The Culture House

A short story by Hari Kunzru

I always thought it was a mistake for Nicky to go and live at the Gow House. I didn't mention it to anyone. What would I have said? It wasn't as if I had any concrete objections. Besides, everyone else was so excited. It was a prestigious residency, a chance for a painter to live and work where Gow had lived and worked, six months of peace and financial security.

Nicky was excited. Like all of us, he was broke. Everyone acts like artists are getting away with something. We get up late, express ourselves, go to wild parties. We're supposed to be the young lions of the creative economy, but as far as I can see we're all serving lattes to office workers in the CBD. I work in a clothes store. Three nights a week Nicky did data entry for a bank. He liked it because he didn't have to talk to anyone. You could listen to music. There was no one to stop you going outside for a cigarette.

To understand why I was worried, you have to know about Nicky and you have to know about Gow. Nicky's 90 per cent easy. Art-school boho, collects chopsticks, pictures of wrestlers and cassette-only Eighties industrial singles. Skinny jeans, borderline dyslexic, doesn't speak to his parents, likes to get messed up at weekends. No needles, just booze and pills. Non-driver, of course. That goes without saying. The other 10 per cent is the painting. Nicky would be exactly like the last 20 guys you met at Firenze or the Car Bar, swigging imported beer and nodding their heads to the band, if it weren't for his obsessive dedication to making art and the almost religious awe he accords those artists whose work he admires. Nicky's the real thing. Talented, no question.

At the time he went into the Gow House he was making big paintings. Not macho museum big, but big enough, lots of photorealistic details spilling out of some kind of cosmic gestural gloop. A while back I remember him doing collages, incredibly fiddly jewel-like little things involving glass beads and slivers of wood. There was another period which was all about porn, but I suppose everybody goes through a porn phase. At least he got it over with quickly.

What else about Nicky? Sometimes when he looks at you he does this thing with his jaw that makes his chin recede into his neck like a disk tray, and as he does it he grins, his eyeballs rolling around in a manner suggestive of some kind of brief serotonin rush, a moment of Dionysian exaltation at the wonder of the world. It's like watching somebody have an orgasm. Freaks the shit out of me every time.

The problem about leaving Nicky up there in the woods is, like I say, that he'd always thought of art with a capital A. Greatness, transcendence, the whole bit. It would never have been six months in a nice pad with no money worries, not for Nicky; it was always going to be about Gow in some way, Gow who's no longer Gerald Gow but a single syllable to rhyme with wow, our very own National Painter. You have to remember that we're a small country. Almost off the map. Being an artist here is like clinging to a ledge high above the street while a cocktail party is taking place on the roof terrace in front of you. You signal frantically, but everyone seems to be looking the other way. Pretty soon you realise you'll have to deal with your problem on your own. So people scrambled for Gow, or the idea of Gow, with his bleak black landscapes and his bird-headed men. He told us about ourselves. Yes, people started to say to one another. That's what it's like to be from here.

He was a bastard, by all accounts, and while he was around to throw up in his friends' kitchens and steal their ideas and make messy passes at their wives, he was tolerated, no more. The public thought his work was trash. So much darkness. So little that was hopeful or picturesque. Back then you had to go to Europe. You went to Europe and you made little oils of gardens and café tables in a style that had already been dead 30 years and when you came back you were officially cultured and got invited to give slide lectures at the City Library. So there were no commissions, no awards for Gerald Gow. There were very few buyers. Most of the paintings he sold in his lifetime were to friends. Consequently, he was poor. He took work where he could find it, outdoor labour mostly, on pig farms, at a marble quarry.

He moved from place to place, dragging his wife with him, who'd sacrificed her own painting for washday and piecework and eking out meals for the two children her husband so resolutely ignored. The joke of the Gow House, this beautifully kept shrine to his enormous throbbing genius, is that he only lived there for three years. He made one or two of his great paintings in the tiny front room - the North Pole series, the first of the Black Suns. But the house doesn't explain Gow, any more than all the other houses around the world explain their former occupants, all those empty rooms furnished with unremarkable desks and easels and chairs, open five days a week, illustrated in dull postcards, tended by reverent volunteers. Another reason for Nicky not to go there, I thought. He loved Art, but like most of us he'd always fucking hated Culture.

