pushed, and the only thing you were able to see were those trees, those leaves, the sky, and the flickering light. One day, many years from now, they’ll put you on a boat. They’ll slide you gently into the river, and the stream will carry you away. And the only thing you’ll see will be those trees, those leaves, the sky, and the flickering light. Every beginning is already its own end.” At which point the guide would send the visitor off to the garden’s exit. And that would be the end of the performance. The guide would walk to the entrance and wait for the next visitor.

Those words had a familiar air, I had read about the “alignment” of birth and death in the first chapters of Alex’s draft of the novel: “Everything was moving backwards, trees, leaves, clouds, like on a boat slipping calmly down a river. Who knows, maybe someone was pushing me.” The image of a boat at the moment of death evoked new connotations in the puzzle that my mind was trying to piece together from all clues and references scattered throughout the Tamam Shud mystery. It sounded a lot like a description of the Acheron River. I don’t mean the actual river in Greece, but the mythological river that, according to the Roman poet Virgil, the souls of the dead had to cross in order to reach the underworld. The passage was facilitated by Charon and his boat, so that, I speculated, it would be possible to establish a parallel between the walk in the botanical garden and the transition to the afterlife. After all, the performance’s script said, “When Dante found the gate of hell, which forest do you think he went through?” At the beginning of the Divine Comedy, Dante wanders in a forest that Alex claimed to be of yew trees, before being rescued by Virgil, who takes him for a trip through hell. It is known that Virgil, the actual poet, not Dante’s character, located the entrance of Hades, the classical underworld, in the midst of a dark forest. My conclusion was that Walking Backwards was a metaphorical journey through the forest (a botanical garden in this case) that precedes the transit to death, represented through the subjective gaze of the visitor (the dead soul), who is sent off by the guide (Charon) in a boat at the end of the tour. The funny thing, I thought, was that I, too, had used the image of Dante lost in a dark forest in my artist’s novel, The Wheel of Fortune. I was assailed by doubt: Did Alex pick up this idea from me? No, the references to Dante appeared in his project before, they couldn’t be indebted to my work. Though, sure enough, there is a certain scene in my artist’s novel when a character called Seth reads the following lines from the Divine Comedy:

Nel mezzo del cammin di nostra vita
Mi ritrovari per una selva oscura,
Ché la diritta via era smarritta.

Selva oscura means “dark forest” in Italian, and I understood Nel mezzo del cammin di nostra vita (In the middle of the road of our life) to refer to Dante’s age when he decided to commit his life entirely to writing, in his early forties or, in other words, during his midlife crisis. So that, in The Wheel of Fortune, the image of the poet having lost his way in a dark forest serves as a call to action for my protagonist to take a drastic decision and do something significant with his life, following the example of Dante, who devoted his life to the creation of the Divine Comedy so intensely and so earnestly, that the end of his work signified the end of his life. The same can be said of Marcel Proust, who let himself die the moment he finished In Search of Lost Time. This is all marvelously explained by Roland Barthes at the beginning of The Preparation of the Novel, in which he confesses that he, very much like Dante and Proust before him, decided to change his life after the death of his mother—which echoed the death of Beatrice and Proust’s mother, respectively. Barthes’s plan was to write a novel whose preliminary title, as seen in his manuscript notes, was Vita Nuova, obviously reminiscent of Dante’s La Vita Nuova (The New Life).

My train of thought was interrupted the moment Alex took the Polish guides aside to continue their training (they had to make their own translation of the original script into Polish)—but I made a mental note to continue my investigations later. Charlie went back to the beginning of the tour, and I with him. We sat down on a bench at the garden’s entrance; we had a few minutes before it was time for him to resume rehearsing.

“How’s everything going?” I asked—I felt a bit responsible for having got him involved in the performance.

“It’s alright. It’s just a bit difficult to remember the exact itinerary, because I don’t see where I’m going when I walk backwards; also trying not to miss any line about all these plants.”

“I can imagine. If I were a guide, it’d be easier for me to learn the script, because I know the reason why certain plants are included in the tour. As a matter of fact, if I were Alex, I’d have explained a bit of backstory to you guys, for you to be aware of the meaning of the performance and make sense of it, rather than just memorizing a seemingly random text.”

“Oh, so you can tell me what the piece is about,” Charlie said.

