The challenge was to make appealing something that was not. To transform this godforsaken city, populated by people as indifferent to art as tourists are to the idea of visiting the only historic building—a vague ruin of a castle—in a glamorous destination. After all, what the Guggenheim did for Bilbao could be reproduced elsewhere. Contemporary Art is international, the curator was sure of it. Contemporary Art holds the keys to modernity. It is unifying. It draws inspiration from Everything, and Everyone can be touched by it. Contemporary Art comes from the cities. And just as cities are to some extent nourished by the countryside, it stands to reason that the countryside (for the curator, any metropolitan area with fewer than ten million inhabitants was comparable to a lingering rurality) should now welcome Contemporary Art.
The country didn’t matter.
Neither did the local culture.
Contemporary Art, an enlightened twin of the hydra that had also produced Coca-Cola and hamburgers, was the glorious banner announcing a new age. Announcing the Age of Art that was complex, modern, both simple and complicated. Art for today.
That’s why she had expressed a certain enthusiasm for this mission (in truth, she’d only accepted it to get over a bad break-up). Besides, she’d finally gotten caught up in the game.
Being there, in the midst of all those wheat fields and surrounded by the natives’ guttural speech, sometimes made her feel like she was on another planet, but she’d gotten used to it in the end, even finding the situation somewhat charming.
For example, she loved the mornings when the sun rose over the central building shaped like a nave.
But that particular morning was a morning the curator would gladly have missed. Her telephone had rung at the crack of dawn, at 4:37 to be precise, and a panicked voice—the voice of her assistant, Sophia—had stammered at her about a tragedy that had happened at the museum. A murder, she’d eventually come to understand through the young woman’s stuttering, with blood everywhere.
While getting dressed, she’d broken a nail (the curator was very proud of her nails, which she regularly had done by Takino) and the taxi she’d called (these natives were incredibly slow) had taken forty-five minutes to get there.
At dawn, when the light filtered through the large bay windows, the “minor exhibit halls” seemed even more imposing. The building—designed by Joseph Alteil—was a masterpiece, one of the major structures in contemporary architecture from the last few years. Particularly the ground floor, which housed temporary exhibitions, the “major exhibit halls” being reserved for the permanent collections. The exhibition she’d cleverly mounted was called “Of Unsound Mind.” It was a variation on the theme of madness.
The exhibition was well on track for the opening. The only unknown was whether or not the international press would come. The curator had played what she liked to call the ultra-modernity card, not hesitating to include controversial artists like the Japanese Akan (whom she’d happened to meet through Takino, who was painting her nails for her and with whom she’d had a brief affair during the Venice Biennale, once again in order to forget that break-up she couldn’t get over), or even the Électif Postitionné collective whose works made from organic waste had recently stirred passionate debates. She knew she’d be criticized for that choice, so she’d geared up to defend it in a public way. Furthermore, she’d secretly hoped to spark an objection, even a small scandal, which would certainly establish the museum’s notoriety.
Sophia was waiting for her at the door, sporting a haggard look. In the hall, Virginie, the intern, had gone into hysterics and was being comforted by the fireman on duty. The curator didn’t have time to ask what was going on, Sophia had rushed her into the great hall where the spectacle—and it was a spectacle—spoke for itself. In the hole dug for his installation, Arthro Farlona, the Cape Verdean artist of Czech origin, lay decapitated. Apparently, the corpse had been dragged over several dozen meters, because the floor—painted to a glossy finish—was smeared with reddish vomit, as if a madman had run some kind of foul mop over beauty’s own floor tiles. Fortunately she had an empty stomach, because the curator nearly retched. The body, nestled in its conceptual casket, had taken on a bizarre position, and in a horrifying detail (the curator had realized it immediately) someone had sealed it with clear resin. In all likelihood it was the clear resin destined for the Électif Positionné collective’s sculptures. What remained of the head protruded, but the rest—well, part of the rest—was imprisoned in a transparent coating and (the curator understood instantly) cast in such a way that touching it would jeopardize a strange construction beside the horror.
