I photographed Erzebet Almo’s last exhibition, but I didn’t keep any of the pictures for myself, not so much as a thumbnail. Even if they hadn’t been highly censored as one of the most controversial moments in modern art history I wouldn’t have wanted too seek them out; it made me sick to look at them, and through my grief I couldn’t understand how anyone else could set eyes on those photographs without that same wrenching nausea. The images themslves were good- brilliant, even, the best I’d ever shot, or will again, although not through any failing in my own ability. It’s simply that there’s no subject or concept in the world that could outshine Erzebet, and I’ve had to make peace with the fact.
Even now I don’t know why she chose me for that exhibition; she would never tell me, although I asked her many times. Being a gauche twenty-four-year-old with few publications beyond the local paper I was far from the most qualified talent on her books, nor the most talented. She could have had Steven Meisel, Annie Leibovitz, Paolo Roversi- but it was me she reached out to, responding to long-forgotten fanmail I’d sent in my regrettable teens.
“I like your work,” the message said, typically blunt and lacking in introduction, as was the Almo way. “I have terminal cancer. I will have one more exhibit in my home before I die. Stay with me a month, understand my process. Then we shoot.”
Words couldn’t express the strange mix of elation and despair I felt upon reading those words. Losing her felt like losing a parent- worse, as we’d never been close -like losing my passion for life itself. That was how much she’d meant to me, and for so long. My first taste of her had been quite accidental, stumbling into a display of her works on a college trip to a local gallery. ‘Synapse’, like, all of Erzebet’s exhibitions, was a multi media experience, exploring the effects of various drugs upon the human body. I found myself walking through a grotesque wonderland, sculptures made of hypodermic needles puncturing clay flesh, close-up photographs and video clips of bloodied noses and holes gaping in bare underarms. Performers sat in frozen tableau of ecstasy and torment alike, their modern clothes as artfully rumpled as reinessance paintings, and in each segment of the exhibition sounds of moaning, vomiting and sobbing played at intervals from a hidden speaker- all created and directed by Erzebet, I’d later learn.
As with all her displays the great artist herself was at the centre, like the prize at the end of a mythical labyrinth. There she’d sat on a simple white chair, completely naked, her long, black hair loose around her. But it wasn’t her nudity that captured me, although being a teenage boy I can’t deny that stirred something in me. It was Erzebet’s utter, grisly commitment to the art: a hundred needles threaded her flesh, white dust coated her upper lip, and hundreds of pills filled her outstretched palms and lap, stacked against coils of dark pubic hair. Her eyes were closed, not even flickering as I circled the chair. Her stillness was complete, yet somehow unmistakably alert, conscious.
Soon afterwards a gallery staff member saw me and hurriedly ushered me away; it had been a ticketed event, and I’d blundered into it firstly without paying and secondly having known nothing of Erzebet beforehand. I couldn’t believe I’d stood mere inches away from a world renowned artist, felt her slow breath on my face as I’d leant towards her. But the fame impressed me far less than she had in that moment, and I quickly became enamoured with her, devouring every work of her four decade long career.
It shocked me to find that Erzebet had been sixty during Synapse; she hadn’t looked a day over thirty five, her skin smooth, lineless, healthy. News outlets speculated what cosmetic procedures she’d had done, what obscure diet or exercise routine had been adopted to concentrate body and mind into perpetual vigour. Whenever Erzebet herself was asked, however, she was humorously enigmatic, throwing out red herrings that I’d later learn made more sense than the truth.
“Horse riding, but only at night.”
“Straight vodka for breakfast, but other alcohol- not a drop.”
Even before I ever met her in person I was head over heels for her wit, her mind. It was never the visual appearance of Erzebet’s art itself that fascinated me but that fact that she herself was the powerhouse of every project, pushing forth a single thesis: the extremes that a human being could push themselves to. She’d mutilated herself many times, had other performers strike or hold weapons to her throat, allowed animals to crawl upon and bite her, rarely responding with more than the softest cry.
Historically, politically, sensually, physically- every topic served to push her to explore a paramount, that of herself, that of others, never the moral or ethical question of it but one of almost scientific curiosity. Although being a raw young student I was unable to relate to Erzebet’s artistic hedonism I was drawn irresistibly to it, and to her.
And her to me.
