LA MAISON DU DÉLICE
Hotel bathrooms can be too busy and complicated, filled with trickery and unfathomable gadgets. My suite has a wetroom. A cube of grey slate. It is a soothing, meditative chamber. Containing the only thing I need: a waterfall shower.
Hefty blobs of water beat down and wash the air miles from my body. I close my eyes and savour the massaging warmth. So much travel and jet lag has me both hyper and sleepy: this shower is precisely what I need.
I eventually pull myself away and towel myself off in the antechamber to the wetroom. There is a man in the mirror I don’t recognise. Where is the fresh-faced rejuvenated figure I knew once in Il San Pietro di Positano? And what’s that—
No, no, not true...it can’t be...non, nein, nee...not going bald, I tell myself, not at my age, it isn’t feasible. It’s just because my hair is wet. I pat it, gently, with the towel, manoeuvring it in such a way that the offending skin is fully obscured.
I have a clear recollection from when I was very young of hearing a discussion on Jimmy Young’s Radio 2 show in which a hair-loss expert explained that male-pattern baldness occurs only in the early 20s or early 40s - any other time is due to stress, hair products or diet - and, being near neither of these ages, I recognise there could be other factors contributing to that of which there have been unconfirmed sightings. Perhaps my diet can be improved. I call room service and order a bowl of raw veg and grains.
I pull on a robe de chambre to set about selecting my outfit. There can be no gimmicks today. I am going into a meeting with a high-level government official: the urge for unusual accessorising must be resisted. Time then for the blue suit. I lay it out on my bed. Blue suit with blue lining, blue buttons and blue stitching: that universal standard of conformity. It is nevertheless very tasteful. Single-breasted and made from a deep navy cashmere. I match the suit with a spread-collar white shirt, and muted deep plum tie. The shoes: black oxfords, of course. There is not a thread in this ensemble that could agitate even the most conservative onlooker.
A busboy enters with my bowl of hair wellness. I pull up a chair by the window and tuck in, completely absorbed by the spectacle.
What. A. View.
Towers erupt, everything bunched up, history compressed in a future of glamour, smoke, cranes, construction, cable cars, boats and bridges, super-highways, criss-crossing this city of madness, madness and genius, brutal and beautiful.
Unstoppable, unrelenting, untamed.
A city as terrifying as it is enthralling, Chongqing.
It is a view filled with contradictions. Greyness and vibrance, clouds and neon, hardship and adventure. It is a view beyond human scale. How many others are out there right now, staring out of windows, contemplating their place, their role, their worth to Chongqing? How strong must you be to face such a city and not concede your frailty and solitude? There is no comfort in this view. It is not a sentimental city. But I am not discouraged. No way. I want in: give me a bite of this Bigger Apple.
Business is the filter through which I see countries. Travel is often about pursuing authenticity - landscape, cuisine, wildlife, religion - but business is how I connect. The dance of a deal: every country does it, and each does it differently. Through learning the steps - steps whose rules are often unwritten, unspoken - one discovers a culture.
I heap a last spoonful of veg into my mouth and start dressing. The pleasure of tailor-made clothing is how easy it is to wear. It slips on like the second skin it is. This means I can keep my attention on the view from the window. I am completely transfixed. This is a city exceptional, city extreme, city exponential, and I can’t wait to get out there.
In a skyline dominated by high rises, one tower makes all others appear diminutive: The Center of International Development and Communication for the People’s Republic of China. A dark green monolith that rises and rises, until it fades into smog.
It is there I have my appointment.
Smooth is the motion of the lift.
It journeys up, up...I watch floor numbers quickly climb...until...ping...208...top floor.
The lift attendant smiles. I exit. A windowless lobby. Walls of a luxurious redwood colour. I run my hand along one: suede. The building seemed ultra-modern upon arrival, with a reception full of armed guards and body scanners, but this room could be from decades, centuries previous. There is not a door but a gate. Tall and silver with two stone rams stood on either side.
I approach the gate. What next? It’s not as if there’s a doorbell. I check the corners of the ceiling for cameras. I see only a charming square ceiling lamp.
Q. What’s going on?
It’s the first tool of magicians, pickpockets, and businesspeople. They want us confused, flustered, and therefore easily manipulated. I take a breath. Wait it out, Patric. I spread my arms (confidence-boosting technique learned from Amy Cuddy’s TED Talk). Sure enough, the gate opens, magically, of its own accord.
A drone. It hovers through the gateway. This elegant silver beetle with quietly humming blades lingers close to my face: “Greetings, Mr Farmer,” it says with wonderful tone and amplification. I recognise it immediately as the voice of Sun Fuzhi.
(Is he now a drone? Has his consciousness been uploaded to The Cloud? Is this a thing? The next generation of AI?)
“Thank you for coming all this way. I am currently detained in Chongqing by work. But I am very happy to welcome you into my home.”
“The pleasure is all mine.”
“Should you wish to attend the matter at hand straight away, I will direct you to my presence, but perhaps you would first prefer to view a small selection of the collection?”
“I certainly would.”
The drone leads me into...fantasy. Trees, vines, bamboo, flowers. Nature piles in a cascade at the foot of a rock. A giant slab of mountain stood at the centre of...whatever this is. It feels neither inside nor out. I can see no perimeter walls, and the windows are so high there is little sense where I am - nothing that anchors me on the top floor of a tower in one of China’s megacities.
“As you know, Mister Farmer, I own art from the four corners of the earth, but in this environment I surround myself with art from China and our neighbouring friends,” the drone says.
Face to ‘face’ with this floating avatar, I remember my son. I gave Dougie a drone for his first birthday. It was enormous compared to the delicate marvel I now face.
I cross a footbridge over a stream. There is a pebbled path that cuts through knee-high grass. It is haunting here. It seems deserted but anticipating occupation. I come to a column. It stands alone, made of stone, its edges are worn. It must be many centuries old.
Onwards through the secret garden.
In a clearing between trees, there is a cupboard. Massive, rectangular and made of an exquisite wood.
“Open it,” says the drone.
I delicately remove the latch and pull the door open. Inside is a tiny sculpture.
“A statuette of my great grandfather, Fuzhi Lui.”
The glass figurine holds a tiny cigarette between the fingers of one hand. I try never to be seduced by craft. Yet that - one moment so tiny, so breakable, so necessary - is sublime.
The drone leads me on.
We come to a tree in full blossom. Its festoon of vivid pink billows over a sculpture made of a sumptuous matte gold substance, probably lacquered wood.
“It is the thousand-armed Bodhisattva Guanyin.”
I count 24 arms. Some of the hands hold trinkets, others make signs with their fingers.
“The arms represent the diety’s power to reach out to those in need. I believe that should be the power of the state.”
Sun does/did something important in government. Exactly what, unclear. He became known outside China for his adventures in Artworld.
In the early Aughts, there were countless exhibitions of Chinese art - roomfillers with names like NOW CHINA - bankrolled by the Chinese government. Museums were only too happy to receive splashy blockbusters at virtually no cost. Sun was the mastermind behind these shows (of soft power), and it was his collection that formed the bulk of their content. Pretty soon his life transitioned from that of a bureaucrat to Artworld celebrity.
