I took a bus from the airport to the central station where, after fighting my way through the crowd of 12-year-old gypsy girls intent on accessing my portofolio, I found a taxi.
"Certo," said the driver when I asked him if he could take me to the Albergo Buckingham. Thinking about what I might be getting myself into with this sudden trip across the Atlantic, I was anything but certo myself. In hope of some small distraction, I picked up the newspaper sitting on the car seat next to me (well, I probably would have taken a look at it no matter what my state of mind). The front page carried a photograph of the Ministro dell' Economia, Antonio Della Biscaya. The photographer had caught Della Biscaya in a typical pose, or rather he had managed to catch him in three typical poses simultaneously. From experience, I knew that Della Biscaya was always shown doing one of the following: dancing with a woman at least 20 years his junior, eating something high-calorie, or being introduced to a celebrity. In this photograph, taken at a party somewhere, the onorevole was managing to dance (his partner a 20-something dyed blonde in a sequined miniskirt) and eat (some creme-filled dessert in his left hand making its way towards his open mouth) while shaking hands with a balding man in black-tie who the caption identified as a "star del cinema."
Della Biscaya was apparently keeping up his carefree image, but I had been following developments-through articles that every week took up a larger portion of the weekly news magazine Expressorama, even to the point that the Times began to cover the story, which of course occasioned an article in Expressorama about how the New York Times was now writing about the predicament of the povera patria-enough to know that he was inches from a fall that would involve political disgrace, significant loss of income, and, quite likely, prison. Very different from the onorevole I remembered glimpsing a couple of years earlier, when his vast power was epitomized by the arrogant length of his hair-longer than any international statesman had worn since the days of Benjamin Disraeli, as a commentator in Expressorama (or maybe it was in the daily, Il Messagero della Matina) once pointed out in a grand rhetorical fit of nationalistic pride or-my grasp of the language was never completely firm-shame.
Anyway, here I was, back, returning to this dreary foreign city I had believed to have been left safely behind, once and for all. But it wouldn't be for long-once I hooked up with Palace, we would be going up to the lake to start preparing Informa.
I had noted that the Buckingham was not far from the offices of Shock Domani. This had to be nothing more than a coincidence, though Palace and my former boss Spardi would of course know each other, and I could easily imagine them seeing eye to eye.
The taxi's windows were obscured with moisture, not from rain but from the water-laden atmosphere, that dense fog (if fog is the right word for so chemical and industrial an element) that blocked out the sun for most of the winter. Peering over the driver's shoulder and through the area on the windshield cleared by the intermittent passes of the wipers, I could see thick yellowish halos around each street lamp, as we drove along an empty outer boulevard, not far from the cimiterio monumentale. It was only 10 o'clock at night but the city seemed already deserted, closed down, turned off.
I started to recall images from my earlier-what shall I call it?-sojourn. With each block, with each silent added increment on the digital meter of the taxi-we were already up to 30,000 and I reminded myself to ask for a receipt-my mind snatched up another incident, another face, another piece of information, another regret or triumph, another ricordo.
When the meter flashed a green 35,000, I found myself thinking that the first two digits corresponded to my age, and how big a number it was, even without the three zeros. We turned into what I recognized, despite the dripping windows, as the Via Aldus Manutius, where the Shock Oggi offices were and I immediately hoped that I wouldn't run into Spardi. Not that I seriously believed Spardi, if by some wild coincidence he happened to be strolling around on this miserable evening, could recognize me inside the darkened taxi, but there was something about the man that nurtured paranoia.
Near the railway bridge we just missed a traffic signal ("porco canne," the driver cursed) and I had a chance to look out over the Stazione Manzoni's large parking lot which was bathed-God knew why-in red, radioactive-like light. Row after row of packed-together compacts seemed to glow from within, while around the perimeter, billboards carried ads with long-legged blondes and cars identical to those in the stazione's lot. Illumination came from street lamps in the center of the lot, so high their light had to filter through the pervasive, toxic haze, so powerful that they transformed the haze into a kind of incandescent gas. I saw a sign I'd never before noticed: Piazza Sigmund Freud.