So it was in a confused fog of desperate sadness and even more desperate, eager admiration that I agreed to work as Erzebet’s photographer, asking few questions before throwing myself in. Arrangements were made for me to be picked up from a train station and driven to Erzebet’s home by a member of her team, who themselves carried their own strange mythos. It was said that her employees operated as a kind of cult, giving up their whole lives and identities to serve Erzebet in privacy- or secrecy, however you chose to interpret it. The driver, a bearded, bespectacled man in his late thirties, seemed normal enough, chatting the whole journey to put my visibly shaking self at ease. I’d told no one where I was going; this had been one of the conditions of me taking part in the project, and having few family or friends to speak of I’d gladly agreed. However, this meant I still hadn’t had the chance to process that I was finally to meet her, the woman I’d idolised for so long. I was almost incoherent with nerves.
The house, as we approached, was as it had been in photographs I’d poured over in the Architectural Digest, a squat black mansion nestled in a maze of pines. Erzebet stood on the front doorstep, barefoot and wearing a long, white dress, similar to a dozen other she wore at all times, like a uniform. In the flesh she was as beautiful and serene as she’d ever been, still appearing to be in her late thirties despite being almost seventy. Despite the gnawing cancer within her.
She took hold of my shoulders and kissed me, ignoring my stammering awkwardness to usher me warmly into the house.
“Markus will take your bags,” said Erzebet. “Let’s have a drink and discuss the works, yes?”
Straight to the point, as always, yet somehow without explaining anything at all. I followed Erzebet into a cavernous living room, accepting a glass of brandy before I even knew what it was. Sitting intimately close to me on a chaise lounge Erzebet began to explain the plans for her final exhibition, pausing occasionally to observe me nodding along with her.
I was to have very little creative input on the project, serving more as a second pair of eyes than an artist, her living tool. A photographer with ego might have been insulted, but having followed Erzebet so closely for so many years I’d expected and even eagerly anticipated the extremity of her control.
“You do not think I exploit you?” she said, laughing and touching my arm.
Her touch alone made me flush, and I struggled to compose myself.
“I hope that in your month here we have closeness, understanding,” said Erzebet. “Is symbiosis between us, you see, artist and artist and art. Us three. I need you to want what I want exactly, without question. Then the works will play out like a dance. Do you see?”
I nodded; there was nothing she could suggest that would offend me, I was certain of it.
“Well, then,” said Erzebet, relaxing again. “Here is what we do. First week of month is decadence, plenty, enjoyment. The second- I purge, cleanse my body, make myself ready to accept the commitment to the work. And last two weeks before night of exhibit, I live healthy life, meditate, eat and drink well. You are there to see I commit, but you are welcome to join. But it is the exhibition I need you to prepare for. Drink a more and I will explain.”
Shivering a little I complied, my sweaty hand slipping on the brandy glass. I felt hot in Erzebet’s presence, partly with fear that I wouldn’t meet her expectations, partly in the half-belief that this was some weird, protracted dream. But Erzebet’s cool hand slid up my arm to still my grip, and I knew that I was really here, that it was happening.
“You are ready,” she said, quietly. “Do not question yourself. Only listen.”
It was then that Erzebet explained her vision for that last, grand night, all to be hosted in her own home. The longer she talked the more I felt bile rise in my throat. I kept shaking my head and barking out nervous laughter, my hand growing colder and clammier within Erzebet’s own. But at the end of it all I agreed; how could I not? I’d waited this long to meet her in person, and I couldn’t throw that away over my own squeamish emotions.
Erzebet touched my cheek, wiping away tears I hadn’t realised I’d shed. Her thumb was rough with a painter’s callouses, coarse as a man’s.
“Do you see why I wish to do this?” she asked, gently. “You see that it is the only conceivable end to my works?”
It was, of course; her genius had never been wrong.
The first week of Erzebet’s month-long preparation was a circus of leisure and excess. She took every drug imaginable, drank and ate lushly expensive foods, played music and talked long into each night, often until the sun rose. She pushed herself so hard that I worried her heart would give out halfway through the process. But Erzebet’s endurance was, as ever, unmatched, and although I was only expected to observe I found myself compelled to join her, wanting to feel at least a little on her level.