“What about that?” she asked. “What is it?”
“Nobody touch anything, please!” said a voice at her back.
Sophia shrugged. It was the police. She’d had to call them.
“You understand, we couldn’t have done otherwise.”
“You did well,” the curator cut in as she made her way toward the man who’d just arrived.
“Hello. Captain Puddle.”
“I’m the curator of the exhibition.”
For a moment, she wondered if she might be the victim of a hoax. Captain Puddle? The natives had odd names. She promised herself she’d check the internet for the number of Puddles in existence and how many of them were police captains.
“The forensic team is currently proceeding with the investigation. You knew the victim?”
A TV series: that’s what was happening. She’d somehow fallen into a TV series. They must have drugged her or catapulted her into another dimension.
“Uh, yes,” she heard herself stammer. “He’s... well, one of the artists... exhibition on...”
“No,” she didn’t even have the courage to smile, “on... on art and madness. It’s called ‘Of Unsound Mind’.”
Captain Puddle made no comment. The other officer behind him asked if he could smoke. Policemen always smoke. Or else they’re trying to quit. It suits their profession.
“Arthro Farlona. He’s a Cape Verdean artist, but of Czech origin.”
“We have the murder weapon!” shouted someone in the back.
“Ah,” said the captain. “It’s funny to be Cape Verdean when you’re Czech.”
Indeed, a man in coveralls, with gloves—certainly from the forensic team—was brandishing a circular saw with lots of reddish residue. The curator wondered if the sight of blood was going to haunt her, or if it would fade with time.
It was the first time she’d seen a corpse. And furthermore: a corpse that died a violent death. A headless corpse. No matter how hard she tried to force herself to stare at another part of the surroundings, to look elsewhere, her gaze unfailingly came back to rest on the severed neck, where the spurts of blood had already taken on a blackish hue. What could be so fascinating about death?
“Would it be possible to get some coffee?” The guy in coveralls approached, saw still in hand.
It was barely morning. Sophia, petrified by all this devilry, looked at him without answering, her open mouth displaying the piercing she wore at the tip of her tongue.
“He asked you for coffee, Sophia,” the curator told her. “You can try to find us some!”
Sophia occasionally exasperated her.
“I’m on it,” the assistant said finally. “Sorry, it’s stupid, but for a while now I’ve been feeling like I... I weigh a ton!”
Nobody noticed. The captain said:
“We’re going to have to do a DNA test on everyone who had access to the room. And also check their cell phone records. We’ll need everybody’s number.”
“Hey!” called another guy. “I think the thing is wired, we have to call the bomb squad!”
Sophia came back with the coffee, accompanied by Virginie, the intern, who was getting hysterical again.
Once more the curator felt like she was dreaming. It was all too... too beautiful! Those guys in coveralls. The first rays of the rising sun, red, like a natural allegory come to bathe the grisly scene. Even the captain, whose leather jacket and gelled hair suddenly seemed charged with an insane eroticism, so much so that she felt herself nearly carried away by a hint of... sexual thrill. When had she last gotten laid? My God, several weeks ago! With that lawyer who, by the way, hadn’t called her back. Sex and the City... That’s it, I’m losing it! she thought.
“What do you mean, wired?” yelled the captain. “Wired where?”
The officer from the forensic team, index finger rigid, pointed at the strange mound stuck in the resin with various wires coming out.
“There are wires heading toward this thing, which looks like an explosive device.”
“Everybody out!” barked the captain all of a sudden. “Security, quick, everybody outside!”
But no one had time to react, because out of nowhere, or rather as though from the depths of the museum itself, a voice, conveyed by dozens of speakers, forbid them to move.
“DON’T MOVE!” said the voice. “THERE IS INDEED A BOMB. YOU CAN SEE I’M NOT JOKING. SO LISTEN UP!”