As China made avenues in new countries - Wales, Panama, Mozambique - it seemed Sun was sent out to scout the local art scene. A visit to any embassy reveals the terrifyingly terrible taste of ambassadors, but Sun sidestepped such pitfalls. He had an eye for greatness. In every city he was billeted, this gregarious and curious man would track down its most skilled artists and craftspersons.
I follow the drone along the side of the stream. It is a metre wide and tiled in black. A swimmer appears, front crawling rapidly.
“That is my son, Hui. Hui wishes to be a professional soccer player. Say ‘hello’, Hui.”
Hui splashes by without stopping.
We arrive at the foot of the rock. Mounted on its smooth face is a painting. It shows a delicate play of peony, blossoms, and magnolias, with birds circling their petals.
“By Gao Jianfu, a leading practitioner of bird-and-flower painting. He brought the Nihonga School of painting to China.”
It is a long painting whose story descends down the parchment. It is massive without being grandiose - a quality that defines Sun’s utopia.
The drone takes me up a wide set of stairs carved from the rock. There are ceramics displayed in hollow cutaways. Cups, teapots, small flower vases. When it comes to ceramics, collectors often favour the large and flashy. I prefer small pieces, such as these: ones that retain their functionality. I want to imagine centuries-dead flowers in a vase, or the vanished mouths that have sipped from a cup.
Pigments in ceramics do not fade. You are seeing colours as they would have been seen centuries ago. That is something that continues to thrill. I have seen patterns reminiscent of Op-Art on cups made a thousand years BC. The capabilities of cultures so distinct to speak to each other is mindblowing.
A crack in the rock is used as a natural shelf for a line of netsuke - small Japanese figurines that are comical, grotesque, full of personality. There must be over a hundred of them.
“Look at this man.” The drone hovers above a pudgy fellow with a diabolical leer and a sack slung over his shoulder. “It is a Dutch man carrying a money bag. That is you.” The drone laughs.
“Do these pieces all belong to you?”
“I am their keeper. Why do you ask?
“I am yet to see anything contemporary.”
It does strike me as odd: Sun is best known as a collector of contemporary art…
“Here I choose to not over-represent our current age. I suspect this stems from my own work. I am one part of a project that will develop the world for centuries to come. Therefore, I find it useful not to view one’s existence as either finale or pinnacle. However, if you look down to your feet.” I see a dynamic coil of bamboo. “That is by Tanabe Shochiku, a fourth-generation basket maker, very much alive.” Next to it is a statue of a furious man. “Here we have Emperor Guan, god of war, protector of the empire. Guan is also the patron of merchants. Honest merchants. Are you a merchant or a scholar, Mr Farmer?”
“You can touch him if you like.”
No sooner have I touched the porcelain surface than the drone shoots away. It curls up the steps and out of view. Following, I come around the corner of the rock to a flat peak. There I find him. Sun Fuzhi, on top of the world.
The drone lands on his palm. “Diverting toy, no?” He rests it on— No way…his desk...it isn’t...it is...a Roentgen!
“I am pleased to welcome you to Chongqing, Mr Farmer. Thank you for visiting me in my home.”
We shake hands. Knowing him only from parties, openings, groups, busy social occasions, there is something lonesome about the sight of him. Just a man and a desk on a rock. He cuts a detached, albeit elegant, figure in a black suit.
“From where have you travelled?”
“That is somewhere I never did visit. I meant to attend the Honolulu Biennial before I was called home.” Sun turns and looks off into the distance. “Still, this is quite the mission you have. Travelling the world to acquire art, I am envious. There is a word in Mandarin, meichai, that means a beautiful duty. Do you consider this meichai?”
“It is all beauty and no duty to behold a collection as magnificent as yours.”
The Roentgen has me smitten. These desks are rare and splendid things. What a stroke of genius to instal it here. Placing a desk on a rock transforms the garden into an office: an elevated and elevating workplace.
“Allow me to present this gift.” He gives me a jar. “Honey from bees of the Qinling mountain. My province. I transported this rock upon which we are established from those mountains so that I may never be far from home.”
“May I present this gift? It is lava from a volcano that has formed an island at the centre of the New American Federation of Freerland.”
“Ah, Freerland, yes.” Sun smiles as he delicately lifts the rock from my hands. “The subject of our engagement. We are most interested in its development. Is it friend, foe, or folly?” A laugh. “Respectfully I accept this gift.” He puts the rock down on the patterned lacquer surface of the desk and removes a handkerchief to wipe his hands. “You are distracted, Mr Farmer.”
“Yes, I’m afraid so. It’s your desk.”
“Should you wish to inspect it more closely?”
I crouch to probe this baroque sensation. Its surface is deliciously seductive. It curls and curves. The marquetry combines pine, oak and beech woods. Such intricacy does nothing to hide the hand of the maker: it bears its joins proudly. This is a confident masterclass of woodwork.
“Be my guest.”
I press a spring catch that releases a hidden nest of drawers. It is a galaxy within a desk.
“By Abraham Roentgen,” says Sun. “Abraham was succeeded by his son, David, but I prefer the father’s handiwork. They are more fearless. The Roentgens were members of the Moravian church. Are you familiar with their faith, Mr Farmer?”
“A Christian sect that strives for simplicity.”
“The community did not approve of Abraham’s fanciful creations. It is often the case that we fall victim to living lives in opposition to our beliefs. I look at myself, a Civic planner. No, too grand. A Civic administrator, ensnared into matters of international arts.”
Sun had done something to offend his employer, the Chinese Communist Party. No one knew exactly what, but one minute he was a staple of openings, and the next he disappeared. Not disappeared - we knew he was alive. But his absence was felt. Artworld lost an informed member. Therefore, yes, we wanted him back - back in the Magic Circle, and out of his enchanted garden...
I brush my hand along the leathertop: “In every sense, a masterpiece.”
“The garden collection is entirely Asian except for this Netherlandish achievement. Speaking of which, there is an opening this evening of Marlene Dumas.”
“Yes, at Hubin. Will you attend?”
“Unfortunately, I am not able to leave these premises.”
“I thought your travels were restricted only outside China?”
“They are also curtailed within China. It is for my own good. A nation is a family and I have been sent to my room. But it is a pleasant enough room to be sent to. I am occasionally inclined to stamp my feet and yell, ‘It is not fair!’ but tough love is still love. Perhaps some diplomatic happiness with the New American Federation of Freerland might appease my governors.”
He steps to the edge of the rock, overlooking a landscape of trees, bamboo groves, streams, waterfalls, caves.
“Viewing these surroundings, I recognise I have created the world I knew as a child. ‘Mother, I am going out to play.’ ‘Go no farther than Mr Wei’s!’ See that votive stele over there.” He points to a column poking behind a tree. “That marks the house of Mr Wei. Boundaries on our physical existence exercise the imagination. My surroundings as a child were not filled with art. That was in here.” He taps his head. “When you contacted me about this meeting, I thought back on our previous encounters. We have met five times, in five different countries. We are wanderers, you and I, but we should need an anchor, or else we drift...on seas of possibility.” He speaks those words - seas of possibility - staring right at me, as if they have special meaning. “There was no desk like this in my home on the Qinling Mountains. There was only a table. A very humble table. Let me now show it to you.”
