Cowboy in Sweden
A soldier walked by, wearing . . . what? Battle dress
Two minutes on the road to Sweden and I had already begun to worry that this story was destined to be written on my tummy. (I have no clue where the Dutch expression “just write it on your tummy” comes from, but I imagine it as the kind of European exoticism you American readers find endearing. It refers — perhaps obviously — to a promising effort that ultimately proves too good to be true.)
I’d had a luminous idea to write about my wife, and about art, in the course of an exhilarating, 1,500-kilometer road trip from Amsterdam to the middle of Sweden. My job during this trip was to convey the singer-songwriter VanWyck — who happens to be my wife — as well as her band’s instruments to a gig in Värmland, traveling through Germany, where there is no speed limit, and across the bridge that connects Copenhagen to Malmö. For the first time in my life I would be an official roadie. I wasn’t merely in charge of the driving: I would also help build and dismantle, lift and position, carry and fetch — armed with duct tape and a Swiss Army knife. My writing would be full of self-mockery and rich with funny observations about my wife. Moreover, having experienced the splendor of the gig, my dispatch would be transformed, alchemically, into an essay that contained a series of pointed, even revolutionary, observations about art.
All this, I was beginning to see, was a bit optimistic.
The air was thick as I walked to the parking garage. I waded through the molecules. It was a hundred degrees in Amsterdam-Centrum — a few acres of stone and asphalt organized around a series of shallow canals filled with warming water. My white Toyota Prius Wagon Plus ECO, however, has excellent air conditioning, and our journey would be taking us northward (through Germany, where there is no speed limit).
I drove the car to our front door and, following an intense period of pacing and estimating, successfully parked it between two Amsterdammertjes, the ubiquitous red-brown dildos with XXX engraved at the tops of the shafts. They are there to prevent drivers from parking on the city’s sidewalks.
Usually my wife oversees the packing, but this time the responsibility fell to the roadie. I grabbed VanWyck’s guitar case with great enthusiasm, followed by the keyboard, the other guitars, the cymbals —
A minor scene of discord: No, I’ll do it. Watch out! No, that one has to stay upright. Why are you doing that with your foot? You’re kicking it. Watch out — watch out! If you’re going to throw them around, I’ll do it myself.
Men who spill the beans about their wives — yuck.Tweet
Packed up at last, I once again avoided the Amsterdammertjes, and we escaped without a scratch. We got onto the highway. I slipped off my espadrilles, switched on cruise control, put one foot under my knee . . . switched off cruise control again. I was annoyed. Before a show VanWyck can be, let’s say . . . a bit controlling. How would I write about her in that state? I expressed doubts about this dispatch.
“Don’t worry, just write down what happens.”
“We’ll have a fight.”
“No, we won’t.”
“Yes, we — when I picked up your guitar you started yelling at me.”
“Only because you held it the wrong way around.”
“I’m not going to touch anything of yours anymore.”
“Don’t be childish. Just write everything down, it’ll be fun.”
“It’ll lead to divorce.”
“Why? What? Are you really thinking so many awful things about me?”
Thanks to the programming impulses of Dutch public television, which has been dominated for decades by American procedural dramas, I was able to reply, with a hint of strategic smugness: “I rest my case.”
Men who spill the beans about their wives — yuck. We drove on, but I was distracted and fixating on something stupid I had done that morning. There’d been a piece in the New York Times titled “The Role of Art in a Time of War.” Against my better judgment, I had glanced over the first few sentences just to annoy myself — a nasty instinct I don’t want to talk about. The article considered statements like “History cannot exist without the discipline of imagination.” What made the whole thing so annoying is that I had also been finding myself stuck on similar formulations. Art is the pre-stage of method. Art is free exploration. Art is broadening humanity — that sort of shit. Now the stupid article had made me wonder: If exploration of what art is led to such insipid places, why even bother trying to get to the bottom of it all?
