I’m on a date with a man who is supposed to be a writer but is now saying he is a
conceptual artist. I am certain that I am supposed to be on a date with a writer and not with a
“He’s a writer.” I remember Thom saying those exact words to me as I complained
about how every man I meet is just the same man duplicated but with a new annoying trait.
I’m feeling duped. I have done my share of unreliable crackpots. The guy who said he
was a surfer but was actually homeless and was mainly surfing couches, mine included. The
guy who was a park ranger but also seemed to be recruiting for a nudist colony. The guy who
wore different corduroy pants on three consecutive dates.
I’ve been looking for some stability. A man with a bed frame of his own, and with
clothes that aren’t audible with every step. Someone to permanently take on Tuesday dinners
and fetch the paper with me on Sunday mornings. A writer sounded stable. Not like someone
who might be shitting in numbered jars and proffering it as a masterpiece.
As he tells me about what he does, he is shifting a toothpick, that he pulled
absentmindedly from the toothpick holder when he sat down, between his fingers. He is using
words like “experimental” and “assemblage”. I roll my eyes internally.
The coffee shop we’ve chosen, a few blocks from my old University, has small pieces
of art from local artists squeezed on strips of wall between windows. This month, the art
being featured is all pottery. Misshapen blob-like vessels with odd childish glazes. The types
of vases not meant to be filled. They look as if they have been made by middle-aged
divorcees, finding themselves through craft they too might describe as experimental
I see him following my gaze to look at one on the opposite wall and realise I have let
our conversation drift into silence. After the disappointment of him not being a writer and
having spent too much time prior to the date thinking about whom I would say my favourite
writer was, I try to reset. I mention a few artists I know that I think are conceptual. Duchamp
with the urinal. Rauschenberg on the roller skates with the umbrella parachute. I ask him if he
knows the Italian guy with the cans of poop. He’s makes a face like he doesn’t and is
disturbed I brought him up.
“I develop my craft organically” he says.
So did the Italian guy, I think.
“I intentionally create states of impermanence” he adds, as if clarifying.
I don’t know what this might mean. It probably does not mean home-made noodles
every Tuesday on the couch.
I ask him what he’s working on. “I want to write a novel. In the sky. With a plane.” A
We pause, thinking about this together.
It seems to me, and I tell him this, that it takes a very long time to write even a few
words in the sky. I ask him if he can fly a plane. He looks at me confused, his toothpick
paused between his index and middle fingers.
“No. It’s not really that I feel I need to be part of the construction of the piece. Just the
“Of the novel?” Is this why Thom thought he was a writer?
He resumes his toothpick baton twirling routine.
“No, of the entire piece.” He looks confused by my misunderstanding.
I think, but do not say, that the few times I’ve seen skywriting as the audience, which
is really anyone on the ground who cares to look up, I’ve often given up after just a few
letters. I pity women who’ve had to wait for every loop on “will you marry me?” to be
Our drinks finally arrive. Our waitress manages to place our drinks down with the
maximum amount of disinterest. She is insufferably trendy, big curly hair, torn shirt,
piercings, brown unblemished skin but for a small constellation tattoo on her left arm.
He interrupts my staring and says to her, “thanks, it doesn’t have honey in it, does it?”
She looks at it for a moment as if just looking at its thick green texture will reveal
something about whether it has honey, squishing her lips up towards her nose and squinting.
“No, I think you ordered without honey” A cool lilting accent.
He says “Thanks, and sorry, what’s your name?”
I get ready for him to complain. About the honey related uncertainty. I have been on
many dates where men have complained.
“Like the tree?”
“Cool name. Deciduous. Thanks Aspen”
She walks away. I bet that is not her name. Or at least wasn’t always. He sips the
“So, what do you do the most of?” he says to me now. I ignore that he sometimes
speaks like he doesn’t quite understand sentence construction.