We descend the other side of the rock.
It is darker there. The vegetation is overgrown in genuinely wild ways. Yet there remains something eerie. Something off. Sun draws back hanging vines to reveal...
“The family table.”
It is four-legged and sturdy. Its dark wooden top is patched with stains, hacked marks and divets.
Sun crouches to inspect it as closely as I did the Roentgen. “We ate every meal here. My mother gave birth to my two sisters and I upon this table.” He pushes a finger into one of the grooves. “These carved lines are where we slaughtered chickens and chopped vegetables. This table is life. It is history.” He spreads his arms and reaches to hold each side. Closing his eyes, he presses his cheek to it and says, “Sometimes I lay my head here, imagining the moment of my first breath, first sight. I am not sure if it is because I have done this so many times, but it has become real to me. I can sense that occasion. This makes me want to go further. I wish to remember before I was born. Why shouldn’t we have memories of those nine months? Do we not all seek the unpolluted enlightenment of our unborn being? Patric, when I die I shall be laid out on this table. There is comfort in that knowledge. Age brings uncertainty. There is so much we don’t know and there is so much we will never know and do. I was forty-three when I travelled outside of China for the first time. It opened in me a hunger for travel I never knew I had. To resolve in my mind that I will not visit every country on this planet is too much to bear. Especially now as I am here. Back where I began. ‘Mother, I am going out to play!’ I have travelled past Mr Wei’s and I know there is so much more. We cannot unknow. And we cannot know all.” He rubs the wood tenderly. “Aboard this table, my family will carry me to the mountains of my birth and leave me somewhere so the leopards may feed on my remains until only the table still stands. It will endure many winters before it, too, shall fall. There is great security in resolving your final moments and having some agency over if not death then at least its borders. Who knows, Mr Farmer, we may both cease living before the day’s end. I suppose what I am saying is that we should confront our own deaths.”
Patric Farmer, he loved art
With this talk of extinction, it hits me that while we are in a garden, there is no birdsong. That’s what makes it creepy: a garden without birdsong is apocalyptic. “Enough of my indulgences. Shall we talk business?” (Time, Patric, to do that for which you were put on this earth.) “I am right in believing that the esteemed Ms. Freer wishes to purchase the collection. What is that delightful English phrase? Lock, stock and…”
“Lock, stock, and barrel. Indeed. I trust an exception can be made for the Fuzhi table. This I could never part with.” Still lying across it, he sniffs. He then stabs out the tip of his tongue to give it a lick. “Afterall, it is not art. Art is not active, does not participate. Art is spectator.” He picks himself up and brushes off his suit. He fires his first shot: “Unfortunately, I’m not sure I can sell, even if I wanted to.” (Playing hard to get, are we?) “The collection, after all, is not mine. It belongs to the nation.” (He smiles, I smile, smiles all round. We know this is nonsense.) “It seems such a shame for you to come all this way and leave empty-handed. I wonder is there something we can do?”
“What could that be?”
“I was hoping you might make a suggestion.”
“If it’s money, Jenna Freer’s personal fortune exceeds the GDP of several European countries.”
“But her ambitions exceed most of those. Money is not the greatest concern. China, after all, has more money than all European countries. More money, I dare say, than Miss Freer is likely to make in her extended lifetime. If Freerland is to operate as a state it must have humility. Her project will create many disruptions in existing arenas of statecraft. In the past this has made many countries aggressive. I’m sure that I don’t need to remind you that states do not always follow the rules of diplomacy. This too can create ill will and conflict. Fortunately, instead of being combative, in China we value harmonious cooperation. Consider the partnerships China has developed throughout the world. So often in places which have borne the worst excesses of European colonialism. And Europe, too. Sadly, too many in your continent still feel an unwarranted superiority over China. As if we are upstart school pupils in need of direction and correction. The financial, energy and communication systems of most countries would collapse without China’s support. It is support we willingly give. And it is support we would happily extend to your friend Ms. Freer in her innovative new venture.”
“I thought as much myself.”
Negotiations work thus: the greeting and hospitality is the disorientation. Next comes negotiation - negotiation is heralded by story-time. No matter how ‘straight talking’, ‘direct’, ‘no nonsense’ the party claims to be, they all love to spin a yarn. The purpose of this narrative is a). to surmise how soft your position is and b). to justify a meagre offering. During story time, I keep schtum - I will not show my hand.
“We are building new cities and creating new trade hubs. Not only in China. Thousands of people have moved to the once-empty expanse of sand around Khorgos in Kazakhstan. Perhaps this will bring a solution to the present refugee crisis, as it offers commerce, development, and life to tracts of long uninhabited land. I tell you this not to boast of my country’s leaders’ achievements, but merely to illustrate that Freerland will need allies and well-wishers. ‘No man is an island,’ said your great English poet, John Donne. Not even when one builds an island for oneself. Let me give an example. Estimates are that over 60% of the materials being used in the construction of Freerland are originally sourced in China. Therefore, if China were to place a trade embargo on Freerland, that would create dire, unwanted consequences. Of course, we plan nothing of the sort. We merely hope that China can collaborate with Ms. Freer to offer the tools she needs to build her dream.”
“These geo-politics are outside my sphere of influence. I am merely a lover of art.”
“So am I, Mr Farmer. I think that is why I take so much satisfaction from my role as a civil servant. I execute administrative and bureaucratic orders with efficiency because art is my true love. I love every piece in this garden. And this is but a fraction of my collection. However, there is so much art I am yet to see. I have enjoyed my time with these friends but I am ready to discover new wonders. Perhaps if I impress The Party with the prospect of extensive, exclusive development contracts with Freerland, they will release me for a short excursion to pay our national respects to our new friend in the Pacific Ocean.”
Slowly, slowly we step. In this, the dance of the deal. We must each go through the motions, prescribed and implied and intuited, to shuffle negotiations to a happy end. In this instance, I sense it. A sale is on the table - the family table.
Big crowd at Hubin. People screaming, crying, jumping, battering the windows, shooting videos on phones. Marlene Dumas groupies? I jostle through to the door. Guards let me pass while struggling to hold back the crowds.
I pass from the buzz of hysterical fans to the buzz of artistic achievement. One knows. As soon as one steps inside a gallery, one knows if the show is any good. You feel it. The Vibrations. You feel if they are complacent, confused, tired, cynical – or if those Vibrations are alive, fiery with humour, ambition and joy. The Vibrations in this room fizz. And what a room it is...
A former colleague at V+V once told me, ‘A gallery is like good drumming: you shouldn’t notice it.’ She was a drummer herself in a ‘noise’ band, and though I didn’t enjoy the ‘noise’ they made at all, the analogy stuck.