We lay together on her living room carpet, rolling through bouts of great joy, pleasure, sadness. Most days we laughed ourselves hoarse, talking until our voices were barely more than dry croaks. I told her of my quiet, unremarkable childhood, how I’d muddled by without any particular ambition or direction until I’d discovered her, to which she laughed and waved a hand, dismissing herself with ease. In turn she told me how she’d crawled up from poverty, scraping herself into art school where the judgement of her male peers and mentors insensed her into a ruthless need for success. There were many traumas and moments of darkness I’ll never put to page for respect for her, but suffice it to say her life altogether left her with a morbid interest and motif that she’d never let go.
“I do not think much of the past,” said Erzebet. “But it is there, always. I’ve had hunger, of many kinds, I’ve had hurts I thought I would die from, and lived. Every day I think- what else can I do? How much more is left in me, in this body, outside the cold of a cancer ward? Now I am dying you would think there is no more, but there is… so much.”
“You want to make one last mark,” I said, my words slurring badly. “I get it.”
Erzebet turned onto her side, and in the low light of the room I saw sweat gleaming on her face, on her breasts, like tiny shards of broken glass.
“Last is only a word,” she said. “There will be more, beyond that.”
She leaned across to me, her breath sweet with alcohol, and we made love, gently, at first, me feeling a fool, having only touched one other woman before, she with the caution of someone who had lived long enough to learn it. As the week progressed we returned to each other’s arms, this time even more intoxicated and yearning for extremes. We became rough with one another, biting, scratching, tearing out handfuls of hair, licking perspiration and blood from one another’s bodies, as if part of some unspoken ritual. Through it all I felt her unquenchable desire for more, more, more than any person alone could give. I was almost glad when the week ended and the period of abstinence began.
Again I felt concerned that Erzebet would kill herself with her devotion. She fasted of all but water, slept only a few hours of each night, her days spent reading a number of different religious and spiritual texts, many of which I’d never heard of. Erzebet didn’t follow a secular religion, so she explained, but she saw the value and power of many beliefs. Beyond that we refrained from speaking to each other, and although that time should have been deathly boring I was enthralled merely by watching her sit alone, holding herself back from any manner of pleasures.
The final two weeks were the most ordinary, although that wasn’t a word I’d otherwise attach to Erzebet or her life. Slowly she eased back into eating and drinking again, although her diet was strict, prepared by her own personal chef. She carried out many of the religious practices she’d read about, prayers, meditation, rituals meant to clear her mind and spirit, and better her concentration. Any down time was spent with me, introducing me to artists I’d never heard of, visiting various acquaintences or taking long country walks nearby.
Although I was there to serve a purpose I felt as if Erzebet had genuine care for me and my thoughts. Yet in spite of it there was still some barrier preventing us from quite becoming friends, equals- strange, I know, considering I’d been inside her, and she in me, but that was the way it was. Erzebet, too, must have been thinking of it, for over dinner during on one of those final days she stopped mid-conversation and looked at me, her dark, dark eyes watering.
“If it did not have to be this way, I would be happy,” she said. “But is part of the work. All has to be so.”
“I know,” I said, but again there were tears in my own eyes, and I knew that I’d never forget this night, never move on from it, and I hadn’t even lived it yet.
I oversaw that night’s preparations, feeling rather redundant as six of Erzebet’s assistants removed all the furniture from the vast living room and boarded up the windows. Long tables were brought in along with sterile plastic seats, like those found in hospital waiting rooms. A larger, wooden chair was placed facing them, and glasses of alcohol were lined up on the tabletops with portioned quantities of drugs- I no longer remember which, just that they were of the mind-altering kind, and strong. A further table, positioned in front of Erzebet’s chair, was laden with a number of different kitchen utensils, rranging from the smallest teaspoon to a dog-toothed meatsaw. Upon seeing them I felt that squeezing sickness return, but forced it down as best I could.
“Jakub, my darling,” said Erzebet.
She’d entered the room without me noticing, her tread silent. The familiar gauzy white dress was draped over her tall, slender frame, billowing slightly, although there was no breeze in the room.
“Are you ready?” she asked.
I wanted to shake my head, but I couldn’t. There was a heat behind Erzebet’s eyes, the fervour I knew from every televised interview and photograph of her discussing her works, the desire to create. I refused to be the one to quench it.
“What about you?” I asked.
“Oh, you know,” said Erzebet, smiling. “I’ve never been nervous a day in my life. And everything else, for afterwards- my assistants will handle it. You will be paid for your troubles. Then all that is left with be the art.”
“I don’t care about the payment,” I said, but Erzebet was already gliding away and lowering herself into her chair.
