Have I Done Wrong?

Andrew Bourne

I watched a copyist in an oily smock struggle through Titian’s portrait of Rannucio Farnese—a sixteenth-century painting of a child dressed in a grown man’s cloak and codpiece. Titian has the boy buttoned up into an incredible red shirt and the copyist, there at his easel on a little tarp in the middle of the National Gallery, was wiping his own rendering out, from frilly collar to scabbard belt. He kept fussing at the pats of paint on his palette while staring hard at the original canvas, where the torch-like shirt seemed to flicker between gold dust and rose petals, mineral and vegetable. Hours passed. He made progress, took breaks, jibed gently with the docents who gave tours and all the while the gallery’s solemnity was total. Church behavior. You could hear people shifting weight in their shoes. I wasn’t much older than Farnese at the time, but I knew this was a hallowed place, a serious situation, an exercise in perfection. But I also noticed something wrong and took pleasure in it: the copyist had wet paint on his hand and had absently wiped some on bench cushions at the center of the room, then a woman promptly sat in the splotch. His hand was red. Her rump was red. I instantly thought that maybe they had embraced, that he had squeezed her bottom. This is foolishness, but the museum’s solemnity broke down for me and Titian’s supernal art began, in a wholly absurd way, to leech into my lowbrow world. I decided that the only thing more arresting and worthwhile than fine art was its byproduct: vaudeville.

But have I done wrong? Maybe so.

I had a real reverence for artworks. I was awestruck by stark exhibition spaces, by monumental sculptures like Asmat bis poles or tiny figurines scratched into shape, also by heartless minimalisms and A-list installation art, by tawdry things and grand things alike, by almost anything on display. I loved vitrines and pedestals. I wanted to get involved, so I had a stint in the artworld where what I did was woo work. All I came up with were errands, which was perfectly fine by me. Galleries had ceilings to paint, drywall to hang, hundreds of wincingly fragile ceramics to move through narrow corridors and switchback stairwells. Indeed, I had cotton gloves on for days while gingerly packing and unpacking scores of eccentric vases by artist Betty Woodman. I grew to like them very much. One such vase had a handle-like element that cantilevered out rather too far. It was like a fin or an elephant ear, and it shattered in my arms. The shards were immediately laid onto something like a gurney, then rushed off as if by ambulance to be mended by a team of professional restorers. It was as if I had clobbered the president’s dog and was riding along for the medivac, apologies knit on my face. Then I leaned in close to administer CPR, which got a few laughs.

The next day I felt around for more work and heard about a sculpture of gold about to go on display. What mattered most was that it wasn’t gilt or merely golden, but rather made entirely of pure gold—solid gold, but a sheet, and thin. It was Roni Horn’s Gold Field (1980-82) and this is what Felix Gonzalez-Torres had to say about it in 1990:

[W]e were blown away by the heroic, gentle and horizontal presence of this gift. There it was, in a white room, all by itself, it didn't need company, it didn't need anything. Sitting on the floor, ever so lightly. A new landscape, a possible horizon, a place of rest and absolute beauty. Waiting for the right viewer willing and needing to be moved to a place of the imagination. This piece is nothing more than a thin layer of gold. It is everything a good poem by Wallace Stevens is: precise, with no baggage, nothing extra.1

It was, in fact, a square of orangey crinkled metal and—if one is to believe the whispers—actually an industrial product: gold foil, made by machine, a readymade. Nuggets of ore, lumps, each distinct as a head of hair, were at some point somewhere found squashed within lesser minerals and dug out, or kernals were panned in a creek, then refined into ingots. These ingots were counted, batched, re-melted, and spread between the rollers of a press. Lengths of foil were spooled onto bolts like fabric and used predominantly in the manufacture of electronic devices. That is what the whispers told me. I heard a number that sounded like $140,000. And thin, very thin, so thin it clung. It looked as if it might rip apart like a wet napkin.

