I remember feeling rather angry about it at the time, but if anything I’m becoming ambivalent about the entire episode now. So before I change my mind, let’s get this down, starting at the beginning — as ever quite the best place to do so.
I’m sure you will agree with me that there’s nothing like a good freebie. I got an email at work from my excellent friend Cat. She writes for various magazines elsewhere and always gets invitations to press launches, book launches, screenings, that sort of thing. This time, she’d received an invite, good for four people, to the Karlheinz Schlögl retrospective exhibition at the Echt Gallery, Chancery Lane. Problem was, it was that very evening, she’d made other plans, but she didn’t want the ticket to go to waste. Ticket only entry, starting 7.30pm, wine and nibbles. Oh, and apparently KS himself will be there. So, did I fancy it?
Bless Cat - she does this quite often. Coincidentally, I’d only read the interview online that Karlheinz Schlögl had done for the Guardian about two days earlier. The Swiss-born artist turned 50 early in January. I’m not really into Schlögl — he’s generally a bit too Eighties for my taste — but I guess retrospectives of 1980s art are becoming an unavoidable inevitability. I have to admit that his recent collaborations with various world charities — raising awareness for food wastage — appeals to the thrifty cook in me.
Anyway, as you’ve probably guessed by now, I’m never one to turn down a free bit of booze and canapés. I had no plans that evening anyway, so I accepted Cat’s kind offer and forwarded the email to the three mates of mine I reckoned would be most interested: Anton, George and Jason.
Anton’s an absolute art/fashion ponce — he’ll admit it — always buying new items of trendy clothing and making out that he’d owned it for ages. He’s a very dry, funny guy, though. I knew he’d dig it. Inviting Anton meant I’d also invite our mate George, as the two of them are well-known for being practically inseparable. They’ve long since weathered the inevitable questions about when they’re going to get a place together/get married/get it on, but they’re still ‘the bargain pair’ among my friends. Anyway George is a good bloke, very outgoing and comfortable compared to Anton’s diffidence and slightly edgy, laconic style. Oh, George’s real name, by the way, is John but I won’t bother to explain why here. One of those ‘you had to be there’ in-jokes. I may explain some other time. Finally, Jason: he doesn’t know the other two that well, but he works in London, he’s easygoing and crucially, he’s usually up for free booze at short notice.
As good luck would have it, I got back three emails in swift succession, all in the affirmative. Excellent! But first, a drink. So, we all met up in the Sam Smith’s boozer just off Chancery Lane and got ourselves outside of a couple of wheat beers. Chancery Lane is not an area known for art galleries, and those of you who have been to the Echt Gallery there will confirm that it’s not an easy place to find, even with a map. So after tooling aimlessly up and down that rather marvellous strip of 16th Century buildings along the lane — some of the oldest of their kind in the capital —it seemed as if the narrow alleyway that led down to the entrance to the gallery almost opened up by a magic straight out of Harry Potter at the precise moment we ran out of patience.
There was certainly nothing magical about the location of the Echt itself. A narrow alleyway opened out into a slightly wider area with a couple of Biffa bins along one side. Oh, very glamorous. On the opposite side, a front of shaded glass and matching door marks the almost anonymous entrance to the gallery. A few lights within pick out the vague interior space beyond. Very uninspiring. You have to buzz to get in too. George did so.
This is, in retrospect, where it started to get a little weird for me. The door opened and a very smartly dressed young woman, with a bob haircut of impressive severity, emerged. George explained that he was here for the exhibition. The lady looked round at us all and smiled rather stiffly, as if we were keeping her from something more fun elsewhere.
“Do come in, sir,” she said to George alone, and held the door open enough to let him through.
We all moved to follow George inside, but the lady stepped back in and deftly shut the door on us. Through the smoked glass outside we could discern George being told something and then shown the stairs down to the exhibition space. The door opened again and out stepped our hostess once more.
“Do come in, sir,” she said in identical manner to Jason and motioned him in the half-open door. Again, Anton and I watched as the glass was closed in our faces. How odd. From inside, Jason turned to us and mouthed “I’m in!” triumphantly before being shown the stairs.
Again, this deliberate, measured, laboured procedure for Anton. Yours truly momentarily outside on his own. Finally, my turn. I was shown in, the woman took my map and printed invitation crisply out of my hand.
