For hours we stare at the sky, listening to the sound of the aircraft engines, clouds beneath the wings, above us thin air, higher up dark weightlessness, wisps of mist, the sun seems to be setting way down there, a tunnel full of rushing sound, voices in the background, we forget we’re flying, our feet on the ground, we’re living in the here and now, a little plane way down there, floating in the same weightlessness, we’re open and alert, nothing has ever vanished, maybe people or things have got lost but nothing has ever vanished, we have to develop a kind of mobility so we can touch things, straight through pixels and ether, straight through time, a city spreads out beneath us, hundreds of thousands of tiny lights, a glowing carpet, within it a multitude of opportunities, encounters, reflections, and you think somewhere among all those lights…
My first city was spread out across the big table in the attic. My grandfather had built it in his youth around the turn of the century. In the middle was the main station. A graceful building with glass windows and brass-handled doors. On the platform was a sign reading ‘Please have your tickets ready’. The iron railway line ran across and all around the city. Along it were houses, hotels, a water tower, a church and a school.
In the 1930s my father added on a zoo and a warehouse, and a Meccano crane. In my own youth, I modernised the city by adding new Lego buildings. Next to the old iron rails I built a new railway line for trains that didn’t have to be wound up but ran on batteries. My city was a modern city with a historic center.
As a child I was especially interested in the technology of the city, the public spaces, the transport facilities. I designed streets, boulevards, roundabouts and parking spaces for my Matchbox cars. I devised a route for the three generations of tin, rubber and plastic dolls. At the edge of the table I created port installations and an airport. I even built a missile base.
Sometimes I got fed up with the publicness of the city, preferring the private world of the doll house – and if that wasn’t private enough for me, I started dressing and undressing Barbie, Ken and Skipper.
I wasn’t interested in the village I grew up in, the meadows, the woods, the cows and horses. My grandmother took me to the real city. We arrived by train at the main station. We walked hand in hand along a big boulevard to the canal tour boats, stopping for ice cream on the way. The boat took us along the canals and through the port area. It was as if I’d been shrunk to the size of a doll and was travelling through my own toy world.
The city became the city of faces, and faces opened up the way to bodies. I wanted to get to know them all.
I think that on my first visit to the city I didn’t look at the people, but at the buildings, the cars, the store windows. It’s terrible but true: the only faces that interested me were the ones on the wax sculptures at Madame Tussauds, for they looked just like the real thing.
I looked at dolls before I looked at people I only began to observe other people when I’d learned to look at myself. After that I could never again see a city without looking at the people who lived there. Maybe that time with my grandmother was the last time.
I do sometimes try, do try to look at the city itself, just the buildings, the squares, the streets… but that look on that one passerby’s face can wipe out the whole city in a flash.
Of all the stories the city has to tell, I used to think the most important ones were love stories. They were controlled by a mysterious force. You could call it chance or necessity. Sometimes chance was called fate. I had no trouble accepting fate, because chance could always wipe it out again. The city became the city of faces, and faces opened up the way to bodies. I wanted to get to know them all.
I remember my first lover. I knew it was just the beginning. My second one, my third. I remember being able to count them on the fingers of one hand. I remember needing my other hand, and then that both hands weren’t enough. I remember murmuring their names. The criterion for a lover was all the way. Just kissing wasn’t a lover. And just sleeping wasn’t a lover either. There had to be the eruption of orgasm.
I remember wanting to see all my lovers in one room. Just to see what would happen. Whether they’d fancy each other too. The idea made me jealous, but still I tormented myself with it. Learning how to swap.
I remember keeping a tally, on the wall next to my bed. I remember stopping one day. No longer being interested in the past. The idea that I could forget was revolutionary. It meant releasing my life. Daring to live. Leaving a past behind me, with parts of it just as unknown as the future that lay ahead of me.