In the back seat, VanWyck opened her laptop and reported that “the farmers” were throwing burning bales of straw onto highways in the north and east of the country. To control nitrogen oxide emissions, both small and industrial farmers were being threatened with forced buyouts. We drove past smoldering barricades and saw hundreds of flags hanging upside down in protest, waved by men, women, and children standing on viaducts. All this had been going on for weeks as the temperature kept rising to unprecedented heights. A Dutch civil war seemed impossible — but then again . . . ? On the radio, the announcer reported on the latest protests, and also the news about the Rhine — where the water levels had fallen so low that cargo ships could not get through — and also on the unprecedented forest fires in France. Climate change had made Europe so hot that it was almost becoming too hot to stand on a viaduct and protest climate measures.
VanWyck wanted to take a different route, one that would have us spending more time in the Netherlands. I drove on and soon we were in Germany, where they . . . you know.
“That’s allowed here!”
“I really don’t want this, Sander.”
“But I can’t just stay on the right driving only a hundred kilometers an hour. That kind of thing is life-threatening here.”
“You see, you see! That guy’s going at least a hundred and eighty: it would be life-threatening to drive one hundred next to that.”
“But I don’t want you to go faster than a hundred and thirty.”
“A hundred and forty?”
“No, that wastes a huge amount of gas — over a hundred, gasoline consumption increases gigantically with every ten kilometers.”
“A hundred and thirty, OK, OK.”
“What? Now you are driving a hundred and thirty-five again.”
“No, no, I’ve told you before: a hundred and thirty-five on this speedometer is actually one hundred and thirty in real life.”
The Prius drove just fine, even loaded with three guitars, a keyboard, cymbals, a few bags of cables, the precious microphones and clothes, as well as the 16-year-old co-roadie, who sat beside me. VanWyck disappeared into her laptop again.
And I, the chauffeur, slowly stepped up to a hundred and forty, a hundred and forty-five . . .
“You’re doing it again!”
My wife went solo five years ago. Her first album was called An Average Woman, and she released it herself, on a label she founded, Maiden Name Records. She was concerned above all with authentic experience, the so-called real thing, preferably achieved through real contact in concert. A 45-year-old woman who goes solo and knows exactly what she wants isn’t the classic showbiz story. To succeed, she needed to make her own deals in a record industry that was in the process of implosion. (Eventually she signed to Excelsior Recordings, the big indie label in our tiny polderland.)
Now she is a certified artist. Recently an American truck driver wrote VanWyck to tell her that he had cried listening to her music, the first time he had done that since his wife died a decade earlier. A couple from Azerbaijan sent her a video of their wedding dance, set to one of her songs. Often there is death: her music played at funerals, autographs for terminally ill patients, that sort of thing. (The other day, a new fan came to the merch table and told VanWyck how much she identified with her, especially with her song “I Was Innocent,” then handed her a letter in which she gave her account of stabbing her husband, who luckily survived “all the stab wounds.”) From my enjoyable perspective I see all kinds of men attracted by my wife’s success, men who want to buy her rights and who make sure to tell her what to do next. Inevitably, however, she does exactly what she wants. She is averse to dramatic emo-interviews. She tries to sing about what she cannot say. The art she makes is roaming and exploratory. Come to think of it, it is no coincidence that, in the shimmer between wake and sleep, her adoring husband comes up with revolutionary and totally powerless thoughts like Art is the essence of humanity! Or: The secret of life is creativity! Dream on, dream on.
I decided that as part of my new role as a journalist of art and war, I could help keep a herd of cows at bay.Tweet
Along the highway lay a dead metaphor. I could not tell whether it was a wild boar or a badger. Maybe a marten? What I saw looked inflated and lay sadly, and deadly, on its side, four legs spread out, a front and a back leg pointing toward the sky. In the Netherlands it would have been cleared away immediately, but in Germany and Denmark the marten was merely the first of many dead animals on the side of the road. (Back home we only run over cats, or maybe an occasional sickly pigeon.)
The coffee at the gas station in Denmark was very good, and soon I was encountering it everywhere: in a Danish hotel, in a Swedish hostel next to a lake, in the organic cafés of Göteborg, in trendy roadside shacks along deserted Swedish roads, and in the artists’ residency where we ended up.
Caffeinated and focused on the road, this roadie had transitioned — at least temporarily — into a full-time chauffeur. Luckily my co-roadie took over organizational duties and booked a hotel from the passenger seat.
