Art Narc: Vildelife

Williamsburg, with bridge.

My former landlord in Williamsburg, Brooklyn—a sphinx-like Teutonic manchild who sublet me one of the ad-hoc drywall sleeping lofts in the colossal warehouse he leased near the Bedford Avenue subway stop—still owes me $1200. It was my security deposit from 2008 and I don’t expect to get it back. I don’t mean this story as revenge at all, though; in fact, I wish this character well. In a single act of genius, he endeared himself to me forever.

Let’s call this man Berg, because he’s litigious as hell. Berg was a self-described minimalist artist of self-described great renown, a person of indeterminate age (somewhere between 55-80), about the size of an average 13-year-old girl. Berg’s speaking voice evoked both esteemed character actress Linda Hunt and Fraü Blucher. Berg’s personal style aped Andy Warhol’s to a double-take-inducing degree; fussy spectacles, platinum chili-bowl wig, the whole deal. Berg claimed that not only was the resemblance unintentional, but that his style and ‘do prefigured Warhol’s. Berg knew Warhol, who had apparently taken the wig to emulate Berg’s striking actual hair.

Now it can be told.

Berg had relocated to New York from Germany for good 40 years or so ago, and had lived and worked in this enormous Williamsburg building before the great artist incursion in the 80s and 90s, since before hardly anybody chose to live in Williamsburg, Brooklyn on purpose. This German—a Prussian, he corrected me once, though he once claimed to be part Chinese—complained constantly about his health, his expenses, poorly made American products and people from Turkey. He could be jaunty, too though; he liked to sit and regale me with stories of his grandfather, a doomed army captain whose last words (on the Western front, mind you) were “Follow me!” after which he was blown up. Berg found this hilarious. I found Berg hilarious.

Although he liked to rent the majority of ad-hoc drywall sleeping-loft bedrooms in his massive warehouse “art studio” to cute young men, Berg also boasted a blond Amazonian girlfriend named Ingeborg, also of indeterminate age and somewhere towards the middle of the gender spectrum, who would fly in from Berlin every few weeks and yell at him until he cried. When I rented the sleeping loft from him during my last semester at the New School, Berg was embroiled in a years-long lawsuit with whoever actually owned the building, and who wanted to oust Berg and sell the lot for a bajillion dollars. When I left New York for San Antonio, the building owner and Berg were still locked in a vicious war of attrition—Berg’s most cunning maneuver of which was to refuse to answer the door and to sneak out of the warehouse through a garage door, behind which hid an ancient Lincoln Town Car which he’d sawed off the top of in order to make it a convertible.

In addition to housing a moldering 15-foot DIY convertible and four or five sleeping lofts, Berg’s studio, which was the size of a largish high-school cafetorium, contained a ratty galley kitchen, several seedy seating areas and many metric tons of junk: odd furniture, lighting equipment, unidentifiable tools, cameras, partial mannequins, several disco balls in various states of disrepair, bicycles, bottles of dangerous liquids, plastic tubs of whatever, stacks of old magazines … and his artwork.

 

OK, this is the warehouse from “Raiders of the Lost Ark,” but you get the idea.

Though Berg called himself a minimalist, and had apparently enjoyed some sort of career (financed, he once told me, by the estate of his late mother), I would not call him a minimalist. He painted a bunch of large, heavy wooden panels with jabby dots, a kind of frenzied, non-figurative Pointillism. He had made a couple of requisite all-white paintings, which is pretty minimal, and which were bigger than most of his other paintings, possibly because he didn’t have to spend as much effort making dots. He also had manufactured four or five coiled walls of iron about 15 feet long and 6 feet in height, like suburban-yard-scaled versions of Richard Serra pieces one might find in a SkyMall catalog.

Actual Richard Serra, "Sequence."

In the late fall of ’08, I  got home from class one night to encounter Berg supine on a fusty chaise lounge, sipping something green out of an ornate glass. He perked up and informed me that there was “a vild ANIMAL livink in de studio!”