I didn’t bother to speak to her again. The familiar expression of deep, meditative concentration had come over her face, and I knew that it wouldn’t break until the end. Soon after a door opened as a number of red masked figures were escorted into the room. I’d been informed that they were a select group of close friends, admirers and peers, all of whom had signed legal documents protecting both their reputation and safety, and that of Erzebet’s name. They would all remain nameless, utterly and completely, and could never publicly admit they’d taken part in the exhibition even if they wanted to.
Each smooth, crimson face turned curiously towards me as they walked to their seats; I, too, was wearing a mask, although I was so unknown to their world that I might as well have gone without one. Once all were seated one of Erzebet’s assistants stepped forward to explain the process as it would play out, although all attending had already been given a general brief. They were given a final chance to leave if they no longer wished to partake, and one or two people did get up from their seats and walk rather briskly from the room, heads down, as if ashamed. The others stirred and muttered, but when nobody else stood the doors were locked and the room fell into a tense silence.
Erzebet’s lowered eyes flickered open, and she spoke a single word, the last I’d ever hear her speak.
There was another rumble amongst the guests before they rose to take drinks and swallow the pills that had been set aside for them. A thin woman broke away from the milling crowd and approached the table of utensils, volunteering herself as the catalyst for that night’s works. She picked up a teaspoon and, giggling slightly, leaned forward to tap the back of Erzebet’s knuckles, raising a faint smile on the artist’s face. The woman dropped the spoon and quickly retreated, casting me a glance as I dutifully photographed the process through concealed eye holes in the mask.
Another woman edged to the front of the room, a husky figure I recognised as a fashion designer who’d visited Erzebet only a week ago. She took up a fork and slowly dragged the tines through Erzebet’s hair, provoking a ripple of laughter from the observing guests. Like the other woman she returned to her drink and another took her place, then another, each of them playfully bringing one of the many tools in contact with Erzebet in different ways. I followed them carefully, capturing the specific angles and shot types Erzeber had listed, weeks ago.
Some guests shied away from the camera, others played to it, emboldened by the knowledge that no one would ever know it was them. Similarly the intensity of contact between Erzebet and her audience increased; gentle scratches and strokes with the proferred tools became snips of her hair or the hem of her dress, quick grazes that made Erzebet gasp through her teeth before settling into her cultivated calm again. I wanted to reach out and stop each hand as they extended towards her, smother the stupid laughter emerging from under the masks, but I couldn’t destroy the atmosphere of the room.
The only rules of the three hour exhibition were that the participants must wait until the whole group had finished a turn before they could take another, and in that turn could only select a single tool to use upon Erzebet’s body. The men in the room were boldest, I noticed, taking each go to push further than they’d gone before. One sloughed Erzebet’s dress from her shoulder with a pair of garden shears and cupped her exposed breast in his hand, a second took a fire lighter to her forelock and scorched a thin piece of hair away, quickly snuffing the flame as it touched her scalp. A third pushed a box cutter into Erzebet’s mouth and opened it within, retrieving the blade shiny with blood. There was an undercurrent of sexual aggression there, yet almost a strange kind of romance, too, for as still and vulnerable as Erzebet appeared she willingly allowed it all, welcoming as a lover might an embrace.
Then, as the drugs set in, the women of the group began to match their counterparts, even surpassing them in their brutality. A tall lady took a cheese grater to Erzebet’s thigh, scouring until two layers of skin sloughed off in a stream of blood, and a woman scarcely older than a girl brought a handsaw to Erzebet’s ear and sliced until it hung from her head by the smallest sinew.
What they all saw in their frenzy of narcotics I can only imagine, for I was stone cold sober and wrestling my revulsion in order to carry out my part of the work. Some of them fought amongst themselves, some because their drug-addled brains viewed one another as enemies or demons, others out of desperation for their next turn with Erzebet. A vocal few sat on the floor, screaming, vomiting, crying. Erzebet’s attendants quietly broke up any scraps and removed the most hysterical guests to the side of the room, none of them allowed to leave until the end.
The entire space was ripe with the stink of blood, sweat and piss; I’d watched many of the guests soil themselves standing up or in corners, having no bathroom nearby to run to. Then again some had simply lost their faculties so completely that they’d forgotten where they were, knowing only the task at hand.