An hour into day two, I switched off the radio. I didn’t want to listen to more news about a second wave of dead fish in the river Oder, in Germany; the reservoirs in Spain emptying out; or the prehistoric markings revealed in a dried-out lake bed in Italy. Nor did I want the latest news about the fighting at a nuclear facility in Ukraine; continuing worries about inflation; dire warnings about the forthcoming winter gas shortages; or episode 220,000 in the saga of American domestic politics.
But in the absence of ambient noise, it was back to musing, and that doesn’t get you anywhere. The same thought on repeat, over and over again, while the lane lines disappear out of the corner of your eye. Sometimes you think the thought is carrying you far, but you get nowhere. Writing is the solution: write it down, and you’ll get somewhere new. My assistant had dozed off, and the artist was sleeping, so I pulled out a notebook and secretly wrote while driving.
Danes: rigid. I act very friendly; they seem to feel obliged . . . to participate.
Then more musing, more notes.
And then, and then! Then I had it, and it was genius. Art was . . . art was . . . you could just explain it with science. Of course. Recently I had read a book that accounted for all human behavior with neurobiological precision, featuring the thalamus, circuits, amygdala, and all that. According to the book, everything we feel is the result of sensory information shooting through electrified highways, like us in the Prius. Aha. That was it. Art is nothing more than the effect of the brain short-circuiting. Take that, New York Times person!
The fight on the second day was really not nice. The modern roadie has various tasks in addition to the old-school core duties: making content, for example. The whole day the artist called VanWyck kept asking me to take pictures. For Insta, for the marketing woman at the record company. She instructed me to photograph the farmers, the gas station, a funny German Raststätte with immense sausages and beer cans (a tableau that suggested an alternative history in which Americans had stayed in Germany instead of conquering a whole new continent), the delicious coffee, and now . . . the bridge.
“The whole bridge? That thing is a hundred kilometers long.”
“We’ll take a picture in a minute.”
“No, a short film.”
“You don’t have to film everything.”
“You’re acting like I’m some sort of vain freak.”
“I’m not going to keep . . .”
“You know what, forget it, this is my job, I am obliged to do this, you think I like this?”
“Uh, huhu . . .”
“Well . . . like?”
“Pfff . . .”
“I’m just saying: that bridge is very long.”
Hours later, when the fight had almost subsided, with only the occasional Volvo materializing on the road, I saw: the IKEA Museum. Next to it, an IKEA hotel furnished entirely in IKEA. Wow. My mind raced: we’d look, sleep, post a couple of Instagram stories, and then I could say something really wise about man’s quest for beauty, identity, meaning . . . IKEA and art. This would save my road-trip piece.
“No way,” agreed VanWyck and the co-roadie.
A typical TV-American-looking kid with a cap and a skateboard was doing tricks when we arrived at a deserted train station in Värmland. Like a true cowboy from Sweden, VanWyck’s keyboard player Paul Bond stood watching in a checkered flannel shirt. Paul has a dark blond beard and seems to need it to look his true age of 29, instead of forever 21. He’d arrived by train without making any reservations — he decided to just see what would happen, a way of traveling he seems to consider antimodern. Paul is a romantic. He comes from Volendam, the most famous fishing village in Holland. Nobody leaves Volendam. Paul did. He’s making an album about his hero Ernest Hemingway.
With Paul we drove toward Sunne, to our end goal: the Alma Löv Museum of Unexpected Art. The museum consists of many small buildings that stretch across the grounds: upon arrival I saw a whole house constantly turning on its axis, an installation that evoked a drilling tower and was covered in protest texts against Exxon, a stage dominated by a car-size megaphone. The museum’s centerpiece seemed to be a large barn that had been expanded in different directions. We walked past an installation of a huge bed in which two naked giants slept side by side.
In the middle of the Alma Löv Museum of Unexpected Art is a big room with very high ceilings. Art all around, chandeliers, old couches, tables, a store, a ticket office, a kitchen, a gallery — and now there were lots of happy people, all with dreamy eyes and with mouths and cheeks that carried an expression of swoon. VanWyck had been shouting for weeks that she didn’t want to tell us too much about the museum, that we had to experience it for ourselves. We were stupefied.