I tell him I work for a small pharmaceutical company, and I detect an internal wince. I
imagine Thom also getting my profession confused and telling him I’m an edgy bartender.
I’ve dealt with this reaction before. When people hear “big pharma” their hackles
raise. We know we are supposed to be angry about whatever big pharma is doing. We know
that whatever they are doing, they are making money off our pain. In that sense they are
insurance brokers, lawyers, dentists. But I say, “small pharmaceutical” and I think it seems
I reiterate and say “it’s small scale, a small start-up” – I feel like this makes it sound
bespoke. Artists like bespoke. Their whole thing is bespoke.
But really, what I do is probably close to what the aspirant skywriter thinks I do. I
help the two guys running my company to make money. I trawl though papers, sometimes in
languages I do not know looking for one thing – the use of a drug off-label to stop the
progression of a degenerative eye disease. When I find it, I note it down. Then I inform our
legal team. And they inform these people who wrote the paper that they should stop doing
that because we own the patent. And somehow this makes them money.
He asks what kind of drugs I work on. I say, “ophthalmic drugs for degenerative eye
disease” and immediately regret it. Not bespoke.
He replies, “so you deal with the impermanence of our bodily structure.”
It’s a statement, not a question. But I feel the need to answer. “Well with the right
drug, it’s not supposed to be permanent.”
“Hard to say what’s supposed to be.” He smiles and raises his eyebrows. Now I am
the one looking confused.
He asks me what I do for fun. I tell him about how I’m a foodie, especially Asian
food, I leave out everything I was going to say about novels and favourite authors and instead
I add that I like art museums. It’s true but I normally wouldn’t say this. I realise I’m trying to
demonstrate to him that, I too, get art. I don’t know why I want to prove myself to this man,
who is back to his toothpick routine.
He says he has thought about it a lot during his time as art, and that museums are
where art goes to die. That art should be out in the real world interacting with people and
bringing them into the piece. He says this as if the fact that I just said I like art museums and
that he somehow believes they are destroying the very idea of art is fine.
Years ago, I was set up on a date with a friend of a friend, a double date at a comedy
improv night. During the performance, I had said to my friend, “I’m not sure I really get this,
you know, like how are they supposed to know what happens next?” The man I was being
matched with leaned towards me and said: “The thing about improv is you always have to
say “Yes and” to every new premise each actor brings up”.
It seems to me that a date is an extended improv session between two people. That
each should be saying to each other “yes and”. Aspirant skywriter was not playing by the
rules of dating. He, apparently a conceptual artist, had just killed the concept of art museums.
I felt unimpressive and tired.
I ask, this time defensively, how he intends to display his work. I say it seems
eventually he would need a video recording of it in a gallery somewhere. No?
He drops the toothpick, raises both hands and splays his fingers like he is about to do
a magic trick. “Imagine that one day, you’re lying down on the grass and you look up into the
sky and suddenly you are connected to puffs of white smoke.”
He sounds like a stoner. Did I check that he had a place to live?
He goes on, “An ethereal narrative, making you wonder what it is to be human, the
connectedness we all share.”
His earnestness makes me laugh and I try to pass it off as a flirtatious giggle. I don’t
think it works and I try to move forward.
“So, what’s this sky novel going to be about?”
“It’s not so much about what is about but how it makes us feel. Small and connected.”
he places his right hand over his left hand in a fist. “I’m researching subjects now.”
He says “People we need to know. I want people to wonder.”
I feel like I am going in circles. I press on. “Where do you want people to wander?”
He literally wants people to walk in circles. He is intensely impractical.
“No. Not wander. Wonder. I want people to experience wonder. To realise what we
are to each other. That we are more than what we do to one another. I need to do this, after
my last work.”
It occurs to me I might be on a date with an out of work conceptual artist and I
wonder if I am going to have to foot the bill. This is not going well. It’s not that this man is
unkind. Or rude. It’s that he’s too earnest, too vague, and he doesn’t understand the “yes,
and” game we are supposed to be playing.
