Alex Gobin
Featured Image: Survival 5 © Charles Park 2019

I know it’s a waste of time but I’m on my way to meet up with Jerome. He insisted that I come by to take a look at his new paintings, and I said yes, out of civility, out of weakness, maybe, and because sometimes you do things just for the sake of doing things. To create an impression of movement. To feel like you’re in control. So you have dispensable meetings on Saturday mornings. So you wedge yourself in a subway car, rubbing ass and shoulders with strangers, avoiding eye contact with the inexorable beggars stumbling from car to car, and off you go across Paris on your way to a fruitless appointment.

I’m an art advisor. My job is to hunt down artworks for collectors who don’t have time to visit galleries and get in touch with the artists. I work for wealthy people interested in contemporary art, who have a general idea of what they like and a clear idea of what makes a good investment. According to an art advisor is “basically a seeing eye dog with a nose for good art, paid to guide his artistically impaired master safely and successfully through the art world.” I can relate to the dog metaphor, lately. All I do is spend my days on errands, sniffing around halfheartedly, unsure where to piss. A year ago, I started with two clients. Now I still have only these two and one of them doesn’t return my calls anymore.

The subway comes to a standstill and remains stranded at one station, its sliding doors open. Just the mood-lifter I needed today. Minutes pass. Passengers click their tongues, begin to show the usual signs of irritation. An announcement tells us at last that “traffic is temporarily suspended on the rest of the line for security reasons.” People spill onto the platform, call colleagues or family members, devise alternative itineraries on their phone. Another announcement informs us that more stations are shutting down on the other lines, among which “Concorde . . . Clémenceau . . . Franklin Roosevelt . . . Miromesnil . . . Assemblée nationale . . . Tuileries . . . George V . . . Varenne . . .”, and more, maybe ten, maybe twenty more stations altogether are closing at the same time. The names chime on like a fateful countdown as I walk to the exit, and I get this mental picture of a great power failure, with many racks of electrical fuses, like those in factory plants, blowing out rack after rack in one thundering firework. I come out on the street. It’s a sunny December day. Sting-ball grenades are exploding in the distance in the crisp air; the police and protesters are already at it. It’s the fourth weekend in a row that the yellow vests gather on the Avenue of the Champs-Élysées.

The movement started after the government decided to raise taxes on diesel fuel. The tax increase was presented as part of a larger plan for a more eco-friendly society—the ecological transition, they call it—and its most immediate effect was to spark anger among low-wage workers in the countryside—people who have no choice, that is, but to depend on their car to go to work. Across the country people took to the streets, blocked the highways, occupied roundabouts. Soon there were slogans not just about the tax but also about insufficient incomes, shrinking pensions, poor living conditions in general. From the beginning protesters wore high-visibility vests as their rallying sign. Now, every Saturday they flow into the capital by the thousands to demonstrate, call for President Macron to step down, confront the riot police, and breathe tear gas. Eight thousand policemen are deployed this morning in the streets of Paris. I’ve heard older people say that this reminds them of the events of May 1968, the most significant social movement in France’s contemporary history, when a general strike brought millions of workers and students into the streets, leading to rampant civil unrest. I wasn’t there in ’68, I don’t know if the comparison is fitting, but the last three or four weekends looked like a memorable mess all right.

I’m walking to Jerome’s studio. It’s going to take me forty-five minutes. Around me the streets are quiet. Unusually quiet, in fact. I really shouldn’t have agreed to meet him today. I could still turn back, message him that I can’t get through because of the protest, but I’ve already traveled half of the way, so I might as well go on.

Jerome is standing on the threshold of the garage that he rents as his working studio, welcoming me with open arms. He’s literally greeting me with his arms outstretched, an indulgent smile on his face, as if I was his prodigal son coming home—he’s only two years older than me. I surrender to a hearty hug, apologize for being late, tell him about the subway shutdown. “Aaaah,” he says with a nod, raising his eyebrow, holding out his hands with his palms up. It’s unclear whether he’s expressing surprise, amusement, reprobation of the protest, or just can’t think of an appropriate comment. In the same cryptic way, I giggle. He remarks on the sunny weather, says the sky looks beautiful today, and I say it does. I’m grateful that he doesn’t initiate a conversation about politics.

“How long has it been since I saw you?” I ask.

“You’re not calling! You’ve abandoned me!” he says, playful, in a tone that suggests a familiarity that never existed between us.