It was... Lord, grotesque and terrifying all at once! The captain had put his hand on his gun, and his deputy, behind him, had spilled his cup of coffee in fright before taking cover by a pillar while drawing his weapon in a ridiculous manner.
The curator saw all that in slow motion. No, this was not a nightmare. It was worse than a nightmare: it was reality.
“I SEE YOU, BUT YOU DON’T SEE ME.”
“Saw!” the intern had started sobbing. “It’s like in Saw! He’s going to kill us, but first, he’s going to torture us...”
“NO ONE CAN LEAVE THE ROOM. DO NOT TOUCH YOUR PHONES!”
“What is Saw?” asked the captain, believing it might be a lead.
“It’s a horror movie,” replied his deputy. “A freak who tortures people by staging gruesome scenes.”
“Aaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaah!” screamed the intern even louder, creating a cascade of echoes that bounced along the white walls, off the artworks already installed, around the pillars, before finally coming back to wrap around the dead man, whose sawn off neck appeared to mock everyone.
“SHUT HER UP!” resumed the voice. “EITHER SHE SHUTS IT, OR HER SUFFERING WILL BE EVEN WORSE.”
“Shit,” said the captain, “he can hear us!”
“Be quiet, Virginie!” ordered the curator. “Don’t make a spectacle of yourself.”
The miserable intern, rolling her bulging eyes, bit her forearm and her muffled hiccups kept getting tangled in the glowing maze of modern architecture, while the saliva-soaked sleeve of her sweater dripped with whitish slobber. A bit like that of an animal, noted the curator. Was she doing it on purpose? Was she in on it?
“What do you want?” cried the captain.
Only a laugh answered his question. A forced laugh. A theatrical laugh. Or a crazy one.
“HA! HA! HA! HA! HA! HA! HA! HA!”
The curator surprised herself by wondering if the captain was a good lay. Surely yes. He had a sportive look to him. A fine lay.
“What do you want?” repeated the captain.
“YOU’LL FIND OUT SOON ENOUGH. I’M NOT IN THE HABIT OF PROCRASTINATING.”
The ringing of Sophia’s cell phone brought a diversion.
“Shit, Sophia! Turn off your phone!” said the curator, frustrated. “You can tell he’s a freak.”
“NO, LET HER ANSWER. AND REMOVE THE WHIMPERING WRECK, SHE’S HURTING MY EARS.”
There was a moment of hesitation.
“Hello,” said Sophia while the curator made small movements at the intern to encourage her to get lost:
“Go on, for God’s sake! Didn’t you hear? He told you to get out...”
“Yes,” Sophia was saying, “I don’t know... I have to... have to ask...”
“YOU CAN ACCEPT!”
“I... it’s the interview person, for Match. He wants to know if you can do it this morning, because he has a conflict this afternoon.”
The first thing the curator thought about was the possible presence of a photographer. She hadn’t had time to do her hair or makeup.
“YES. YOU MUST SAY YES!”
“Tell him I don’t mind.”
Now Sophia was shaking so hard she dropped the phone, which bounced off the floor with the sound of traumatized plastic.
“She does... does... doesn’t mind,” she still managed to reply. “The curator is wai... waiting for... for you.”
The curator was starting to get really spooked. At first, she’d found it ridiculous, unreal, mostly, and thus a source of annoyance. Everything that had been planned, the exhibition, her very own exhibition, the success of the project, was suddenly compromised by the appearance of this... this stupidity, the body of one of her artists decapitated with a circular saw. But now it was about something else. Her own safety. The possibility of... how had the other cop put it? “A freak who tortures people by staging gruesome scenes.” In a petty way, she told herself she’d take advantage of the interview to get to safety. It was going to work like it did for the intern. After all, let the cops take care of themselves. It was their job. To each his own. And Sophia? What if he tortured Sophia? She liked her assistant, whom she had taken on at the request of her uncle, chief of staff for the former Minister of Culture. Sophia was efficient. She liked to talk about sex with Sophie, even if she did have a tendency to irritate her. Sex and the City, again.
