Hans-Christian Dany

Falling upwards

Not that the condition was new to him. He had known it for a long time. They were old friends, he and his weakness for the diffuse; he had no wish to deny it. Ultimately he was even rather fond of it, this mood of obscurity, when the face sagged slowly forwards and black dwarfs wished one goodnight. Yet this time his banks had somehow burst.
The need for a smoke came knocking at the door. Did he still have the strength to go into the corridor? Couldn’t he simply have one here in his room? The nagging of the staff was already all too familiar. He set the image on a merry-go-round, where it danced in circles, riding on a wooden horse.
In the presence of the dwarfs a gentle movement sufficed. Usually he only had to raise his head from the pillow and he would find himself wandering across a landscape with an almost floating step, without quite knowing what planet he was on. Strange things happened right in front of his eyes, and at every step they became more bizarre. In other words, there was no shortage of entertainment on this journey – as it might be called.
Again he looked at his cigarettes. One good reason for not going to the smokers’ corner was that he would lose the coolness afforded by the plate glass window. It was February. Far more exhausting was the prospect of having to fend off the attempts to involve him in the conversation. Generally they seemed to be in high-spirits, simply because they were sitting together; they wouldn’t even let their boredom trouble them.
How did one get involved in writing art criticism?
The people who ministered to his condition were of the opinion that it was still too early for him to take walks outside the building. That was fine by him, since he regarded it as a form of concentration. It helped him reduce the complexity, to discover what was what, whether things stood in some relation to one another, or whether he was dealing with a conglomeration of particles which desperately needed arranging into some kind of order.
He had been short of time when he packed his bags, and that was why they contained so little. A training outfit, a suit, an exorbitant pair of trousers from Italy, a blue denim jacket, underwear, eight pairs of socks – he considered the number important. Looking straight ahead he could see everything thrown together in the cupboard, the door of which stood ajar. It lay scattered about, all puffed up, as if waiting to be counted and registered. Or had he simply forgotten to close the door? But coincidences didn’t quite fit in his conception of reality. He checked through the items. The colour of the suit, a watery shade that might be taken for green. The beige trousers, hardly more than a couple of weeks old, yet already coming apart at the seams; which must be the price one pays for that certain casualness they were supposed to convey. Here such defects were more suggestive of a failure to get a grip on one’s life. They also became creased when he lay on his bed in them. In other words, it was all up to the training suit. Due to the exclusive dependence on this one piece of clothing it was hardly ever possible to wash it. The cotton picked up odours. It wasn’t so much that he smelt it as that he knew it to be so. At home he frequently wore the training suit at his work desk. Was it work he was doing here? He hadn’t been able to read what was written in the papers he had signed on his arrival. He was too distracted, too shy to ask about their contents. On sending him here they had dismissed him with the words: "A really good rest is what you ...” They mumbled the end of the sentence, of almost all the sentences of the brief exchanges he had had with them. Did they consider him ill? In any case, he regarded this as a convalescent cure. Or, if it made any difference, as the situation of which he had long dreamt. A situation in which everything was laid on. A place which kept the rest of the world at a distance, behind frosted glass. Later he would refer to it as his remodelling. Even if little else happened, at least the terminology changed.
He was reminded of what he had once read about Howard Hughes. Apparently he could no longer bear being seen by others. The only rooms in which he felt comfortable were tiny, and resembled one another like eggs in an eggbox. The aim wasn’t just to mitigate the impression of being on the move, but rather to organise each location in a predictable and consistent manner. The windows were darkened; neither sunlight nor pictures were allowed to enter. Instead of views of the world outside, he would play back the same films wherever he went.