He invites me in. His studio is a windowless, carceral concrete cube. White neon tubes crusted with fly droppings are dangling from the low ceiling, splattering a sickly glow. How he can work with such light, I don’t know. An empty easel is placed in one corner next to an electrical heater. A transparent tarpaulin littered with brush pots and paint bottles covers half of the concrete floor. Five paintings are leaning face to a wall, their bottom corners encased in blue protective foam. I wonder if he deliberately turned them face down before I came over. I know gallerists who do that: set a painting that they think they can sell face to the wall in their storage room before a collector walks in, to create expectation, to sacralize this moment when their client encounters the picture for the first time.

Jerome is still smiling at me in that disturbing fatherly way. When he isn’t smiling, the notch of a permanent lion wrinkle makes him look like he’s in pain. He has pretty, shoulder-length ginger hair. A rosy complexion. Thin lips. I always thought there was something ancient about his face. Dress him in chain mail or burgundy velvet and you have a young Arthurian knight, or the portrait of some boyish nobleman by an Albrecht Dürer or a Jan van Eyck.

“I talked to Fredie the other day,” he says. “Did you see him lately? He’s still in pretty good shape for a man of his age.”

Fredie is an older friend who owns a gallery. I suspect Jerome is only mentioning him to hint at the fact that he’s seeing people, that he isn’t living in unwanted, demeaning isolation. Poor Jerome. It’s actually Fredie who introduced me to him five years ago. We met for a media interview. At the time I was writing for the Arts and Culture section of a lifestyle magazine, and Jerome was presenting his first solo exhibition. Already back then, he would come down on you with unwanted camaraderie. He would pat your shoulder for no reason, laugh at things that weren’t funny, call you by your name all the time. I think I took him for a young wolf a little too eager to make useful friends. A few times during the interview, he asked me to add to my article some clever remark that he had made, and then he would break into laughter as if he were only joking. In short he was already a grueling phony, but back then I was more forgiving about his affectations. He was trying hard, you had to give him that. And there was some excitement hanging in the air about his first solo show, about his nascent career; that made me more complacent. Today, the least you can say is that the excitement has worn off. He hasn’t done a decent exhibition in two years.

He grabs by the stretchers one of the paintings resting against the wall and flips it over carefully. I take a step back for a better look. The picture shows a white living room bathed in bright summer light, a beige curtain puffing out in the background, a white tiled floor corrugated by blond, transparent shadows. The style is meticulously realistic, but expressive, confident, with subtle plays of colors. Jerome has always been a great colorist. In the foreground, two fluffy lap dogs are wrestling over a scrap of meat, locked in a frantic little tug-of-war, their bared fangs fastened on the shredded steak. The contrast is striking between the well-groomed look of the two puppies, with their petite paws, their spongy fur shining like gilded halos in the bright room, and the ferocity of their expressions, their rolled-up eyes, their muzzles buttered with blood and saliva.

We look at the other paintings. They all belong to the same series, with the same background, the same puppies fighting over a piece of meat, only there are more puppies in the other pictures—three of them in one, and in another, four. I can tell right away that these are great paintings. This will never cease to amaze me: this seeming gap between the artist and his production. Sometimes it looks like all the strength has gone into the work, and nothing is left in the man, or the woman. Especially with good artists.

“They’re really great,” I say.

“You think your clients would be interested?”

“Would my clients be interested . . .” I mumble unintelligibly.

I can’t bring him up to a collector right now. It’s already bad enough that he’s not doing exhibitions, but he doesn’t have any gallery representation anymore, which really is the most crippling stigma for an artist.

“When are you going to show the works?” I ask.

“I’m talking to a gallery right now.”

“Which gallery?”

“I can’t tell you which one, we’re still talking. You know how it is.”

Poor, poor Jerome. I nod. I don’t know what to say.

“Definitely next year,” he says after a short silence, as much to contain dead air, I think, as to convince me.

I’d like to help him but really without the stamp of a gallery, without this certificate of traceability, there isn’t much I can do and he should know that.

“They’re very good paintings,” I say again. “Just call me when you’re doing a show.”

He smiles, but this time the wrinkle stays on between his eyebrows, making his face look even more pained. To change the topic, he says he’s going to the Champs—the Champs-Elysées—this afternoon. He’s going to see the protest. He wants to take a look at the jacquerie, as he puts it ironically. Jacquerie is an old-fashioned word meaning “peasant uprising,” specifically in the context of the Middle Ages, and has been used over and over these days in the media to refer to the yellow vest movement.

“We can go together if you like.”

