By Daryl Qilin Yam
The problem, Soph had decided, was not what she was seeing, but what she was trying to see. The four hipsters—Caleb, Shakti, Angie and herself—were at Exhibition Hall A of the Goodman Arts Centre, standing before the largest picture in the room, a decidedly large, imposing picture, it measured 6m long and about 2m wide. It was a landscape, and within the landscape was a table, and on the table was butter, was salt, was pepper, was a loaf of bread; beside the table was a framed painting of the ocean, its calm, hazy horizon hung on a wall of some kind. Shakti had asked them what they thought the picture was about, this incredibly wide and blown-up photograph, and nobody had replied, nobody could reply—because the problem, Soph had decided, was not what she was seeing. It was what she was trying to see. The second problem was that she didn't know what to say.
"I told you it was weird," Angie said to Soph. Angie had shown up at Mountbatten 46 minutes late for no reason. During those 46 minutes the other three had gone and had wonton noodles at Old Airport Road.
"Nobody holds an opening on a Thursday afternoon."
"No, this is nice," said Caleb. He smiled at Soph. "I like it when there are fewer people. I like it better when it's not a big deal."
Angie gave him a weird look. She had been giving him weird looks ever since she got here, but Soph didn't think to say anything about it. Things had been tense between them ever since Soph had skipped out on Angie's book launch. It was her debut collection of prose poems, titled They Can All Go To Places. (A QLRS reviewer called it "sweet but lamentable, like a fruit smoothie with no actual fruit in it, and who orders a smoothie anyway? Just have the real thing. Have an actual bowl of fruit.")
Angie asked Caleb if he was okay. "You've been looking rather pale," she said. "Not that I care, hahaha."
Soph looked at the brochure in her hand. It was a special kind of brochure, the kind that came in the form of origami and that you had to unfold, carefully, lest you made a tear. It was a lot of effort. Earlier at the entrance was a Balinese artist of mixed Indonesian and Swahili-Nordic descent, seated behind the front desk. She looked at Soph and the others for a good 15 seconds each in an attempt to analyse their energy fields. She then folded Soph a tiny dinosaur. Shakti received a flower. Angie got a boat, a simple thing anybody could fold, really, but she called it apt.
The exhibition was titled Thing Language. It was a much-hyped thing, the kind that got more than 400 people "attending" on Facebook. "Some of these pieces are about death," the foreword said. In the next paragraph it was written, "No one listens to poetry. I have always been concerned about the listening of poetry." The artist behind the exhibition was a Chinese male, ambiguously in his 30s, an established and illustrious mixed-media experimenter named Chick MØMØ. He had been producing work ever since he was 16, but had only been "in the scene" since 2011. He worked in a studio two doors down from Soph's, although they had never properly met.
"Is Chick here?" Shakti asked Soph. Soph said he wasn't. Shakti said she was disappointed. She said, "I want to ask him about death." Soph looked at her brochure and saw it was still a perfect flower.
The four of them stood before the photograph, the monstrous one with the table and the bread and the framed painting of the ocean. Caleb stood before it, was the first to approach the photograph and appreciate it, and the three girls stood around him in imitation. For a while the four of them just stood there, holding their breath. They let their eyes wander across the frame in big, broad strokes. And then Shakti had to ask, what could this mean, was there a meaning behind this photograph, and Soph muttered, quietly to herself, who the hell will ever know.
Angie was the first to exhale. She did so, audibly, like a half kind of sigh, and she turned and said she was moving on. Soph looked at Caleb and then looked at Shakti. Neither of them wanted to go, but then they felt some kind of force pushing them on, and they were about to turn and walk away as well when Caleb bent over and heaved. He heaved, spectacularly, and made a violent noise while doing so. His sick splattered across the grey concrete floor: it made a large circle of vile, a beautiful kind of a large kind of vile, and for a moment everybody just stared at what he just did, and for another moment all of them thought that this was less artful, sure, but infinitely more interesting. And then the Balinese artist rushed over with a packet of tissues, and then some commotion was made about clearing the mess up.
Shakti and Angie both were patting Caleb's back as the four of them entered the elevator. They took it to the third floor.
"We're nearly there," Soph said to Caleb. Caleb nodded and made the okay sign.
"I totally saw our lunch all over that floor," Shakti said. Caleb nearly laughed before nearly heaving again. "Okay, okay. No jokes for now," Shakti said. Angie and Soph smiled.
