The Adventures of Captain Contempt in Mixed Media Installations

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The gallery is a smooth, sleek ocean liner of a building, delivering its cargo of culture to posterity. Smog disfigures the white stone like an encrustation of barnacles. I reckon the pollution is overdue for cleansing, both outside and within.

The evening sun throws long shadows pointing the way. There’s been so much interest in Clark’s new show that preview tickets were allocated in shifts, and Clark has given me the final slot, just before the opening party. Presumably this is so I’ll have less time to write my review—a feeble ploy.

Outside the gallery, a giant billboard shows Clark looking as fabulous as always with his neatly trimmed stubble, baby-hedgehog hair, presidential chin, and ‘Come up and see my etchings’ smile. Underneath there are adulatory quotes from everyone except me. As I approach, Clark’s eyes track my steps, and the billboard speaks.

“Hello, Captain. Have you stocked up with fresh invective?”

Clark’s nickname for me is Captain Contempt. I’m flattered to be a superhero critic, armed with barbed comments and cutting insight—and it’s a jazzier byline than Neil Brown—but the tag implies I’m always negative.

“I don’t automatically hate everything you do,” I protest.

“You have to see it first,” he says, deadpan.

“Exactly. I visit your shows fresh, open-minded, equally ready to throw a bouquet or throw up.”

In the billboard picture, Clark catches a bunch of flowers. “Thanks. I’m sure you’ll see this show as my most absorbing yet.”

“That wouldn’t be saying much,” I retort.

“You never do say much,” he replies. “Though you say it very well.”

I’m tempted to blast him with vitriol, scouring his flesh to expose the grinning, empty skull beneath—the death of art. But his face is too handsome to mar. I content myself with ageing the flowers until they droop into faded glory. If only I could wither Clark’s career so easily. Not waiting to see his response, I walk past the billboard to the gallery door.

I step inside. The gallery is brightly lit, a blank white space. I glance round once, twice. It’s empty! Clark has finally taken minimalism to the ultimate.

The first impression is important—most art, especially Clark’s, is so banal that it doesn’t produce a second—so I make some notes. “The Emperor’s New Show. Its content reflects Oliver Clark’s talent: zero. Yet this is the first show of his career that I can applaud, for it has surely killed nihilism. Where can it go after this? How can artists do any less, except by staying in bed and never exhibiting at all? (I commend this course to Mr Clark.) What can they do now—start producing real art? For that you need skill, vision, discipline: everything the New Nihilists lack.”

It’s a rough sketch, something to build on. People think it’s easy to be a critic, but after years of seeing shape and color tortured into every conceivable combination, it can be difficult to summon any response beyond a verbal shrug. Still, I never have any difficulty reviewing Oliver Clark, or disparaging celebrity based on soundbites and good looks.

As I walk further into the gallery, I tread on something soft and squishy. How appropriate. At these moments you usually find you’ve trodden in shit, and here I am in Clark’s latest show. I look down, and find I have only stepped on some polythene, a ball of discarded shrinkwrap. It must be part of the show, or it would have been removed. I make another note: “What do I think of it so far? Rubbish!” Still, I’m glad there’s something here. A completely empty show could have been a sensation, when hyped by easily seduced critics—of whom I am not one. I’m outside the consensus pissing in.

Near the polythene I notice a clear glass jar. And another, and a few more. I bend down to examine them, but they resist analysis. Empty, no lids, no labels. They look sterile, as if they’ve never held turpentine or flowers. There’s not even a dried shred of marmalade clinging to a rim.

I nearly kick another jar as I stand up again. It’s hard to see anything in here. The floor, walls and ceiling shine a brilliant white from all surfaces. There are no shadows, and any reflections disappear in the uniform glow. I jump like a horror film ingénue when something brushes my head. It’s a cluster of transparent balloons. Their texture is clammy and repulsive, like the caress of a lecherous ghost. As I escape their ectoplasmic embrace, I stumble and my feet get soaked. There’s a recess in the floor filled with still water, back-lit and camouflaged.