“A what?” I asked. I thought he might be referring to one of the boys he rented to.

“You know vat it is, an … O-POSSUM?” Berg stage-whispered.

One of the other housemates, a really nice British paparazzo recently returned from stalking the pregnant Jamie Lynn Spears in Louisiana, had seen one in the kitchen. I told him I knew what it was, an opossum, yes, and suggested we call the City or somebody and get it the hell out of there. I teased him that if this were to happen back in Texas, the ‘possum would be summarily shot.

“NO, dear, ve mustn’t shoot! I sink I put out bowls of food und vater, he must be very sirsty. Already he has eaten ALL of my sponges.”

I pleaded with Berg not to do anything to encourage the ‘possum, and found a fierce toothy photo of one online to show him, like so:

He was very impressed, but continued to speculate whether it might be kept as a pet. When I recommended adding a panther to take care of the ‘possum, he was momentarily tempted.

“So where is this ‘possum now?” I asked, getting goosebumps.

Berg slightly straightened his Odalisque position on the lounge, tipped his head back to gaze out from under his wig, peered into the darkened depths of the studio, and merrily cried, “He could be ANYVHERE!”

At about 3 a.m. that night, a scratchy sound woke me up. I climbed down my loft’s ladder and went into the bathroom—which was the only immaculate room in the compound, with a palatial bathtub and a lot of mirrored surfaces. To my horror, I saw muddy little paw prints all over the (luckily closed) toilet lid.

I told Berg the next day, “We’ve got to do something about the ‘possum. Maybe we should call the ASPCA?”

Berg decided he would devise a humane trap instead, out of materials he already had in the loft. I was dubious, annoyed and scared. I didn’t want any nocturnal marsupial encounters in that goddamn mirrored bathroom. But Berg was a Beuys fan, and he thought that if given a chance, Beuys would take another tack.

The next night when I got back from class, Berg was up in the front studio with his friend Clare, a very nice, hearty Australian woman whom I liked despite her penchant for crystals and Burning Man. They were very pleased, having just rigged up the trap of all traps in the kitchen.

The trap looked nothing like this, but it was this kind of idea.

I won’t be able to do it justice. They’d taken two milk crates, those plastic ones, and sawed out the interior walls and fastened them together with sturdy wire to make one big cage. Berg had booby-trapped a jumbo can of cat food so that when the ‘possum went in and tripped the wire, a trapdoor would close. Then they’d screwed the cage onto a plank of wood, which was then screwed onto the kitchen counter above the nonfunctional stove. Also, Berg had switched on a tiny black-and-white television with a vertical roll problem on the counter to help “lure” the ‘possum—because if there’s one thing marsupials can’t resist, it’s re-runs of “Friends.” AND they’d built, with scrap wood, a small ramp up to the counter from the floor, upon which they’d spelled out, in masking tape: FOOD——-> pointing to the entrance of the trap.

Did I mention that they were quite drunk?

I told them I was impressed, although I didn’t think the ‘possum could read.

Berg giggled and said, “But he choss to live in un AHT STUDIO!”

“What if the ‘possum goes apeshit in that cage, once he’s trapped?” I asked, barely believing I was asking. “Will it hold?”

“Well, Clare and I are GOING TO A PAHTY,” he answered, “so if you hear anysing, call me IMMEDIATELY.”

Then he disappeared into his office and retrieved what appeared to be an antique samurai sword, handing it to me with the instruction that should the ‘possum appear dangerous, I should go ahead and kill him, if I thought best.

“Behhg, are you crazy?” Clare asked.

“Vat? She is from TEXAS,” he said. And they left.

I accepted the sword without protest. I knew that being from Texas did not qualify me for any course of action in this situation; the closest to ‘possum fighting I’d come in Texas was hearing noise in the garage and gingerly locking the door. But I felt I had to live up to something.