The light changed and we drove forward as I thought how impossible it was to reconcile this scene with the city where tourists had come, once upon a time, looking for The Last Supper and a cheap restaurant.
I had been trying to write a letter to my old friend David, when the phone call came. I'd started it off by recalling to him how, at 18, we had found so much in Ken Russell's film of Women in Love, how we used to discuss it endlessly, seeking out clues to the lives that were awaiting us. We read the book too of course (with, I'm certain, a mutual disappointment we never voiced) and biographies (we were especially interested in the D.H.L. v. Ottoline Morrell story). What I had been about to ask in my letter, when the phone rang, was how things seemed to him now. Which of the characters had we come to resemble, the sensitive Alan Bates chap or the brute played by Oliver Reed? And had either of us had relationships with women as tempestuous as Lawrence's with Morrell or had we settled for more comfortable partnerships?
It was a call from Jerry Palace, long distance. When it was over I had to start packing immediately, call my travel agent, let friends know I would be away, deal with all of sudden travel's exciting preliminaries. I looked at the letter, hardly begun, and said to myself, knowing what a lie it was: another time. I suppose you could say I was surprised when Jerome Palace called to offer me a job, if by surprised we agree to also mean reassured that the faith I had in my own destiny was not just a delusion.
Palace's overexcited voice boomed in my ear: "The exhibition is scheduled to open in May-eleven months from now. We don't have much time. I need your help. Could you be here, immediately?"
For a long time I continued to believe him-what a jerk. On the face of it, there were plausible reasons why he would have offered me the job. Only that none of those reasons were the real ones.
"Well, there's a major article I have to finish for Art and Money..." I said, because it was true but particularly so he wouldn't think that I was sitting around with nothing important to do. Much good that did.
"Finish it on the plane. Or just forget it. What's more important?" Palace had demanded, in his characteristic wheeze.
"Ah," I thought, "at last," and looked across the table to Palace, who was pouring himself a glass of mineral water. The brand, I noticed, was Penumbra. A sheer coincidence, I thought at the time, but I later learned that it had been Palace's habit for several years to always order that particular brand of mineral water. His reasoning was impeccable: it was ultimately the Del Orto family who funded his activities, who had enlisted him in the project of maintaining and exercising their wealth and power, which ultimately derived from a fortune made by the Penumbra brand of mineral water, the nation's second most popular and a highly successful export, so that by always ordering a bottle of Penumbra, Palace was helping to insure the survival of his employer and thus himself. It was a plus that he actually liked it, and that it contributed (though not much that I could see) to his battle with obesity.
We were in the lobby of the Albergo Buckingham, where I was staying, at the expense of the corporation that was funding Palace's mega-exhibition, Informa. The Buckingham had four stars, I think, and a decor that had clearly been the latest in hotelier fashion at the time of its completion five years earlier, after which it had begun a rapid descent towards the tacky. Palace, of course, was staying not at the Buckingham but in a much more exclusive establishment near the Castello.
I thought that now Palace would talk to me about the theme of the exhibition, but I was wrong. "Now let's see," he said, "where we stand, OK?"
I nodded, feeling that it was beneath me to be spoken to in this tone by someone like Jerry Palace (who was no Della Biscaya, after all) but then I never, in my whole life, cared for any kind of authority, no matter who was wielding it. But what could I do-it wasn't my name that would be going on the credit card receipt at the end of our meal.
"Here's the list as I see it," and he started to recite from memory some thirty of the best known young artists, and while I was impressed with the ease with which he ran through their names, I couldn't see for the life of me what they might possibly have in common other than a vigorous market. Not yet realizing that I was barking up the wrong tree, I interrupted Palace in mid-list to say that before knowing which artists were in the show I wanted to understand a little better what he meant by the term Informa. He stopped speaking and wheezed at me-fffioooupgrhh (inhalation), thwiisssh (exhalation)-for a few moments. There was something pathetic and alarming to the sound of Palace's diaphragm straining against the drapery of fat he carried around with him.