The gimmick is clear: the gallery’s full of invisible stuff. I find a low glass table further in. Careful not to break anything, I kneel for a closer look, with the passive, reverential, Don’t Touch attitude expected for art. It’s as if our eyes are the only senses we have, all the others long atrophied. After all, voyeurs only need eyes. But this blank show makes us conscious of looking.

Maybe Clark’s got something here, though it’s hard to tell. This is why I hate five-minute minimalism. The less the artist puts into their creation, the more the spectators must project their own meaning onto the Rorschach exhibition.

So, let’s interpret. Here’s a glass of vodka, which might well have come from one of Clark’s after-show parties. Its appearance here could assert that parties are invisible, and don’t affect reputations. Posterity will judge the work, and this diamond says that Clark’s work will last forever.

Next there’s a pen, a cheap biro made of clear plastic, which appears to be full of water, or perhaps invisible ink. This could be a dig at me: Clark saying that my words are invisible, futile; and the balloons implying I’m full of hot air. The whole show could be aimed at me—I can’t see anything because my eyes are fallible, my views are wrong. I can’t see Clark’s genius.

But I can see through this transparent nonsense. Other people would generate their own interpretations, seeing the glass of vodka as hidden alcoholism, or the shrinkwrap polythene as our throwaway society. In a show like this, anything can represent anything else. It’s a luxury only allowed to artists. If my reviews were lists of random words in which the reader could find any meaning they liked, I’d be accused of laziness and piffle.

Unlike Clark, I have to decide what I mean, then say it. I wonder what to write about this show. On the one hand, it’s a trivial gimmick that only needs me to say, “Move along! There’s nothing to see.” On the other hand, it illustrates the operation of the senses, like a video of John Cage’s 4’33” composition.

Is there any more? I walk away from the table, and near the far wall I bump into something: a large sheet of glass. I turn left and soon hit another obstacle. There’s a corner in the barrier, so I have to turn left again. Then I find I’ve been travelling down a dead-end, and must turn round.

I feel like a lab rat approaching a food pellet or an electric shock. Again I hit an invisible wall. Haven’t I encountered four walls, four right-angles? And I may be stronger on art than science, but doesn’t that make a box?

I walk round again, running my fingers along the glass, but there’s no break. I have been soundlessly enclosed. Technology has enabled some terrible installation art, and even worse interactive art, but this is something else. My feelings swing between irritation and grudging admiration. The show is gimmicky, but art is supposed to surprise, to shock. I still reserve the right to hate it—I’ll need to work out my snappy put-downs—but I have to admit that Clark’s come up with something.

What, though? What’s next?

It’s hard to breathe in here. It might just be claustrophobia, but I fear Clark may be drawing my attention to something else that’s invisible. Air…

I suffer a pang of panic, convinced he resents my criticism enough to suffocate me. I’m terrified—I can’t breathe!—yet, for a brief moment I can’t help feeling flattered. This will make my reputation. Posthumously.

I force myself to take slow deep breaths, and gradually I calm down. A flicker catches my eye. Outside my prison, something emerges from the floor. It’s a transparent table, with wine glasses and clear plastic plates. There’s a large bowl of something: jelly, probably. Invisible drinks are easy, but invisible food is trickier.

This is why I was given the last preview slot, just before the opening party. I look to the door, and see a horde of people coming in. After so long straining my eyes to see transparent exhibits, the party guests look hyper-solid, as if occupying more than three dimensions. The men wear architectural hats—towers, skyscrapers, pyramids—and Paisley shirts, Hawaiian shirts, or no shirts at all, with animated tattoos advertising their latest lovers, latest works. Women’s close-fitting costumes have been sprayed onto contoured physiques, with cutaways exposing shiny body-jewellery on hips and buttocks: this season’s fetish zones.

Everyone heads straight for the tables to fuel themselves on drink. That done, they begin the serious business of networking, exchanging handshakes and air kisses and promises to call. The more old-fashioned artists give out paperweight sculptures, maquettes for forthcoming projects, or miniatures of their best-known work. The New Nihilists just have business cards.