I remember thinking about how many more lovers I could have. I thought a man in good health should be able to have one a week. I thought I could easily manage two thousand. But in fact – if I was perfectly honest with myself – that wasn’t enough. Two thousand. So many men, so little time, how can I choose. I remember looking around on the dance floor at all those staring faces that seemed to be thinking the same thing.
I remember working out how many lovers I could have if I devoted my whole life to making love. In a city I should be able to manage three a day. Thousand a year. For thirty years. Thirty thousand. And whatever came after that would be a nice extra. But even that wasn’t really enough. Thirty thousand – what was thirty thousand? I imagined all the food I’d ever eat being put out on display in one big shed, and all the water I’d ever drink being poured into one swimming pool.
I remember having a real lover, my first real one. I expanded my definition from ‘all the way’ to ‘true love’, and suddenly one hand was enough again. A lover was someone I loved. I remember working out how many days we’d spend together. How many days if things all worked out. Even a lifetime was far too short. I remember thinking it might be better not to love my lover so much, for the idea that we had so little time together made me unhappy.
One of these mannequins in particular has caught my eye. A blonde one with pale eyes. She’s sitting on all fours. Digging her nails into the ground. I call her Brenda.
I remember not being able to imagine ever being rid of my first real lover, but eventually I was rid of him – eventually he even vanished from my thoughts. Even love wasn’t strong enough to conquer forgetting. Perhaps that’s a good thing. Perhaps forgetting brings solace. Perhaps the best death you can wish for yourself is gradually forgetting everyone, and then, when you’ve forgotten everyone, expiring. When you’ve forgotten everyone, there’s no need to say goodbye. It hurts to say goodbye. And forgetting is something you can’t feel.
Quartier 206, the Berlin department store on Friedrichstrasse, a bastion of luxury. Die Sixties sind das Revival der Saison! says the director. Elegantly dressed men and women are inspecting the new collections. Champagne à volonté. A party given by the French fashion house Chloé. There are store window dolls on a catwalk in all kinds of poses. One of these mannequins in particular has caught my eye. A blonde one with pale eyes. She’s sitting on all fours. Digging her nails into the ground. I call her Brenda. Dolls are much nicer than real people. They can be whoever you want them to be.
I used to play with my sister’s dolls, the Barbie dolls, the Lego family, the rubber dolls from the doll house. I looked at dolls before I looked at people. I only began to observe other people when I’d learned to look at myself.
I wanted to be a window dresser so that I could dress and undress the store window dolls, a kind of grown-up way of playing with dolls; they seemed like ideal people to me, because they never answered back and they could listen, so they were real friends.
I feel a hand on the back of my neck. It’s Sabine from Cologne
A year ago I went out with my friend Veronique Branquinho to find store window dolls for her new shop in Antwerp. In one shop we saw some that looked like living dolls, men, women and children of all races, with such realistic eyes and mouths it was simply terrifying. I told the saleswoman you really couldn’t put them in a store window, but she said you could. I said ‘But really – if you think about it – you can’t’, but she said even then you could. I said: ‘But these are just like real people, they’re no longer dolls’, but the saleswoman assured me they really were dolls. ‘Yes, I said, but they’re too real, it’s obscene.’ Shaking her head, the saleswoman said they were works of art, made by real artists, in most cases they were replicas of their own wives, friends and children.
I feel a hand on the back of my neck. It’s Sabine from Cologne.
‘What are you doing here?’
‘What are you doing here?’
She’s here in Berlin for Art Forum, the contemporary art fair, she just happened to come into this shop. She’s talking to other women just like her: middle-aged, alone, wealthy. They’re talking about the fashion parades in Paris next week, and the Frieze Art Fair in London the week after that and then Miami and then the Armory Show in New York. Sabine was one of the first people to visit the gallery I once owned with a lover of mine in Brussels. She always asked what the works of art cost, but she never bought anything from us. At fairs she always bought from the stands right opposite us, as if she wanted us to see that she did collect. Our art wasn’t arty enough for her. To be art, it has to nauseate her. She cries out in German, ‘Everything’s moving – the world is young’.