When Gow died, someone wrote a hagiographic magazine article and the public discovered they'd loved him all along. Very soon his work was changing hands for large sums of money. Only here, of course. Overseas, no one has ever heard of him. In the early days of the boom, once a luxury imported car and an office in one of the new plate-glass towers blackening the city skyline were no longer enough to distinguish you from the herd, people started writing large cheques to architects and one of the things they wanted for their signature waterfront properties was a Gow to hang over the dining table - the bigger and blacker the better - a way of demonstrating to their envious peers that a wine cellar and a boat and first-class air travel were all very well, but they had soul, they owned a little piece of what made us ourselves.

Of course there were other painters working at the same time. Jock Peterson. Marilyn Dupont. But somehow it was Gow who got the big job, whose work was chosen as the container for our national romance. When I was a kid there was already talk of a statue on the cliffs at Grey Point. That came to nothing. Later the Foundation was set up, raising money from the big Gow collectors, and eventually the plans got more grandiose. They bought Gow's old cabin out in the woods, where he'd lived when he first came to this part of the country. Three years ago they announced they were going to build some kind of arts centre on the site, so (as the chairman told the newspapers) "his spirit of innovation could carry us forward into the new millennium".

I first saw the place when we went out there for Nicky's party. He'd been in residence a couple of weeks, the very first person to use the new facilities. A newspaper had taken his picture, scowling and holding a paintbrush. I don't know what I'd been expecting. I'd heard it was a gloomy spot, and that turned out to be an understatement. The cabin was minuscule, even smaller than the place I'm living in downtown, though at least old Gow didn't have to sleep above a cab office. Trees rose up all round it, massive and somehow overbearing, shutting out the light. It was the opposite of what most painters want: the big view, the sea and the sky. Gow had built the house himself, planing doors and window frames out of native wood. It was hard to imagine four people living in such a claustrophobic little box, not if one of them was an alcoholic artist prone to bouts of depression and rage.

The residency annexe was bizarre. It looked like the old cabin was being fucked up the arse by an enormous postmodernist prong. The new building was a big shiny sliver, all steel i-beams and garish primary-coloured panels, cantilevered out over the steep hill on one side and tickling the cabin's back wall on the other. Inside it was divided up into a number of awkward spaces, which Nicky toured us through when we arrived - the exposed glass-walled bedroom (good for waving to the neighbours in the nude), the living room that felt like a dentist's waiting area.

Nicky loved the studio, which was spacious, if obviously arranged by someone who didn't know much about how an artist works. He'd rigged up a stereo. Two canvases were propped up against one wall, already washed with the oranges and yellows he'd taken to using as a ground for his meticulous figures. About 20 of us got good and drunk and barbecued fish outside among the trees, and eventually, when it was too late to get back to the city, Nicky and I broke into the old cabin and stood in Gow's cramped front room, listening to our sculptor friend Tara screaming at her dealer over her cellphone. "He would have hated this," Nicky slurred. It was only later, lying awake in a sleeping bag on the studio floor, that I realised he'd been talking about Gow.

The next morning I woke up to see two middle-aged ladies in Gore-Tex jackets, staring at me through the studio's glass door. One was holding a guidebook. They waved. I waved back. When they waved again, I got up to see what they wanted. "Are you the artist?" one of them asked. "No," I said. "He's dead." They looked disappointed. "It said there was an artist here," one of them muttered as they walked away.

At first Nicky laughed about the tourists, but the second time I went up to the Gow House, a few weeks later, he'd built a large screen out of plastic sheeting and positioned it to obscure the studio from the path visitors took to get down to the cabin. As we sat on the steel-framed chairs in the living room, smoking a joint and flicking through a book of photographs, a man pressed his face to the window. Nicky gave him the finger. The man, who was wearing a set of headphones, looked shocked. It's the audio guide, Nicky told me. It confuses them, sends them over here. I asked how often. He shrugged. Often enough to make him feel like a goldfish.