“He’ll be waiting for you at 10:30, on the plaza out front. There’ll be a photographer.”
That’s it, she was pulling herself together. With a bit of luck, she could quickly swing by her office and devote five minutes to redoing her hair and makeup.
“WHILE WE WAIT, THAT GIVES YOU TIME TO ANSWER A FEW QUESTIONS.”
The captain looked petrified. The other cops, too. They were exchanging eloquent glances with one another, but obviously the situation was “too much” for them. Too disconcerting, in all likelihood. They had located the cameras and speakers that the... the “freak” was talking through. “But how is he hearing us?” asked Mr. Perceptive from the forensic team. “Maybe there are microphones?”
“I think he’s using the audio-video system we installed for the website.”
“For the website?”
“Yes, we had planned to mount the exhibition with an interactive component.”
“The images are on the web?”
A cold shiver had run up the curator’s spine. She hadn’t thought of that possibility.
“The imaaaaaaggggeeessss aaaarre oooonnn the weeeb...” relayed the system, while afterward the lunatic’s laugh reverberated, AHAHAHAHAHAHA, the laugh of the executioner.
“At least tell us what you want,” cried the captain once again. “It’s stupid to make us stay here like this! You want money, is that it?”
There was a pause. Money? Yes, it was obvious, he wanted money. Everybody wants money. Or maybe he was a fanatic. But what kind of fanatic? A terrorist? And what if this had to do with the Czech Cape Verdean? No, that was idiotic, there was no such thing as Czech-Cape Verdean fanaticism. It had to be something else.
“I ALREADY TOLD YOU: I WANT YOU TO ANSWER A FEW QUESTIONS. FORMS WILL BE DISTRIBUTED.”
Indeed, several moments later, like graceful moths, a rain of multicolored printed forms tumbled onto the hostages—for they were well and truly hostages—and the curator spared an admiring thought for the nutcase, because you had to admit, the spectacle was magnificent. Each sheet of paper twirled down like a butterfly, or an angel, brushing against the works of art and settling on the floor around them with a dull rustle. As she picked up hers, the curator thought that, if she got out, she’d be wildly popular, and since there was always the threat of cameras above them (perhaps she was there, now, in close-up, somewhere) she tried to look as perfect as possible, to integrate herself into this beauty as well, not to stain it, and she gamely pushed her bangs aside and forced herself into an impassive attitude, at the very least dignified—yes, that was it, she had to keep her dignity.
“What is this crap?” grumbled the deputy cop. “What are we supposed to answer?”
“PENS FOR THOSE WITHOUT ARE AVAILABLE NEXT TO THE PILLAR THE OFFICER HID BEHIND EARLIER.”
Sophia, who had pulled herself together and must surely, like the curator, be thinking about the possible media repercussions, scurried to the place described (this is how the curator imagined her) like a slightly sad giraffe, and came back with adorable little pens in the shape of a beating heart. The printed forms featured about a dozen questions to be answered with yes or no, or, for some of them, with a more detailed explanation:
— Is art, for you, a commodity, an elegant way to celebrate the mysteries of the Universe, or a useless activity?
— Do you think that art still has a role to play in society?
— If yes, what?
— A political role (in the sense of participating in the life of the city)?
— Is contemporary art part of this logic?
— According to you, must an artist think about the consequences of his works?
— In what way does contemporary art contain keys to understanding modernity?
— Does an artist have to be honest?
— Can art have a healing capacity? For the individual? For the group?
And finally, to top it off:
— As a player in the artistic scene, do you feel yourself to be in the service of a collective project or are you only serving your own interests?
The curator stared stupidly at the questions. She couldn’t concentrate. It was idiotic. The whole thing was idiotic. Does art have a political role? What if she was being targeted? Of course. It was obvious! She and, through her, the delegation and the Minister. She knew a party of natives disapproved of the project. She forced herself to take a deep breath. Nearby, the deputy cop was chewing his pen like a student lacking inspiration on the day of the big test.