Erzebet herself, who had taken a great many pain-killing drugs before beginning the work, was more or less at peace. She let out only an occasional cry or whimper, never signalling that she wanted it to end. I watched one side of her face scorched down to gnarled, black tissue, her feet and hands crushed, her ripcage opened, hair sheared and every aspect of her womanhood violated. Erzebet’s smile remained unshaken, although what was left in that chair was like some grisly etching torn from a del Toro sketchbook.
She should have been dead hours ago, but she endured, as she always had.
My hands shuddered and jumped on the camera, and had I not hung it about my neck it might have fallen to the floor and shattered many times. I openly sobbed behind the mask, uncaring who saw, or what they thought. As the final minutes of the exhibition edged to a close I saw Erzebet’s bloodied eyes flicker towards the vast clock pinned to the wall, heard a tight sigh emerge from her raw throat.
Around her the guests slowed in their approach, bumbling like drunken dancers in the carnage of flesh, blood and bone strewn on the plush carpet around them. They allowed me walk to the front of the room, to Erzebet, unharmed. An attendant took my camera from me, raising it to take one final shot as, unbelievably, Erzebet stood on her gouged and battered legs to meet me. As agreed in our plans I lifted the lower half of my mask just enough to kiss her, tasting blood and charred flesh and the bitterness of drugs before she toppled back into the chair again.
Dead. At least, I can only assume that she was dead, for after that we were all expected to leave. The guests were allowed to wash and recover from the intake of drugs in another, separate room, but I packed my bags and and exited the house immediately. Erzebet, I was told, would have her last rites carried out in private, and after the SD card containing the hellish record of that night had been removed from my camera it would be returned to me in the post. All guests, myself included, would all be monitored from afar to be sure they obeyed the terms of the project, although unconditionally offered mental health support from a private team sanctioned by Erzebet’s estate.
She was wealthy enough to consider all and every facet of the aftermath, except perhaps how deeply I would grieve.
When the images from Erzebet’s last exhibit appeared in every gallery and media avenue in the world to simultaneous horror and acclaim I didn’t have the energy to be proud. Even when I received vast quantities of money, even when I found myself inexplicably contacted by numerous celebrities and publications for work- I felt nothing but misery and disgust, in myself, in the project. Erzebet had died rapturously amongst admirers rather than in a hospital, as she’d so feared; I’d thought that I’d wanted that for her, too, but now there seemed no way to imagine happiness or satisfaction in anything more.
Then I saw her again.
At first I couldn’t believe it. I’d spent years reading articles speculating about that mysterious final exhibit, who had been part of it, whether the police would ever make headway on their investigations, whether a crime had even been committed at all, considering Erzebet had been an obviously consenting party. On whether Erzebet’s corpse would ever be found, as it hadn’t been even eight years later. Deep down I’d been waiting for the confirmation that she was really gone, unable to find any closure in her attendants’ claims that all would be dealt with to her tastes. Still, I’d never expected her to be anything but deceased, not really.
The vision of her raw, staring face in front of my lens had come to me hour after hour, day after day, like the memory of a war- so when I saw it one day across a bar in Italy, intact, unmarked, I didn’t think that it was Erzebet, only a younger lookalike. I was there celebrating a spread I’d shot for Vogue- or rather, drown my sorrows and trauma as I did every night, success or not. Turning my head while waiting for the bartender to pour my drinks I saw a woman step between two tables, adjusting a thin red headscarf. She was slim, dark-haired, her beauty the odd, unpretty kind I was used to on the fashion scene. But it was different because I remembered it, remembered it so well that for a moment I couldn’t breathe.
This woman was fourty years younger than the Erzebet I knew, her face flush with youth and health. Her eyes, meeting mine, were the same: dark, calm, gentle. She stopped and gazed at me for a minute or so, clearly considering whether or not to approach. Then the bartender tugged my attention away from her just long enough for her to make up her mind and drift away.
I was sure that it was her- am sure, although it’s quite impossible. She couldn’t have survived her mutilation, and certainly couldn’t have reversed her years so drastically in her recovery. At least, not by any medical means I know of, but then science had never been Erzebet’s particular interest.
Sometimes when I think back to the long process of preparation and the carnage of that night I wonder if I was part of something more than art, something I’ll never understand. If what I saw wasn’t death, but another extreme, one that most people experience only once.
There are days I’m not sure that I saw Erzebet’s last exhibition, after all.