Modern mega-galleries are criticised for their epic proportions and architectural grandeur (a concern I have for Freerland’s expandable globe.) There is a view that the gallery then determines the art, requiring oversized work (Serra, Koons, McCarthy et al.) to match its stature.
Nevertheless, art cannot be boxed in. Ceilings, being as they are the graphic carriers of lighting and power-points, ought to be kept at a discreet distance, therefore tall walls are a must.
The walls shall be white, featureless and smooth. Smooth walls are an obsession of mine. Smooth, sanded, evenly-painted surfaces that I can press my cheek against and detect no friction. Smooth also means no joins: wood inevitably warps and the second I detect a join, just a trace, the sense of a shadow, line or bump, that’s it, a refurb is ordered. If this sounds profligate, I would return to my prior argument ‘details matter’. Smooth walls are essential to (good) Vibrations.
I favour ‘floating’ walls, lifted one inch above the floor. It separates building (which has its own voice) from the wall (which ought to be an anonymous canvas onto which art is hung).
The floor will be polished concrete. It does not behove a gallerist to be fussy about surfaces, but I am protective of my floors. If messy work is being installed or heavy machinery required, I fit a layer of protective flooring. I can’t bear a scratched, pockmarked floor. I know some gallerists regard it as emblematic of a gritty authenticity to have grubby floors, but I won’t stand for it, or on it. A gallery ought to be re-virginised with each exhibition - a floor bearing traces is no different than a ‘Past Exhibitions’ tab on an Internet page.
Hubin floor’s – blemishless, semi-matte, dark as charcoal – is everything I want from the ground beneath my feet. I would have previously claimed my own V+V Gallery in Mayfair to be the greatest building for art in the world. But this...may be better. Everything about this place is majestic. And it is matched by the art: does Marlene Dumas ever disappoint?
Dumas’s intimate paintings are ambivalent to the proportions of the room. Against the lustrous white of the gallery walls, these mysterious patches of purple, grey, washed-out yellows provide maelstroms for the eye. They portray singular figures that stare out at the viewer, both blankly and sharply.
Like all greats, Dumas built her own inimitable style: always the same, always different. For decades, she has made galleries, collectors, trends, bend to her practice. There is always pressure to ‘move with the times’ but when an artist keeps doing so they eventually find oblivion. Better to weather periods of unpopularity, which is what Dumas has done. She has painted, painted, painted through painting’s ups and downs. Her subjects - from war crimes in Iraq to Amy Winehouse - have changed, and she has maintained painting as the medium through which to translate the world. As Marlene Dumas’s work has consistently held meaning to her, so too it has for successive generations. Here, Hubin exhibits living works by a living artist whose popularity has never been greater. As evinced by the fans outside. They bash at the windows, jump hysterically, tears streaming. I have underestimated the popular passion for art in China.
I grab an orange juice from a passing tray and make a circuit.
Advice for Openings
1. Be Single - and ready to mingle - you can’t be tied down babysitting someone
2. Move away from the front door - it’s a trap, thereabout loiter the nutters
3. Hold an empty glass - for a speedy ‘I’m going to get another drink’ escape from roving nutters
4. No pop-ins - it’s a waste of everyone’s time just to ‘show your face’
5. Pre-piss - do what you’ve got to do before you set foot inside: from the get-go, you have to be laser-focussed
6. Don’t attend too many - one becomes jaded, and this is an arena in which it pays to be happy/positive/up
7. Have news - prepare something memorable and forward-facing to answer the inevitable ‘What’s going on?’
8. 5-minute chats - tick-tock, no longer, then move it along
9. Everyone sees everyone - nothing goes unnoticed, so don’t sweat not catching everyone
10. This. Is. Not. A. Party.
Allow me to expand on Point 10. We’ve all been to openings that bring in bands, DJs, mixologists, or which claim at a certain hour to turn into raves: what takes place is inevitably neither good party nor good opening. I don’t go to openings to get drunk, see friends, catch-up, or even have a good time. My goal is the deal: that might be a sale, but it could also be forming a connection, showing support, or improving my personal brand (there are those openings where you simply must be seen).
The mood in Hubin is one of austere glamour. All-black ruffled trousers, shoulders padded and pointed, lots of sunglasses. This severe chic is let down by the Westerners. Men in starchy suits and women dressed very trad-formal. Much Dutch is being spoken. I roll into a circle of Wims, Willekes, Willems, sniffing something ambassadorial about the lot of them. This leads to my being introduced to the artist. I kiss her hand (memorable) and move on. (An opening is overwhelming for an artist: it is not my obligation to have meaningful conversation, only to form contact.) Exiting Dumas’ circle, I come into the crosshairs of Ricky Castle. “Hello, chap,” he says. “Isn’t this something? So real, so resolute, so rarefied. Who says painting is dead?”
This guy’s an ex-pat Brit who has worked throughout Asia for decades. It has only made him more British. He wears yellow corduroy trousers and a green tweed jacket over a too-tight purple waistcoat. It’s a disturbing look, reminiscent of my father.
“God, how I wish I had one. Once again, too slow. Now tell me, how do I get my hands on one of the Ruschas?”
“We’re publishing a beautiful catalogue.”
“Very funny, Farmer. My money’s as good as anyone’s.”
But it’s not. Through the first tiers of collecting, any sale will do. In my realm, however, it is essential that art find the right home. That is what differentiates auction house and gallery: we have a say in art’s destination.
I will not let a Ruscha – Ed Ruscha, one of the greatest artists, living or dead, who for over half a century has defined the American landscape and the language of painting – be consigned to Ricky Castle’s Mr. Brainwash Shangri-La.
This might sound uncharacteristically spiteful, but here’s the reason for my distaste: Ricky Castle made a number of high profile purchases early in the 2000s, and, apparently bored with their failure to resemble the pinball machines of his dreams, he took to modifying them. He turned an Anish Kapoor sculpture into a water feature. That’s right. He installed one of Kapoor’s silver half-globes in the middle of his swimming pool - with a fountain shooting out of it! There was a profile of Ricky in Modern Art Matters (the kind of rag that profiles collectors over artists) with a photo of the vandalism.
Infamous Quotation: ‘Art should be integrated in our lives, a part of the way we live, eat, and breathe.’
“Hey Ricky, great to see you,” says BB. “Can I borrow Patric a minute?” He puts an arm on my back to usher me away from the oaf.
“Thank you so much,” I mouth.
BB whispers in my ear, “My man, in Chongqing city heights!”
“What’s with the crowds?”
“Dutch royalty.” He points to another ambassadorial huddle: “See that white-haired dude?”
“The film director.”
“I know who he is. You’re telling me these are Paul Verhoeven fans?”
“His oeuvre is highly influential. You have no idea. Kids in China grow up wanting to be RoboCop.”
It is then I notice one crying youngster pressing a sign to the window, ‘♥ RoboCop’ drawn on it.
We sneak back of house to BB’s office where we crash on low, deep couches. A bag of powder is removed from a pocket.
“None for me, thanks.”
“You still get high, right?”
“Yeah, just not tonight.”