Most of the guests have already seen the show, or haven’t come for the art, but some take another look round. The exhibition won’t survive the party: they’ll break the jars, burst the balloons, and fall into the pool. Not that I care.

Inevitably, a few people approach my glass enclosure. Some cultivate a connoisseur’s frown; others have the easy-going smile that lasts just as long as the free drinks. I try to look as dignified as I can, but I’m too embarrassed to meet anyone’s eye. Yet I soon realise there’s no danger of that. The guests avoid my gaze, affecting not to see me.

That’s the point. The gallery is full of invisible stuff. Clark has put me here to say that I am invisible too: no-one pays any attention to me.

I can’t deny the truth of this. Despite all my criticism, Clark’s career keeps snowballing—the faster he goes downhill, the bigger he gets. It’s humiliating to be ignored. Here in his glass case I feel like a bust of Cassandra relegated to a museum basement, only ever regarded by the cleaner who dusts me. I might as well not exist.

And yet if Clark has gone to the trouble of arranging all this, he must have been piqued by my last critique. I’ve finally grabbed his attention.

Clark always rations his ideas to a maximum of one per show. His previous exhibition was a vapid collection of big shiny blocks, whose spiritual home was the car park of a multinational’s head office. The perfectly mirrored surfaces were only visible by the reflections they cast. Clark could Midas anything into art, even a fairground mirror, just by putting it in a gallery.

As always, the party afterwards was the main event, the wake by art’s corpse. The dull exhibits were relegated to obstacles around which customised waiters carried trays of wine, highs and zero-calorie food. The waiters had the faces of famous artists—Duchamp, Warhol, Hirst—posthumously press-ganged as cupbearers to Clark’s ego. Phones trilled their mating calls, as roving gatecrashers conferred on rival venues, converging on the party with the most drinks, drugs, and ogles. Many would come here: Clark always ensured that his party was the best one to be at, to be seen at.

I stood by the door with a big box of green spectacles, handing them out to everyone who entered. It had seemed a good joke when I cooked it up, but I hadn’t realised people might not get the reference. Maybe that’s why art is so superficial in the multicultural age: no shared vocabulary to draw upon. I kept having to say, “The Wizard of Oz is a humbug! Don’t be dazzled!” I felt like a street evangelist reviling the Devil, knowing that hardly anyone listened. Some people took the glasses, but few put them on. When the box was empty I donned my own pair and went in.

The green glasses projected a percept overlay, distilled from my opinions. Wearing them, I entered a desolate wasteland where the Mona Lisa had once smiled and burning giraffes roamed no more. The landscapes had long eroded, and the portraits were all dead. Even the abstracts that killed them had faded now. There was nothing left. The mirrored objects were holes in the air, sucking art and soul from the party-goers, who chattered and flirted while their imprisoned images screamed.

The exhibition’s centrepiece was a statue of Clark, cast as a perfect mirror. In the overlay everyone bowed down before it; the statue was a mosaic of their obeisant reflections, Clark only the sum of his worshippers.

Around me I heard his claque spinning him another triumph. “The chrome represents our obsession with surface appearances, and the distorted reflections show that it’s impossible to see anything as it truly is.” “The chrome is the glittering future, our longing for shiny new gadgets.” “It’s really neat, huh?”

I refused to add my voice to the chorus of approval. When Clark first got himself noticed, I thought he was just another micro-fad. His early champions were the kind of critics who discover seven Next Big Things before breakfast. But his networking skills and camera-friendly looks gave his bandwagon enough momentum that practically everyone felt obliged to hop on board. I’d hoped it would stall when everyone realised his work didn’t add up to much. However, that was itself the gimmick. And everyone embraced the New Nihilism because no-one wanted to be left holding yesterday’s zeitgeist—just as no-one at his parties wore last season’s clothes.