"Informa, the center of all discentering, the place of displacement, the body of the universal il-logos, not so much a black hole as a controlled meltdown of post-ideological stasis, the ultimate balancing out of neo-formalism and neo-conceptualism, an anti-assemblage of discrete elements fused into a genderless scenario, a collision of ego and organically inflected geometric configurations." With a kind of sing-song rhythm, which made it clear that this too was stored away in Palace's waterlogged brain, he chattered away, clearly pleased with his own linguistic ability but also clearly far less interested in these pseudo-ideas than in the list of hot artists, to which he accordingly returned with barely a pause. It was in that moment, when Palace shifted effortlessly from his chunk of fancy discourse to an almost random list of famous names that I realized something terrible had happened in the last few years: the list had so often been substituted for thinking that it had at last replaced thought itself.
I thought of that short film from so many years back, Le Nouveau Monde, in which the camera follows a man around Paris. Some kind of massive nuclear explosion has just occurred but he is the only one who knows about it. I forget what the effect is supposed to be, whether everyone is about to die or whether they have simply been altered in some strange way. The point is, everything looks exactly the same. The director has just shot scenes of daily life and by framing them with this man's vision, he has suggested the falseness of appearance. Suddenly, I felt exactly like that man, wandering through an apparently normal, unchanged world, when in fact it was wholly changed, undermined by an invisible shift of climate. A terrible thing had happened: the glue of thought that had held discourse together had melted away, and there was nothing left but one thing after another. But there wasn't time to think about this important revelation for I had to attend to what my corpulent host was saying.
"...Stan Wrang, Carlotta Malpensa, Philippe Ponchette, Heinz-Heinz Gast, Candy Billings, Don Smith, Martin Vanderschipol, Ophelia de Palsa, Kevin and Karl..." He paused for breath, and a forkfull of prosciutto e melone, then resumed in a display of simultaneous chewing and enumeration: "...Carlo Goldschmidt, Jurgen Platz, Edvard Palinovsky, Mary O'Nolan, Gino di Corvino, Juan Buenas."
What I had to find out was exactly what Palace saw my rôle as being. He seemed so self-sufficient, handling the fund-raising, the contacts with artists, the public relations, the concept and title. Perhaps it was to write an essay for the catalogue that he had flown me half way around the world-certainly there wasn't much else that I could see I was qualified to do in this situation.
At a certain point Palace seemed to decide that we'd talked enough about Informa and for the rest of our dinner we exchanged news and gossip about the art world in New York and Europe. It was only towards the end, after risotto con funghi and scaloppe alla milanese (for him), and risotto con funghi (the waiter was very persuasive about the funghi) and branzino ai ferri (for me-whenever someone else is paying I make it a habit to order the most expensive fish on the menu, out of some newspaper-article-inspired notion that a) eating fish will help me to live longer and b) the more expensive the fish, the greater the health benefits) that Palace said something that sounded like it might be important. In fact, the subject was so casually introduced, that I knew it couldn't be as off-hand as he made it sound. For a minute I congratulated myself that my perceptions had lost none of their keenness despite the jet lag I must surely have been feeling, then it hit me that the off-handedness was meant to be transparent.
"Are you going to see"-he paused a moment as if he was trying to remember the name-"Spardi while you're here?" Palace asked as the coffee arrived.
Why was he asking this question-because he didn't want me to tell Spardi anything about Informa? "Maybe, if I have time," I answered noncommittally.
"You should, if only to thank him for the glowing recommendation he gave you."
He followed with a fffioooupgrhh and a thwiisssh. I tried for a moment to imagine Spardi recommending anyone for anything, let alone glowingly, let alone me. If it was true, there had to be some hidden reason.
"Well, if you put it like that, I'll definitely go see him," I said.
"As you like," Palace said, then more loudly to the room in general, "il conto per favore."
Just as I was about to fall asleep, in my spotless and sad room eight floors above the Via Aldus Manutius, I remembered the still unfinished letter to David and wondered how long it would take for me to get back to the things I wanted to tell him about D.H. Lawrence and Women in Love. "Anni e anni e anni," I muttered drowsily to myself, already beginning to speak the language of my new terrain.
Subscribe to Lacanian Ink click here.