I excuse myself and get up to go to the bathroom. It’s outside and I have to walk
through a small courtyard to get to it, there is a slight drizzle. My jacket, which has a hood, is
still at the table. But I don’t want to go back to our table right now, I need a breather.
There is only one bathroom here. I see the light is on inside and the door is closed so I
wait. I’m half under a corrugated iron awning of the bathroom so my hair starts to get damp. I
try to pat it down.
A woman comes out of the back end of the kitchen, sees me waiting for the toilet. She
looks at me, damp and cold and says “have you checked someone is in there?” And without
hesitation, without waiting for me to respond, knocks sharply and then opens the door.
There was no one inside. I say thanks meekly, feeling dumb.
When I return to the table, my date is chatting to Aspen. Her demeanor has
completely changed from dismissive to amused, flirtatious even. She sees me, drops her
smile, hands him something and walks away from the table.
Though it seems he may have just gotten our waitress’ number, as I draw closer to the
table I forget her intrusion, and think he’s had some kind of mishap. Toothpicks appear to
have fallen all over the table. I’m confused that Aspen has just walked away from the mess.
As I get closer I see instead that he has arranged the toothpicks across the table in an
elaborate star shape.
I sit down, still looking at it. I imagine this is like some kind of pick-up routine for
him, and that he has just successfully tested it on Aspen. He says, “what do you feel?” I
ignore that he has said “feel” and not “think” and I tell him it reminds me of a little puzzle
my father used to set up, where you have to move only one toothpick to create a square.
He silently stares back. Waiting. This is not a mental puzzle, so I do not touch the
I tell him that he used to do it while we were at the pub waiting for my mother to
finish chatting with her friends. It was like a little moment between us. Our thing.
“A nice memory?” he tilts his head to the side.
It was, I tell him. Even after I had solved it we kept playing. Even now, when he
visits, I know he’ll do this when we go out to the pub. We won’t even have to say anything,
he’ll set it up and I’ll move the toothpick.
I’ll see my father this weekend. Thinking about it makes me want to get out of here
faster. I need familiarity.
The aspirant skywriter brushes the toothpicks away into small pile, like tiny logs
about to be carried off to a tiny saw-mill.
“This is what I mean.” He says, staring down at the miniature log pile.
But I don’t know what he means. I don’t know why I’m here and only now I’m
having trouble figuring out why I came. My hair is damp and frizzy all at once. I am not how
I want to be. He was just flirting with the waitress. It is absurd to think a meeting like this, in
this coffee shop, would result in anything. How can anyone find anyone this way? I grow
suddenly tired and make up a lie about needing to be at the lab early tomorrow. I don’t even
work on a lab but I know that’s how science should sound.
He stands up, seemingly understanding me for the first time, and says, “after you”
gesturing towards the door. I see now that while I was in the bathroom he has taken care of
the bill. A $20 bill is sitting in the round wooden container with the receipt. In pencil, he has
written on the receipt “Thanks Aspen!” With a smiley face. He’s leaving a generous tip.
Perhaps to make up for the toothpick mess. The smiley face seems out of place for someone
who takes art so seriously.
Later at home, I pour myself a glass of wine. Look up some stuff that Marina
Abramovic did. I forgot her name on the date, but I like her stuff that she did with the man
who seemed both artistic partner and lover. A self-weighted arrow drawn back with the
potential to pierce the heart. I want a lover you can trust like that.
I invariably end up clicking from photo to photo, link to link, until it’s one am and
I’m tearfully watching years old audition videos of people whose lives are going to be
changed by a golden buzzer but of whom I’ve never heard of. Then the algorithm delivers me
the audition of a handsome man who is painting something with his nose but upside-down
and I stop the flow of videos because I feel like I’ve had enough of absurd artistic ideas
My mind now, at my dining table, with an empty bottle of wine, feels crammed. I
walk down my short and narrow hallway to my room, climb into my unmade bed and try to
settle into sleep. I think about what the aspirant skywriter said: that we should be forced to
interact with art in the real world. I think of encountering upside-down-nose-art man in one
of those terrible street performances that stop you from getting into a mall. I imagine the man
as my date instead and I am embarrassed for him. This is why it’s hard for him to find work.