The door to Soph's studio had a large Bon Iver lyric written all over the front—the one about not being magnificent, but the studio itself was pretty big. They couldn't see anything without the lights on, but Angie had picked up on a flowery odour. She said, "It smells like the Botanic Gardens just died in here."
Soph switched the lights on. Dead plants covered the entire studio. She turned to Caleb. "There's a bench somewhere in there."
Caleb moved like a zombie. "Oh God," he said. He'd nearly tipped a fern over. "Help me."
The three girls worked to move some of the potted things out of the way. The bench was placed in front of a display shelf, which partitioned Soph's office apart from the rest of the studio. Her office consisted of a desk, a desktop Mac, and a lamp. "Hey," Angie said. "That's my lamp."
Shakti nodded towards the display shelf. "That's the vinyl player I gave her last year."
Caleb lay down on the bench. He pointed at a stack of books. "All this is from me," he said. He traced a finger along one of the titles. "I like how all the spines are ruined."
Soph said that the plants were part of a before/after series she was planning for her next exhibition. "I took photos of all of them when they were fresh. Now I'm waiting for them to die."
Angie looked mortified. "What happens then?"
"I don't know," Soph said. "Take more photos, I suppose."
"That's a rather simplistic approach, don't you think?" Shakti said. "I don't see how that concept stands out in any way."
Soph shrugged. "I'm uninspired."
"Not me," Angie said. "I'm always inspired."
"Really?" said Shakti. "That's not what QLRS said."
"Fuck QLRS," Angie said. "I don't fucking care. And you," she said, with a finger at Shakti, "don't fucking call Soph simplistic. She's an artist. She's got her own way of doing things." She turned to Soph. "The point is to recall that first instinct, you know? Of why you did all of this in the first place. Once you find it back you'll be good again."
Soph looked at the plants. She hadn't been very forthcoming with any of them; she hadn't told them, for instance, that the plants had been bought ten months ago, and that over the course of those 10 months she'd simply watched the plants rot and wilt in her studio. She hadn't taken any photos at all. She bought them because her aunt was closing down her greenery for good.
"I'm going back downstairs," Soph said. "Any one of you want to come along?"
Angie and Shakti were distracted by the things Soph had on the display shelf. Caleb had an arm across his eyes. Soph turned and left.
Caleb's vomit gleamed wetly under the lights of the exhibition hall. There was a couple standing before it, holding their noses and yet beset with an obvious kind of awe. She could see it in their eyes. They took a step to the side and then decided against it, as though they were unsure about where best to appreciate the visceral reality of Caleb's rejected wonton noodles. The Balinese artist was nowhere to be seen.
Soph moved on, further into the exhibition, partly because she needed to get away from the smell. The crowd had increased somewhat, compared to some 30 minutes ago; there was a man with dreadlocks, inspecting the various contents of a line of ceramic ashtrays; the installation was titled "Lunatone: Phases No. 1-8". There was a woman with no hair, leaning towards a microscopic photograph. The tattoo on her neck said STORM, and the plaque beneath the microscopic photograph read "Pixel". There was another woman closer to Soph, pushing a baby stroller with no baby in it. Soph approached the woman and asked if she was having a good time. The woman said that wasn't the point.
"I'm not having any time at all," she said to Soph. "I have no time. Goodbye." The woman then left, she actually left, she pushed her babyless stroller across the exhibition hall and left through the main doors. Soph felt her heart break.
Soph went over to the ashtrays. They were eight identical ashtrays, arranged to form a circle. In the ashtrays the number of cigarettes grew in number and then decreased; the cycle of life's natural rhythms, its chronic ebb and flow, re-imagined as a constant battle of addiction and self-disgust. But only the ashtray with the single cigarette had the cigarette that was still burning. Its plaque read, "Lunatone: Phase No. 5".
Angie said that she had to go when Soph returned to the studio. Soph didn't know what to say at first; for the first time in a long while her studio had smelt of something other than compost.
"Hello?" said Angie. "Earth to Soph. I have to go."
"Right," said Soph. "Where to?"
"The Arts House," she said. "I'm speaking at a panel tonight."
"Is it about young poets?"
"Urgh," Angie said. She rolled her eyes. "I hate that word."
"No," she said. "'Poet'. I think I'm more than just, like, a writer, you know? I do more than poetry."
