Sam Simon

The invitation from Oren came via email a week before I arrived home. “L’chaim with us in celebration of defending my dissertation as Tamar and I prepare our new home to welcome a little one.” A graduation? Housewarming? Baby shower? I had always thought of Oren as a bully, forced to entertain me because our parents were friends. Perhaps the invitation was an oversight. Bcc. Select all. Send. It didn’t matter, I wasn’t going to spend my first weekend at home with him. But then an hour later, he emailed again. Apparently, he had something to show me.

I told a childhood friend about Oren’s invite and she asked if he was the kid who would leave loose cigarettes in my backpack for my mom to find. He was. She suggested blowing off the party in favor of the special exhibition at the De Young. She thought it might be a good way to ease back into the rhythms of the Bay Area. Take BART. Stretch my legs. Listen to the whispers and “hmms” of the upper-middle-class. When jet lag woke me up at five, I had time for both.

After purchasing my ticket at the museum, I sent the friend a photograph of the towering banner, Gauguin: A Retrospective on Color and Colonialism. “Ew. Talentless, predatory, colonial hack,” she responded. Evidently, on the floor above there was another special exhibition on Monet. Or maybe it was Manet. Or, I imagined, on David Mamet featuring actors cornering confused museumgoers and delivering the speech from Glengarry Glen Ross. Put that coffee down. Coffee’s for closers. You think I’m fucking with you?

I found her text reductive considering the show’s title, which signaled that it wouldn’t shy away from the problematic aspects of Gauguin’s work. I thought about replying to that effect but stopped; if the conversation was in person I most likely would have punctuated her critiques with “exactly” without specifying what I agreed with.

Inside the exhibition was a long line of patrons passing by portraits hung on white walls. I stood behind a girl who was perhaps 19 or 20, a good decade younger than me. She had light eyes and black hair that fell down her back. She was disturbingly beautiful, even in a generic gray University of Oxford sweater. As the line snaked along the black arrows on the floor, we both stopped beneath one enormous painting and I stepped back to take it in. The piece depicted a multigenerational community in three undelineated segments cast in dark blue. On the left side, an older woman in her final days is comforted by her granddaughter; in the middle, a young man plucks an apple from a tree while a little girl bites into one at his feet; on the right, three women sit around a newborn baby. The painting’s title was Where Do We Come From? What Are We? Where Are We Going? It wasn’t a triptych, but the word filled my mind, and as the girl began to move on, I felt a tremendous urge to say it aloud.

The previous year I had visited an exhibition by the British-German artist, Tino Sehgal. It was a weekday and I arrived right as they opened. The illicitness of an empty museum thrilled me. The man at the ticket desk gave me a student price without asking and I followed the signs down a long corridor that pointed into the first room on the right. The walls were blank and I turned to leave but stopped. In the far corner, a guard sat on a folding chair twisting the knob of the handheld radio connected to the wire that ran up her torso to her earpiece. She was younger and far more beautiful than any other security guard I had ever seen. She wore black slacks, a white dress shirt, and a red vest with gold buttons. Her hair was cropped short and she was made up as if going on a night out. When she saw me notice her, she smiled. I smiled back, unsure about acknowledging the room’s emptiness because she observed me as if there were paintings there. When I reached the wall nearest to her, she stood and unbuttoned the red vest. She was taller than I had noticed, taller than I was, even without her black heels, which she stepped out of before undoing her belt and sliding her pants to the floor. She undid the top two buttons on her shirt and pulled it over her head, leaving only her purple lacy bra and underwear, the radio clutched in her hand. As she approached me, I noticed a beige birthmark like a splotch of paint on a canvas above her left hip. It stretched taut and relaxed with each step. The only sound was her bare feet peeling from the linoleum. A few feet away, she stopped, then reached for the clasp on her bra. I backed into the wall and wiped my hands on my jeans, unsure what to expect. She stopped.

“A Voyeur. Tino Sehgal, 2018,” she said. Then she turned back to her clothing and began to dress.

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Image by wei zhu from Pixabay