Grey was the new black, and beige was the new grey. Watching the partying freeloaders, I decided that the difference between nihilism and minimalism was that nihilists were allowed to accessorise. Pharmed human skin was still in vogue, but it was passé for gloves and handbags to match their owners—now they had exotic tans and decorative cancers. Chameleonic outfits changed to stand out from the crowd, or blend into it; the cheaper ones were confused by the mirrors and kept cycling through their repertoire.

The socialisers included everyone who was anyone, and plenty who were no-one, together with several of Clark’s ex-lovers, of both sexes, still in thrall to his charm. I was glad to see a few guests wearing my glasses, and laughing at the overlay. As word of the prank spread, the commotion summoned Clark himself to investigate.

Clark, the star of the moment, glowed with influence. He wore a suit of finest compliments, his hair lacquered with praise. How classically handsome he was! The overlay caricatured him as Michelangelo’s David animated by Ray Harryhausen, a stunning monster dressed to kill. His reflection did not appear in the mirrored exhibits. As the party-goers mobbed him, he mutated into a vast, fleshy idol weighed down by worshippers scrambling to suck his teat-penises.

Clark’s assistants, who constructed all his work, appeared as cute little cupids in leather and sunglasses, wearing the chunky gold jewellery of pimps. One of them gave him a pair of the glasses. He glanced through them to appraise the effect, and handed them back with a fastidious shudder.

He frowned at me. “You must have prepared these in advance,” he accused. “It’s a poor critic who judges the show before seeing it—I thought better of you than that.”

I’d anticipated this objection. I brought out a sticker and slapped it onto the nearest exhibit. The sticker was a large gold star reading ’10/10′.

“I was prepared for praise,” I said. “But I didn’t think it would be required, and it isn’t.” I reached into the sticker and dialled it down to a brown turd, 0/10.

Clark laughed. “Ah, the new binary criticism—Love/Hate, Hot/Not. Detailed analysis is such a chore, isn’t it?”

Acknowledging the point, I dialled the sticker up to 2/10, a dunce’s cap. “Okay, I was a bit harsh. These mirrored objects, although uninteresting in themselves, do reflect the secret of your success.” I indicated the crooked reflections of the party around us. The guests weren’t completely ignoring the art: someone was snorting cocaine from one mirrored plinth. “You put far more effort into your after-show parties than into the shows themselves. The growth of your reputation just proves your genius for publicity.”

He peeled off the sticker, then stepped up to me and removed my green glasses. The momentary touch of his finger made my pulse hammer. He placed the 2/10 sticker on my glasses, and gave them a reproachful look. “So much ingenuity wasted on carping. You’re far too young to be a crabby old critic-why don’t you express yourself constructively and become an artist?”

I smiled. “Why don’t you?”

He looked more hurt than the jibe deserved. “I do my best,” he said. “I’d hoped you’d like this show.”

He still stood close to me, and I was acutely aware of his presence. His expensive fragrance was far removed from the whiff of paint and white spirit I thought an artist should exude. The chrome abstract loomed before us, its mirrored concavity exaggerating his stature. Behind our own reflections, the party guests circulated in a whirl of shape and colour.

I pointed at them. “You’ve already conquered most of the art world. Do you really need to mop up the resistance?”

Clark said, “They hitch a ride on every passing bandwagon, but do you think I care for the crowd’s roar? Seducing tarts is no challenge. I crave approval that’s harder to win. I long to convert your cold rebuffs into passion.”

As he said this, he leaned into me until he was almost whispering into my ear. His warm breath on my cheek made me shiver. Although the party still laughed and whooped around us, we had stepped into another space, a still centre invisibly framed. This was the core of his success: he convinced everyone that he cared about their good opinion, and they gave it. His patter was convincing, his body-language sincere—and what a body.

“But if you conquered me, what motivation would you have left?” I barely managed to keep my voice level.

He stepped back. “Weasel words. Surrender or stand firm, but spare me the hypothetical.”

