“Okay, so there’s Arcadia White, Chantilly Lace, Historic White—”
I’m sitting at the computer in the pristine but cluttered back room of the Empty Set Gallery on a Saturday morning, reading out loud as I scroll through paint options from our supplier’s online catalogue.
Crowding behind me in the twilight is most of the regular staff and Margery de Saint-Leger herself, the gallery director, our exalted leader. Mercifully, I’m high as a kite.
“—Slipper Satin, Swiss Coffee—”
Lyonel is Margery’s personal assistant. He is slight, black, OCD, and favors bold, garishly outré ironic-t-shirts-and-skintight-leather-trousers combos he modulates with plethoric silver accessories. Rather tediously, he is one of these people (in my experience, exclusively gay men) who insist that everybody is gay, and that to believe otherwise is unforgivably naïve.
“There’s a Starbucks that just opened on the Concourse, actually.”
Gabe: bald, pale, bespectacled—wears only black in an effort to project “dark glamour” and disguise his pudgy figure. He is the “Visitor Experience Coordinator” and will admit to being “a major presence on Instagram” at the merest provocation.
“—Winter Orchard, Wimborne White, Super White—”
“That’s you, honky!”
While Gabe and Lyonel reflexively begin yet another catty round in their long-running stalemate to establish who is alpha queen, I can feel Jez, the gofer/handyman, looming over me, ostensibly to get a better look at the screen, but really to secure a clear view down my blouse.
“—Huntingdon White, White Whisp, Paper White—”
“I think we have a couple of cans left over from the last thing. Lemme check…”
Jez, Jez, Jez… Muscular, simian, virile—could be powerfully attractive if he wasn’t so solipsistically narcissistic and, well, borderline retarded.
“Yeah we do! Uh, but it just says ‘white’ on them, so…”
I masturbated once imagining that he was ravishing me, but the experience was marred when I remembered the way he always chews his lunch with his mouth open. Of my colleagues though, he is the only one I could even remotely envisage fucking. Please make a note of it.
“—Decorator’s White, Great White, Lily of the Valley, Honeymilk, Cotton White—”
“This is hopeless. Just kill me, just—”
Over my enriching few of months of part time employment at the gallery, I have observed that the Margery-bot only seems to have three settings: 1) dismissively aloof patrician bitch (default); 2) urbane and supremely capable überprofessional on a permanent charm offensive (while handling Stefan—the droopingly porcine, mercurial, and indeterminately Middle-European owner of Empty Set, which he started as “a completely personal project, actually, close to my heart, I can say” once he had inherited the bulk of his famously piratical father’s colossal fortune—, as well as wealthy collectors, art advisors, members of museum boards, or other miscellaneous VIPs); and 3) woman on the verge of a complete nervous breakdown (while compelled to deal with culpably inept and feckless underlings). She cycles through these settings, lurching from one to the next, with the frantic impetuosity and breathtaking staccato brio that only those least burdened with self-awareness can muster. Objectively, she is of course a nightmare. But on good days, I can’t help but finding her, along with my other remarkable colleagues, almost admirable in their sporting commitment to their extravagant, if vaguely clichéd, chosen personas. In any case, cultivating an attitude of prophylactic detachment and sincere ethnographical curiosity has, so far, made bearable the hard labor of sitting around all day three times a week, pretending that gallery assistants actually do anything except fill space decorously, like tasteful salaried furniture. That and popping out to the warehouse every couple of hours to smoke a sizeable joint…
“—All White, China White, White Diamond, Simply White, Calm White—”
According to its website, “The Empty Set Gallery hosts a vibrant and innovative program focused on Metaconceptual and Post-Contemporary productions: ART with its finger on the pulse of NOW. […] It’s current roster of leading international artists spans the full spectrum of the visual arts, and includes such luminaries as Geraldine Addio-Boutang, Anton and Manuela, Floyd Dieuleveut, Natasha Freedom, Otto Ikome, Alexa Liu, Yutaro-Ernesto Matsuura, Bryce David McIlhenny, Désiré Nyela, Dominic Queen, Sarita Sen, Dieter von Ende, and Archibald Wang. It publishes scholarly exhibition catalogues and artist monographs, as well as catalogues raisonnés.”
“Oh God, I think I’m going to cry.”
“Relax darling, it’s going to be fine.”
The summer exhibition we just packed up featured some of Archibald Wang’s famous “tortured balloons,” a “carefree Play-Doh golem” by Floyd Dieuleveut, and an elaborate interactive video installation that included “ambient neural sensors and self-activating non-hierarchical networks, supporting a fully compatible soul processor.” It consisted of a huge monitor on which a pale, bruised, morbidly obese woman would appear standing, larger than life, towering over the viewer: her nude body was covered with a profusion of adhesive bandages, and she wore an oversized bear head from an American football mascot costume. As the queasy (or simply bored) visitor would start to move away, the disquieting apparition would, amid artfully deliberate video glitches, begin ripping bandages off with a savage intensity, and muttering angry, semi-intelligible suggestions for self-harm directed at the retreating passer-by: “Cut it off… It’s the least you could do… It’s only polite… Is that the way your mama raised you?” And so on. As we speak this “important piece,” entitled Borderline 2.0 (Code Injection), by Bryce David McIlhenny is on its way to the Empty Set stand at Frieze London.