After that, I didn't visit Nicky for a couple of months. I was busy. I had a new girlfriend. I was making work for a show. I was expecting to see him at my opening and was disappointed he didn't turn up. After that I left him a couple of messages, but he didn't call back, so I felt the ball was in his court. The next I heard was when a mutual friend told me Nicky had got into trouble with the Foundation and been asked to leave the residency. I called round at his place in the city, but he wasn't there, so I drove out to the Gow House. It was raining heavily and a thick grey mist hung among the trees. As I ran down the path I slipped on the wet stones and twisted my ankle. Nicky came to the door to find me half drenched, propping myself up on the grab-rail.

He seemed pleased to see me. He said he'd been fighting a battle, which he spoke of in highly dramatic terms: David and Goliath, good against evil. It seemed he'd got so sick of the "audio-zombies" that he'd tampered with the machines at the reception desk, replacing the official guide, a tedious account of Gow's doings spoken by a well-known television actor, with one of his own, a recording of himself emptying his bowels in the studio's echoing toilet, while drinking a bottle of vodka and telling an obscene and rambling story involving the sainted painter and a dog. He played it to me. I could see why people had objected. A representative from the Foundation had informed him he was supposed to be taking inspiration from the landscape, not desecrating Gow's memory. He'd warned her that if she kicked him out, he'd go to the papers. Another side effect of life in a small country is a pathological fear of embarrassment, particularly among the culture-loving classes, who are always haunted by the possibility that they're gauche or provincial or behind the times. The idea of negative publicity was too much for the Foundation to bear. They backed down.

I was impressed - and even a little jealous. I admire bloody-mindedness. That night we did bucket bongs in the kitchen and Nicky ranted about the idiocy of the people running the Foundation. Inspired by the landscape? What an inane idea! As if all those bleak black paintings Gow made in his little cabin were something you'd wish on a person, something safe to create or live with! Gow had been in pain, Nicky insisted, ashing his cigarette into a pot plant. Terrible pain, and the location of the house had only made it worse. Couldn't I smell the agony rising up out of the soil? Hadn't I heard the birds screaming in the mornings? He talked about Gow like a friend, rather than someone he'd only read about in books. An elderly and rather vulnerable friend who needed protecting from predators. Fucking bastards, he spat. Culture-vultures was the right word for them. Picking at the man like carrion. We walked round the new annexe and Nicky told me how much he'd come to hate it. A perversion, he called it. A sick joke.

Later, as the silhouettes of the giant trees were just becoming visible against the sky, we got talking about gesture and somehow conceived of a device we named, through gales of stoned laughter, the Ultra-Pollock sling. You'd lower yourself into it, hanging at arm's-length over a canvas placed on the floor. Then you'd swing from side to side. If you did it correctly, you'd make a more expansive stroke than you could manage unaided. A stupid idea, but of course we ended up trying to build the thing. Four in the morning and there we were, waving power tools around, hacking away at the ceiling to try to fit a bolt. We made an incredible mess, plaster everywhere. After a while we got bored and did something else.

The next day I offered to help repair the hole, but Nicky told me not to bother. I'll tell the bastards it's an installation, he cackled. I watched him stride around his living quarters, sweeping cans and cigarette butts into a black plastic bag, a pale figure in a red silk kimono, out of which his bare arms and legs poked like twigs. He looked all wrong against the minimalist grey flooring and the tubular steel chairs. Out of place. It was only when I was back in the city, blearily folding sweaters in the shop, that I gave any thought to the paintings I'd seen lined up against the studio walls. There were a lot of them, ten or more versions of the same scene.

The joke was that they were all landscapes, just like the Foundation wanted, crowds of tall trees with a tiny cabin almost lost in their midst, menaced by great abstract swirls of black paint, a single yellow dab the only point of colour, a glow in the front room. They weren't very good. Too Romantic, I thought, too reverent - Gow as the only light in the darkness, all that. It wasn't the repetition that bothered me, or even the gloominess. There was nothing of Nicky in them. It was as if he'd been hollowed out, colonised.

If I'd had less of a hangover, I might have got back out to Nicky more quickly. As it was, I hung around after work, chatting and smoking in the stockroom with one of the girls. I felt guilty for encouraging him to damage the ceiling. He'd been on his last warning and I didn't want to cause him any more trouble. I decided to go and tell him that in my opinion he ought to leave, just pack up and go home. The residency wasn't doing his work any good. It was messing with his head. I bought a bag of plaster and some white emulsion. He wasn't answering his phone, so I just drove straight out there.