Stuck into the map in his head were numerous little flags. Some, which were yellow, marked out the general account of how art criticism functioned. Almost like operating instructions.
And was he keeping an eye on what the newspapers and magazines were offering in the way of art criticism? What the components implied, and what they meant, hung as a grey fog beneath the lamp, whereas the hunger withdrew quietly into a corner.
Not only had he cooked art criticism, he had also served it up, written menus, and come to the table as guest. He had been present. The development that followed began surreptitiously, then grew steadily faster. After a period in which he had spent his days pulverising little white lumps with his credit card, he turned to pacing up and down in his spacious flat for hours on end.
Flat? There was, of course, a futon on the floor, but these days he hardly slept at all. There was no bath, but why should there be? His contract specified that this was an office. He had a season ticket for the nearby public baths. There was a sauna there which he could use when he felt cold. This was the world he lived in, and if he didn’t like it, he could leave. But he didn’t want to. And neither did he intend to treat this increasingly protracted detour as a matter of great importance. He had tried to get it over with quickly – since get it over with he must – in the hope that, on returning to the life he had briefly abandoned, he would still be the same person as he had been before a mistake at the signalbox sent trundling off down the wrong track. Initially it had been vaguely exciting to watch the landscape beyond the window constantly change into something unfamiliar, but in due course it became oppressive to feel that he was sitting in a train that always arrived too late, so that he missed one connection after another. The only way he could hope to arrive at his destination was to find ever more complex justifications for his situation. As the statements of the guards became steadily vaguer, and the information in their books proved ever less substantial, so too did the number of links between phenomena dwindle, until the last remains of a once familiar reality collapsed – a reality which now lay far behind him. In transferring from one platform to another he always arrived just after a train had departed. In the interconnecting passageways even the lightest hand luggage transformed itself into a burden that seemed glued to the floor. Not only did things acquire this downward inclination, they also handed over their last remnants of significance to the guards. Any task that wasn’t performed with zeal was dealt with by one of the station’s roaming attendants. No matter how he twisted it, his words were forever getting caught without tickets. And while still on the platform they were eventually denied the right to continue their journey. He shuffled around among them, hardly able to believe it. He wanted to photograph the attendants. But as he was pulling the camera from his pocket they stepped towards him, their spokesman saying: "Try taking a picture and your camera’s scrap. Just so you know, the proximity of bodies is a gift from those who no longer have their own.”
Other things happened; much of it he could no longer remember. Whatever it was, it changed the circumstances of his thought into something impossible. Gesticulating with the parts of his body which could still be moved, he manoeuvred himself towards the crisis. It had been there for a long time, waiting for him.
He had sensed that it would happen, but still it took him by surprise. Now everything seemed quite simple. Ultimately it could only be described like someone turning out all the lights.
For a while now – though he couldn’t say how long – he had been living out here in the country. People supplied him with a basic understanding of what had happened. He had stones to build with.

Here they had been sparing with the things that gave a hospital its character. Perhaps it was too simple to call it such. The colours had been carefully chosen on the assumption of lengthy stays. Someone had imagined what would make the guests feel at ease. Certain fixtures seemed intended for people to hang up decorations they brought with them. Generally speaking the furnishings, consisting of units from a pre-Ikea period, left a rather indeterminate impression, and could have represented anything whatsoever. The carpet was brown, the metal grey, the woodwork painted white – nothing wanted to be conspicuous. There were hardly any traces of his predecessors; it was not a place one wanted to leave one’s mark.
On the whole the room was rather empty, so that thoughts had plenty of space to potter about. Some of them cropped up again and again. There were days when the one or the other would offer a friendly greeting. They never sat down together at the same table. Should he make an effort to be a better host? He studied the garden outside his window for hours on end. The chestnut tree was undeniably beautiful. Occasionally a rainbow would appear, yet that wasn’t his reason for looking in that direction.
When it grew dark he would study his body in the light of the bedside lamp, the body out of which he peered. That was his finger. Those were his lips. And what more? He licked his hand, bit it, yet it remained a stranger to him. In his index finger there was a twitch that had never been his in the past. Soon he felt as if he had been waiting so long for something to happen that he had forgotten what this something was supposed to be.
What motivated him to take out his notes again were the symptoms of lethargic bowels. Nothing new, but rather it was as if verbal language were beginning to talk again. While his imagination took turns around the park, it occurred to him that it was in fact his bowels and his lethargy that were walking hand in hand out there. Old acquaintances. For years the consequence had been excessive exertion in processing what nourished him. Constipation seemed the wrong expression, although the body needed to consider carefully what it consumed.
The susceptibility of his digestion became conflated with his work. When ruminating, the preoccupation with his writing resulted in symptoms that were quite similar. He gnawed at something, and that something gnawed back at him. And the bridges between the two assumed a life of their own. Patterns of letters from which text should condense transformed themselves into swarms of amphibians no bigger than his fingernails, which slowly blocked the orifices of his body.
One reason for this animalistic revolt against his body was in fact the occasional unappetising meal, but more frequently it resulted from an underestimation of the time required for digestion. "And what’s so bad about that? Come to some arrangement”, said a little black dwarf who had entered his room without his noticing. Although her remark was hardly meant as a question, he stammered, "I’ve done what I can, tried everything ...” With a pained expression the gnome turned away, and thought within her transparent head: "Anyone else would be happy to join in. But you, you have to complain. You pig.”
Lying there on his own once again, he was briefly able to forget the dwarf. He allowed himself to think that this all amounted to a sufficient reason to renounce the production of texts. For the time being it resulted in a kind of split identity, whereby it remained unclear which of the resultant forms was his true self and which the disguise. Should the matter one day be resolved – for it was too much to suppose that he himself would resolve it – well, was anything wrong?