I summon work, plans, appointments later today. “I need to get going actually,” I say.

We agree, of course, to keep in touch.

I need to hike my way back across the streets. I decide to head south, in the opposite direction from where I live, hoping it’ll be easier to find a bus or a subway. I realize after a few minutes that it was a bad idea: every shop, every boutique, every bank in the area is closed. Windows are caulked with plywood sheets, or even metal plates. Business owners are afraid of breakage and plundering. It’s incredibly striking to see all these shielded venues, this systematic bolting, this skin reaction of capitalism. Graffiti have burgeoned everywhere, on every building:

Fuck Macron

Macron step down!

police everywhere justice nowhere

bourgeois we’re coming for you

one cop one bullet

people of France, wake up

Some are funny, too:

plunderer-gatherer (“casseur-cueilleur”, seen on the front wall of HSBC)

i knew a quote from Heidegger but can’t remember it

Most people around me are wearing yellow vests. They’re trickling down the street in small groups of three, four, five, all roughly converging in a westward direction toward the Avenue of the Champs-Élysées. Many of them are laughing, singing, chanting slogans, waving flags from Brittany, Corsica, or the Basque country. A happy, carnivalesque atmosphere is in the air. It’s odd to see people unite for a common cause, I suddenly say to myself. It’s certainly not unusual because demonstrations happen all the time, everywhere, but when you consider how much people are ordinarily barricaded behind their self-interest, and how much they despise each other, you would never expect that they’re capable of collective political action.

My girlfriend Pauline is making lunch when I get home. I join her in the kitchen to give her a hand.

“What are you making?”

“Nothing fancy,” she says, handling a cleaver with both hands, like an axe, mincing beef on a cutting board. She doesn’t ask about my meeting.

“So the guy looked a bit entrenched in his studio,” I tell her anyway. “He’s not with a gallery. His work is good, though. I need to keep an eye on him, see what happens.”

With Pauline I always try to act like I know what I’m doing. I try to sound driven, like I have a strategy for the long term. I don’t think she buys it.

“Why do you go there on a Saturday?” she says. “Did you see a lot of police?”

“Actually his studio isn’t that close to the Champs.”

She overestimates the danger of getting harmed in the protests. We had this conversation before. She’s afraid of the riot police.

“It’s not like they’re firing at you from the roofs with machine guns,” I say.

“People lose their eyes.”

That is true. Since the beginning of the movement, a handful of protesters have lost eyes after being shot in the face with rubber bullets.

Pauline hands me the cutting board and asks me to chop an onion. She turns on the tap and gets busy washing some green leaves that look spinach—I know they’re not spinach but I can’t remember what they’re called. I never learned how to cook, never enjoyed it, but I like to make food with Pauline. I enjoy being under her command. It feels good to abdicate, just do what I’m told. Chopping stuff. Being a tool. It’s the only moment of the day when I feel I can be blissfully clueless about what I’m doing without it being unmanly or discreditable. In many ways, it’s fair to say that Pauline is the boss of our relationship. She’s more practical. She’s the one who makes plans, the one who thinks about the future. It’s she who convinced me to work freelance—she herself is a freelance multimedia designer. Before I met her, I never thought I could be self-employed. I thought I didn’t have what it takes. I didn’t have the stamina. I thought I was more fit for a meek and sedentary occupation like art criticism—if only you could make a living with it. Even now, it requires an intellectual effort to convince myself that I’m legitimate as an art advisor. Most of the time I still feel like I’m playing a role. “The vocation of every man,” said Nietzsche, “even that of the artist, begins with hypocrisy.” Right on, Friedrich. Right on.

Jerome calls me the next day. At first he’s not telling me what he wants. He sounds excited, says he was glad to see me again.

“It’s always great to catch up with an old friend.”

I feel like he’s going to escalate into a “we should do this more often,” but he doesn’t go that far.

“You know what? This morning I was taking pictures of the paintings. I thought I’d send them your way, what do you think? I’ll send you a portfolio as well, so you can send it to your collectors, see if they dig it.”

“You do that,” I say, a little more coldly than I meant.

I guess he can sense my irritation because he doesn’t insist. Instead he starts talking about some vernissage happening on Friday, asks me if I’m going.

“Isn’t that on Saturday?”

“No, they changed the date. They’re closed on Saturday because of the yellow vests.”

I say I’ll probably be there.

“Awesome! Fredie will be there too. It’s been such a long time since the three of us didn’t hang out together, right?”

I say it has.