“Hi, I am Marc,” interrupted a Salvador Dalí lookalike. He had lost the curl in his mustache, had turned gray, and was wearing very cool denim, but otherwise. . . . “How was the trip? Unexpected, this, hè? We are not looking for money. What would I do with money? There are hardly any shops here, and we already have clothes.”
Marc Broos had moved to the Swedish countryside in the 1970s with his wife, Karin, to live the free life of artists, and later opened the museum. It contained dozens, hundreds of Marc’s works. He had clearly tried everything: figurative paintings, expressionist portraits, photos of mutilated Barbie dolls, a hundred small charcoal drawings, even more flower images. Upstairs was a portrait of him, by Karin. Her work has been in demand for quite some time now. She has a more consistent artistic style and mainly paints their three beautiful daughters, Sara, Stella, and Sissela. I had met Sara once in Amsterdam, and she had told me about her idyllic childhood spent playing in the woods and swimming in lakes. She’d said that she got her first clothes from an actual store at 12 years old; before that everything had come from villagers.
VanWyck said that there was a shadow side to the Broos’s story, which came through in Sara’s documentaries. Something about three children building their own play world, in a remote place, a mother constantly portraying them, never able to find their place in society. But I was impressed by these paintings of the bathing nymphs.
Stella took us to Gunnerud, their artist residence, which would host us for a few days. It was evening now, and we dined at a long table in a room full of good art and well-thought-out furniture. I sat opposite Christofer, a man with a half-gray beard who kept his shoulders raised slightly. He spoke softly about his house nearby, which still had no water or electricity. Today he was happy, because he had gotten rid of three of his cars and now only seven were left. For his latest art project, he had let a hundred people talk for an hour about their problems. Then he edited the hundred hours into one hour, and he asked an actor to narrate. Visitors to his installation could lie on a Freudian divan and listen to twenty minutes of it through headphones. What were the main themes? Alcohol and loneliness. He said that the region had a very high suicide rate among men.
Did his art help here? Did people benefit from it? In the Netherlands, many people think that art has to have a function (or make a profit: art pour l’art is perfectly acceptable, if it makes money). The way they talk about art reminds me of what I’ve read about the Athenian era, when Europeans went to live in the city and faced new problems. All those people in one heap: a lot of urges and impulses needed to be streamlined. Temples were erected to mitigate the persistent feeling of alienation. To channel the will to fight, arenas were built where fights could be orchestrated. In order to preserve and transmit knowledge, academies were established. And in order to learn how to deal with one’s emotions, and not to immediately bash in one’s neighbor’s head during a dispute, theaters were erected.
Was that all? Was that why Christofer had been listening to all these people? Then what had it brought him?
After dinner, we sat on the veranda. Paul Bond was talking about his struggles with the Hemingway album when a soldier walked by, wearing . . . what? Battle dress. We had been told earlier that the Ukrainian artist Vitalina Maslova was staying in the cottage next to the big house with her two children, and that her soldier husband, plus another soldier and a camera crew, were staying with her. The men were professional actors but had been in combat in Ukraine following the Russian invasion in February. Vitalina had managed, after a lot of bureaucracy, to get them out here for seven days to make a movie.
Now another man walked through the dark in combat clothes. Here was a human being who had been prey to other men for months, who possibly had shot other men himself. It looked as if he were carrying bits of luggage, but these were his sons: one was hanging onto his father’s chest and the other was on his back.
Vitalina stepped onto the veranda. Her husband, the sons still clinging onto him, followed. I offered him a chair and a beer. Oleg Shulga introduced himself as an actor (as well as a soldier). He had a friendly face and the compact build of his president. His oldest son, who I guess was around 6, gave me a hand just like his father did. Oleg told us they’d driven in a car from Ukraine to Sweden. He was kind to us, the spoiled musicians and roadie from Amsterdam, we who were instantly aware that we had nothing serious to worry about. Carefully we started a conversation, and as often happens when non-English speakers speak English among themselves, our speech was fed by phrases from films, songs, and media, giving our rudimentary English a poetry of its own.
“How long have you been here?”
“We left last week.”