His sojourn here – might it become permanent? Sooner or later they would shove him out through the door. He was writing again; noone knew about it, for he was far too diligent in keeping things hidden.
He groped between his legs and began touching himself. For a brief moment he wondered whether to let it be, but then decided otherwise. It didn’t take long; just a few vague fantasies of penetrating any of a sequence of bodies. Soon after he had come, he washed his hands and left the room. He needed to steady his blood pressure, otherwise accidents might happen.
Pretending a bad mood he sat down with the other smokers. Above all it was his lack of time that prevented him from speaking. It had been in abeyance for too long, so that now he couldn’t talk with anyone outside his own body. He had to work; since his current reason didn’t suffice, he would have to collect others from which a plan for escape and nourishment might develop.
His collection stood on feet of clay. In the next moment he was afraid of realising why he wrote art criticism. He trembled, and struggled to wipe the horizon from his field of vision. A transparent mountain range.
The solution seemed to be to draw a map. He began collecting the details on the pocket-sized sketchpad which he kept beneath his matrass. First misunderstanding about art criticism: it seemed to offer the possibility of a living without regular working conditions.
In a way the error had dropped into his lap. It had crawled unexpectedly out of his telephone. A voice asked him whether he wanted to review an exhibition. The truth was he had never tried it, but was there any reason to refuse? A man ten years his junior agreed to the task. He took the train to the other town. On arrival he found the exhibition closed; the woman at the desk had gone home early. He took the next train back the way he had come. Since he wanted to fulfil his commission, he described what he hadn’t seen on the basis of the leaflet he had received. It was easy, and noone seemed to object to the fact that he had missed the real thing, concerning which he had no particular opinions.
He could have learnt more or less everything from this excursion, but this become clear to him only in instalments. A later realisation was this: apart from a kind of pocket money – somewhat less than he was receiving during his stay in the hospital – art criticism is remunerated in a form of currency which was apparently invented especially for the purpose. Money for which one needed no wallet – vague, sensitive and modern – sometimes it went into hiding never to emerge again. If he had understood correctly, this symbolic capital was meant to be converted at some later date. But the hours when the currency changers opened for business were limited. Since punctuality had never been his strong point, his unconverted currency accumulated over the years, although the tiniest mistake, or one wrong word would have been enough to tip it all into the maelstrom of inflation. He began to consider himself cast for a role in the film version of "Death on Credit”. But then he lost his shooting schedule, and no longer knew when and where he was supposed to appear on set.
His evening meal was being served. Noodles with tuna and a tomato sauce. He tried to ignore it, not to let himself be distracted. Before he let the food grow cold, he would have to let the waiter see that he had taken his medication.