On Friday evening, I leave home to take the subway and get off in the artsy—and posh, really— district of Saint-Germain-des-Prés. The vernissage is happening here, in a gallery, a small white cube packed with people wrapped in trench coats and cashmere scarves. The place is hardly bigger than a child’s room, with a narrow corridor opposite the front door that leads to a storage room. I insert myself through the chatty crowd. I want to get a drink, which means that I need to stand in line in that diminutive corridor where they still managed to fit a small buffet table. Hanging on the walls are a dozen geometric abstract paintings by Julio Le Parc, Carlos Cruz-Diez, Victor Vasarely, and a few other people who were pioneers in the Op and Kinetic art movement in the 50s and the 60s, but the place is so cramped that you can’t get a proper look at the pictures.

Fredie is here too, but he hasn’t seen me. He’s taller and bigger than everyone else, dressed in a black velvet suit, with round glasses, a thick white beard, unkempt white hair that looks as if he’s just taken off a sweater. He’s making wild gestures and haranguing, in his deep voice, a group of acquiescent young men in their twenties, like a retired gladiator recounting his greatest fights. I want to say hi to him but I’m afraid I’ll lose my place in line, so I wait, and after enough cautious pushing and shoving I finally get my glass of wine. Fredie has gone out to smoke. I extract myself as well. I want to talk to him. We haven’t seen each other for a few months. Four years ago, I briefly worked as an intern in his gallery. I don’t know if you could say that we’re friends, really—after all he’s thirty years older than me—but we’ve always gotten along well.

I step outside and I see that Jerome is here, and that he’s talking to Fredie. I can’t hear what they’re saying but somehow I sense that they’re arguing. People around them are keeping their distance. Jerome is talking nervously. His voice shaking a little. Fredie almost shouts at one point and I think he’s saying “will you stop!”, and then Jerome walks away, or appears to walk away but he turns back around and for a second I feel like he’s going to do something stupid. I feel like he’s gone amok, like he’s about to swing his fist in the face of the old Goliath, and therefore be reduced to powder, but no, the two only talk some more for a minute, and then Jerome walks off at last.

“The little brat wants me to set up a show for him,” says Fredie, loud enough for people around to hear. “It’s been weeks that he keeps on going on about it and that I tell him no. This week he called me every day, do you believe that?”

“Did you see his new work though?” I ask.

“I don’t care about his new work, I’m busy enough with my artists. And you know what? I worked with him before, the guy is a pain. Always asking about the sales, always calling you on the phone or popping in at the gallery every other day like he’s got nothing else to do. I got enough of that shit.”

It’s nighttime now and I’m heading back to the subway station. Cafés and terraces are crowded. People are filling the streets, their voices lost in a high-pitched and indiscriminate hum, their inebriated agitation enveloped and rendered abstract by the city lights. Even though I see him from a distance, I recognize Jerome at once. I can only make out a vague silhouette sitting on the front steps of the church of Saint-Germain-des-Prés, but I know it’s him. It’s like I expected to see him there, sitting alone, staring at the crowd with a blank look on his face like a diseased wildebeest expelled from the pack. I know that he’s not waiting for anyone. I know that he sat there, in full view of everyone, because he can’t take anymore. Because he’s tired of it. It’s hard for him: not a decent show in two years, and hardly any sales. Someone needs to cheer him up. I should buy him a drink, talk with him, offer a little moral support. But I don’t. I can’t bring myself to perform this simple act of kindness. I walk past him unhurriedly across the illuminated square in front of the church, pretending I didn’t see him.

I wonder if the reason why I don’t like Jerome, the reason why I feel a sort of instinctive aversion to him, is that he reminds me of myself. At the end of the day, we’re both losers. Although for me it’s not as bad because if this art advisor business turns out to be a flat-out failure, I’ll get hired in a gallery again, and I’ll be fine, whereas Jerome is putting everything into his art, and not saving anything for the swim back. Jerome is selling himself, so to speak, and that’s the scary thing about being an artist. He’s putting his own mental world on the market. Artists, you could say, from the point of view of neo-liberal economics, are some kind of radical entrepreneurs.