“Just follow the others down the stairs, sir,” she continued, introducing an edge of charm into her tone for the first time I’d heard, “you’ll find drinks and something to eat too, there on the left. Enjoy the exhibition!”
I descended the steel stairway into a vast rectangular white-walled space lit with spotlights. To the right of the stairwell as you went down, the main part of the exhibition: some low daïses with some of Schlögl’s three-dimensional art pieces, including those thin sail-like structures that feature in that Audi commercial playing in UK cinemas at the time I write this. You know, the one with Dusty Springfield crooning ‘The Look Of Love’ and that guy with the unintentionally comedic Italian accent: “whad’eva ya-want-a, mah darlin’!” Several people who had arrived before us wove between the exhibits. The far right hand end of the room was not wall, but a sheet of toughened, slightly smoked glass, not dissimilar to the entrance portal of the Echt. Beyond it was an empty room in relative darkness.
To the left of the stairs, as I went, more people were milling about by a very long black box-like table with stacks of the exhibition brochure, large bowls of fruit and smaller ones containing peanuts and other savouries. Further down the table length were glasses of wine and bottles of lager. Stood behind them, handing out wine to my colleagues, was a short, dark-haired girl in the black blouse and grey skirt worn by catering staff of a thousand press events, book launches and the like. The opposite corner contained a string quartet playing through Schubert’s Der Tod und das Mädchen, pleasingly enough. No sign of Schlögl himself so far, though.
“The wine’s a bit rough,” said Anton. The others sipped theirs and their collective grimace told me all I needed to know. I asked the girl for a bottled beer, which she opened for me. It was a bit warm, but lager is lager.
On the largest expanse of wall, opposite the staircase, hung two dozen or so photographs, all sizes, taken from various points in the artist’s life. This was easily my favourite part of the exhibition up to this point. The largest picture was — of course — Schlögl’s most famous one: a youthful, pre-fame Karlheinz in the mid-80s in that horribly patterned shirt with Jean-Michel Basquiat: the one with Basquiat holding an unlit cigarette. Both men wear the exact expression people have when their conversation has been interrupted by someone calling "this way!" and taking the snap. There again was a colour print of a slightly older-looking Schlögl, sombrely dressed in black blazer and matching roll-neck, standing slightly out of focus to one side behind the ever-immaculate Gilbert & George. It was hard to say exactly when it was taken. Beside it, the GQ spread to mark the artist’s 40th birthday, standing back-to-back with Madonna and staring upwards, during his thankfully short-lived, ill-advised spell of calling himself ‘KhZ’. Yet another was a candid shot of a more recent-vintage Schlögl looking very chummy with Damien Hirst and a surprisingly off-duty Tony Blair. Schlögl’s primary school portrait, and so on. Most of them were of people I didn’t recognise; I’ve mentioned the most well-known at any rate.
Beneath the photos were random words printed directly onto the white wall in a black, slightly compressed, sans-serif typeface: freedom was one; control was another. Some were in French, others in German. All rather pretentious if you ask me. Also, Schlögl’s two best-known quotes in English: the once-amusing:
Situo-expressionist? I’m what you might call an espresso situationist!
— from the New York Times interview in 1989. Give me strength. It seems that every subsequent journalist has a pathological inability to write anything on Schlögl without working this now-wearisome line into their copy.
The other one I didn’t recognise, but came, so a helpful caption informed me, from a Montreal edition of Le Monde; Schlögl speaking in 1998 about his sudden move, tired of NYC, to Canada:
Here, I am an unknown quantity. I like the way they speak French also.
It amused me to see George reading these things out to Anton, like a mother reading out signs in the zoo to her child. Anton nodded gravely with each statement. I knew he’d dig it.
I took a moment to look at the brochure. It was a large format programme with a pleasing light cream, matt finish cover and the words
spot-varnished in the bottom right corner in a plain sans-serif font. These details please me immensely and I hope they do you too. Inside was a little bit of blurb outlining the exhibition’s mission statement. I can’t remember the precise wording but essentially it said that Schlögl’s intent was to make people aware of how much food we wasted. To this end, the caterers had provided food and drink sourced from supermarkets that had thrown stocks away for being out of code, past the ‘Use By’ date. Well, that explained the harshness of the wine. The bananas in the fruit bowl certainly had a little more blackened skin than you’d see on a store shelf, but as Jason found out, were still intact inside and perfectly tasty. I’m not that into bananas, and I am fussy where fruit is concerned, so I refrained, sticking to my lukewarm beer.
