I’ve been sacked. It happened this morning. The chief executive summoned me to his office and said he was sorry but the minister had decided to relieve me of my post. He said the scandal had gone too far, and he couldn’t brush it under the carpet. I tried to defend myself but realized it was hopeless. There was no way he was going to reverse his decision. He dismissed me, my tears welled up and I went to the bathroom for a good cry.
It’s unfair. Anyone could have made the same slip. And I mean anyone. In fact, nobody noticed the day the exhibition opened. Or the day after. A week went by before the mistake was spotted. Because it was a mistake, and a bad one at that.
I wasn’t to blame for what happened. No way. And the proof is that the police who arrested me in the first instance let me go scot-free after a couple of days. It was obvious I’d done everything in good faith, that it was simply one big gaffe. Maybe I was a little naive – “incompetent” was the word the Minister of Culture actually used – but naivety and incompetence are hardly crimes. I reckon everyone has a right to make mistakes. What really pisses me off is that I won’t find another jobin the art world for a good long time as a result of this ridiculous business.
They say that at the end of the day it was my responsibility and that’s why they’re giving me the push, but it’s obvious they need a scapegoat. They’re a bunch of chauvinist pigs. They gave me the option of resigning rather than being sacked. I accepted, naturally.
There was only one day to go to the inauguration of the exhibition and I was nervous, as you can imagine. If you’ve ever curated an exhibition you’ll know what I mean. I’d just started in my post as director of the MUA and it was the first big exhibition I had organized by myself. I was nervous, but also very excited, and so happy, I can tell you. A mere twenty-six years old and here I was, about to enter the city’s art scene through the front door, because it’s no small potatoes to be Director of the Museum of Ultra-Avant-Garde Art. Absolutely not. Quite a few people would kill for a position like it, and though I knew every step I made would be scrutinized under a magnifying glass, to see whether I triumphed or made a cock-up of things, I was convinced the exhibition would be a success and that I’d get my fair share of congratula-tions. And that was how it turned out. The launch was first-rate and the artworks and canapés mesmerized the guests in equal measure. They all said Eudald Mataplana was a great artist, and the catering firm I contracted belonged to a girlfriend I trusted wholeheartedly. If you’re going to do something, then do it well, I say.
As I told the police, I didn’t choose the subject of the exhibition, let alone the pieces that were exhibited. The museum had been negotiating for two years with the artist’s agent and I’d only just taken up my post as director. The tragic disappearance of my predecessor, who died of a sudden heart attack, according to the official version, and from an overdose of blue pills, according to the off-the-record version, was a real stroke of luck for me. One of the openings for an art-history graduate is a post directing a museum or gallery, and the deceased was an uncle of mine, and that coincidence really smoothed the path for me. When Uncle died, I’d already been collaborating with him for a year and a half, and Daddy immediately rang the minister to remind him of a thing or two. Obviously these posts aren’t hereditary, but Daddy likes to see some return on the money he pays out whenever there’s an election. Besides, competition for any decent post is so fierce nowadays it’s hardly a mortal sin for a father to give his daughter a helping hand. Blood is thicker than water, and Daddy has so many contacts it would be criminal not to take advantage of the occasional one.
My uncle was an old friend and great admirer of Eudald Mataplana, and that explains why he decided to curate the exhibition himself. To tell the truth, I wasn’t at all familiar with his work and I’d never met him personally, because contemporary art isn’t my strong point and all the contact I had had was with his agent.
I suffered a panic attack the day before the exhibition opened, when I realized there weren’t forty works as stated in the agreement signed by the museum, but forty-one.
“What the hell’s that doing there?” I asked, put out, when I saw the piece in the main room.
“We don’t know where to put it,” the installers replied, deadpan.
I took another look at the sculpture and combed my memory. I didn’t think I’d ever seen it. After a thorough review of my list, I concluded that the piece wasn’t part of the selection made for our exhibition. It was an extra. But there it was, and it was no small item either. I ruminated for a while, then decided to ring the artist and seek his advice.