So I retreated up to my loft bedroom and read for a while, hoping like hell the critter would disregard the trap entirely. Then at about 2:30, after not having heard a peep, I went to brush my teeth. I peeked around the corner onto the kitchen counter. The ‘possum and I locked eyes. HE WAS TRAPPED. Cat food gone. Cottage cheese-container of water drunk. Watching “Seinfeld.”

I thought (so did he, probably): “Now what?”

I immediately called Berg, and he answered. I said, “Berg, MISSION ACCOMPLISHED!”

He still sounded drunk. “Vat?” he said. “Vat are you sayink?”

“The ‘possum has landed!” I cried.

Berg was ecstatic. I heard him holler at this crowded party: “MY O-POSSUM TRAP! IT VORKED! I MUST GO!”

So then he and Clare drove home in his ancient fucked-up convertible, and were back at the studio in fewer than five minutes. I met them at the door and we tip-toed into the kitchen. I kept expecting this animal to go crazy with rage, but no. (S)he was just as quiet and as calm as could be, and looked at us as if to say, “Do your worst, displaced Texan, Australian lady and pint-sized German minimalist.”

Berg unscrewed the whole cage rig from the counter, then Clare and I carried it into the painting studio from the kitchen.

Berg proceeded to take a bunch of photos of the critter in the cage and all. It was heavy. Clare held a lit cigarette between her teeth the whole time and started to cuss Berg out under her breath. Then we carried the cage to the car and Clare and I sat in the back of the convertible holding onto it, while Berg drove slowly and gently over to nearby McCarren Park. It was after 3 a.m. now, and had begun to snow. The ‘possum maintained his/her composure throughout. He wasn’t “playing ‘possum,” exactly; his eyes were open. He was probably just exhausted from having eaten the whole can of cat food.

Berg drove around the park a couple of times to try and “disorient” the ‘possum, so he couldn’t make his way back…

Finally we parked and carried the cage over near the softball diamond, the bases gleaming in the moonlight, keeping an eye out for cops, mind you. I don’t even know if it’s illegal to set a ‘possum free on public property.

Anyway, we carefully placed the cage on a bench, then Berg gingerly opened the trap door with a gold-handled walking stick he kept in his car.

The ‘possum wouldn’t budge.

“Ohh, no! Now he iss TAME!” Berg said.

“Let’s just leave the bloody cage heea,” Clare said.

Berg protested that it was art. I agreed. It was the best art I’d ever seen out of him, in fact. By a long shot. Better than the SkyMall Serras, the white paintings Rauschenberg apparently filched from him, even his Warhol impression.

At that, I tipped the cage up and shook it a little, and the ‘possum finally waddled out and hopped down from the bench. He sat there and looked at us for a second, and I waved my arms around and shouted “GIT!”

Then he trotted off and climbed up a tree.

Berg turned to Clare, smiling. “You see? Dese Texans, dey are BRAVE viss de vildlife.”

I was proud of us both.

 

(Feeling inspired? If you have a story for “Art Narc” email kelly@glasstire.com. Those bad art jobs, nightmare gallerists, nightmare artists, insane collectors, exhibitions gone awry, conservation fiascos and the like can all become cautionary, yet entertaining, tales for Glasstire readers.)

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For eight years in New York City, Sarah Fisch defended Texas as the home of muchos smartypantses, artists, thinkers and other people who aren’t, for example, Tom deLay. New Yorkers remained skeptical. After she graduated from The New School, Fisch migrated back to San Antonio in ’08. She has worked as the arts editor at San Antonio’s altweekly The San Antonio Current and the arts and culture staff writer at Plaza de Armas. Furthermore, Sarah Fisch (whose last name is pronounced “fish”) is the 2010 San Antonio Artist Foundation Grant winner for Literary Arts for a forthcoming book of SATX-based short fiction, and was a national Endowment for the Arts / USC Annenberg / Getty Arts Journalism Program Fellow. She’s a children’s book writer, a stand-up comic and also a sound artist, which are conveniently broad categories.

 

 

also by Sarah Fisch

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