"Right," said Soph. "I see."
Angie left. Shakti emerged from behind the display shelf. Stars' Sad Robots was spinning on the vinyl player, and she had been looking up the song lyrics on the desktop. "You ought to password protect your Mac, you know. Anyway." Shakti sat beside Caleb on the bench. Caleb was reading one of her books on Dadaism. "Angie's still sour that you missed her book launch."
Shakti nodded. "Whatever, though. It'll pass."
Caleb looked up from his book. "She actually left a copy of her book here, hoping you'd notice." He pointed. It had a pretty cover of the moon. "I told her you wouldn't, judging from how messy this place is."
"I love it, though," said Shakti. "I love the mess. I love this place."
Soph smiled. "Did you guys read her book?"
Caleb said he did. Soph asked him what he thought. Caleb pursed his lips.
"I'm just proud of Angie, I guess."
Soph shook her head. "And you?" she said to Shakti. Shakti sighed.
"Shall I be honest?"
"You're always honest," Caleb said to her. "It's why people hate you sometimes."
Shakti pinched him on the leg. "It's like taking a really long, satisfying dump," she said to Soph. "It's the most horrible thing you could do as a human being and yet you feel good about it, you know?" She cackled. She cackled and clapped her hands. "That was a terrible thing to say. Oh my god. Don't tell Angie I said that."
"Our lips are sealed," said Caleb.
Shakti turned towards him. "Are you hungry, by the way? I could go back to Old Airport Road and buy you something. Your stomach's gotta be empty."
"I'm always empty," said Caleb. "But I could do with something comforting."
"Okay," Shakti said. She got up from the bench. "And you, Soph? You want something?"
Soph shook her head. She didn't want anything. The last thing she needed, Soph thought, was something to comfort herself. "I'll head down with you, though."
"What," said Shakti. "To the exhibition? Again?"
Soph nodded. It wasn't a bad idea. "Sure," she said.
There was a corner of the exhibit that was all about sex. It was the corner furthest away from Caleb's vomit, which had by now attracted a large number of people. They had to be ushered away for the sake of a photographer: the Balinese artist was back now, and stood regally beside him, engaged in an interview with a Blouin reporter. "It just sort of happened," the artist was overheard saying. "It was a magical moment. It happened and then we all knew: that this was just meant to be."
Soph tilted her head to the side as she regarded the art that stood before her. It was a single orchid of blood-red petals, titled "Sex Thing No. 2/34". The damn thing almost seemed to mock her. How is it not dying, she thought to herself. She then turned to a slideshow, projected onto the wall behind it, "Sex Things No. 12-26/34": the slides were photographic stills of a man's erection, his penis growing from flaccid to full. Beside it was a hole in the wall, titled "Sex Thing No. 27/34". Soph put her finger in the hole, just to see how deep it was. It went deeper than she thought.
Soph caught further snatches of the interview on her way out. "I can't say that we're in a relationship," the Balinese artist had said. "If we're in a relationship with anything, it'll have to be a relationship with space, with distance. We make love across the earth. Our love," she wanted to stress, "is metaphysical."
She came back to the studio and found that Caleb had tidied it up. Books were stacked according to colour (magazines according to date of issue), and her dying plants in their pots arranged neatly according to size. Caleb said that he might as well have arranged them in order of their death. "It struck me while I was doing it," he said to Soph. "The thought gave me chills."
Soph looked at what Caleb did. He was right, she thought.
"You know, they haven't cleared up your vomit."
"It's still there?"
"It's causing quite a sensation," she said. "You should check it out. Claim you're the artist."
Caleb looked almost sad. "I don't want to be an artist."
Soph nearly wanted to cry. "Where's Shakti?" she asked.
"I don't know," said Caleb.
Soph checked her watch. "It's been a while," she said. "Maybe I should go and see where she's at."
Caleb frowned. "What's the point in that?" he said. Soph said she didn't know and left anyway.
The Old Airport Road hawker centre was a 10-minute walk away from Goodman. It was where she bought her food whenever she got hungry. It was a quarter to six, which meant that the hawker centre wasn't too crowded. Soph walked past the wonton noodle stalls. Shakti wasn't there. She kept on walking. She made a turn. She walked a little further. She found Shakti, seated at a table, staring at the queue to Lao Ban.
