Monday, December 20, 2010

The Encounter

Time inside of a museum has a tendency to blur, like paint diluted with water. I checked my cell’s clock as we walked downstairs and saw that we’d been inside the museum for a few hours. Apparently, we’d been stopping and staring at every portrait in detail, but The Student’s discourse on Modernism must have shut down everything in my brain, save basic motor functions.
We walked down the flight of stairs and into the basement, the central part of which was set up to look like an amphitheater, with a bunch of black rows of seats facing a large projection screen set into a wall. On either side of the screen were sets of doors leading to the special exhibit hall. Sprawled out around and on the rows in the amphitheater were a bunch of shouting school kids. It was at that point that I realized that the stereotype of the French as a bunch of lascivious hedonists was true—the kids were all over each other in ways that, had I done the same in good ole boy rural Tennessee, I’d have been slapped with out-of-school detention and, probably, a severe scare-the-shit-out-of-you conversation by the police officer stationed in the school (which would have been ironic, as he was renown throughout the student body for being a lech). But, this being France, I shrugged it off and looked around.
The projection screen featured a film on repeat that seemed to be an video installation piece from the 60s. Some guy was driving a car, looking like he was either laughing like a mad scientist, or just having the best time ever. Then the film would cut to a woman sitting on a blue cube and slowly zoom in to an extreme focus on her right eye. After, there would be a cut to a dog walking down the street and pooping. Then the feces would be run over by a car, and then the film would return to the cackling man. I turned to The Student when the poop was on the screen, poked him (we were at this point sitting in the amphitheater behind the kids groping each other), and said, “Hey. That’s you, that is.”
He nodded. “Clever. Let’s move on.”
“Let’s,” I agreed.
The special exhibit hall was stark white with a lot of empty space. There looked to be about fifty people wandering around, looking at paintings and pictures in no particular order. The content of the exhibit was sketches of art schools from the Renaissance to the nineteenth centuries. A narrative about the changing methods and requirements of the schools was presented as one progressed through the gallery, and looking at one picutre in particular that seemed to be dead on, but was used as grounds to reject a student because “[the fingers] are out of proportion on the left hand, which shows that the student does not pay enough attention to accuracy, and cannot be admitted to the school.”
The Student shouted, “Holy shit!” and gripped my arm hard enough to make me think I’d stumbled into a vice.
“Good God, what?” I asked. He was pointing, I followed where he was pointing and let loose with my own, “Holy shit!”
Standing in a room in the exhibit hall dedicated to full-body sketches, right in front of a wall-sized coal-on-paper sketch of a nude female, was The Stalker. He held a notepad in his hand, but no pencil, and was staring at the sketch with the intensity of a toddler watching Nick Jr. He wore a black turtleneck, black trousers, and white sneakers. Slowly, as The Student and I stared on and stood as still as mannequins, he turned his head in our direction. He locked eyes with the both of us and grinned out of one of the sides of his mouth. We were frozen, as the victims of baslisks, and he walked towards us.
I whimpered a bit. Was I facing The Stalker as everyone knew him, or was I facing The Stalker as I’d seen him on that one, rare day—when he showed a side of himself that was normal?
We stood in place, probably hoping that if we didn’t move, The Stalker would lose track of us. After all, he was as terrifying as a Rex, so it was feasible that like the ones in Jurassic Park, his vision was based on movement. He continued forward, still grinning. When he was within speaking distance he said, “Well, well, well, what have we here?”
I gulped.
The Student regained some composure and said, “Hey, Stalker, you’re probably the last person I’d expect to see here.”
The Stalker took a deep breath and looked around him. He gestured at the art students and the sketches he was looking at. “Should I not be interested in the progress of art? Should I not be fascinated by the methods by which humanity has progressed in portraying itself to, well, itself? Is that what you’re implying? Or, perhaps, is it that you believe me to be too base, too depraved, to enjoy the human form?”