“This is a Natasha Freedom retrospective, Gabe, okay. So don’t you fucking tell me to relax! Don’t you fucking dare—”
Joyce, who works reception with me on Thursday and Friday afternoons, —a dim, sculptural brunette with huge blue-grey eyes, a shaved head, and a slightly uncanny childlike openness—will, every once in a while, have an unexpected flash of insight. The other day, for example, perhaps channeling the ghost of Andy Warhol, she perceptively commented on the stuff we show:
If it was out there, it would just be junk junk.
Always earnest, sweet, and impeccably dressed, she has a boyfriend who is either a minimalist electronic music DJ or the actor who played Bret Easton Ellis in the biopic (I forget which).
“Did I already say Chantilly Lace? Crisp White, Wevet No. 273, White Wedding—”
“Would you people just try—try okay—to imagine the kind of pressure I’m under right now?”
In the Heart Sutra, one of the major references of Mahayana Buddhism, there is a famous section in which the Buddha cryptically teaches that: “Form is emptiness, emptiness is form.” My understanding is that it’s meant to point to the ineffable experience of the world from the enlightened perspective of selflessness.
“We get it, Margery. This is so important. And it’s going to be perfect.”
“All the pieces are already in storage. And Natasha is so fabulous.”
“She’s fabulous. And you’re fabulous. And her assistant is fabulous. And we’re fabulous, okay. And this show, oh my God, is going to be just so—so…”
On the one hand, the world as we experience it is “empty”—a kind of illusion, a dream. The way we spontaneously relate to ourselves is that we cling the notion that we each have an individual, independent self. And we think that a solid world “out there” contains this self. But in reality, according to the Buddha, the world and the self are not separate. They are interwoven constructs: fleeting, wispy, ambiguous, changeful—empty. They arise and subside, as conditions evolve, like eddies in a stream.
“—Extra White, Cloud White, Design Studio White, Jizz White—”
“Uh oh, I think clever little Charlotte just made a cheeky cheeky little joke.”
“What’s that now?”
“I was just checking if anybody was still actually paying any attention.”
On the other hand, the world as it appears from the naïve perspective of the self cannot be ignored altogether.
“It’s all right though, because we love her.”
“Love her. The sneaky little dyke!”
We live our life as if we were each separate from each other and separate from the world, which presents itself as an exterior force, a solid framework, a constraint.
“But getting back to, you know, the situation, maybe we should call in a consultant?”
The world doesn’t actually appear to be a dream, for the most part, in everyday life: we experience it as solid, as unyielding…
“No, no, no. Look, we just have to define what we want. You, Margery, have to define what we want, my dear. Give us direction. That way we’ll have a criterion for action.”
“Yes, Margery, we want the white that’s ‘blank’ dot, dot, dot.”
“What in God’s name are you babbling about, you nitwit?”
“I’m looking for a word, you know: ‘fill in the blank’.”
“Instead of showing off your high school French, could you please concentrate on the task at hand?”
So “form is emptiness, emptiness is form” because our presence is both “real” and illusive.
“—I mean: am I the only one taking this seriously? Focus people! Focus!”
But this ultimate truth cannot be spoken. It can only be alluded to metaphorically. That’s the point: it must be experienced.
“No, no, I mean you need to qualify the kind of white you’re looking for, baby. Like what word would you add to express your vision for this retrospective?”
“Yes, darling, like ‘I want the white that’s the most ‘blank’.’”
“That’s it! That’s it! That’s what I want! I want the white that’s the most blank.”
Once, in the darkened show room, as we were closing up, I carefully lifted an empty, crushed “Muratti Ambassador Blu”-brand cigarette pack from the rectangular pedestal on which it had been deliberately disposed, under glass, haloed by a soft light beam from a lone ceiling spot. It was one of a series of “acclaimed ready-mades by Anton and Manuela, arresting our gaze upon the objects we discard every day, and challenging the viewer to reconnect with the beauty and sheer presence of the mundane.”
“—White Dove, Whisper, Bancroft White DC-01—”
As I fastidiously—almost lovingly—wrapped it in gauze paper to return it to its storage box for the night, at once aghast and amazed that Gabe had actually sold the thing (low six figures—to a Russian, of course), a sort of prophetic haiku came to me, like a spontaneous revelation.
“—White Lightning, Intense White, Navajo White—”
The words were like an ephemeral tear in the veil of Maya.
stretches white and waiting
for the last of us to leave
“You know what? Right now, at this moment, I need this show to be set up already. And I need my aura cleansed. And I need my chakras realigned—”
“Yes, yes, yes, yes, yes…”
“And I need a pedicure. And I need to up my Zoloft prescription—”
“—and a Negroni. Okay, get me a Negroni right now!”
“At ten in the morning?”
“Yes, yes! And it’s all your fault. I need there to be light at the end of this tunnel, okay white light, now now now! So you pick the shade. Or have Charlotte here do it or whoever. Just pick one. Make it happen. In fact, have Jez pick one, for all I care.”
“—Arctic White, Yeti White, White Lie, Plain Old White—”
“—I mean I get it: nothing really matters. Fine. Fine. Ugh! But now where the fuck did I leave my phone?”
“Oh darling, why do you always have to be so… so existential?”