"Hey," she said to Soph. "I hate queues. I've been staring at it, hoping it will somehow disappear. It never does."
Soph went to the end of the line and waited. Shakti gave her a thumbs-up from afar. You're so brave, Shakti said over WhatsApp. HAHAHA. She then sent her an emoji of the woman in a red dress, the same emoji in a single line repeated ten over times. HAHAHAHA. Soph smiled at Shakti and then avoided looking at her.
Soph bought three packets of beancurd, stacked inside a yellow plastic bag. "Let me take them," Shakti said to Soph. "You're a saint."
A minute later the two of them stood at the side of the road, waiting for the traffic lights to turn.
"My admiration for you has grown so much today. Especially after seeing your studio." Shakti smiled. "You're the best, really, out of the four of us. You accomplish so much."
The traffic light turned green. Shakti took a step forward, before taking a step back. Soph hadn't moved at all: Soph was sobbing, in a dry heaving kind of way; she wanted to throw up but she couldn't. Shakti told Soph to stay while she went to the convenience store.
"But why?" Soph said. "What are you—what are you going to do?"
"I dunno," Shakti said. She looked panicked. "I'll get something, I guess. Hang on."
Soph was left alone on the sidewalk. The traffic light turned back to red. Across the road she saw the woman with the stroller, the stroller with no baby, staring at her dead straight in the eyes. Soph stared back at the woman, crying her heart out thinking, what the hell was she looking at. The woman broke her gaze and walked away.
Soph found herself back in Exhibition Hall A for the fourth time that day, except this time her skin was on fire. Everything about her was on fire: the soles of her feet, the skin on her calves, the bridge of her nose. She always felt like this after a bout of crying, and lately she found herself doing nothing but that. She cried, all the time. Nobody was supposed to know this about her, but then, she supposed, everybody had always kinda known.
She stood in the gallery, her arms linked with Shakti. Shakti had one arm linked around Soph and the other linked around the beancurd, the yellow plastic bag slung at the elbow. The both of them stood before Caleb's vomit, curdled and dried on the floor like mud. A minute ago he had sent them a message, saying that his mother had come and driven him back home.
"What the hell," Shakti said, pointing at the vomit. "You can even see the noodle strands he ate over there. Dude needs to learn how to chew."
Soph laughed. Her face hurt as she did so. "Let's go look at a man's penis," she said. "It's at the back of the hall."
"Ooh," said Shakti. "Let's do that."
They went over to "Sex Things No. 12-26/34", where Shakti had the time of her life. "Oh my god," Shakti said to Soph. The man's penis grew before her eyes. "Oh my god! Oh my god. Damn. Holy shit."
A man came over and stood beside them. He wore a white singlet over Comme des Garçons pants. He said to them both, "That's my brother-in-law, by the way." Soph nearly jumped; it was Chick MØMØ, the dude of the evening. He extended a hand towards her. "You're Soph, right? The photographer."
She shook his hand. "Yes," she said. "I am."
He smiled at her. "I can tell you've been very moved."
"Right," said Soph. She rubbed at her eyes. "Of course. Everything just—everything just spoke to me."
He smiled. "Can I show you something? Up on the third floor? There's something in my studio I want you to see."
The three of them took the elevator to the third floor; they walked past Soph's studio, with the "Holocene" lyric on her door. Chick MØMØ got out a bunch of keys from his Comme des Garçons pants. There was nothing special about his door, nothing adorned about it, it was just perfectly plain and left alone.
"Come in," he said.
Soph and Shakti walked in, arms still linked together. It was the first time Soph had ever entered this space. Chick MØMØ turned the lights on: the studio, much to the girls' surprise, was completely empty. There wasn't even a desk or a chair in a corner; there was nothing. The only thing inside was a small photograph, propped against a wall, measuring a foot long and seven inches wide. It was a photo of a boy in a living room, riding a green tricycle. A big yellow ribbon had been tied onto the handles.
"This is me when I was four," he said to them both. "I found this in my parents' home when I was sixteen: they say it's their best photo of me as a child, and yet for the life of me I can't remember that day at all. Nobody could ever tell me what had happened to the bike." He shook his head. His grip on the photo frame was tight.
"Everything I do is a search for this thing: this thing that nobody can ever find again." Chick MØMØ looked at Soph. "Do you see what I'm saying?"QLRS Vol. 14 No. 2 Apr 2015