How to Survive International Art: Notes from the Poverty Jetset

Tracey Emin, "I Followed You to the Sun," 2013.
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You are a writer, a curator, an installation artist, a social practitioner, a fly-by-night art advisor, an art-fair fixture, an inveterate biennialist. You live on one continent and work on two others. There is perhaps a rainbow of passports at your behest, persons of special-abilities visas, a foundational backer or commercial sponsor, a citizen of at least one wealthy country with decent travel treaties.

Most of your stuff is in storage somewhere and that somewhere might as well be “home.”

You work only on site, you are reporting from the trenches, you live in perpetual motion beyond the bleeding edge. A rich hotelier, a non-profits arts center, a well-funded art school, a provincially-owned fair, a cultural tourism agency bought your ticket. Sometimes you stay in luxury hotels that your mother could never have aspired to be a maid in, other times you flop on lumpy provisional sofa in the spartanly furnished apartment of another art nomad, a stack of wadded airline tickets, varicolored receipts, and empty cigarette packets with warnings in Korean, French, and Spanish crumpled on the cardboard box they use for a coffee table.

You feel like a musician on tour, you eat and sleep sporadically on airplanes, time defined less by night and day and more by openings and afterparties, install dates and hosted breakfasts, red-eyes and the calculated time between the fast and the slow train, under the half-light of the high barreled glass and steel vault, drinking a watery espresso, the colors of the lifeless glossy magazines and sports papers on the stands bloom like a bouquet of tropical flowers.

Your expertise apexes in racking up miles and ordering a variety of specialty meals from airlines, Asian or Oriental, Jain or Hindu, Lacto-Ovo or Raw Vegetable. Somehow the human residue of airports and seatbacks never quite washes away, the thin layer of grime coats even those parts of your body tucked under clothing, and over time, you pick out favorite restaurants in common layovers. Uncultivated, an air of weary cosmopolitan glamor settles over you, each bit of your ensemble picked up in desperation and on the cheap in Moroccan bazaars, New York sample sales, and Norwegian flea markets.

Every place you are hosted by friends met in other far-flung places, a biennial in Germany, an art fair in Switzerland, a residency in Canada, themselves products of international liaisons with names like unlikely songs blended from distant civilizations: Franco-Polish, German-Chilean, Swiss-Tibetan.

You give lectures in yawning halls in ivied schools and in the basements of infested off-spaces.

The energy or perpetual motion infects you. And you find it hard and harder not to talk in witty repartee, party chatter, a melange of the clever and referential, a firsthand knowledge of the sunrise over the Po, the sunset over Shenzhen, the crackle of the midday sun as the Acqua Alta wets your calves and cools with its dirty water the tenderness of your hangover. You learn how to establish rapport quickly with strangers and navigate the subways of a dozen strange cities, an underground web that will take you from Time Square to Alexanderplatz.

In France, you learn to eat only in restaurants from the former colonies: North African, Vietnamese, Cambodian. You learn how to say “I am a vegetarian” in a dozen languages; in Germany, to appreciate falafel; in Nakuru, to eat fruit out of cans. You gather that the taxi cabs in Buenos Aires will exchange money and the money changers at airports are never to be trusted.

Learn which friends to ask for sleeping pills to get some kind of rest and try to avoid cocaine, the Columbian marching music that will invariably keep you awake past dawn. Take notes between drinks and write your report on the plane home. Never quite learn how to decently dispose of business cards, they collect in odd places, winter coats and summer sweaters, laptop bags and side-tables, stuck in the pages of novels. Years later they turn up and make flickering memories but not always of who they are or where the card was acquired.

You pass through national museums and regional kunsthalles, grand palaces and brutalist concrete bunkers. You see things long fingered on the pages of magazines, highlighted in art-history textbooks, and uttered by experts. You learn more of the partial art histories of countries each time you visit them. You see masterpieces from artists you never heard of and throwaways from too many that you have. A lot of it washes over you, but some of it doesn’t. Some of it sticks, haunting long after the passport stamped home. Whatever color you were before, you are now a richer shade.

Your family stops asking for stories from your travels. Your couplings are dalliances with exotic strangers, darkling beauties and off-beat geniuses randomly encountered and you begin to wonder if you’re capable of any kind of relationship beyond temporary confluences, romantic but incidental caresses in the taxicab past the Colosseum or the Danish field under the 3am setting of the midnight sun. If you fall in love, you wonder if it’s because they conveniently live thousands of miles from you.

You begin to wonder if you’re lucky or just crazed. Whimsy and possibility too readily embodied when you know in your bones the long, hard grind of boring quotidian labor is the only way you’ll ever really achieve anything.

Over time, the travel wears you down, but the motion is too narcotic to release you fully. But still you take time off from planes, mark the passage of weeks with stillness. Understand that every time you leave, whatever is gained out there is lost back home. Birthdays and holidays, exhibitions and performances by friends, the unexpected serendipities of quietude and slow observation disappears with all that movement.

In those long breaks between trips, eat well and take long runs on the river, practice yoga and take your vitamins. You spend long hours on hikes into alien deserts and soporific forests, evenings lazing in bed watching movies, passing out at eleven. It takes a little while to get used to the pace, but each repetition in this one city grows richer, fuller: you belong to this community, you watch it grow and change with age, a work of the student wends its way into a permanent collection, great talents disappear with only your memory of their passing. The everyday office and the late-night studio, the morning cafe and the dozy afternoons on the sofa. You promised yourself never to work in in the afternoons but do anyway. Every alarming AM, you awake in your own bed, over and over again, surrounded by all your things, grown almost mythical by their absence, or rather yours.

 

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