She cries out in German, ‘Everything’s moving – the world is young’.
She drags me after her through the shop, she wants to buy stuff. Today she’s got lots of money to spend, non-stop she tries on one item after the other, our glasses are refilled. It’s a game, on and off, on-off, on-off. I keep track of what she wants to buy: a short orange jacket by Marc Jacobs, she calls it ‘very retro, aber very very now’, an op-artish silk dress by Missoni, a diagonally striped woollen coat by Missoni, rose-patterned jeans by Chloé, a plaid skirt by Jil Sander, two pairs of the same above-the-knee boots by Manolo Blahnik, a ‘U-Bag’ by Jil Sander and so on. She asks if there’s anything I’d like too, but the question evaporates when someone she knows goes into the fitting room opposite us and Sabine asks me to make sure she hasn’t picked out the same clothes. When we come back out of the fitting room we’re photographed by all kinds of women’s magazines. Sabine introduces me as her boyfriend. I’ve lost sight of the Frenchman who brought me here, maybe he’s gone home, so I talk to a nice guy who dressed Chloé’s store window dolls, I ask him if he also used to play with dolls, yes, he constantly played with dolls, but these ones are ideal because they’re life-size, in fact he himself even looks like one, round eyes, small mouth, scarf. He’s cute.
Cute. I love that word. There’s no other way to express it. Pretty, good-looking, sweet. Maybe even lovable. I’m talking about the world as I’d like to see it. These days I hardly ever indulge my love of dolls. The last one I took home with me was a pirate I found in Berlin in the winter and put on the back of the little horse I bought this summer at the horse races in Rio de Janeiro, a pretty beige horse with a cheerfully nodding head. The jockeys I saw parading on their horses before the races were really cute. And recently a pair of Playmobil gypsies. I do regularly buy dolls for my friends’ children and even for the children of people who aren’t my friends, and – I know this sounds vain – the dolls I give the children often become their favourites. You need to have an eye for it. The right doll. I even used to think of myself as a doll that lived a toy life, but I can’t keep that up – I’ve never been a doll, I’m not frivolous or innocent enough. I’m a grown man, but as I write this I don’t even know what ‘a grown man’ means.
The window dresser reminds me of Max.
I’ve never written about him.
I was cruel to him.
He said he loved me.
He had a round face and big, round blue eyes and blond hair that stuck out in all directions.
And cute blond sideburns.
And he had hair on his chest and sang songs for me.
And he wrote poems and made daisy chains. He knew the names of all the flowers and birds.
And he stole a Montessori pink tower from a nursery school for me. I waited for him in the school breaks.I loved the way he acted with the four-year-olds. It was so direct. As if he was four years old too.
Whenever I phoned, he came over.
And whenever I wanted him to leave, he left.
We went for walks in the sand dunes.
He always had soda pop with him, and biscuits and a blanket. I think he’s the most doll-like boyfriend I’ve ever had.
He was a golden guy.
And a great golfer. I was in love with his swing.
I’ve never been a doll, I’m not frivolous or innocent enough. I’m a grown man, but as I write this I don’t even know what ‘a grown man’ means.
I used to play endlessly with Lego, I built houses out of transparent bricks, houses with flat roofs. My boyfriend Steven and I now live in a house like that, a house in the sky on the surface of the city. Sometimes I imagine we’re dolls. Then we’re cute and indestructible and can do whatever we want.
I love pop music – it reminds me of soda pop.
Electro Pop. Pop Art.
And I like Les Poppys.
Dolls never get tired.
They can fly and they can jump.
And they can really look at things.
When people look at things, they always have their own take on them.
But dolls don’t.
Sometimes Steven and I look like dolls.
We take the lift downstairs, get into our super-duper car and zoom out of the garage, out into the world, out to the airport, into a jolly little plane, and up we pop, pop, pop.
Rock & Roll
This is something else.
It doesn’t make me feel light.
But I do like Nico of The Velvet Underground.
The doll that didn’t want to be a doll.