“Is this the first time you’ve been away from the front?”
“Yes, since February.”
“Did you have to join the army, then?”
“You cannot not defend your country. I have family, children.”
“Were all men drafted?”
“In 2014 — do you know? When Crimea was attacked? Then we went into the army. I’m an actor, but we had to go into the army.”
“You cannot not do that.”
“But you never had a few days’ leave, to see your wife and children?”
“No. This is the first time.”
“They like it, hè? Your boys?”
“They are active. They want attention and play all the time.”
“Where are you located at the front?”
He gave an explanation that I didn’t entirely understand, but it was somewhere on the eastern front, maybe a bit north of the Donetsk region. I now think he fully understood what it was we wanted but were too embarrassed to ask for. War, the true story, what was it?
Vitalina tried to serve us all slices of pizza. Oleg took a seat next to me on the small veranda and I felt a little hand slipping in mine. Looking down, I saw the youngest boy (3?), and his father explained that he wanted to introduce himself in the same manner as his brother and father.
I drank a second beer, and Paul Bond offered whiskey and cigars (him being all Hemingway). Oleg only sipped from his first beer. He told us with a soft and amiable voice:
“War, I say, is the area of death. War is the realm of death. We are here, now, in the realm of the living. But out there it is completely the reign of death.”
Paul and I were silent. But I had another question. In books you read that war is also long and tiring in the absence of action. I asked what they did during the waiting: Play games on their phones? Our oracle answered:
“War is a lot of waiting. People need an escape. Some find it in alcohol, some in drugs, some in sex. I listen to music. But music is also dangerous for me. When I hear music, I become human again. And if I am human, I cannot survive in the land of death.”
During our conversation the film director Zaza Buadze had joined the group. He now asked us what people in the Netherlands thought about the war. But when I started in about politics, about positions and opinions, my words sounded like newspaper language and I felt embarrassed.
Oleg barely spoke about politics, or Zelensky, or “the West.” He talked about a future “when we have won the war” and mentioned the final victory several times as a fact. I didn’t dare to ask him how he could be so sure. He was optimistic about the gas shortages caused by the war: governments were looking harder for alternatives to fossil fuels now.
Oleg went to put his sons to bed. Paul and I took another drink while Oleg did his duty as a father. Vitalina and the director soon followed him, and the veranda grew bigger. Silence overtook us as we shrank under the vast northern sky. I mulled over something Oleg had said about art. The film they were making was necessary, he had carefully explained, so that soldiers like him — the people living in “the realm of death” — could relate again to the others. That’s why they were making the film. It takes art, he’d said, “to make it so that we can go back into the land of the living and that you can understand us.”
The next day the band had to rehearse, but, Vitalina asked, could my co-roadie and I assist with the moviemaking? Before we knew it, we were in the soldiers’ sturdy car. Behind the wheel Oleg’s fellow actor Akhtem Seitablayev had already taken position. From the back seat, I had a view of a jaw that, at the moment, I could only associate with the trajectory of a bullet. (Later I would find press photos of Akhtem online: Oleg and Akhtem are well-known actors in Ukraine.) Before he started the engine, Akhtem put on a black cap and tight black gloves.
After ten minutes we arrived on the set: a meadow full of cows at the edge of a forest. Oleg and Akhtem waited patiently as the cameraman (also Ukrainian) and the director scanned the landscape for new shots. My assistant and I stood around.
I decided that as part of my new role as a journalist of art and war, I could help keep a herd of cows at bay. There were about a hundred of them and they kept wandering into the shot. I raised my arms. I called out huu, huu and they looked at me inquisitively. I took a few steps toward them, and they took a few steps back. I turned back and they stepped in again. In my most affable voice I said: Come on, friends, let’s go over there, it’s much nicer there.
I walked on, away from the set — and my new friends followed! How curious those animals can be. They crowded around me by the dozen, and every time I forgot to put my hands up, they closed in on me. But then I’d speak to them again, just with a friendly voice, as if I were talking to you: A little to the side, friends! To that pole over there, let’s go.
No need to be afraid of cows.