The next day is another day of protest in Paris. The situation is getting even more tense than the previous weekends. I’m watching videos on Twitter: on the Champs-Élysées, cobblestones are being dug out and thrown at the police. Cars are burning. Somebody sprayed in black letters on the ashlar blocks of the Arc de Triomphe: the yellow vests will triumph. Over two hundred people are placed in custody over the course of the day. Most of them will be released within the next twenty-four hours. Then calm is restored overnight, as always. City employees clean up the mess and Monday sends people back to work, as if nothing had happened. But in small towns across the country, roundabouts are still being occupied by handfuls of protesters. The retired, the unemployed and the political activist are keeping the movement alive, disrupting traffic, gathering attention, stoking up on cheap coffee and cigarettes and maintaining local mobilization until next Saturday. These days I think about Jerome a lot. Seeing him looking so downbeat the other night made a strong impression on me, I think. Pauline randomly asks me about him one day, just to make small talk.

“I think he’s getting depressed,” I say. “Not good for business.”

Still, I can’t believe it the moment I come upon the video. I wasn’t prepared for that. Three different people send it to me on Facebook on the same day. It’s a two-minute long YouTube video that shows Jerome making a speech, and wearing a yellow jacket.

“Artists shouldn’t be lagging behind the protest,” he says at first.

Sitting upright on a chair, under the fluorescent lights of his studio, he’s facing the camera with sunken eyes, hands in his lap, like he’s been kidnapped by a terrorist organization.

“Artists are a force,” he says, “a creative force that should have a part in the social movement.”

In the back, I recognize his paintings with the hungry puppies hung on the shabby concrete walls. He speaks with a strong voice, slowly, often pausing, almost in a professorial way. He’s exhorting his peers not to miss the train of history, not to stay up in their ivory tower, brewing together an odd mix of socialist mantra and Sunday sermon:

“We weren’t born in this world to be the plaything of speculators. We weren’t born to submit to financial markets. The economy must serve the people and we won’t support a system that doesn’t follow this principle. The real force lies within us, the people . . .”

He sounds sincere enough. You might even say he’s eloquent, in a way. But awkward. Definitely, irrevocably awkward. It’s the naïveté of the speech. He sounds like a fresh convert, like a green and muddle-headed proselytizer. And it’s not just what he says. It’s the loneliness, the gray dullness of his studio, the miserable lighting. It smells of poverty. And poverty is like illness or disability: it makes people uncomfortable. I forward the video to Fredie, who’s already seen it.

“That settles it,” he texts me back. “The man is nuts.”

Over the following days, I see the video ricochet into a few WhatsApp groups, leaving trails of ungenerous comments ranging from sarcastic to mean to plainly insulting. Then one morning, as I’m reading an article by Le Monde about the yellow vests, I come upon this:

“. . . if one recalls May 68, which brought about unlikely synergies, there you have a similar phenomenon: people from a very broad social spectrum supporting the movement, such as ex-orchestra conductor and retired government official Jean-François Barnaba, humorist La Bajon, or contemporary artist Jerome Carrère.”

But it hasn’t reached its climax yet. On the same day, a friend sends me a link to a TV talk show re-posted on YouTube. It’s a rainy Monday morning and I’m standing in line outside of the Musée Jacquemart-André to see their new show, a Caravaggio exhibition, holding one of those cheap retractable umbrellas that barely keeps me out of the rain. The talk show is essentially a debate between the host and a political commentator on the topic of the yellow vests. Along with the link, my friend texts me this: “6min 32sec the yellow side of the force by J Carrère . . .”, and sure enough, at that point in the show they play the first thirty seconds of Jerome’s video.

“You want to react on this?” says the host, straight-faced but visibly amused.

“Well, surely this demonstrates how much this movement is more complex than it appeared in the beginning, with many, many people from the middle class getting involved, as we have seen, and now artists getting involved as well. It’s the first time that Emmanuel Macron is confronted with such a storm since he took office. It’ll be very interesting to see how he and the Interior Minister respond . . .”

I watch the show to the end, thinking they might talk more about Jerome, but they don’t. Now he’s really done for. People aren’t going to forget that. Nobody in the art world wants to see an artist identify himself with a movement so controversial, so widely regarded by the establishment as a jacquerie, a redneck insurgency, the guerrilla warfare equivalent of a sausage festival. I won’t be seeing much of Jerome anymore, I already know that. I’m getting this obscure feeling of satisfaction, as if we had been in a competition the whole time, which is absurd, as if we both had been gnawing at the same scrap of meat, like the dogs in his paintings, and he was the first to let go. For a second this makes me forget the rain. This makes me forget about my wet feet, and about that long line of people in front of me, sheltered under better umbrellas.

Alex Gobin
is a curator and art critic. He is the visual editor of The Shanghai Literary Review. His writing has appeared in Concrete, Point Contemporain, HuArts, and other publications. He lives between Shanghai and Paris.