“No, not at all,” said The Student. I continued to stand still, hoping that The Stalker would walk away and not see me. “I was merely commenting on the strangeness of seeing you here, in Lille. It’s not the most popular tourist destination and—”
The Student leaned forward and came within an inch of The Student’s face. “When did you ever think that I was concerned with what was popular and what was not?”
Silence. The only sounds that came from the two was The Student going, “Oh, er, well, er,” and The Stalker breathing heavily.
Then, The Stalker grinned and tittered. “Joking. I saw it in a guidebook and decided to take a few days off from my work to immerse myself, however so briefly, in another culture.”
“What work?” I asked.
The Stalker’s eyes—lacking the black contacts, I noticed—burned fire at me. “My work.”
“What,” said The Student, “exactly, is your work?”
The Stalker turned his basilisk gaze to The Student. “It is of a private manner. Confidentiality.”
“Psychology?” asked The Student.
“No,” said The Student. He reached into the neck of his sweater and pulled out a pair of white earbuds, inserted them into his ears. “If you’ll excuse me, I’m going back to appreciating art.” He nodded, turned on his music by pressing on his pocket—I’m assuming there was an iPod down there—nodded, and walked back to his alcove of nudie sketches.
The Student shook his head. “I don’t know. It’s as if I was faced with a doppelganger, that’s the sort of fear I felt.”
“The Spider-Man villain?”
The Student turned to me and turned his head to the side. “I can’t tell if you’re being serious or not.”
“There was a Spider-Man villain called The Doppelganger. He had eight arms.”
“Yes,” he said. “Quite. Let’s move on, shall we?”
The Student moved on through the gallery, slightly faster, and disappeared around a corner, skipping the rest of the sketches. I took another glance at The Stalker and saw him, ah, fiddling with... himself. I sped right the fuck on out of there, sparing one last glance when I heard a girl scream and two security guards leap up from their chairs near the entrance and dash towards The Stalker’s alcove.
I caught up with The Student and he said, “What was that?”
“Nothing. Dear sweet God let it be nothing. Hey, what’s this? This looks like Springfield.”
We stood in front of a wall-sized painting done in the style of a colorful cartoon. It was one of those paintings that was created to look like a city’s street plan, with cars and people put on as illustration. The buildings were multicolored, as if they were settings in a Nickolodeon cartoon from the 90s. The catch was, and this is what probably elevated the painting to Art status instead of Something Pretty to Look At, all of the buildings were unbelievably witty send-ups of American institutions. McDonald’s was Fat-Laden Restaurant; gas stations had the word “Blood” in their names; that sort of humor.
“It’s trying really hard,” said The Student. He sighed. “This is why I could never study modern art. All these pieces that are trying to make statements about the human condition, or the condition of modern society, for that matter, are just so damn lame.”
“Much like the novels you’re reading.”
He nodded. “Oh, yeah. Much like the novels I’ve read for the last five years, really. Sometimes I wish I could go back to middle school, when I could read atrociously-written sci-fi, the sorts that are released and go straight into the bargain bin.”
“Those were the days.”
He agreed and we moved on. The rest of the exhibit was mainly made up of some more neo-satirical-cartoon sort of stuff and some video installation works that tried desperately to subvert gender and age roles, and neither of us were really that interested. I wondered what would happen if we found a Literature Tour of Lille. Surely there had to be one. It was a large city near a couple of very important cities (Brussels and Paris), so, at some point, there had to be some major authors who wrote about or lived there. But through the time we were in Lille, neither of us caught any signs that this was the case.
           We made ready to leave the museum and retrieved our coats. (I made sure to not make eye contact with the girl behind the counter.) We left the museum, went back into the snow and the freezing cold weather, and that’s when I realized that I didn’t find out what happened to The Stalker. I shrugged the question off. If he could make it through English Customs at the beginning of our year while wearing black contact lenses, he could make it through a—please God—misunderstanding at a French museum.