At least fifteen times I watched the same scene being recorded, with Oleg and Akhtem walking through the meadow, Swedish cows safely in the background, and me almost always out of the picture. The filmmaking process took so long that I started to recognize the individual cows by their faces. Vitalina said she would put me in the credits as “cow whisperer.”
In the scene, Oleg and Akhtem play two wounded soldiers who, like hundreds of their fellow sufferers in real life, are recuperating somewhere in Europe until they can return to the front. Confused and disoriented, the two start looking for a portal that features in an old Ukrainian legend: a place in the forest that would magically transport them back to the battlefields, in order to continue fighting. In the scene now being shot, they each tell the other a story about something they’ve experienced at the front. The stories are true, Vitalina said, because it is important that soldiers tell the rest of us what they have experienced. In the car, driving through Poland, director Zaza had heard them out and together they had chosen which stories to tell in the movie.
The modern roadie has various tasks in addition to the old-school core duties: making content, for example.Tweet
Oleg’s story was about his first days at the front. On his own he arrived at a new unit. The commander asked him what he did in civilian life. I am an actor, Oleg replied. Ah, said the commander, so you know about filming. Thus Oleg was given the task of piloting a drone with a camera. He had to search an area with fields, where twenty soldiers had been killed. Their bodies were missing but the Ukrainian army wanted to recover them. Oleg searched, navigating the drone, and eventually found a field with remarkable, elongated black spots in it. He sent the drone down and started to zoom in, and the bodies became visible. They had been lying there for more than a month. Oleg counted and made sure he caught all the dead soldiers.
Akhtem’s story had to do with the siege of Mariupol, a name spoken often by newsreaders. In the besieged Azovstal Steel Plant, full of fighters and civilians, there had been no doctors, only one medical student. Without sufficient equipment, medicine, or training, this young guy had to care for the wounded. One day Akhtem, serving somewhere else at the front, received a telephone call. On the phone was the commander of the legion in the plant. He had found Akhtem’s protected number through the grapevine. The commander told him that this young aspiring doctor was getting seriously upset and that he was trying to calm him down. The parents lived in Crimea, so getting them on the line was out of the question. He had asked the boy: Who else can I call for you? Is there someone you would like to talk to? There is an actor, the boy had said, a fellow Crimean Tatar, whom he had looked up to all his life. Akhtem agreed to speak with the boy. Over the next few weeks, in the horrible final phase of the siege, he would do so several times a day. That was the story.
Vitalina said she wanted other recovering soldiers to tell their stories too. Before the war she had supervised a program in Ukraine in which soldiers not only recovered physically, but also spent time together making art and telling their stories. I thought of Oleg the previous night, saying that music made him human again.
It was close to how I remembered Jorge Semprún’s Life or Literature, a memoir in which the author wonders how to convey the reality of the concentration camp. When Semprún is liberated, he walks through the camp’s gate. In my memory of the book, Semprún questioned what to say to American soldiers who had not seen the concentration camp yet. Should he state the bare facts, the numbers? Or would they fail to comprehend the immense horror if they just heard data — was it only comprehensible when he told them what happened, his experience? Years later Semprún gave a kind of answer to that question: “Horror is so repetitive, and without literary elaboration, one simply cannot be heard or understood. The only way to make horror palpable is to construct a fictional body of work.”
Semprún needed something like “literary elaboration” to recount what had happened to him. Oleg had said that he needed art because it could help soldiers and citizens understand each other again, in “the land of the living.” Art was needed here, to lay bare truth and to repair meaningful human connections.
And I was . . . what? Thinking about some definition?
The next day, during the performance, I stood, as usual, toward the back. The audience was already seated and VanWyck was still backstage, not yet dressed, eating something small. Nonchalant, I asked her what time she had to play exactly. But Swedish audiences seem to arrive very much on time, and when VanWyck finally came on, they clapped embarrassingly long before the performance began.
Right next to me was a Viking: a woman with fiercely long hair, draped clothing, tattoos up to her lower jaw, stopping at iron that stuck halfway out of her cheeks. You didn’t have to like tattoos and ironwork to see that it all formed a beautiful and thoughtful whole. Afterward, she would report to the merchandise table and say how much she had enjoyed the concert.