My primary reason is that I must stay focussed: the next collector is going to be a ballbreaker. The deals for Previti and Fuzhi are as good as done and, as deals go, have been pushovers. (Business is remarkably frictionless while wielding a blank cheque.) But next is a collector who, potentially, could prove more resistant to my charms.
“You realise it is very offensive in China to not join your host?” says BB, dispersing fine dust across a glass-top coffee table.
“Really I mustn’t.”
“Are you sick? Is it AIDS?”
“Why’d you say that?”
“You can tell me.”
“What have you heard?”
“That it’s back.”
“It never went away.”
“But it’s one of these diseases you think is gone. Like measles, or TB. But then I hear people talking about it again, and I’m scared. I get it, I know, I do. Don’t do the crime if you can’t do the time. But, Patric, you know me. I do crimes. You have to, right? I’m addicted to living. I get high. Life gets me high. Are you sure you don’t want to try? Chongqing has the best coke. It has to. Life here never stops.” He disappears a line into his nose. “The. Best. Coke.” BB slaps my knee. “Good to see you, man. When was the last time we partied?”
“That long? Because we sure didn’t party in Belgium. Shit!” He laughs. I grimace.
“Should I not go there?”
“I wish you wouldn’t.”
“I’m sorry you had to go through that.”
“Yeah, me too…”
“I’ll tell you this. No way would that have happened here. Blimps do not crash and burn in China. Not that we fly blimps. This isn’t some steampunk nostalgia show. But if that party were here, dang! You would have rocked! Fireworks, music, aerial displays. It’s what China does best. Need I remind you, China invented fireworks.”
Talk of you-know-what puts me on edge. Next thing I know, I’m rolling a British twenty and snorting up a line.
“Good man! God, I’ve missed you, Patric! I mean, there are people who party and there are people you want to party with. I would love it if you were out here.”
If a psychic vampire is someone that sucks energy, BB is the opposite. Not only is he dynamic and positive but he is one of the few in Artworld who doesn’t gripe about the fundamentals - the lack of sleep, the travel, the obligations, the emails - he loves that stuff, and he recognises it for what it is: The Work.
Whenever I meet BB (and he’s one of those people I often run into randomly), he is always up. And wherever we meet, he’s the guy who knows the underground bar, that one you enter through a cupboard - a literal cupboard - in a literal laundrette. Even in London, he knows impossible hideaways. Last year he took me to a kebab shop that hosted the most divine club in the restaurant part at the rear. I’ve been back since and there was no trace of the club: it was almost as if I had hallucinated the whole experience. With BB, that was always a possibility, too.
The sight of BB usually tingled with a naughtiness that the night would run away with itself - but not this time. I can ill afford a lost night, so tread carefully, Mr Farmer. Exercise caution...
“What you in town for?”
“Meeting Sun Fuzhi.”
“You visit the geodome? He show you the table? Morbid, right? He does that to get into your head. You think he’s nuts, then bam, he hits you with business. But he’s not buying, right? Is he? Tell me I haven’t missed that?”
“No no, still under house arrest, but I have a client interested in his collection.”
“A client, eh? May I ask who?”
“You may, and I may not tell you.”
“Colour me intrigued, Patty.”
“How’s it with you? How’s being back in China?”
“Back? I’m Canadian. I never lived here a day in my life. Hubin brought me to attract the vets. China doesn’t need your Frankfurt or LA wunderkinder. There are more than enough of those here already. We’re after your superstars, the ones with a fat Phaidon to their name.”
Marlene Dumas: the archetypal superstar with a fat Phaidon to her name. V+V has made overtures over the years to poach Dumas, but she remains peculiarly faithful to galleries that have represented her for decades. Frustrating as this is (my heart flutter$ imagining what I could do with her estate) it is admirable and has arguably secured her longevity. BB is smart to have locked down Dumas’ Chinese representation: Hubin could be in for a long and very lucrative relationship...
“So you’re happy here?”
“Happy? In the greatest city in the world? Hell yeah I’m happy. This is home. I’ve found it. Everyone’s just getting on with it. It’s like there’s only one way in this town, and that is forwards! It’s the best time to be here. When is V+V opening a shop?”
“We just opened the Dubai gallery.”
“Snooze!” He arranges more lines. “I can’t be doing with UAE. I don’t want to know about those guys. I don’t care how much money they have. They just buy big metal stuff to put in the desert. It’s no fun. Fun fun, you know? Course you know.”
“You’re talking like China doesn’t arrest people.”
“Sure it does, if you don’t pay your taxes. Pay taxes and you can just about…” woosh goes a line “...do anything. BB and Patric in Chongqing, we’ll be legends. Hey, we should open our own shop. But not now. I need my stripes. Scratch that, let’s do it. BB and P-Booty in Chongqing city heights! Woo!”
BB wraps the opening. Moving the party on is difficult: Verhoeven gets mobbed. There is even someone dressed in full RoboCop getup. It’s somewhat intimidating, a giant in a complete, metal replica.
Guests are bundled into waiting Hongqis. I share a ride with a Dutch trade envoy called Ambroos who tells me China and Holland are in the midst of a hefty trade deal that is accompanied by a cultural programme. Next day, their convoy travels to some new town for the unveiling of a massive golden RoboCop statue. (When high, this calibre of nonsense sounds completely logical, inevitable even.)
We are deposited at a glossy hotel-restaurant where hundreds of plates are served, thousands of drinks are downed, and once everyone is suitably messy, BB says his goodbyes and whispers, “Now we party!”
‘Nothing good happens after 2am’ is an adage I remember someone saying at one of those junctions in a night when one has to decide what’s next - to bed or onwards - the logic being that the gruesome, injurious stuff happens after 2am. This is 100% correct. After 2am bad life choices get made. But I can’t stop myself. I long for the relief that comes from releasing yourself to the night, and then the city...
First stop a casino. Lose money, smoke cigars. It’s still dark when we stumble out. BB hails a trishaw. We board. He speaks with the driver in Chinese. “I asked him to take us to the wrong side of the tracks!” He slaps the driver’s back and we take off.
The coke, the smokes, and cocktails have me invigorated. I lie back happy-drunk on a faux-fur rug, BB talking to the driver, me sucking a cigar, taking in the blurring signs, dance of traffic, passing faces. Love it. When you’re new in a town, you are most sensitive to every sight, light, noise, smell. Chongqing is electricity.
We cross the tracks and the ride gets bumpy. What I have seen of Chongqing is modern, business-friendly - that shiny glass-and-steel feel - here things are more improvised. It becomes apparent that a trishaw is the best means to navigate these narrow, curling lanes, spilling with wobbly drunks.
“These guys, they are mostly engineers and architects, living the high life.” BB hangs out the side of the trishaw, high-fiving pedestrians. “This is the Wild East! Pioneer spirit! Welcome to the New World!”
Just another claim on the New World. Which is it? China, UAE, Columbia, Freerland? Have I chosen the right one? Does one have to choose? One does. Surely?
We roll onto a dock, busy with bars, restaurants, party boats, BB monologuing about new art centres, new artists, new movements, new collectors in China. I know none of them, but I’ll tell you what I do know: China has an art scene. A scene is ecosystem: artists, audience, collectors, venues, studios, material suppliers. What does Freerland have?
