Jan 31, 2023, 05:57AM

They Think it is Romantic

Artists have to be show-offs to some degree or their work never gets seen.

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I’ve been living in the same apartment for 15 years, moving in when my previous apartment was sold. An investor bought that building and was refurbishing all the apartments with an eye towards selling them, so I had to buy it or leave. I couldn’t afford it so I exercised the second option. It was incredibly stressful because renting in Paris, unless one has a lot of money, is complex. The law here favors the renter, so the owners are understandably, if irritatingly, hyper-cautious about guarantees, income and all the rest. Once you sign the contract, if you stop paying rent it’s very difficult for the landlord to reclaim the apartment.

I like my apartment: it’s relatively large for Paris and when the sun’s out it’s very luminous. It’s on the top floor, a combination of two “chambre de bonne” or what were once maid’s lodgings. Someone bought them, knocked down the separating wall between the two, put in plumbing and a kitchen. It also has a balcony. My balcony isn’t very deep, about 60 cm, but it’s about two meters long. It’s just large enough to put out a small table and two chairs and have dinner. When we rented the place—my girlfriend and me—I recall the real estate agent saying, “Foreigners always like this place. They think it is romantic.” We did.

The apartment’s located directly in front of the elevated number 2 metro line, just across the street. Sometimes the metro will stop to regulate traffic on the line and pause directly in front of my window. This means I have an audience for whatever I may be doing. Friends have told me they've seen me ironing, playing piano, playing trombone, vacuuming, reading and working at the computer. It can also be very loud. Until my landlord put in double windows, each time the train passed it felt like a minor earthquake. Somehow we lived with it.

Since I paint I decided to benefit from my balcony’s visibility and hang four large painted faces on the metal railing. These heads were on large pieces of wood cut with a jigsaw. Each was about a meter high and had a different expression: SURPRISE, COMPLACENCY, SHOCK and CURIOSITY. I also hung up a question mark and an exclamation point to the left and right of the faces and dubbed this ad hoc exposition,“Between the Question and The Answer” thinking that people heading East to West would see the “?” first, then the “!” and those heading in the opposite direction would see the “!” then the “?.” It was a commentary on what I feel is the essence of life, the constant back-and-forth movement between affirmation and doubt.

Once it was up, I often saw people, both metro riders and pedestrians, looking up at it. Friends again commented that they saw it, some not knowing at the time that it was my apartment. It seemed like a success. Perhaps the only person who didn’t appreciate it was one of the other dwellers in the building. He’d lived here for 60 years and had a proprietary relationship to the place. I think it irritated him that I’d broken the look of the facade and I suspected as well that he thought that I was a show-off. That may be, but artists have to be show-offs to some degree or their work never gets seen.

One day I was at home playing with a train set with my son who was about 10 at the time. I received a call from the aforementioned gentlemen, who said, “M. Turner, one of your clowns fell and hit someone on the street, could you come down?” I went to my balcony and looked down. There it was, SURPRISE, staring up at me from the pavement, broken in four pieces. I must’ve changed color for when I turned to my son and told him what had happened I could see that he understood the gravity of the situation. I meekly told him to just keep doing the train layout and then went downstairs to the street and picked up the pieces. The older gentleman was there, but no one else.

I discovered that the face had fallen because I’d used particle board on this particular one and not solid wood like the others. It had absorbed so much rainwater that when a strong wind came, it broke apart because it was so soggy. I came back upstairs. I didn’t want to further alarm my son so didn’t talk anymore about it, though in my mind were not only thoughts of lawsuits, courts, lawyers and long-term financial ruin but also that I may have inadvertently crippled some innocent person. My son turned to me and told me not to worry about it, that he had prayed while I was downstairs and everything would be okay. I was both touched and incredulous for at that moment I didn’t share his faith in the efficacy of prayer. But he was right, for whomever was struck let it drop and nothing ever came of it.

The exposition closed that same day.


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