Being in the Art World Sucks and Then You Die
Check out a mind-bending story about an art mover from Eugene Lim's 'Dear Cyborgs.'
Illustration by Lia Kantrowitz; author photo by Ning Li
People are raving about Eugene Lim's novel Dear Cyborgs. The slim book, Lim's third, comes out from FSG Originals on June 6 and is a mind-bending, form-shifting book about superheroes, protest, the art world, Asian American friendship, and the abyss. What's most striking is how brilliantly (and seamlessly) Lim employs slippery narrative techniques in this novel in stories within conversations within dreams. Joshua Cohen calls the book "mad, badass fan letter to comicdom," while Jonathan Lethem says it made him think of Roberto Bolaño and Tom McCarthy. Lim works as a high-school librarian and is also the founder and managing editor of the independent publisher Ellipsis Press. Check out this devastating standalone excerpt below.
—James Yeh, culture editor
I Wanted to Be Somebody
Long after I'd found out he was dead, for a period of about five to six months, Vu would visit me in my dreams. My wife was no longer in the picture. I lived with my son in a shabby two-bedroom. And then, it seemed a very short time later, my son graduated high school and moved out, and I was again alone.
It was in the few months immediately after my son left home that I began dreaming about Vu. The two had somehow become intertwined in my mind.
The dream would always start in the same way, and at first it would seem to have nothing at all to do with Vu. It was instead a memory of my son. In my dream he's about four or five. Our elderly neighbor had had a stroke. I'm standing with my son on the sidewalk, and we're listening to the ambulance's powerful idling engine. And then, after the paramedics had loaded a pale Mrs. Falleagson into it, we watched its red and white lights as it drove away.
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Going up the stairs to the apartment, he had asked, "What does dead mean?" It means you're fucked forever, I didn't say. And then I told him one of a variety of softened lies—to be honest, I don't even remember which. I only remember something in his voice when he'd asked the question.
And in my dream, which I'm suddenly aware is a memory, I struggle to see his childhood face. But the face I thought I saw so clearly now becomes strangely blocked as I try to observe it. He's either turned away, or I'm forced to, or my eyes suddenly water, or he's silent and we're both only looking out a window to the empty road where the ambulance once was.
1. Almost like a relief map, oceanic drifts and mountains. Yellow seas, lost and dead civilizations.
In the dream's logic, the next thing that happens is that I'm walking up First Avenue in Manhattan among a thick crowd that extends, it seems, for miles. I'm walking next to Vu, who asks me the date.
I know it, because I've often thought about it. I tell him it's February 15, 2003. We are participating in the largest antiwar demonstration in human history. Millions of people around the world have taken to the streets to make the public statement that they oppose the imminent war, an opinion that in the coming weeks the US government chooses to utterly ignore. "There's a certain cynicism," Vu says, taking my hand as we ascend in dream flight, "in revisiting this moment." We rise like drones and hover 20 feet above the massive crowd and begin gliding slowly through the skyscraper-made canyons. "I admit not only that," Vu continues, "but also that your son will helplessly return to the void from which he was snatched. Both of which are admissions that help nobody."
2. A constant yet static modulation between abstraction and landscape. An ice palace surrounded by sick fish during a blood-red sunset.
Then Vu says, "In LA I was taking classes at night and working as an art mover in the daytime." (While he is talking we fly to opposite positions in the sky and, like anime characters, begin conjuring energy bursts with our hands and hurling them at each other.) Vu says, "We'd move pieces from warehouse to gallery, or from gallery to warehouse, or from the gallery to some rich dude's mansion. We'd haul and install. It was low pay and backbreaking work, but I liked it because a lot of the time it involved just sitting in the truck and, because the guy I worked with was thankfully a quiet type, this gave me plenty of space and time to think."
3. White demons (or angels), blurred by speed, converging on a corpse. Or maybe just a fire in black and white.
Vu continued: I wanted to be somebody, but I couldn't figure out what that meant. It seemed important to make a name for myself, to not be pushed around and a small fry for the rest of my life, maybe even to push someone else around for a change. I wasn't sure.
But the only thing I was doing was painting. And even though part of me had aspirations there, I couldn't believe they were realistic.
I painted at night, after classes and work, trying to tell myself something. At the time I wasn't sure what, but now it seems terribly clear. I was telling myself that I was angry. And that I felt hopeless. And all I could do, it seemed to me then, was make soundless, impotent flags out of this fact and throw them off into dark deep space. I did this canvas after canvas, bad painting after bad painting, each work blunted with stupid, undeveloped rage. And then, each night, after I'd finished mangling some surface with paint, spent and tense, I'd jerk off and try to sleep.
