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"Flying Over Venice", Li Wei

Eugene Lim is stranger than (science) fiction

Read the writer's moving story about the end of the art world and, by the sounds of it, the human race

As part of our new summer US project States of Independence we've invited our favourite 30 American curators, magazines, creatives and institutions to takeover Dazed for a day.

Dennis Cooper, the punk pioneer of the written word and Visionaries collaborator, brings his transgressive spirit to Dazed today. There's an interview with the man himself – "America's most dangerous writer" – as well as his curated selection of other writers who go against the grain: including Eugene LimFrank Hinton and Joyelle McSweeney with her Oscar Pistorius opera (no, really).

Eugene Lim. Just take it from us when we say: remember that name. The writer's got countless contributions to anthologies and chapbooks, as well as two novels – Fog & Car and last year's acclaimed The Strangers under his belt. What links everything penned by the Brooklynite, however, is their sense of adventure: and not the kind of adventure, as his short story for Dazed would inititally (incorrectly) suggest, that connotes a rollicking science-fiction adventure to the stars and back. It's best, with Lim, to instead expect the unexpected. Read our online exclusive, "Ursula's Curse" – taken from the novel that Lim is currently working on – to discover a loosely poetic prose that seems to come from another time altogether. And, in true Cooper tradition, that's looking forward – not back.

Dennis Cooper: "Eugene Lim is amazing because he's really adventurous with form and style in this way that I really like, and it's so refined. It's so hard to break apart fiction and do something really unusual with it, and to do it so gracefully. Eugene seems to be able to use form in a really exciting way, but he can also just continually make it beautiful. I mean, it's very poetic; it’s just lovely. He's a very good writer. I think he's really special."

URSULA'S CURSE                                               

Gary told me the story while we were at the threshold of the arena. It was during the tense twenty minutes or so before a glowing barrier would be raised, at which point we would be forced to step under the main lights and fight a battle for our lives.

What had happened was this. Firmly in the throes of a desultory and yet comfortably bland middle age, Gary and I had been randomly chosen by a technologically superior intergalactic race who were themselves nonetheless emotionally rather savage or at least demonstratively ethically devolved, since their chosen entertainment was to pluck unsuspecting representatives from various worlds across the universe and give them bludgeons and knives in order to fight to the death in a booby-trapped coliseum.

While we were in the austere waiting area, just prior to this humiliating and murderous match for which we’d been conscripted, we heard the hoots and terrifying hollers of a roaring alien crowd mixing with the screams and shrieks of dying humanoids from a rich assortment of planets.

Gary – perhaps in order to calm me down, perhaps in order to calm himself down, perhaps because Ursula’s death was the last one he’d experienced – spent those tense twenty minutes telling me this tale:

“Ursula – you remember me mentioning her, don’t you? Well, about a year and a half ago I found out she’d killed herself. I hadn’t seen her recently. Last I’d heard she’d moved to Albuquerque and then to Portland, Oregon.

“Around when we’d first met she’d given me an expensive and very delicate set of colored pencils.

“When she’d given them to me I was impressed and happy, but then after making just a few drawings, I put them away and didn’t think about them until years later.

“Their chosen entertainment was to pluck unsuspecting representatives from various worlds across the universe and give them bludgeons and knives in order to fight to the death in a booby-trapped coliseum.” – Eugene Lim

“I met Ursula at a party I’d gone to outside of Brattleboro. Some rich gallerist was having a weekend-long party and somehow I’d been invited. This was when we were both in our twenties. The party was held in the early summer at this rich person’s estate, which frankly was quite beautiful and impressive, with sprawling grounds containing green hills that backed onto a dense wood.

“Ursula was Bangladeshi and we happened to be the only non-white people at the party. That was probably how the conversation started. Some snarky self-defending remark – and the other chimed in and laughed.

“We got along well and took a few walks through the grounds together. Nothing romantic ever happened between us, though I would not have minded at all if it had. There was something important about those conversations, a recognition of a particular excitement that it was crucial to acknowledge but a recognition that needed to be done slyly. In any case we made promises to see each other back in the city – promises each probably was surprised that the other person kept.

“I didn't realize it at the time, but Ursula was already quite a successful artist. She was being collected and shown. Her work straddled the line between sculpture and painting – and since she was a woman – people made easy comparisons between her and Elizabeth Murray or Lee Bontecou or Eva Hesse, but really she was nothing like any of these.  Her process was very physical, a wrestling or slow-dancing with the materials at a glacial beat. This was subverted by her palette, which was candy-colored and light: pastels and neons. The work was immediately identifiable, which is almost all that is required in our current marketplace to be richly compensated and then utterly desaturated by cooptation.

“But she came up with a kind of defense. One day she made a painting called Ursula’s Curse, which consisted of just a few sentences in white block lettering against a black background. It read:

This painting cannot be bought or sold for more than the total wages of three months full-time employment at the minimum wage as determined by the state of New York. If this painting should be sold for greater than this amount, may both the buyer and seller be considered shit by the entire world and by themselves, and may they spend the afterlife sad and angry and hungry and hopeless as poverty makes. 

“It caused a small sensation. She put her curse on the back of all her works from then on. Others followed suit. For a time it was in vogue, and it seemed at least a tonic or a limit to the art market’s baseness had been found.

“But then people began criticizing her number, saying, “Why three months?” And, “Why New York?” They said it was a naive understanding of capital or that it was just another bourgeois stunt, or, at best, a well-intentioned but flawed gesture. And then the gallerists and critics just began quietly to not return her calls, to shun her. It was insidious, a subtle process – but within a year she was dropped from her gallery, went unmentioned in reviews, and was completely marginalized. The money, in other words, responded to her threat with its immense, stealthy powers.