“WHEN YOU’VE FINISHED, YOU CAN LEAVE THE ROOM. THEY’RE WAITING TO INTERVIEW YOU...”
As if split in two, walking above her body, the curator saw herself leave the hall and murmur to Sophia (phew, she was safe, too) “I’ll be there in a minute, I have to run to the bathroom.”
“THE POLICE STAY WHERE THEY ARE...”
The curator was happy to find her reflection in the mirror. It was a stupid reaction, but it had occurred to her that maybe somebody had stolen it. She splashed some water on her face. I’m totally losing my marbles. OF UNSOUND MIND. But no, that’s it, you’re saved! Now it’ll be fine. The reporter from Paris Match... Have to make a good impression. She inspected herself carefully. It was just about all right. A touch of lipstick and she would have to cope.
But when she went out, the curator was surprised to note that there was not just one reporter waiting for her, but a crowd of reporters. The sun, now high in the sky, was blinding and dozens of microphones and cameras were held up in her direction.
“We’re live on CNN,” whispered Sophia, “and the BBC is here, too, as well as France Télévisions. I think it was a performance. You know, those people we met at the fall Biennale, the game...”
This time, the curator was completely thrown. She scarcely understood the questions.
“What did the kidnappers want from you?”
“Were you raped?”
“Are you behind the hoax?”
It took her several minutes to realize that some reporters, directed onto the website, believed it was a hostage situation, while others, who had then received the instigators’ demand-explanation, understood that it was a hoax.
“Were you inspired by Orson Welles and his fake Martian invasion in The War of Worlds?”
In a luminous fog, she spotted Arthro with all his head, climbing the steps, smiling at her. Fantastic, it’s really fantastic!
“I...” she stammered. “It’s... it’s...”
Off to the side, the policemen departed without anyone thinking to stop them; she saw them get into their cars.
“It’s fantastic!” Sophia said to her. “They’re really fantastic!”
Now, thinking back on it, she vaguely remembered the conversation they’d had, she, Sophia, and those three guys so sure of themselves. The Game, that was it, she had invited them to send a portfolio and they had declined the offer: “Yes, we’ll come, we’ll be delighted to come, and even, why not, lend you a hand...”
“What do you think of the questionnaire? Does it fit into your reflection on art?”
In a sort of semi-coma, the curator made a superhuman effort to regroup. Looking like a dope wouldn’t fix anything. And those Game guys had pulled it off. The exhibition would be a success, and the location globally known in the space of a few minutes. International Contemporary Art would speak to everyone. Perhaps it was one of the keys to a more evolved future, to a vision of the world rid of the gangrene of its archaic past, but for the time being you had to agree—there was nothing like a good murder to goose things a little.
Evil had worldwide appeal.
Vincent Ravalec (b. 1962) is a well-known contemporary French writer of avant-garde novels, short stories, poems, and pop songs, as well as a pioneer of virtual reality cinema. He stopped his formal schooling at the age of fourteen, then worked as an apprentice carpenter and assistant movie producer before beginning to write in the early 1990s. In 1994, he was awarded the very first Prix de Flore for his novel Cantique de la Racaille (Flammarion), which he later adapted into a film. He has since been prolific in many different genres and media. His latest novel, Sainte-Croix les Vaches (Fayard), was published in Februrary 2018.
Wendeline A. Hardenberg (b. 1983) first became curious about translation as an undergrad at Smith College, where she ultimately translated part of a Ravalec novel from French as a portion of her Honors Thesis in Comparative Literature. After a dual Masters degree in Comparative Literature (with a focus on translation) and Library Science at Indiana University-Bloomington, she has gone on to a dual career as a librarian and a translator. Learning new languages and trying to translate from them is one her favorite hobbies. She lives in New Haven, Connecticut.