4. A blown-up detail of a child's cartoon of flying purple ponies, just the mane.
At some point during this time I started hearing about this painter, Sonny Rhee. Friends said she was amazing, and so I decided to see for myself. I went and saw one of her paintings at an exhibit at the Hammer. It made me go out of my mind, it was so good.
But I kept doubting my enthusiasm. I'd go back to look at it, kept getting blown away. My feelings would alternate between envy and admiration. But then I'd doubt myself again, think I was buying into someone else's sophisticated bullshit again—so ubiquitous and insidious and clever these internalizations of someone else's bullshit.
And because I was unwilling to be so duped yet again, I'd go back to see the painting over and over.
5. Everything but the pine tree forest.
Sonny's reputation as a painter was rising, but the reason people knew her name and were talking about her was because she had an eccentric—some would say religious, others would say self-defeating—sense of business. Sonny allowed only 12 of her paintings to exist at any one time. Simultaneously she painted a new picture every month. What this meant was that when she finished a new painting, she would burn her oldest one.
It was an interesting process. Admirable and risky. But what made it even more diabolical was that she wouldn't sell any individual painting. You couldn't purchase a single Sonny Rhee painting. The artist demanded that any buyer purchase all 12 of her paintings. What's more, and this was the clincher, you weren't buying 12 paintings but only her 12 most recent paintings. The purchaser of these works had to sign a contract that obligated them to return, in order for Sonny to destroy it, her oldest painting in exchange for her newest work.
At first people were interested, intrigued, but the risks outweighed any curiosity. What if there was a decline in the work? What if you wanted a de Kooning Excavation and wound up with some Alzheimer goofs. Or maybe she'd paint a dozen middle fingers. People knew Sonny had a wicked sense of humor. Some nonetheless started to become interested. Her paintings were being praised to the skies, and her business demands were conceptually provocative. The sharks began circling. But then she raised the price of the contract. First a million dollars, then 12 million, then 50.
6. Crumbled erosion remnants and a black star to the upper left. Bright reborn white bottom right. In the middle: yellow ruins or a finished plate of runny eggs.
One day we were delivering and installing a huge painting. It was a Hirst or something similar, i.e., vile expensive bullshit. But we also knew that this one sale, and the few like it, were what in large part paid our wages, so we—my partner was an older guy named Sid—had pushed those kinds of thoughts, the bigger-picture thoughts, way down, at least as long as we were in the rich people's houses, and did our best to be invisible and friendly and get the job over with and done.
On that day when we arrive a man with some ambiguous eurozone accent says to us, We're going to put this in the office, and he leads us to a large sun-filled room. We then spend the better part of an hour installing this massive painting of primary colored dots, which might as well have been dogs playing poker, over some banker's desk.
After we've finished, the man returns to assess its effect. Over his face breaks what can only be called an astoundingly self-satisfied and cartoonishly evil grin. He catches me looking at him and at first doesn't say anything, just gives me a conspiratorial wink. This was Neil.
We became friends, not great friends, but he was nonetheless a pivotal person in my life, because of two things. First, he represented a philosophy of parasitism that I came to respect but eventually had to reject. And second, he introduced me to Sonny.
His job, which he'd freely admit was sordid and neck deep in hypocrisy, was working for one of the better-known galleries in LA. He was basically employed to buy art to complement the interior design of rich people's homes. Until I met Neil, I'd never known what people meant when they said of someone that they had "beautiful manners." Though he'd grown up the only son of a divorced civil servant in Cologne, he'd been a brilliant student and ended up at ETH Zurich and then had gotten a PhD in art history from Berkeley. While he was a good negotiator, was extremely smart, and had mastered a kind of anthropological study—that is, he had absorbed and could mimic, signal, and manipulate the habits, vocabulary, and fashions of the ultrarich—what truly made him excellent at his job was that he was thin and tall and looked exquisite in a suit.
One day, after I tell him about the painting that I've spent hours gazing at, he tells me not only does he know Sonny Rhee but he's on decent terms with her. In fact, he's on such good terms that he gets me an invitation to a monthly dinner party at Rhee's place.
7. What Icarus saw, drowning.
It was a strangely intimate but subdued dinner. There were about ten of us. Rhee didn't talk much. Neil and a couple other wits dominated the conversation, which the rest of us, I think, were both annoyed by and grateful for. Logs were burning in the fireplace, and next to it, looking like the ready kindling it was, lay the painting. While I tried to examine it, it was too difficult to really see it in the middle of the party.