This gets me thinking...worrying...will the Freerish National Gallery be a mausoleum? Or, as Sun put it, a folly. Folly!? How about I join the Dutch delegation’s trip to a golden RoboCop in the desert? Oh, I don’t know. ’Tis the flip of a coin between folly and fantasy, between flop and fortune. Who knows how a RoboCop monument will be perceived in a century or a millennium? Same goes for Freerland: its future standing rests on what its founders achieve. It will fall on me to bring purpose and give life to this institution.
God, that word. Institution. Bringing to mind prisons, hospitals, tax offices...local government...HR...Department of Work and Pensions...the land registry...Ombudsman Services...delegates for boards of committees...the public sector.
Institutional is not who I am. But Jenna doesn’t want that - the world of white-bearded Germans - she wants Patric Farmer. But is he even capable of being a director, or, dare I say, curator?
What even is curating? Grouping stuff by time, place, medium and/or theme. End of. I’ve hung a thousand shows: I know how to nudge a work...left a bit, right, up, little higher, too far, perfect…and then get the lighting just so until everything balances. Until there are Vibrations.
I’ll be a bloody great director - I will - I just know. Just as I know that Freerland is the Official New World. I’m convinced of it.
As the trishaw continues its journey, the docks get quieter, then darker, and, ultimately, spookier. We pull over. BB and the driver talk.
“Hey, get out.”
“He won’t take us further.”
We clamber out of the trishaw. We’re both unsteadily jelly-legged. The driver takes his cash from BB and dashes off.
We are left alone.
It’s the worst when you’re on a happy high and reality has the temerity to interrupt the peaceful easy feelings. I feel suddenly very, very exposed. Paranoid. And sickly: adrenaline has kicked in, making for a toxic mix in my stomach. Where am I? What is this for? Why do I blithely follow BB to these places? Look at us: two drunk-and-high targets in the pitch-black. Scratch that. There is light - orange dots - the glowing ends of cigarettes.
We are being watched.
“Come,” says BB.
Neither of us speak. I don’t want to say what I’m thinking (‘Is this such a good idea?’), because I don’t want to send signals to the shadows that here be two chumps aiming for a maiming.
A fishy stink clings to the air.
I can’t make it out in the dark, but there appears to be a miniature mountain range to one side of us. On the other side is water - are we on a river or are we at sea? - smacking against the dock and moored boats.
I turn around (never look back!) and the floating-orange-cigarettes are there again.
I hold my breath.
BB turns on to a footbridge and hops on a boat. A squat, metal vessel. He thumps the door.
No lights, no signs of life. I will not turn back again…
A peep-hole slips open. An eye surveys us both. The door is noisily unbolted and opened. We hustle inside and only when the door is bolted again do I exhale.
“Oh my God.”
“What’s the matter with you?”
“What’s the matter with you?”
“That was scary.”
“You’re kidding, right?”
“There were people...in the shadows.”
“Patric, you are bugging out, chill, bro.” BB turns to hug a sharp gent. “Good to see you, man.”
The guy has on a velvet jacket over a Dinosaur Jnr T-shirt. Hair greased back, thin moustache. I dig his styling. Pitched between timeless elegance and grunge wastrel - a magic resonance.
“Lee, this is Patric. Patric, Lee. Great friends, great guys, great party people. And, Lee, I pray you are down to party?”
“I only answer the door when I am.”
Lee leads us through the boat. It is narrow, cramped. There are lots of clunky pieces of metal, pipes, bolts I duck to avoid. This is the antithesis of the sort of boat to which I am accustomed (airy yachts machined to perfection). He takes us to a cabin. A very special cabin: it is a UV room. Piled with cushions, bean bags, draped with fabric, these are all painted with fluorescent patterns and Chinese characters. They come vibrantly to life under the UV. Coming off the night I’ve just had, it is truly intoxicating.
BB collapses on a bean bag. The UV shows up splatterings of white clouds on his jacket. I check my own suit: it looks like a Thilo Heinzmann canvas.
There is a sense of danger and comfort, of deadly endings. Yes, I am drunk/high but not enough to not have misgivings about this escapade.
Don’t get me wrong, I’d expect no less from a BB night. Through your mid-twenties, you love and follow every BB that comes your way. But one reaches a point when such excursions take on an air of the reckless. They err on the wrong side of dangerous. You worry about ‘consequences’. When children enter the picture, the conceit of ‘responsibility’ rears its head. I am a father. No denying that. I am also on the verge of making a multi-billion-dollar deal which could potentially change both my life, and the world. Alack, these misgivings are not great enough to overpower my curiosity.
Lee brings out the cognac.
“I’ve missed this!” cheers BB. “No one gets high anymore. Is it the same in London? Everyone on a paleo-wellness-vitamin kick? You, me and Lee, we’re the end of an era. Cheers!”
Floating on bean bags, we enjoy our warming spirit - cognac is a perfect nightcap - and rabbit on the way drunk people do. Lee lived in Amsterdam “back when it was gangster town,” moored in this very boat. He returned to China when his father got sick and brought the boat with him - transported in a Russian cargo ship - jam-packed with hashish and other goodies.
After we finish the cognac, Lee disappears again and returns with another bottle, as well a pipe. It has a long cylinder with three loose hookah-esque hoses.
“Is that opium?”
“What is this? The nineteenth century?” says BB. “Racist, Patric. Really racist.”
Lee proffers the mouthpiece: “Suck it and see.”
Nope, no thanks. I should say my goodbyes, get the hell out of here. It would be demented to imbibe whatever the pipe carries.
When in Chongqing…
I place my lips around the mouthpiece and inhale, deeply. Its flavour is pleasant. I can tell what it’s not - not herbal, not chemical, not tobacco - without quite being able to put my finger on what it is.
“Good man,” says BB, taking his turn on the pipe. He fills his cheeks, swallows it down and has a little cough. “Has this night not shown you this is where you need to be? It’s the New Silk Road. Don’t you want to be at the start of something? Us guys, we are trailblazers.”
“Blazing a trail, blaized all the way,” says Lee.
“I might be...at the start of something else.”
“Tell me more.”
“What do you know about Jenna Freer?”
“No. Uh-huh. No way.”
“Crazy, cuckoo, insane.”
“That isn’t fair.”
“Let me tell you something. I’m from Canada, man. Right next door to hell. The US is like your kid bro who was a really great athlete at school and then has one too many concussions and is now hopped up on drugs and completely spaced. What I’m saying is they’re brain damaged. All of them. They’ve convinced themselves it’s them who’s normal while they go off living on floating cities.”
“Then you know about Freerland?”
“Sure, I do, and I know a cult when I see one. It’s a bubble, hot air. It’s not real. But China? As real as it gets,” says the guy sunk inside a bean bag under UV light. “What’s happening in Chongqing is infrastructure, it’s railways, airports, docks. Import-export. That’s how you make money, man. The trade of physical goods, stuff you can hold. That never grows old. Bubbles burst but people got to eat.” Perhaps he’s right. Perhaps China is the place for me. What if in Freerland I am stranded? An outcast. A backward specimen of pre-Singularity...