Since he hardly earned anything from his writing, he believed he had to find some other way of explaining why he did what he did. He discovered that writing texts in the prescribed format was a wonderful way of dissipating inner emptiness. Of its own accord it seemed to fill the void to the rim. Only his time was burning away. And to run with the shadow, that was something else. The mix-up could no longer be swept under the carpet. He admitted in court that it had all been a great bluff on his part. A mere servant, he lowered his head and wept. Of course, the promise he had made had its pleasant aspects, such as losing oneself in a new crowd, but in the long run the emptiness could not be filled. Moreover it had never been his plan to take a seat, since he imagined he would get stuck to it. He was caught in the trap; he began to regard his work as property and strayed into the notion that he had something to lose. His basic assumption had been that he possessed a different ambition. He simply slipped deeper into the condition he despised. He began to adopt the pose – so peculiar to the profession – of being permanently excited about nothing.
To see his confession so nakedly displayed on the table knocked him off the cloud on which he was sitting. To his amazement he found he was wearing a helmet and had a parachute on his back. There was a video camera mounted on the helmet. Later on this allowed him partially to reconstruct what seemed at the time to happen so fast. On the video he saw the parachutist, in other words himself, gesticulating into the camera. The first parachute opened. For a few more seconds he let himself fall. Suddenly heaven and earth began to spin madly around him. In accordance with procedure – how he had learnt it he didn’t know – he jettisoned his main parachute, which spread across the picture. He crashed into an unploughed field. A farmer’s wife who was there cutting asparagus stared at him in outrage. As he fled from the field she shouted after him, "A good reputation would never allow these journeys into one’s self.”
Henceforth he wanted to take a break from art criticism at least once a week, or at least not to write it himself. It struck him that reading wasn’t so bad after all. This was a mistake. Reading tempted him to start writing again. When reading he would get excited, felt an urge to respond, and was once again the hamster in the wheel. A hamster that assumed there to be a clear concept of its own nature, of what it was permitted to do, and of who should desist from such activity. A hamster that assumed the existence of lists full of precise information on the subject. And that assumed one should undertake an activity only in order to fight against it.
In his notebook he noted that the writing of art criticism seemed to have much in common with smoking. According to Allen Carr, the author of "The Easy Way to Stop Smoking”, smokers quit smoking for one of three reasons: their health, financial considerations, or from a desire to avoid the social stigma.
Brief moments of pleasure, in which he believed he had grasped something about art which would never have been revealed without the use of writing. This constituted one argument, as did the pleasurable moments when the text began to flow. Most of the time writing art criticism felt more like a migraine attack. He always attributed it to his inability, or to his sluggishness in getting a verbal grip on the less user-friendly manifestations of artistic constructions. Of course, like so many others, he smoked despite cancer; perhaps life was still possible as an earthworm. The community of those who helped art to its consummation by means of text was somewhat smaller, and the illness one could expect in consequence was not so clearly defined. The fact that he persisted both with writing and smoking, was a result of years of brainwashing.
Ultimately, however, he didn’t need a reason to write art criticism, just as he didn’t to smoke either. It was something one simply did; it had come about and one got used to it.
Smokers were needed for economic reasons and for the simple reason that most people look better with a cigarette between their lips. The need for art criticism was by no means so apparent. And since when did one look good sitting at a PC? He also had the impression that there was less call for art criticism than there had been in the past. The decline in demand came with a growth in the market. The bulk of currently flourishing enterprises – artist identities under construction and their evaluation – were getting along fine without texts. The objects and the new subjects spoke for themselves – a claim that invigorated the whole branch. It still happened that torrents of words would be poured out, yet they tasted like mere belly-filler. Substitutes turned into text. Abandoned houses letting off steam. Paradigms of the fitted kitchen. Why not simply give up on text? Perhaps it was nothing more than a stupid brainwave of modernity, an untenable overpricing of Duchamp’s silence.
A curtain was drawn aside and an obstreperous character in a paint-stained training suit shrieked in a cracked voice, "Yes, and precisely in spite of it! And we never wanted to take part in this fit-for-fun terror. Destroy ...” There was no more to be heard than a few incomprehensible words, which faded out in sobs. It didn’t seem to have been planned like this; the curtain closed again, but hesitantly. The choir sang "He who works is a pig”.
He felt intimidated but enjoyed it at the same time. The idea that he should carry around a sign saying "Melancholy is resistance” became steadily more compelling. The rate at which people thrust coins into his hand had increased rapidly. And as the coins he held began to dance in a circle, there loomed up beside his bed a man dressed in a suit. It was immediately apparent that this was a member of the staff.

(To be continued)

Starship Nr. 4, Berlin 2000