“I could. But I’m not going to. I don’t want to spoil Alex’s piece. He must have his reasons if he didn’t explain anything to you guys. Anyway, speaking about the meaning of his work isn’t his style. If I’ve got to know a thing or two about the project it is thanks to my own investigations, not because of him. So I don’t want to disrupt the working dynamic between you and him by disclosing too much information.”

I was sure that the guides would have engaged much more fully with their part had they been told about the inclusion of the linden and the yew trees, and the motifs (mother/love-father/death) that pervaded the Tamam Shud narrative. Or how some lines were directly inspired by the Rubáiyát, which could have been done without explaining why that particular book was so central to the project. But Charlie didn’t seem to care much anyway. He was happy with his limited role, so I didn’t press the issue.

“It’s time for me to start a new round,” he said, “and I need someone to guide. Would you mind helping me?”

“Not at all, let’s go.”

At the start of the tour only Charlie walked backwards, so that we were facing each other. He began by taking me through the rose garden. Speaking of pollination, he proceeded to execute it first by rubbing his finger against the flowers’ pistils, then his nose, and finally his tongue.

Hardly five minutes had passed from the start of the tour, when Charlie asked me to turn around and join his backwards walking style.

“When you walk backwards, the future is on your back, and the past is longing in the distance in front of you, insisting on the horizon. You can mostly tell it goodbye,” Charlie said. “Your future is known, you’re confident.”

Yes, the future is known, because the future is death, and you are confident you are going to die, so you can live to the full with no regrets. It all sounded consistent with Omar Khayyám’s advice:

Come, fill the Cup, and in the Fire of Spring
The Winter Garment of Repentance fling:
The Bird of Time has but a little way
To fly—and Lo! the Bird is on the Wing.

Walking backwards felt weird, especially in a garden, where unexpected paths intersected with yours, or you’d get into the occasional ascending or descending slope without warning. There were parts of the itinerary that went off the paved path, crossing patches of dirt and grass. My only guide was Charlie’s voice; physical contact was restricted to when I walked the wrong direction or an unanticipated turn came. Walking backwards, what a simple thing. Yet, what a cinematographic experience it produces—you become fully aware of your body movements; your vision becomes akin to a camera dolly. As Charlie said, the past is there all the time, receding but always present. And the present is a constant surprise. New elements enter your field of vision: branches, flowers, bushes, and passersby looking at you in awe. Walking Backwards was a truly performative piece, in the sense that it wasn’t only about the text recited by the guide, but about your bodily and visual experience, determined by your moveable, subjective point of view.

Charlie’s hand appeared in my field of vision pointing at a cherry tree:

“When I was older, much older than today, a young girl came here into the garden,” he said. “She was so beautiful I forgot how old I was. ‘What can I do for you, my lady?’ I asked. ‘Would you like to take some cherries for me, sir? Because soon I’ll have a son.’”

As he was impersonating the different voices, he spoke to my right and left ears alternatively, creating a sort of 3-D sound effect.

“‘What? A child?’ I thought, A child means a father, and a father means a man. Blood rushed to my head and, full of rage, I said, ‘Why don’t you ask the father of your child to pick the cherries for you?’ With a smile, she turned to the cherry tree, and the cherry tree bent its highest branches to let her pick the reddest of its cherries. Isn’t it strange?”

It was a strange story, indeed, but also typical of Alex, getting jealous of a man he’s never seen.

The next tree Charlie took me to was a ginkgo:

“This tree is very old, but still wants to mate. Trees have no shame. In a few months from now, the fruits will be on the ground, they’ll crack open, and everything will smell like vomit and sperm.”

I had read elsewhere that the smell of vomit typical of ginkgo’s fruit might have attracted some animals, now extinct, some thousands of years ago. This species is very old indeed, a kind of evolutionary survivor from another era. Wasn’t this a way for Alex to speak about men in their midlife crisis, who are obsessed about aging and therefore losing their libido? Men who, although becoming old, “still want to mate”?

We felt some rain drops. The weather had changed and it was raining lightly. Since it was almost 6 p.m., Alex gathered everyone at the garden’s entrance and called it a day.

All drawings by David Maroto, based on performances and installations from the Tamam Shud project, by Alex Cecchetti.

This text appeared in the book Performance Works edited by Joanna Zielińska, published by Ujazdowski Castle Centre for Contemporary Art and Mousse Publishing, Milan 2019


AuthorJoanna Zielińska (ed.)
TitlePerformance Works
PublisherUjazdowski Castle Centre for Contemporary Art and Mousse Publishing
Published2019 Milan

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