One thing I do remember vividly was the itinerary printed on the back of the brochure and I’ll reproduce it for you here:
it will be time for you all to depart
we wish you well
Inside the brochure were various photos laid out in Schlögl’s signature bold fashion. They seemed mainly to relate to the very building we were in: stylish black and white shots of the catering staff pouring peanuts into bowls and setting them out; overexposed colour shots of the latterly silver-haired Schlögl overseeing the installation of his pieces and hanging the photos himself; a young lady, possibly one of the girls on duty this evening, pouring wine into glasses while a boy dressed in black placed fruit in the large bowls. Elsewhere could be found disturbingly grainy shots of spiders on banana trees, starving African children and lush colour prints of Mediterranean vineyard workers carrying large baskets of grapes, smiling unabashedly at the camera. All very nice and emotive, but a bit slight, I thought.
As I said before, Schlögl’s not really my cuppa, but at this point I have to say we’d all have dug it a little more were it not for several, shall we say, random elements in the room. Perennial hazards at gatherings like these, I’m afraid: overloud men in equally loud, primary-coloured Hoxton threads that contrive to be the exact shades of wrong, speaking in exaggeratedly posh voices, embarrassing white rudeboy patois or blatant Mockney, depending on whom they’re with. Idiotic women dressed like a slutty Flashdance revival, necking white wine like it’s lemonade and shouting across the room. Naturally, they think that anyone dressed any way other than as ludicrous as they are must be pointed out and sniggered at. Hm. Both sexes laughing too loudly all the time. Braying morons, all.
That’s not to say it was all bad. I appeared to be making a good impression on one of the young ladies carrying a tray of nibbles round. It was becoming a bit of a running joke between us that I refused everything on her tray, but I kind of enjoyed her optimistic smile as she approached me each time. It’s an automatic thing when I meet girls considerably shorter than me — especially pretty ones — to become overly polite and softly spoken: I don’t wish to come across as a clumsy great oaf and I think I get a bit protective as well. Anyway, I think she found my exaggerated, dainty manner amusing and indulged me.
I’d just got myself a second bottle of beer when suddenly the lights dimmed considerably — almost, but not quite, to darkness. The string quartet halted scratchily and for a second there was silence, before a tiresomely inevitable “ooh!” came from the drunken female faction of the room. Everyone immediately stopped chatting and turned about in their respective directions, instinctively looking to where the lights had been. I placed my beer on the table by my side.
“Ladies and Gentlemen, thank you all for coming along this evening!”
Karlheinz Schlögl’s voice emanated clearly from all around the room with a distinct metallic timbre that resonated with each crisp, clipped, confident syllable.
A single spotlight faded up swiftly in the centre of the glass room beyond. Within its circle…is that? Yes! Amazing! Wearing a dark purple suit with an emerald green paisley satin shirt, stood the still form of Karlheinz Schlögl himself! Arms folded, his eye sockets darkened by the shadow of his brow, but with light reflected in his eyes. He was in trim shape. His grey mane of hair took on a silvery corona in the glare of the spot and his smile curled at one edge with elfin triumph.
“I hope you are enjoying the exhibition so far,” the voice ventured further in Schlögl’s cultured, Teutonic, even tenor, “I can assure you the pleasure is all mine.”
Schlögl himself did not speak. The voice was prerecorded and played out through speakers in each corner of the room. A few of the onlookers, instantly taken by the theatricality, murmured their appreciation and a couple went to raise their glass to him. In the half-light, I could see Anton in particular was transfixed and slightly amused. Schlögl straightened slightly, and smiled on.
“But I am afraid I have not been entirely honest with you,” the voice continued playfully, “and I fear I have lured you here under, ah, false pretenses…”
He raised a wry eyebrow and there was enough of an engaging chuckle in his tone to induce a smattering of good-natured smirking from several people. However, the room was starting to feel rather warm all of a sudden.
“...you see, in many ways you are the exhibits on display here today. And I have come today to observe you in this gallery.”
I looked over at Anton, who shot back a look with narrowed eyes set deep with increasing suspicion. He swapped this glance with George and me. Jason was staring fixedly on at Schlögl, concern starting to line his brow. Distinct beads of perspiration irrigated the furrows.
“And...just as my recent work has been with food organisations,” Schlögl’s voice dropped conspiratorially, “so the food you eat here today and the wine you drink has been…organised.”