Already I felt his attention drifting away. Freed from his captivating gaze, I recovered some composure. “I’m a critic,” I said. “Weasel words are my stock-in-trade. If you want another answer, I can only reply with Morrissey’s.” I waved my hand, encompassing the whole tawdry show in an offhand gesture. “‘You just haven’t earned it yet, baby.'”

“Who’s Morrissey?” he asked. “You should stop attaching other people’s quotes to other people’s shows, and look closer to home. Critic, review thyself.”

Clark placed the green spectacles back on my head. He pushed me toward the nearby sculpture, forcing my head close to the chrome. I saw my distorted reflection, filtered through the percept overlay. The sticker covered one lens, creating a vast blot on my outlook. In the mirror stood a nervous boy with a lump in his throat.

That must be where I’ve swallowed a dictionary, I thought. I knew that sometimes my criticism was convoluted, too clever-clever. I turned back to Clark to say something more basic, but he had vanished into the melee of patrons and groupies, who all wore sheepskin coats.

My eyes ached from the shiny mirrors and the distorting effect of the glasses. Inside I had another painful feeling that I refused to analyse. I was an art critic, not an agony aunt. I walked out of the party, and composed reviews in my head all the way home.

“Mirror, mirror, in the show—who’s the lowest of the low?”

Too personal, I thought. Attack the art, not the artist.

“Mirror, mirror, in the show—should not have left the studio. Yet again Oliver Clark proves that art is whatever you can get away with. He substitutes fame for form, and intent for content. The Old Masters had to be able to draw, paint, sculpt, or something; but modern art mainly requires a talent for notoriety, and Clark has always excelled at that.

“They say there’s no such thing as bad publicity, but here goes…”

Stuck in my glass cage, I realise that this tableau is Clark’s revenge for my splenetic reviews, my green glasses and insulting stickers. I can see him across the gallery, talking to his sponsors, sharing a joke. He radiates celebrity and charisma. Has any artist ever shone as he shines now? He is feted by the world, and his chief critic languishes in an exhibition case, ignored by everyone. How the columnists will chortle over his latest coup!

Am I just going to let that happen? After a while, when my skin stops crawling with humiliation, my brain starts working. No matter what, I’m still a critic. I can still have my say, even cooped up in here.

In here? I originally interpreted the clear walls as enclosing an exhibit: myself. Yet if I’m the critic, surely I’m on the outside. Inside, neatly encased in glass, is the show, the party, the art world that Clark has conquered. All I have to do is review it.

What do I say? Do I change my mind and recant? I did have some positive thoughts about the show, so I could praise it while claiming—in the weasel words of a convert—that the New Nihilism has ‘developed’ and ‘matured’ since my earlier flak, and is now the dominant mode of the post-postism era. I could say that Clark’s prank on me is a brilliant use of his own medium to answer criticism. Yes, I could join the gang.

Clark strides by, en route from one worshipful cluster to another. As his radiant smile illuminates the area, the glass cube feels hotter. Is he looking at me? Did he wink at me?

It would be so easy to surrender.

But I won’t. Clark’s work says nothing. It tries to be about its own emptiness, about the impossibility of novelty when everything has been done before, but that’s defeatist. I believe it’s still possible to be original, to be meaningful, to be non-ironic.

I lean against the barrier, dig out my notebook, and start drafting a critique of the party as installation art. “A work in mixed media: artists, hangers-on, drunken hacks; sponsors and publicists; pseudo-nibbles, fashionable drugs, oceans of free booze; lies, flattery, and hype, hype, hype. Talent?”

Turning round slowly, I give the whole room an appraising stare. Then I write, “The word is much in evidence, as are the words ‘genius’, ‘masterpiece’ and ‘more drinks, anyone?’ But of the thing itself there is no sign. How can there be, when everyone is too busy partying to ever work? Clark knocks something up in five minutes, delegating any hand-dirtying tasks, then spends the rest of his day schmoozing. Soon the hacks will have their own assistants to file copy, so that neither artist nor critic has to pause to make art or review it. Then the cocktail circuit can revolve friction-free-until everyone wakes up with a hangover and winces at their gullibility while drunk on cheap nihilism.”