Someone served dinner and poured wine. Sonny then stood and picked up the painting and set it gently into the fire. I gasped but everyone else took it in stride. We lifted our glasses. It seemed Sonny gave me a kind, sad smile, but maybe it was for everyone. We toasted the burning painting and then began to eat. The flue was in good order and well maintained. We barely could smell the acrid scent from the burning oils.
8. Five heavy chairs in a room around a table in a field a great distance away in the back middle of the frame. Almost obscured.
I was hired as Sonny's assistant. I more or less begged her for the job, and Neil put in a good word for me. I dropped out of school and quit the art-moving gig.
One afternoon I asked her, "Why just 12?"
"Why just 12 paintings?"
She stopped and looked at me. Then she said, "Because of Tehching Hsieh."
She pulled down a large coffee table book called Out of Now.
9. Magnified brain scans of people watching glamorized photos of death in war.
"He was born in Taiwan," Sonny said. "To get here he got a job as a seaman on an oil tanker, and then he jumped ship and lived in the US illegally for many years. In the late 70s and early 80s he made six important performance works. No one really knew who he was. He was kind of a whisper; people talked about him, but he had barely an audience to speak of. His performances would last one year. The year is an important measurement of time for humans, he says, because it's the largest single unit of time that occurs naturally. He calls his artwork just acts of wasting time, which is all, he says, we ever do.
"His first one-year performance," Sonny continued, flipping through the book to show me, "began in 1978. For a year he lived in a wooden cage and did nothing. He forbid himself to talk, read, or write. A friend brought him food and took away his waste." As she flipped through the pages of the book I saw a young man through cage bars, lying on a bed. "His second one-year performance was probably, I think, his toughest, at least physically. It's called Time Clock Piece, and while the former project had him confined by space, this confined him also by time. He punched in to a time clock in his apartment once every hour for a year. He therefore couldn't sleep for more than an hour or go very far from his apartment."
I flipped through pages of the book all showing film stills of a man next to a time clock. In the beginning his head was shaven, but as I turned the pages I saw his hair grow longer, finally coming down to his shoulders.
"He photographed himself at each punch-in and put together a film, which proceeds at a rate of 24 frames per second, so when you see this all put together, every second represents one day."
"What happened to him?" I asked.
"His fifth and sixth projects were different and are about not making art, or about making art and becoming invisible. In his last work he vows to make art but not to show it publicly for thirteen years. And he does this. At the end of this span, which coincides with his 49th birthday, on December 31, 1999, all Tehching Hsieh reports about his trial is: I kept myself alive. And since then, he says he hasn't made any art."
"Tehching Hsieh," Sonny concludes, "gave me an understanding about time and patience. But what he really gave me, the most important thing, was something else. He gave me a kind of realism about protest art. Tehching Hsieh says, I don't think that art can change the world. But at least art can help us to unveil life."
10. Scenes from a romance.
In the end I did something to piss Sonny off and eventually lost the job. She had a strict policy of not allowing anyone to photograph her work. Of course I photographed it as much as possible.
She caught me and said she was going to fire me, but as I was pleading my apology, she suddenly snapped her fingers, smiled, and said she'd thought of a suitable punishment. She was going to give me a job. I was to write her catalog. For each of her paintings I was allowed to write a very brief description. There would be no images in the catalog, so my words would be the only sanctioned remains of her work.
11. Outer space.
She was right about it as a punishment. It was a merciful but horrible purgatory to have the weight of that meaningful and yet meaningless responsibility. I knew she'd use my text, too.
Writing was never my strength, and I sweated hours over those dozen descriptions. I also knew it was a joke at my expense, an impossible and absurd job she'd given me, or maybe a lesson. So, after several weeks, I allowed the futility of it to overtake me. I trashed everything I'd written, scribbled down the first things that came to my head and, early the next day, I gave these to her.
She read them and laughed. She said, "Good job."
And then she fired me anyway, saying I was too young to be wasting any more time with her.
I was devastated but part of me knew she was right. There wasn't anything there left for me. After Sonny fired me I gave up painting and all of that completely. I decided instead to get rich, that it was the only sensible but senseless thing to do. It would be—for a moment I told myself this—a project similar to Sonny's paintings: dazzling and pointless and defiant.
I moved to New York and thought that after I made my millions I'd become Sonny's patron. I held on to that intention for a while, too, but then, after some time, not that long really, I gave up on this as well.
12. Beautiful world.
Excerpted from Dear Cyborgs by Eugene Lim, to be published on June 6 by Farrar, Straus and Giroux.