When I arrived, I was appalled to find he'd actually enlarged the hole. Still wearing his kimono, which hung open to reveal a pair of paint-stained boxer shorts, he was standing in the studio staring up at it, surrounded by debris. What had been a patch of broken plaster was now a circular aperture cut clear through the roof, an operation which had involved ripping through several layers of insulation and hammering off the slates. He asked if I liked it.

I didn't know what to say. It was, he told me, a way of framing the sky, of letting something real into the space. His face and body were white with plaster-dust. So was the kimono. He looked like a deranged butoh dancer. As we looked up, it started to rain. The water made a little pool on the floor amidst the mess of brushes and jars.

I was about to suggest we go to look for a bucket when we heard a car pulling up in the drive. A man and woman got out of a four-wheel drive and made their way down the path. The man wore a raincoat and chivalrously held an umbrella to protect the woman, who was clutching a phone in one hand and an enormous handbag in the other. I recognised them as the co-ordinator of the residency programme and one of the Foundation's biggest donors, a fund manager for our national investment bank. Maybe I was seeing through Nicky's eyes, but against the backdrop of the forest, they looked exotic, displaced. The boom has changed everything here. Most of my friends, at least the ones who aren't recent immigrants, have great-grandparents who were farmers or fishermen, people who lived close to the land, who made a life in these forests.

Of course they were also the people Gow fought against, whom he thought of as morons and philistines and did everything he could to outrage, but he knew them and he shared both their dreams and their pervasive, suppressed despair. This man with his neatly tailored suit, this woman stepping gingerly across puddles to save her heels, were an advance party from another world, the world of glass boardrooms and lifestyle management, the world of global capital in which art is just another asset class, a market whose relative inefficiencies are there to be exploited. Even in the woods, we aren't going to be able to hide any more, those of us who just want to be left alone.

I'll be honest: my first impulse was to run, but Nicky rubbed his hands and let out a sort of tribal war-whoop, opening the kimono like
a flasher and wiggling his bony hips in an obscene parody of sex. The Foundation people were, of course, horrified by what they found. As soon as she saw the hole the woman started screaming about vandalism, insurance, punitive damages. We were told to leave immediately. We were threatened with the police. The banker asked whether I had any legitimate business on the premises. I think he hoped I might be to blame, still clinging to the idea that Nicky, the pet artist, couldn't be responsible for such wanton destruction.

Nicky picked up a brush and waved it in the air, as if trying to erase him, to paint him out. He told them they had no right to intrude on his creative process. He told them they were parasites. I recognised some of the words he used. Agony, glory. They were Gow's words. He's not a big guy, Nicky, but the sight of him in his filthy boxers, jabbing the air with a brush, was intimidating enough to force the Foundation people to take refuge in their centrally locked jeep. He went prancing after them and tipped my can of emulsion over the windscreen.

That did it for me. I pulled Nicky into the rice-cooker, my beaten-up little Japanese hatchback, and drove off, puttering back through the woods to the city. He ranted all the way, punching the dashboard, talking to me about hide-outs, escape routes, lines of flight. I didn't think he should be alone so I took him back to mine, where I made him eat and listened to his incoherent mumblings until he finally fell asleep on the sofa. I covered him with a blanket and smoked a cigarette out of the window, won­dering what to do. I phoned his gallerist and told her what had happened, hoping she might effect some kind of damage limitation. Some time in the night I woke up. My mouth was dry, so I padded through the living room to get a glass of water in the kitchen. The sofa was empty. Nicky was gone. So were my car keys.

I had a very bad feeling, so I rang my girlfriend and persuaded her to get out of bed and drive me to the Gow House. The orange glow of the flames was visible through the trees long before we got there, the lights of police cars and fire engines dappling it with pointilliste flashes of red and blue. I don't know what he'd used to do it but he'd made a good job. The place was a smoking shell. We drove up just as they were taking him away. They'd cuffed his hands behind his back. As they pushed his head down to get him into the squad car, he looked over at me, grinning and rolling his eyes. He was elated, just carried away with the ecstasy of it all. Damn, I thought. You're good, Nicky. You're the real thing. No question.

Hari Kunzru is the author of the novels The Impressionist, Transmission and My Revolutions. He lives in London and New York and writes regularly at harikunzru.com