I want to be lifted up. Champagne rather than whisky.
But if I drink too much champagne I fly over tables.
And find I can’t fly.
Then Steven says ‘Home we go’.
The grown man who thought he was a doll is taken away.
I remember Sylvia Kristel on the bed in her hotel room in Hollywood.
This, as I remember, is where things start getting mixed up. I talked to a Russian woman who thought I was Tom Ford, I didn’t disabuse her of the notion, she said she really liked what I did, then a woman from Polish Vogue spoke to me, I began talking about my favourite writer Witold Gombrowicz, but she’d never heard of him, she asked me to write his name down, she might be able to interview him for her magazine some time, Sabine and all her bags were collected by her chauffeur, and I was left alone with the window dresser. ‘Let’s the two of us go and tuck in the dolls,’ I suggested, and at that very moment a big black attendant clicked the lights off. I took hold of the window dresser as you’d take hold of a doll – not that he was so playful, but he acted like a doll. I played with his body, shifted it, moved it, stroked it, turned it round, pressed my body to it, my mouth, my eyes. He followed me, let himself be shifted, adopted the poses I chose. He said he questioned himself, never matched up with himself, always saw himself from a distance, felt like the outside of something. Inside he was empty, his essence was outside, it could no longer get in. He was a doll, a living doll, I pressed my body to him, my mouth, my eyes. I bent over him, he asked ‘Do you love me?’ and then ‘Will you always stay with me?’ That was when Brenda began moving. She crawled over to us, put a hand on my shoulder. Dolls are much nicer than real people, for they can be whoever you want them to be. But the scary thing is that they can come to life if you’ve had too much to drink.
That was when Brenda began moving. She crawled over to us, put a hand on my shoulder. Dolls are much nicer than real people, for they can be whoever you want them to be.
I remember Maurizio Cattelan’s little praying Hitler, kneeling in the Haus der Kunst in Munich.
I remember the trouble I had as a child when coloring people. I used yellow, and pink and brown, I mixed the colors, but I never managed to get the color of people right, I was able to give everything else the right color – clothes, houses, trees, the sky, but not people, not people’s skin. In the end I gave up coloring people’s skin and left it the same colour as the paper.
I remember Sylvia Kristel on the bed in her hotel room in Hollywood. Each day she painted a self-portrait, using her lipstick, eye shadow, mascara and blush. Painting a person by making her up.
I remember Ron Mueck’s exhibition at the Hamburger Bahnhof in Berlin. The naked little man in the boat, peering at the horizon. It made me want to cry. He looked more vulnerable than a real person.
I remember the opening of Rineke Dijkstra’s exhibition in New York. First we’d all looked at the more than life-size portraits of the foreign legionary. As we all got drunk and focused on each other, I suddenly noticed that the legionary in the photograph was looking at us from all directions.
I remember my mother’s skin when she was dead. I stroked it with my hand, I pressed my lips to her skin, but she’d gone, she’d withdrawn and I could no longer find her. I can’t deal with that. I don’t want anyone to withdraw. Could that be why I’m sometimes so reckless? So as not to feel that pain? Is that why I blow things up, out of proportion? Is that why I sometimes want to be a doll?
I walk the city late at night, my hands in my pockets, I pick up my pace, people fill the city, the city fills the people, I cross the street, the scent of a guy walking ahead of me, two women giggling, the days roll by, I’m seventeen, seventy-five, thirty-five, twenty-four, I want to be the things I see, give every face and place my name, I cross the street, take a left, I go inside, the stirring rhythm, a wistful voice, I take off my sweater, wrestle my way forward through the people, and there’s a young woman at her microphone, her skinny body, the guy at his keyboards, the friction between beat and sadness, longing and absence, my lips moving with them, I walk the city late at night, does everyone here do the same, I want to be the things I see, give every face and place my name, I cross the street, take a right, pick up my pace, pass a fight, did I grow up just to stay home, I’m not immune,
I love this tune, I wanna
love more, I just
wanna love more