“Then the difficulties really began...

“She had been working with an industrial putty she’d discovered. It had some commercial origin, but she’d found she could make enormous sculptural reliefs with them. She would mold and work the putty and then drive it to a factory in Long Island and bake it in huge ovens where it took on a deep amethyst hue.

“It was satisfying work. But each night her hands hurt more and more. At first it was a pleasant kind of ache, an organic feedback, a kind of silent and karmic applause – or so she said she thought it. But then the pain grew worse until, eventually, it became unbearable and she was forced to abandon the work. She thought she could just rest, take a break or try another medium, but the pain wouldn’t go away.

“This painting cannot be bought or sold for more than the total wages of three months full-time employment at the minimum wage as determined by the state of New York. If this painting should be sold for greater than this amount, may both the buyer and seller be considered shit by the entire world...” – Eugene Lim

“It turned out to be an aggressive form of arthritis. The disease only grew worse and in a short amount of time, only a few years, she could barely hold a pen or type. She had to give up art-making completely. Her hands became twisted, permanently deformed.

“I didn’t see her much after that. She started traveling, looking for a cure or some kind of treatment, going to Norway and China and then living for a time on the West Coast. We lost touch. When I learned last winter that she’d taken her own life, I realized we hadn’t spoken in several years.

“Even though they’d ignored her for so long, after her suicide the art critics now responded with their usual self-serving nostalgia. Her commercial protest was reframed as a now historical (and therefore toothless) but valiant defiance. Mutual friends began writing little memorials and asked me to do the same. I refused, which angered them, but I couldn’t understand this need to ingratiate oneself before the dead, especially by lying, which is all one ever does.

“And yet again she was constantly in my thoughts. By then I was working at the advertising firm and so in between fiddling with some bus poster for a bank or a web animation for a new brand of soda, my thoughts would turn to her.

“And after a while, almost unthinkingly, I pulled out the box of colored pencils she had given me that summer when we’d first met, during a time in my life when I had expected everything was going to turn out so differently.

“Not quite thinking of her, but not quite not thinking of her, I began drawing with them.

“I started drawing landscapes at first – bucolic scenes: fields and hills and streams. Right away I thought they were turning out well, almost like something was guiding my hand. But they were also a little sentimental. At first I thought they were just dream pictures, just images of unreal places – but slowly I realized I was drawing scenes from that weekend party in Vermont. Almost as soon as I realized this, the drawings started getting worse, as if in coming to understand what I was trying to tell myself, the crucial energy had dissipated.

“I tried to respond by enhancing the core weakness, by making them even more sentimental, making them more consciously about an early summer and about being with other young people and about living a waking dream about future, unlived lives. But they kept taking on an irony I didn’t intend. I had wanted to maintain that feeling of yearning and expectation.

“But the drawings kept getting worse and worse.

“And then one day I stopped drawing the landscapes and started making more abstract pictures.

“I don’t know why I changed, and it was more natural, a slipping away and into, than any conscious decision.

“These new drawings immediately were denser, full of scribbles and layers. Something told me I was also drawing landscapes but of a different kind. And shortly later I realized I was trying to draw the place Ursula had gone to or, maybe more accurately, the place she had become. So that the question Where’s Ursula? was the absolute title of these works in my mind.

“And whereas before I’d found that the drawings had gotten worse at precisely the moment I’d come to consciously understand what I was doing, now, by acknowledging the question – maybe since it was a question – the drawings became better, deeper and more ponderous and richer, at least to myself.

“I also concluded that if anyone else ever saw these drawings, in order for them to really see them, I could not mention the name I’d given them, for this would lead them in too simple and immediate a direction.

And yet since I couldn’t conceivably show these drawings without acknowledging their debt to Ursula, I knew I was in a bind and could never really show these drawings to anyone. I knew there would be no way for anyone to truly see them as they actually were. I didn’t mind but thought it was an interesting trap I’d placed myself in.

“After a few months of this I stopped once again.

"I didn’t draw for some time, maybe even for a year. I was, during that time, still thinking of Ursula and still being pulled back to her pencils, but I knew I wasn’t quite ready to draw again, not yet. I was working out something in the back of my mind. I knew I had to be patient.

“And then one day I saw on a television show, just in a quick transition scene, a truck painting a dashed yellow line down the middle of a highway. Suddenly I knew what I was going to do, and I went to a supply store and bought long rolls of white paper.

“I created a routine for myself.

“Every day after dinner I’d take out one of Ursula’s pencils, and I’d start coloring in a section of paper. My goal was to color in the paper as completely as possible. I was trying to use up the pencil entirely, down to its last crumb. I would work until I couldn’t hold the pencil properly anymore and was rubbing the paper with the very tips of my fingers.

“When I was done each night the sun would be long gone and my fingers would be cramped and my hand would throb and I thought of what Ursula had said about a silent, karmic applause.

“After a month of this practice the pencils were gone and I was left with several scrolls of the now colored paper.

“Then one day just last week I decided to burn the colored scrolls.

“And I burned also the abstractions titled Where’s Ursula?

“And I burned also the drawings of that summer weekend in Vermont.

“And that was that,” Gary said. And then he stopped talking.

After a few minutes of silence, a voice emanating from above told Gary and I to get ready, that it was our turn to fight.

We stood and waited in front of the force field, which glowed a brilliant azure. Gradually this gate of energy began to open.

Previously published in The Coming Envelope #9