Nearby a mother held up her baby. The baby had a big headset on, to protect its hearing. Grandma, a gorgeous woman, started headbanging for her grandson when the music got a little heavier. The baby didn’t seem to notice, because he was at that moment getting breastfed by her daughter.
Again: as my wife’s set began, my skin contracted, I became a rock, tingling underneath, and my head started to race. Was this because of that amygdala, which was triggering all sorts of common sensations that can only be caught in clichés? No. I heard VanWyck’s fingers on the guitar opening up the other, true dimension in which I live, and her voice wiping out all that happened in superficial life. “Talk to me darling,” she sang, “I am all ears.” Even when I hear her for the hundredth time, it is as if I am waking up from a long sleep. “We’re all alone here,” she sang, “I could make use / Of a story.” This is all that matters, this level of feeling and beauty. And always the accompanying feeling: I wanna do something. My life should be: this! Energy bursting.
In 1963, Roland Barthes wrote that a good work of art “is never entirely non-signifying (mysterious or ‘inspired’) and never entirely clear.” The work has a suspended meaning: “It offers itself to the reader as an avowed signifying system yet withholds itself from him as a signified object.”
At the Alma Löv Museum, thousands of meanings dizzied through me: suspended, inspired, mysterious, signifying, “never entirely non-signifying” — the whole Barthesian specter raving in my body. At every performance new interpretations manifest. I wanted to never stop feeling this way.
VanWyck had a good rapport with the Swedish audience, telling strange and poetic stories about what she imagined happening in some of the songs. The applause afterward lasted a long time and still days later she received messages with interpretations of the concert.
I am writing these notes down on my laptop, which, I have just learned, is called a portàtil here. My assistant and I have moved on to the Catalan Pyrenees, three thousand kilometers from Sweden. After dropping off VanWyck in Amsterdam, we drove along and added our nitrogen emissions to the atmosphere, while watching brown and yellowish forests pass by. In the Dordogne in France, a friend, while sweeping up fallen leaves, told us we should start eating vegan now. He asked my assistant, still 16, why she and her generation did not protest more aggressively. I told my cosmopolitan friend that my assistant had never in her life bought a plane ticket and that it was kind of bitter to first inherit a world that has just been ravaged and then to get accused by the very people who did the ravaging that she did not stand up to them loud enough.
I am in a town that fills up during holidays and weekends but has remained vital during the week as well, with all kinds of ultra-hip people with cool rings, tattoos, hairstyles, piercings, and more. They go canyoning, bouldering, kayaking, rafting, and, in winter, skiing without lifts. There are a lot of young children, incredibly many twentysomethings and, of course, decently dressed old people. Here, sitting at my table, while my Catalan buddy Marc is unloading the vegetables for the family store, the sense of interconnectedness can feel as overwhelming as a VanWyck concert.
Lately I have heard so much about the “we,” the ending of the era of the I. The individual as a node in a network. Then again, wouldn’t that also make the idea of art as the most unique expression of the individual . . . irrelevant? Pfff — the pompous pondering, each thought about art a deflating balloon.
Yesterday I spoke with Maria, the matriarch of a family that resides in the tiny village on top of the mountain, and who has sort of adopted us. She is in her seventies and still tending the gardens for the family’s restaurant. She knows every secret mushroom field and hierba to be put in obscure spirituous beverages. Maria told me this is the strangest year ever. Green growing where it should not. Rain, no rain. Birds, no birds. All coming at unprecedented moments.
My assistant sits next to me and is engaged in a conversation conducted with many gestures, facial expressions, and a lot of touching. Here they speak a Catalan that is partly Pallarès but also carries words that live only on this mountain. When in doubt, I’ve been told, choose what sounds most like French. So not tomate, as in Castilian, but also not tomàquet, as in Barcelona; here it’s tomato. It seems impossible to tell you about all this without talking about the tomatoes themselves. They have been laughing at me for decades about the tasteless greenhouse plants in Holland, but somewhere in the world tomatoes must grow that are as good as the tomatoes here, just as good, but different, and there they will undoubtedly say tomato in yet another way. There is no signified object, was my last unremarkable thought, and I emailed this text to VanWyck, who in her reply urged me to write a better ending.