Eudald Mataplana wasn’t answering his house phone or his mobile. “Typical bloody artist, out on the tiles till late and then sleeping it off in the morning!” I raged enviously. I left a message on his answering machine, not thinking for one moment that he’d ever hear it, and pondered what to do next. I knew it was a waste of time to try to speak to his agent, because he’d be flying over an ocean at that point, and Uncle was dead, so I didn’t know who I could turn to for support. I started to feel on edge. It wasn’t midday yet and I had to reach a decision: whether to send that item back to the artist’s studio (I’d have to phone the moving firm, talk to the insurance company, change the budget…) or discreetly shunt it down into the basement. The item was uncatalogued and it put me on the spot.
“So what do I do now?” I asked my secretary in a fit of despair. “I’ve got an appointment at the hairdresser’s and then at the beautician’s. We launch the show tomorrow and I’ve still got to fetch my dress, which they’re adjusting…”
“If they’ve sent it, it means they want it in the exhibition,” she said, in her very common-sense way. “Find a place for it and don’t worry so. After all, it’s only one more sculpture.”
And that’s just what I did. I told the installers to erect a dais in the centre of the main room, the only free space left for a work of that size, and told them to put it right there. The title for the work wasn’t a problem, as they were: Still Life No. 1, Still Life No. 2, Still Life No. 3… I printed out a label on my computer with the title Still Life No. 41 and placed it in front of the piece that really took your breath away.
Eudald Mataplana cultivated an oneiric-deconstructionist hyperrealism with baroque touches he combined with a high emotional charge. Or to put it in plain speak, he spent his time creating realist sculptures on shocking themes to jolt his public’s aesthetic horizons and pro-voke repulsion. I don’t know why he did it or why his work was so successful. The fact is, all his sculptures had degeneration, sickness and death in their most macabre expressions as their leitmotif: cats and dogs that had been run over, rotten fruit and withered flowers, battered children, women undergoing chemotherapy, decrepit old people, worm-infested skeletons… And to rub it in, the guy added odours to his sculptures, so his withered flowers stank of withered flowers, his sick women of hospitals and his old people of urine and excrement. They were subtle smells (you had to get close up to get a whiff), but I found it all highly unpleasant, and preferred to contemplate his works from afar.
My special interest, to be frank, is the Renaissance, and to be precise, the painting and sculpture of the quattrocento: Donatello, Botticelli, Piero della Francesca… I mean, artists who have gone out of fashion. I’ve no real enthusiasm for modern art. I can’t really see the point. Nonetheless, it was inevitable that the contacts my uncle had with avant-garde artists would channel my career far away from my beloved Italians. Getting a post at the MUA was a way to get noticed on the art scene and boost my CV, and one can’t reject an opportunity like that when it comes served on a silver platter. Clearly I’m not a total illiterate in terms of contemporary art and I don’t want to justify myself by appealing to my ignorance, but the avant-garde sensibility is so heterogeneous there’s no way one can get a handle on it or work out what criteria to use. If Uncle said Eudald Mataplana was good, I believed him, and if his work wowed the viewing public, then even better.
I looked spectacular on the launch day. I’d lost eight pounds and wore a tight-fitting cerise silk dress that had cost a bomb and which sparked a lot of comment. The chief executive came, and so did the Minister of Culture, the President of Parliament and the Mayor. Eudald Mataplana didn’t come, but his absence was no surprise because Eudald was a bit of an idiot and would do that kind of thing. Some artists move heaven and earth to secure an interview or appear on the TV, and others play hard to get and that way they get interviews, because they never grant them and say they’re phobic when it comes to TV studios. Eudald Mataplana was one such: he threw a party and went AWOL, an exhibition of his work was organized and he didn’t bother to put in an appearance. In the end, everyone described him as a prickly character, with his fondness for enfant terrible antics, and journalists would come to blows to get a statement, interview or photo out of him. The gossips said it was all down to a strategy dreamed up by his agent, but how could you tell? In this country, envy is the mother of all rumours.
Still Life No. 41 was the piece that received by far the most praise. Everyone agreed that the sculpture representing a male corpse in a foetal position was easily the most successful. The critics praised it to the skies – what a masterpiece! what sensibility! – and it reduced the viewing public to silence. It was certainly the subtlest of all the exhibits, because the figure was clothed from head to foot and its eyes were hidden behind sunglasses. Nevertheless, the consensus was that the expression of grief one glimpsed under those glasses (by the way, they were fabulously expensive Armanis) was incredibly moving. Eudald Mataplana thus succeeded in rekindling his status as a cult figure with the country’s most sophisticated elites.