I feel better for that. I could go on, but there’s no point in elaborating when no-one’s paying attention. I’ll have to get used to being disdained. At every outbreak of laughter I flinch inside, thinking it must be at my expense. How long will I be invisible? The stretching hours are a foretaste of the years of irrelevance lying ahead.

I’m not going to stand here and take this. I’m not going to be ignored. I’m going to… what?

First, I’m going to find a way out of this glass cage. How? I could try clambering over the wall—assuming there’s no ceiling—but that would involve undignified scrabbling, and I might not manage it. Even if people are supposedly ignoring me, I don’t want to look any sillier than I already do.

If only I really was Captain Contempt, armed with vitriol and demolition-job reviews. Then I’d soon blast my way out.

I should at least give my critical armoury a trial. I delve into my pocket for the sticker I took to Clark’s last show. Seeking inspiration, I dial from 0/10 to 10/10, and two icons catch my eye-five: a thumb pointing down, and six: thumbs-up.

I dial back to five, then place the sticker on the glass wall. I reach in and grasp the thumb, moving it from down to up-turning it like a doorknob-while pushing the glass as if I expect it to open.

And it does. I prefer to think it works because gallery automation has to allow pretty much anything, though Clark might have programmed the exhibit to free me if I gave it a sufficient approval rating. Whatever. At least I’m out of the cage. I walk into the party, find a chair—with some difficulty, as it’s transparent like everything else—and slump into it.

No-one appears to have noticed my escape. I’m still officially invisible. That’s Clark’s conceit, as he put me in his exhibition of nothingness, and his sycophants don’t dare break the illusion by acknowledging me.

I steal someone’s drink. There’s no resistance, no cry of outrage. I drink the gin and tonic at one gulp. God, I needed that! I knock back another. Sipping a third, I watch Clark as he gracefully turns to each guest, smiles, charms, and moves on to the next. I tap my feet to the Networking Waltz. I’m getting tipsy. Being invisible gives me a feeling of power. I can do anything now.

I slip through a gap in Clark’s halo of courtiers, and walk right up to him. I hug him and give him a big wet sloppy kiss.

He gives me a startled look that mirrors my own surprise. “Is this your new reviewing style? I must say it’s an improvement on the old.”

I step back. “Er… it was more for you than the show,” I say. “Just to show there’s no hard feelings,” I add hastily. Now that Oliver has spoken to me, everyone’s staring at us. I feel even more exposed than I did in the exhibit.

“Then what do you think of the show?” he asks.

I remember all my caveats, but I don’t want to repeat the same old quibbles yet again. I feel as if I’ve changed, broken out of something else as well as the glass cage. Yet I’m not going to recant: I’m not such a pushover. I bring out the glasses I wore at the last show, and select a new colour. Wearing rose-tinted spectacles, I make great play of peering round the room. As everything’s invisible, and obscured by party-goers anyway, my painstaking inspection gets a bit of a laugh from the onlookers.

“Genius!” I declare.

“Is that all?” he asks teasingly.

“You’ll have to wait for the full review,” I say. I take off the rosy spectacles and give an exaggerated double-take, though Oliver looks just as gorgeous with or without them.

“I look forward to seeing it,” he replies. He moves on, dismissing me. It hurts to see his gaze move away and light up someone else, but the sun has to shine on everyone.

I head for the door. Despite having made an exhibition of myself, I’m strangely elated. On my way home, I keep trying to think about the show and how to review it, but I can’t stop thinking about Oliver Clark, and myself, and how feelings influence opinions.

Maybe that’s the function of art and artists: to show us ourselves.

end article

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Ian Creasey

About Ian Creasey

Ian Creasey was born in 1969 and lives in Yorkshire, England. He began writing when rock & roll stardom failed to return his calls. So far he has sold fifty-odd short stories to various magazines and anthologies. His debut collection, Maps of the Edge, was published in 2011.