At this point I noted that I still had the exhibition brochure tucked under my right arm. I removed it and turned it over. Something odd had happened. The itinerary on the back had more writing on it than it had earlier. Between the lines previously visible on the cover appeared some new words. The text ran thus:
the sheep will
and proceed to
and the experiment
it will be time for you all to depart
we wish you well
in the next
I was feeling terribly warm now. Several people in the room moved closer to the glass room. Schlögl remained passive in the spot beam, almost waxwork-like, with only a tilt of the head or a slight shift in weight from one foot to another to betray life; face fixed as ever in an impish smile.
“Poisoned, I might say.”
A gasp swirled round the room. Someone went over to the glass separating the artist from the rest of us and banged hard on the shaded door. It didn’t yield, but Schlögl half-flinched, half-turned away. He brought this head back and smiled indulgently.
“Ah! You can tell already.” the voice ventured, almost anticipating this reaction, “Can you feel the fever coursing through your veins already? Do you feel the fear?”
Jason was clearly feeling it. He sank down on the edge of a nearby daïs, partly pushing aside the sculpture upon it. A hand came up to his temple and he shook his head. My head was clear, but I was feeling uncomfortably hot. I loosened a button on my shirt, but it didn’t seem to help. Other people started to mutter and shift restlessly around me. I looked around for that young lady I’d seen earlier. She wasn’t visible. In fact, where had all the catering staff gone?
“I hope it is fear you are feeling. We live in a world of exploitation, my dear sheep, my dear lambs. For too long have we exploited those too vulnerable to resist.”
It was getting harder to see Schlögl through the smoke glass. I realised the light in our room was getting brighter as the spotlight in the room beyond diminished. Several other people joined in banging impotently on the glass wall behind which Schlögl stood, now resting his hand on his chin in fascinated study. Someone shouted “OPEN THIS NOW, YOU BASTARD!”
“The famine-ridden countries of the Third World,” continued the voice,“war-torn, morale broken, hope decayed.”
The pictures inside the brochure took on a new light: before they depicted the preparation involved in staging an exhibition. Now they appeared to me to be as like a stark catalogue of evidence outlining Schlögl’s evil plan.
“It is entirely fitting to me that your understanding of exploitation should arise from being exploited yourselves,”
I leaned over to a rapidly wilting Jason, said, “Hold on, Jase,” ran up the staircase and tried the exit door. The air was considerably cooler up at the entrance, but the door was locked. I was feeling distinctly confused by now and shook the door with some vigor. No use. The view from the top of the stairwell seemed considerably brighter. I could see George and Anton in frantic exchange. Picking his not-often raised voice out from the panicking others, I heard Anton say distinctly, “but I didn’t eat the bananas — did you?!”
“The poison will soon be gripping your heart, my sad little lambs,” Schlögl went on, “it will no doubt be a great sadness to some of your relatives to learn of your pointless, useless, sordid deaths."
The dim light in the room had definitely brightened in the past few minutes. Its rise must have been very slow, very subtle. About a dozen people were attempting to break down the glass room containing Schlögl. The spotlight in his room was dimming visibly. The mob moved almost as one in panicked frenzy. Then I got it.
“The quintessence of exploitation, my sheep. Exploitation.”
Nothing had added up while all this was going on. I hadn’t drunk any wine. I hadn’t eaten anything since I arrived. The beer I drank was clearly bottled, and despite being lukewarm tasted perfectly fresh. And why did I not feel so warm here upstairs?
I looked at the brochure again. The mysterious, terrible writing that had appeared earlier was fading. It was heat sensitive. The temperature was lower upstairs.
Damn it! It’s not real! It’s not real! None of it is!
I said it in my head first. Then I ran down the staircase and shouted it out loud to George and Anton, who regarded me worriedly. I hunched down and grabbed Jason by his shoulders.
“Get up Jason, it’s not real, it isn’t! He’s just raised the heating in the room!”
George nodded in agreement at this. Then his face hardened and he walked purposefully over to the glass room and started to bang on it at the height of Schlögl’s face. It was hard to tell if he was in there. The light inside the glass room had faded entirely.
I was aware I had been shouting at the top of my lungs, which was the precise moment I made another discovery.
“There’s a loud humming noise in the room!” I shouted out at the room to no one in particular. “It’s just a sound! It’s meant to make you feel uneasy! It’s only a sound!”