“It didn’t need anything,” Gonzalez-Torres claimed, but it actually did—protection. The gallerists thought roping it off was tacky and that a pedestal, even a modest one, would levy too strongly upon its extreme purity. They said the narrow stripe of shadow beneath it must be grounded directly on the floor and nowhere else, that any special treatment of the space was an encumbrance to a vivid immaculacy. Those were the words. Hands wrung.

There would be other works too. On the south wall, two framed photographs of arctic owls about eight inches apart and identical. Two analog clocks side by side, identical. By the entrance, a pile of candies, individually wrapped, free to all patrons, toffee-flavored. In the center of the room, on the floor, there would be the gold sculpture and its lone security guard.

I invoiced them for twenty-five eight-hour shifts, plus compensation for a metro card and sports coat. I got a haircut.

I watched two handlers in cotton gloves help one another remove the foil from a shallow pine crate. They slid it out as if it were a raw pizza. It sat like a feather and looked like a hanky. The largest wrinkle caught the light and reminded me of a vein I’d seen running under the scalp of a child afflicted with progeria, the poor thing hemmed in by his own wrong skin.

I began the business of guarding, from thieves perhaps, but more likely from eager touchers, often elderly, and confused steppers, klutzes and toddlers. “Please watch your step,” I would say. “Mind your child.” “Absolutely no dogs allowed.” Worse, there were challengers, all male curiously enough, who took my presence to be totally superfluous, even personally offensive. The sight of me hovering there made them froth up and suggest that I might be effectively replaced by a cordoning of rope. The craftier among them would talk me through the construction of a hair-width nylon cable drawn between four steel stakes—or better, just a piece of masking tape. One man even smoothed out the metallic wrapper of his complimentary toffee candy, placed it gaily onto the gallery’s floor, then told me to guard it very carefully. He snickered and put a penny in my pocket. I put on a Buckingham-Palace-guard face.

After some stern eyeballing, the gallerists said I was, for them, not so great, that my body parceled up in the sports coat was messing up the solemnity of the room, that I was a wrong choice from the get-go. Despite this, I would be kept on. The fact of already being there apparently weighed in rather heavy. They asked me to shave and keep my shirt pressed, which I gladly did.

But had I done wrong? I really was a decent deterrent and more than once I was appropriated as an objet d’art myself, as a sort of mannequin, especially in the banter of the elderly and various sexualists. Was I for sale? “Yes sir, yes ma’am. Nine dollars an hour. Eight hours a day. No weekends.” Sometimes they would ask me about the gold or the owls and I would politely refer them to the exhibition catalog. My eyes started to cross looking at the twin clocks.

But I was a decent guard. For example, a young mother came in with her corpulent baby slung to her back, strapped face-forward in a sort of urban papoose made of fortified canvas that buckled across her chest. Carabiners jangled on her rig while she enjoyed a candy, biting off a small chip and softening it on her tongue before feeding it up to her strapped-in baby, who seemed to me very larval. I was watching this very closely.

She considered the two owl photographs just long enough to confirm that they were identical, then made way for the gold. Both her mouth and her baby’s gums were working at the sugar, breaking it down. Her ponytail swabbed the runt’s face, and it—the little boy or girl—was oblivious. When she bent abruptly at the waist, likely to scrutinize how the foil crinkles would scintillate in the light, as patrons often did, a narrow pour of syrup, very long and brown, came from her baby’s open mouth. I sprung and let what must have been both cheekfuls of saliva mixed with toffee run into my tightly cupped hands.

By the time I ran to the bathroom the sweet stuff had crystalized enough to plunk when it hit the surface of the toilet’s water. I flushed it and returned with a paper towel to an empty gallery—they had evidently fled the scene—and found a single drop of toffee, hardened into what looked like a honeyed penny, right in the middle of the gold foil. I felt blame, but I squatted and dabbed at it until it pulled free, leaving nothing behind but a ring of moisture, which evaporated. This was a triumph, but there were mistakes too.

