Gustave Caillebotte, "Les Raboteurs de Parquet"
Brothers, Fathers, Friends and Lovers

The friends I walk with

I walk fast. Even when I’m not rushing to get to work or arrive on time for a movie, I walk fast. Not ridiculously fast, I mean, it wouldn’t wind up categorized in the archives of the Ministry of Silly Walks, but very fast nonetheless. I don’t do it intentionally, of course. Like my fingerprints, my gait—its cadence, velocity and swing, the position of my head, the plane described by my back—is very much me. Jacek, my construction-worker friend, walks tall and proud, as if a rod had been driven straight down his taut ropey body. Angelos has a gnome-like  hop, which goes with his beard and slight paunch—the former recently acquired as he started his doctorate, the latter as he gave up smoking. Giorgos shuffles as if wearing slippers, so comfortable he is in his surroundings.

I’m only conscious of my gait when I’m with others, mostly because I have to slow down. With friends I often walk with—what a nice phrase that is, the friends I walk with—there’s some unspoken self-organizing principle at work to calibrate our gait: I slow down a bit, they pick up their pace a bit. I had to walk very slow not to lose Vangelis, the colleague I traveled to London with. He walks excruciatingly slowly.  Or rather he plods. Perseveringly trudging along, slogging his way deliberately if monotonously towards a goal may be much in keeping with his outlook on the world. He told me he can’t read a book that’s not related to a project he’s working on.

We were having dinner at a funky Indian restaurant in Earl’s Court. Vangelis had suggested Indian and I had called Jörg to ask him for suggestions in the neighborhood. Vangelis wasn’t very enthusiastic about the place (“it’s alright for a budget place”). Perhaps he was expecting murals of the Taj Mahal and Bollywood music in the background.  I told him Jörg had said the food here was pretty authentic, to which he replied, “oh, I hope not too authentic. You have to be careful in places like that.” But then again, Vangelis says that if given his choice he prefers to eat in hotel restaurants (and actually had suggested going to the Hilton for dinner but I quashed that with the excuse our per diem probably wouldn’t cover it).

We exchanged stories of our afternoons. He told me about buying a coat in a shop off Regent Street. Vangelis dresses well, I suppose, if somewhat conservatively for my tastes. He certainly dresses expensively, which I know is not the same thing as dressing well. Maybe that’s all that I know about fashion.

I told him about Dispersions, the exhibition which I had seen at the ICA, and in particular Maria Eichhorn’s “Film Lexicon of Sexual Practices”. The piece is a video-installation consisting of a 16-mm film projector sitting atop a stand with shelves on which lie various orange plastic cases. Each contains a three-minute reel of film dedicated to a body part or a sexual practice such as cunnilingus, food sex, orgasm denial. The films aren’t played in any particular order. The visitor must ask the museum attendant to be shown a particular film. I was alone in the room at the time and the piece the previous visitor had requested was coming to an end.

It was my turn. I’ve asked for stranger stuff than this from a DVD club. Although most times I just hand in a slip of paper with a couple of four-digit numbers scribbled on it, I have asked for specific titles (and certainly more edgy than these), and indeed have engaged in practices kinkier than those that Eichhorn has inventoried—and in public (well, ok, in a sex club, but nonetheless in public view)—and I was entirely comfortable doing it. But this was different. Intimidating, exhibitionistic. The attendant actually had to mount the bobbin for me, thread the film and start the projector running, and he was all just a half-meter away from me. Needing to ask the attendant—the watchman!—to prepare the film for you gave the sexual content a public context missing from the DVD club or sex party, the “transactions” of which are either wholly impersonal and commercial or conducted with the like-minded.  I’m embarrassed to say I was too embarrassed to ask. The irony is that Eichhorn’s pieces—documentary-like, clinical, monotonous—are anything but erotic.

Vangelis listened without saying a word, and so when I finished I asked him if I had shocked him. “No, not shocked. But it’s the first time I heard of a video being shown in a museum gallery. What was the exhibition about?”  A reasonable question, especially since a lot of contemporary art isn’t all that accessible. An even better question when it comes to group shows, since presumably it means more than simply the sum of encounters with the individual works.

Cataloguing and archiving came to mind: Eichhorn’s lexicon, her collection of three-minute films; the scenes shot in the Japanese Library of Sexual Archives that appear in Hito Steyerl’s “Lovely Andrea”, a German woman’s search for a picture taken of her in bondage years ago in Tokyo (but also the hundreds of magazines and files of photographs in the office of a Japanese photographer specializing in bondage shooting). But most of all Henrik Olesen’s “some gay-lesbian artists and/or artists relevant to gay culture V,VI,VII”, consisting of several very large panels on which the artist had tacked museum-card reproductions or cut-outs from art books and exhibition catalogs of works of gay artists or works with homoerotic imagery. The installation looked somewhat like the results of a school project or (as the exhibition catalog notes) the crime-scene room at a police precinct. I had admired Eatkins’ rowers and boxers before and Sargent’s paintings of young men, but seeing them arranged in this way along with other similar paintings was a revelation. And an opportunity to become acquainted (even via a museum card) with marvelous paintings I hadn’t known about: Sargent’s Tommies Bathing for example, or Gustave Caillebotte’s  Les raboteurs du parquet.

The image of Caillebotte’s floor scrapers is how I like to think of Jacek working. His painting lends a nobility to the manual work of the floor scrapers: one can almost see the muscular backs of the workers ripple as they slide their planers back and forth, hear their rhythmic heavy breathing in the stillness of the early afternoon. Of course I never did visit Jacek on a construction site (that would have been too bold for him) and now that he’s moved back to Poland, I won’t see him again at all, much less on site. And I don’t know how much he enjoyed the physical exertion of his work or what he thought about as he primed a wall to be painted. I hope he’s happy back in Poland, however much I miss him.

-/-

Image: Gustave Caillebotte, Les raboteurs du parquet (1875)

Discussion

One response to “The friends I walk with

  1. I loved this walk with your friends, and have to say i smile and laughed too, thinking of Vangelis, all of it so vivid, and clear, and the writing, beautiful crisp, as if I were there on those streets.

    Like

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