Finally, Jason stood up, sweating profusely, but livening up.
“He’s only trying to scare us!” I shouted again and as I said scare us! the by-now distinct basso-thrumming rumble in the room ceased instantly, leaving my cry very naked and overtly loud in the room. The lights rose to full, normal indoor brightness. A clear thunk could be heard from both glass doors upstairs and down beyond. From all around us, we first heard — and then felt — the air conditioning come on in the room, filling it with a cool, lightly moving air.
The people leaning on the door to Schlögl’s room fell forward as it yielded suddenly. A bewildered hubbub filled the air. As I suspected, Schlögl was not in the room, but had disappeared like a magician’s assistant in a box. The effect was ruined on discovering that there was a door out of the glass room on the back wall, but nonetheless, we were not going to get the answers we sought: Karlheinz Schlögl, the manipulator, was gone.
I seem to remember that we all just filed up the staircase in silence and out the main door. Up the alley, away from the Echt and out onto Chancery Lane. I’m not even sure I said goodnight to the other chaps. I didn’t know what to say. I’m not sure they said goodnight to each other for that matter.
It was a very cold, crisp January night and I was glad of the chill biting into my nose and cheeks. I pulled my mobile out of my pocket out of habit and consulted the time. It was only 8.35pm. For now, I wanted just to walk for a bit. Didn’t matter where. I chose my direction, tucked the brochure under my arm and stomped the pavement in a blinkered, complicated mood. Before too long I reached Holborn, and decided to curl round and join the road where it met the Strand. As I was negotiating the traffic at a junction I noticed up ahead one of the other onlookers at the gallery: a fine-featured woman in her early fifties, in a dark green velvet coat, brochure tucked under one arm and black boots stomping in familiar, similar fashion. I drew alongside her and she turned slightly.
“Hello,” I smiled, while not feeling it, “I’m sorry, but I noticed you were at the Echt too?”
“Yes?” she replied in querulous tone.
“What did you think?” was possibly the stupidest question I could have asked, but it was also the only one I had in my head.
Her eyes narrowed in a frown as she evaluated her answer, but a smile started to spread across her lips.
“It was really rather clever, wasn’t it? I mean, ok, it was annoying, but…” she shrugged theatrically and left the sentence hanging.
“I’m not sure… I’m not sure if I liked it.” I replied, and I meant it. She moved off down the road. I decided I wanted to stand alone for a while.
I looked down at the brochure. The terrible print on the back was invisible again, except where the heat of my elbow and armpit had revealed smears of text. But the front was very different. The cold night air had brought another, opposite, layer of heat sensitive ink to be revealed. Across the clear creamy-coloured cover could be read the following words:
we hope you enjoyed our little game
The pictures inside hadn’t changed, but they didn’t look like people preparing an exhibition any more. Nor did they look like they were preparing a nefarious mass-poisoning. No, just a group of people staging a nasty hoax. There was a fenced-off ditch of roadworks a few yards up the street from where I stood. Without hesitation I pulled a bit of the fence back and first threw the brochure into an open trench dug out from the pavement. Then I tried to kick some of the peripheral earth on top of it — a bit halfheartedly. Finally, I found somewhere to have a drink.
Later, after some more walking, I made my way to the station and went home to my wife, who asked me how I got on at the gallery. I sort of told her, too — but I downplayed most of it and made it sound a whole lot stagier than it seemed at the time. I’ve seen Anton, George and Jason since, twice in fact, but they haven’t discussed the incident with me. I suspect they’re all deeply pissed-off about it — to say the least — and would rather get on with other things. Maybe we’ll all chat soon over a drink. I’m only posting up my account of it because it might be useful. It’s the only record I have of everything that happened. When I told Cat about the entire experience in precise detail, she was shocked and concerned for me. She certainly had no inkling of what would ensue. I’m quite glad she didn’t go, frankly. I’m not going back any time soon.
I have no idea where Schlögl went, and at the time of posting this up, the broadsheets, collectively, have deemed not to cover the story either as news or as Arts review. So he’s gone to ground.
Karlheinz Schlögl, the complex art spoofer? Schlögl the simple madman? Both, somehow? We’ll simply have to wait and see.
I now wish I’d kept the brochure, though. Anyone out there with one?
Doctor Who: Mawdryn Undead (BBC, 1983)
Doctor Who: The Time Warrior (BBC, 1973)