Confession Time Part II.
Earlier I admitted my incapacity to work with ‘The New Establishment’? Well, not completely unrelated, I regret to inform you that I might have been losing touch with developments in Artworld.
Once in Berlin, around ten years ago, a man cycled past me wearing a T-shirt that had written on it in marker pen: Internet art … why not?
Ever since, the trends had moved not only away from what I favoured, but also what I understood…
Moments of bewilderment are to be expected in Artworld. They signal that things are changing. I used to have Tracey, my friend and colleague from the ‘noise’ band, to keep me abreast. She was like a Youth Ambassador. With her endless appetite for new trends in Internet art, I just about managed to keep my finger on the pulse. But Tracey moved to New York and ever since...well, I’d walk art fair aisles feeling lost. Instead of paintings on the walls, booths contained...is it a gallerist sat at a laptop trading stocks, or an actor in a staged parody of the art market? No longer was art something I fully grasped.
In 2011, Frieze Art Fair doubled up to Frieze Masters, a twin fair for art made before the 21st Century. Initially I recoiled - it seemed superfluous, even divisive - comparable to a music festival establishing a ‘parent’ event for oldies.
Frieze Masters proved a masterstroke, however, and soon I found myself more comfortable there, amongst Constable and de Kooning, than at Frieze, where I was forced to watch hyper-frantic-squeeky-voiced digital renderings through VR headsets.
Am I a dinosaur?
I am not a dinosaur! It’s not like I keep a flip phone! I don’t check my email once a week at the library! I am a Facetime father! Not at all a dinosaur! I simply have legitimate fears about where this (whatever this is) will lead Artworld.
Succinctly, that it could be worse than the Seventies.
The era of Performance Art.
Think of some bearded man eating paper. A shelf or a footprint - accompanied by text panels of ‘protocols’. Millions were not earned on the back of this. But at least Performance Art made for photos, editions, and films that could be sold. The stuff today...inchoate coding or screengrabs? There is no way to market this.
In the only language the kids understand: :(
Since the century of isms, this has been the eternal state of Artworld: the epic and bloody battle between those who love stuff - stuff that goes on floors and walls - and those who love talk, words, symposiuming.
Some artists are learning - manifesting their bot-works and image-generators as photo-collages or luxurious 3D-printed sculpture - but too many remain in a digital realm no gallery can hope to monetise or human can hope to enjoy.
My prickling fear: Freerland is a realm for this - the dematerialised anti-stuff - and the position of director will be better to a curator of the Internet Age.
“Man, that’s good…” BB’s chin drops and he trails off, gurgling.
I am still waiting...to feel...something. I take another hit. I go deep this time, really filling my lungs.
BB lifts his head, expression blank, and announces, “I’m going to be a father.”
Lee and I parry a succession of well wishes - “congratulations”, “that’s brilliant news”, “I’m so happy for you” - but BB’s having none of it.
“You’ll make a wonderful dad.”
“How, when I have to give up this?” He grabs the pipe and inhales.
“Children need parents that show them the opportunity and adventure the world has to offer.”
“I’m frightened,” he sobs.
“You think you’re the first father to be frightened?”
“It wouldn’t be normal to be anything but frightened, but trust me, BB, you’ve got this.”
“Listen to your friend. I can only dream of siring a child. But that ship has sailed.”
“You are on a ship.”
“It’s fixed berth.”
“It’s cool, man. What was I saying?”
“That ship has sailed.”
“Quite literally. It was a woman I loved more than I’ve ever loved anything. This was back in Amsterdam.”
“How can you not fall in love with every person you meet in Amsterdam?”
“True that. Maybe she’s still there. I didn’t want to leave, you know, but the writing was on the wall, and I had to split. This was before the Internet. In those days when you left a place, that was it. You were gone. You left everyone and everything.”
“They had mail, Lee, there were phones.”
“Nah, nah. This was the nineties. You don’t know the way it used to be, you were a kid, you’ve grown up in this world where there’s no hiding, no escape, but back then most of us didn’t have addresses. I know Roza didn’t. Roza! Just saying her name. She was the one, I’m telling you, my long-lost love, and not a day goes by I don’t think about her, and you know when someone asks a person if they have kids and they joke, ‘none that I know of’, and everyone laughs? I’m like, I wish. Serious. I wish one of these days there would be a knock at the door, and some punk stands there and says, ‘Whattup, old man, cool if I call you dad?’ I’m ready for that.”
“But you have the best life.”
“The best life in your twenties can be the worst life in your fifties.”
“You are not in your fifties.”
“How old do you think I am?”
“Your hair looks so healthy.”
“Why didn’t it happen for you then?”
“You make choices, you start on a path, and it can take years to realise it’s the wrong direction, and then it’s too late. I’m not going to say there’s not people who regret having kids, but most are, like, yes, it ruined my life and, yes, it’s the best thing in my life.”
I recline on my bean bag, allowing the paternal philosophising to wash over me, cognac wrapping my tummy in its warmth, the smoke cloaking my lungs.
I love my son.
I hear myself say but Lee and BB don’t seem to hear.
It’s all for you, Dougie. You’re the reason I do what I do and I do regret all that I’ve missed. All I’ve messed up. Jan jokingly refers to Dougie as my ‘illegitimate son’ because I put in such a horrendous show during his early days. I simply didn’t know of his existence until long after his birth. It was during a wistful, semi-intoxicated late-night surf through the Web that I landed on Jan’s Instagram. I saw a picture of her, a babe in arms. “Congratulations! You’ll make a great mother,” I commented, followed by five heart symbols. Imagine my shock when Jan replied publicly, “f U”, followed by “DIE!!!!” with skull symbols, followed by “I curse the day you were born,” followed by “even tho Dougie is only 6 months old he is twice the man you will ever be.”
Eventually I learned why I was the source of such ire.
Having missed the boat, I spent some days in Cairo where my phone was stolen. Coincidentally, around that time I was suspended from Facebook for posting nude paintings (ridiculous). Inadvertently I achieved a complete disappearing act on Jan. I was the Accidental Ghost. I had no idea that she might wish to contact her summer fling. Thank God, then, that I reached out to her on Instagram. Those early days, reconnecting and negotiating, were fraught, but eventually met my heir and I met.
It was his first birthday party. Jan surrounded by her girlfriends. Picture it: a baby – most beautiful ever born – at the centre of Woman, dedicated mother-protectors, surveying me with suspicion and alarm. They’d heard the stories, no doubt they had Googled my name and read that damnable essay. There was a chorus of howls as they unwrapped my present.
“What is he supposed to do with that?”
“Are you trying to kill him?”
“Unbelievable idiocy,” said Hannah, Jan’s best friend, who had a tendency to repeat for emphasis. “Unbelievable idiocy.”
I’d bought him a drone.
Bad Dad, Sad Dad, Distant Dad, Absentee Dad. One time or another, I have been all of the above. Along the way, a contender for Worst Dad Ever.