My mind still whirring in stops and starts I once again stare into the blue light of my
phone to look up the skywriter. I want to know whether he has actually completed anything. I
ignore a now out-of-use Facebook page, scroll down past a man with the same name who
seems to have played baseball in another country, and find him. I’m looking for his art,
something to clear things up.
I find a link to a page from a small gallery in the part of the city where gentrification
won’t seem to take. I’ve been to that street before to pick up a BBQ that a friend found cheap
online. A comic bookstore that maybe was kept afloat by online orders. A café with a sad
looking pastry collection. Some clothing stores where all the mannequins are strangely out of
proportion like the uncanny valley version of the mannequin world.
I have never seen this gallery before. It’s called Extant Alley. He had an exhibition
there it seems. So much for being in the real world.
It has some pictures. There’s a room, more of a lane really, full of balloons not quite
fully inflated, or maybe they were, and they’ve deflated a little before the photo was taken.
The balloons do not look celebratory. Instead, they hang from dark heavy string attached to a
nail in the ceiling. The balloons have tiny lines of writing on them, from tied mouthpiece to
their swollen bases. Another photo shows someone, a woman in her forties, popping the
balloon with a pin. Mid pop, tiny little pieces of paper flutter out, each piece covered with
tiny neatly written words.
The text below the photographs reads:
The inflated capsules both display and contain the words of women who were
survivors of violence at the hands of their partners. Women are invited to collect their own
histories on the fragile surface of the capsule and their words, as individual elements, fill the
balloon. Later they are given the opportunity to pierce their structures along with the
semblance of the self as a fragile element. They are incited to transform from subject to
actor, and violently dismantle the narratives that have held their fragility in place.
Intense. It’s from just a few months ago so it must be his last work. About him it only
Andreas Levy has been a founding member of Extant Alley’s EIC movement and is
EIC Movement? He is art?
I now remember how he had said “In my time as art”, not “as an artist” while shutting
down my interest in art museums. I thought it another absurd misuse of sentences, but
seemingly he actually believes this. I search for the EIC Movement.
EIC is Every Interaction Counts, they had a website though it does not seem to be
kept up to date or to have had much traffic. The Movement, says the website is a group of
artists that felt art was becoming meaningless though medium who rebelled against the idea
of exhibit and audience but instead saw art as a series of interactions, big and small, to bring
meaning into individual lives so that we may better become a collective. All members, in
pursuing and experimenting with these creative interactions, are themselves, art.
It didn’t really make sense. There were a few pages of their group’s work. A man
writing small messages on people’s elbows that they themselves could not see and had to get
passers-by to read. A woman fitting seashells with tiny microphones that tell stories of
people’s days at the beach and leaving them on the shore of other beaches. Another woman
handing out puzzle pieces on an interstate train. I understood now that this is what skywriter
meant about the museums, that he preferred art to be this way. Did I think this was a better
way to experience art? Yes, and as I drifted off to sleep, I wished that maybe I had
encountered some of this in my world. I fell asleep while reading about a man who had left
post-it-note clues in library books.
Time passes. Divorcees make more pottery, new opthalmic drugs are released, glitter
floats down on soon-to-be-stars after golden buzzers. A year and a half goes by. I’m trying to
unhook a plastic bag from the locking mechanism on the inside of a pram. It is not my pram,
but a downstairs neighbour who is presently struggling with a screaming toddler that she
needs to get to his grandparents house but is marooned on the street in front of my house
because her pram won’t lock down to be placed in her SUV. I’m trying to help because she
recently collected my mail for two weeks without asking when I suddenly had to travel
interstate for my father’s funeral.