There came a time when I stood too close to the gold and was asked to station myself against a wall—an order that came much to my relief since, at last, I could lean comfortably and avoid the cramps of prolonged freestanding. After several days, an oily spot where the back of my head touched the wall had to be painted white again, freshened up, and I was asked to stand one foot from the wall.

It was then that I began to roam.

I took hard looks at the owls, trying to find differences between the two pictures. There was a hairline crack along the bottom of one frame. One print might have had a cast just a tad yellower than the other, though this could have been a play in the mix of fluorescents and skylight, or a trick of the mind.

The gallery seemed not to change much over the course of a day. During especially empty hours, Tuesdays, I would remain standing at my post and begin to lose the shadows that defined the corners of the white room, succumbing to a field of referenceless boredom that ordinary stimulations could not fully reach, a place more deadening than meditative. This, a pure state of waiting, felt increasingly wasteful. I itched. I began to seek out small provocations for the sake of my health.

I fantasized lightly about women that sauntered in. One had the curve of a showgirl’s plume in her back, toeing past me with her head thrown to the side. She wore a slit skirt and clogs.

After another week, I promoted myself to docent and began to give tours on the sly. Afterall, I had heard plenty of tour guides march their group inside and tell them things I knew to be untrue. Why couldn’t I do the same? I used my best sotto voce.

“The owls here depicted, known as Grand Fenster owls and all but extinct, are distinguished by their keen sight and tireless patience, but perhaps best known for their ability, unique among all specie of owl, to turn their heads past the ordinary limit of 270 degrees, cranking the full way around, twice fully, so as not to miss even the slightest movement anywhere on the barren tundra that they make their home.” Then I might carefully illustrate the peculiar structures of their vertebrae by tying my fingers through each other and turning my fists together in a complicated pivot across the thumb. It all seemed proper enough. Wasn’t I all there was and, despite what I wasn’t, after all, by then, an expert of sorts?

People listened very closely.

“Here we have two photographs of the last known male Buckeyed owl … His name is Arley and up until three years ago he was the prized pet of a Canadian industrialist who upon hearing of this owl’s incredible rarity, decided to pass him into the hands of a zoological society, where he has been carefully held under observation to this very day. These two seemingly identical photographs were actually taken a full nine months apart and, as you can see, Arley has an impressive knack for remaining utterly still. Indeed the Buckeyeds boast of having the slowest metabolism among all avians and are, in truth, unable to close their eyelids at all, because they have none, being instead equipped with triply thick corneas well within reach of the long tongue that keeps them moistened. Great numbers of remaining such owls, all female, now flock seasonally to the aviary to spy on Arley through the netting. Only then will he break his torpor, fly up to the highest branch with which he has been provided, spray down his roost liberally with pheromones, and set his head to spinning wildly.”

I would, on some workdays, remember to buy a single egg from the corner bodega. “The Spauld owl, native to the upper climes of Asia, conceals itself and its eggs almost invisibly in the snow drifts. We’ve hidden six of their unique eggs throughout this gallery and invite you to see how many you can find.”

“The albinism here is due to a diet heavy in dairy.”

“On the right we have the male, and on the left, the female, at first glance identical, but upon closer inspection you will see the black genital stub just beneath the plumage clear as the nose on my face.”

“Most people don’t even know what owl toffee is.”

Together patrons and I would circle around the gold at a respectful distance. I would keep perfectly quiet until enough time passed and the solemn quality of the room began to chafe.

This article is part of "Time Zone,” by Scott Eastwood. Other parts of this project include:

Time Zone by Scott Eastwood 
Time Crimes: A conversation between Scott Eastwood and Dayve Hawk
Passed Lives Minimix, a mixtape by Dayve Hawk 
Borderland, a video by Air Jordan (Scott Eastwood) and Drew Liverman
and our editor’s statement 

  • 1. Felix Gonzalez-Torres, quoted in Earths Grow Thick: Roni Horn (Columbus, Ohio: Wexner Center for the Arts,1996). An exhibition catalogue.
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