But I always believe I’ll improve - that ultimately it will get better - and I will become, if not Super Dad, then perhaps, at last, simply, Dad.
My eyes are full of them as I draw another deep breath of whatever the hookah has burning.
“But what if I’m not the same as you, and I’m really never meant to have kids. I don’t want an enemy. Jesus, a mortal enemy. Someone hating me until my dying day. And what if they don’t hate me but I’m just no good at it.”
“It’s not a big deal,” I say, quoting Jan: “Just keep it clean and feed it.” Those were her instructions to me the first time I parented overnight. (Even so, I hired a freelance child psychologist to support.)
“Your son is very lucky to have you as a father. Look at us, Patric. You and I, parents. Who’d have funk it?”
“If your sons could see you now,” says Lee, refilling our glasses.
“And if your son who may or may not have been born could see you, how old would he be?”
“I left Amsterdam in ’98 so…”
“He’d be grown up.”
“An adult child. A man son.”
“To the boys,” says Lee, toasting the cognacs.
And that’s that. With a hearty swallow, I pass de Streif.
A hard-drinking Austrian artist, now deceased, used that term to describe the one shot/toke/shotty/line that pushes you over the edge. After de Streif things have a habit of descending, rapidly.
“Children don’t want goody-two-shoes.”
“My own father was an Army man and he raised me like one of his privates.”
“Too much discipline is damaging.”
“A child finds wisdom from their parents,” I begin, trying to summon a line from Mumsnet I once read in a forum about parents with ‘partying pasts’, “therefore it is essential you live well.”
Submission and fall...whatever this not-opium is, it is like the cognac. It warms and lulls, puts me in a restful place, feeling gentle and loved. I’m back in Positano. Bathing under the sun’s final rays, spritz in hand, and guitarist picking notes of ‘O sole mio’, my only worry, what’s for dinner…
Urge to send Dougie a voicenote.
I check my phone and I have a message from an unknown number. It’s a video. Should I open it?
“Pizza on a yacht! Pizza on a yacht! I’m in Napoli and eating pizza on a yacht!”
The video displays the most sloppily luscious pizza against a backdrop of sea and that den of thieves, Napoli. Ray then appears, dancing with a slice.
I was a late starter when it came to getting high. The Jesuit School was resolutely drug-free. At university, UK garage was the only stimulant I needed. It wasn’t until I moved to London, that I really started on the recreationals.
My housemates (colleagues from V+V) included a lost soul called Luisa. She was a wonderful person but completely at sea in Artworld. It was, however, she who ushered me into a world of mushrooms, MDMA, acid, khat. Together we embarked on the most extraordinary trips. The Regents Canal was our Yellow Brick Road, Hampstead Heath our Garden of Eden, Abney Park Cemetery our realm of Hades. I relished my time with Luisa - time spent refreshing the soul - but she left V+V, and she left London, following her North Star to Peru, where last I heard she was training as a shaman of ayahuasca ceremonies.
Thereafter, my chemical romances became more desultory, less of a quest. Consider my current situation: not knowing what is in my pipe, or the journey I can expect it to take me on, or how to navigate the effects, or what benefits to seek.
That is the only advice I’d give the aspiring drug user: what benefits do you seek? Dance, ecstasy, obliteration, hallucination? Know where it is you wish to be taken - don’t just suck a pipe and say, When in Chongqing...
“In answer to your question, if Dougie saw me now, I would tell him there are many sides to his father. I doubt that’s a concept a child will comprehend. Maybe I’d tell him people are like buildings, and buildings can have many rooms and many floors. I am now the pantry.”
“Where you keep the tins and dry goods. Store-room essentials. We have a pantry. They do. I just bought a home for my boy and his mother. But don’t you want to be in that home? Did someone just ask that? I must be hearing voices. I’m not sure they want me there. But I don’t want to be not wanted. I need to be needed.”
“Patric, where are you going?”
“It’s Dougie birthday.”
I have to get to him. First I must get on my feet. These pillows and bean bags are eating me. Too shaky to stand. Rollie-pollie. I’m coming, Dougie. No way will I miss your birthday. No way. Corridor. Hands and knees. If I start crawling now, I should make it in time. I reach the door of the boat. Lee tries persuading me not to go outside. He’s in the galley spreading the honey from the Qinling mountains over toast.
Gentle, distant, and e’er so dark. Pitch black. The plank. I do not wish to cross. The DJ fades in: “With a little bit of luck, we can make it through the night...” The song emboldens me. If I am ever going to have a chance of seeing Dougie again, I must cross this epic, shaky drawbridge. They are at Burgess Park. A family do with a BBQ. Go back, Patric. Birthday and Ruscha and Frieze. Keep your head down at V+V. A bird in the hand. “With a little bit of luck, we can make it through the night...” By Christmas you will be firmly re-established as a profit-making professional and ensconced in the family home. Pack Islington into boxes. The bachelor chapter closed. That whole patch of North London, cloaked in weed fog and warped visions. Never go back. The scratch of knife on toast. Invisible water. On hands and knees I crawl.
“Ta na ne, ta na ne, ta na ne, ta na na te boy.”
Beckoning me from the shore.
Steady as she goes.
Blue. Wide-open sky. Chemtrail, dissipating. Where to, plane? Who’s there? Do they love me? Do I love myself? My toes. Wriggle. Cold. Baffled, I look down at my shoes: socks! My shoes are gone. Stolen? Oh well. Bird sound. Caw caw. Beeeep beeeep. Animals and machinery. Drills, chugging. The sounds of work. Doing, making, moving. Industry. The morning of a new day. I am lying on...what are these? Lego? They scrunch beneath me. Pick one up. What is that? A welk? Around me are fat gulls bobbing their heads up and down, snapping at these crunchy bits.
I am not hungover or paranoid. I am not on a comedown. I am not confused. I remember everything: no regrets. The morning is beautiful. The sun, powering through smog, revives. But I have trouble standing. There is a bean-bag difficulty to navigating a body from a shell mountain. Finally I am upright. No clue where I am. I can’t see the boat from last night. Did it even exist? I crunch my way out of the shells and look around. What felt menacing in the dark is now a hive of labour. Workers working, oblivious to the idiot westerner. I have no trousers!
I stagger along the docks, as dignified as can be without shoes and trousers, until I begin to recognise the surroundings. It’s the area with the bars. They are being brushed and watered down, cleansed of last night. Further on, I see a waterfront restaurant that is open. There’s a group sat en plein air and, strangely, Paul Verhoeven’s is the first face I spot. He has an auburn scarf wrapped dashingly around his neck. He’s with Marlene Dumas and a number of the Dutch dignitaries. There’s Ambroos. And BB!
“Patric,” he shouts.
Lee is there too: “He lives!”
“We were worried.”
I stagger up to the table. There’s even the guy dressed up as RoboCop. I slap him on his metallic shoulder and ask, “Where were you when I needed you?”
I join them for breakfast – fruits de la mer with Bucks Fizz – and feel the way I always do after a heavy one: fantastic. It is a new day, and I am ready for the task ahead. Well, after one more drink.