Mid plastic bag extraction, someone that is not the woman with a screaming toddler
says my name. It’s an old friend, Suvi, picnic bag under her arm, nursing scrubs on.
She goes to give me a kiss on the cheek, but it ends up being like two misshapen
blobs colliding in space, hunched as I am over the pram and her wider than normal with a
She watches me struggling and says, “I’ll give you a minute”, then as if she is always
ready for times like this, pulls out a rubber glove from her backpack, blows it up like a
balloon, ties it shut and announces to the screaming child “Look! A chicken!”
He immediately stops crying, tentatively reaches for the chicken, which looks nothing
at all like a chicken and pulls it close to his chest.
The plastic bag, which I have managed to tear enough to break free, slides out and the
pram unlocks. I put the pram in the back of the car. My grateful neighbour manhandles her
toddler into the car and is off. I have broken a sweat.
“It’s starting today.” says Suvi, eyebrows raised with excitement.
“What is?” I reply, trying to remove a sweat stuck curl from my chin.
“The story, the one in the sky. It was delayed for a few days because of the rain. But
last night I saw – the weather will let it begin today”.
I look blankly back at her. “Sorry, I…what? I’ve been away.”
“It’s for the biennale. This year they are doing these multiple pieces on migration.
People who are here for whatever reason. And this one is on refugees, or like, something
about people trying to get permanent visas”
“An exhibition on paperwork?”
“No. It’s like a “why are they here?” Kind of thing. The guy who did it, he got these
stories from people, to help them express why they are trying to…be here. And he’s writing
them in the sky.”
“He’s what?” I’m in shock. I know who this is. My conceptual artist. My aspirant,
now actual, skywriter.
“Don’t worry, he’s changed their names. Each story will take a few days. About one
or two sentences a day.”
She convinces me to go with her and I decide to join her without telling her I know
this man. That I went on a bad date with him and his idea, clearly now happening, felt
ridiculous to me. I offer to go back up to my house to grab another blanket and cushion but
no, she does not want to miss the beginning.
We walk quickly down to the field near my place. I come here rarely, and if I do, I
just run around the perimeter. Normally it is a place for families to tire out their children, or
for people to let their dog off the leash. Today it is filling with people, all trying to position
themselves to stare at the sky.
She selects a spot somewhere near the centre of the field and we lay down her picnic
blanket. Head propped up on either side of the one cushion.
I stare up at the sky. So far nothing. Just blue. So wide it feels like it might crush you.
Suvi and I chat as we wait. We talk about my dad’s funeral, who came, who didn’t, the weird
things people remember about someone. A few people are setting up around us, some have
thought to bring cushions, some are couples lying directly on the grass.
Slowly the field fills. I have not thought of it before but this park, near my own home
is perfect for looking at the sky. The gentle slope of the grass, no tall buildings around to
obstruct vision. Eucalypts only at the far edge of the park.
Slowly, like a wave, we all become aware of a plane. We point. It’s crossing the sky
and because the sky feels so large here it looks like it’s moving too slow.
It cuts one way, then the other, and then the white smoke begins. We lie back as the
words unfold in precarious curves and diving lines above us.
The words take a long time to form. We lay there silently until the plane was up to the
tricky business of crossing a “t” and Suvi says:
“When I was young and my grandfather was still alive, he used to babysit me after
school. He’d smoke from a pipe, and he could make shapes with the smoke. They would fade
away and I kept asking him to make the shapes last longer. I used to be annoyed that he
wouldn’t, and he’d laugh at me.”
We laughed at her naïveté.
I thought about the skywriter. Being in the plane. Soaring and falling through the air.
My friend’s grandfather. The fading of letters in the sky. Then I remembered the toothpicks.
My father’s puzzle at the bar. The impermanence of it all.
We stared at the first line, the only line for today, as it faded away:
“Aspen followed the stars.”