Adjunct Professor, University of the Arts
I was lucky enough to be offered a solo exhibition in The Hague, Netherlands, in 1999. A show! In Europe! Boy, was I excited!
The gallery was run by a Serbian fellow I’ll call “Dmitri”. Right before I was scheduled to fly over there, I called Dmitri — and it’s a good thing I did. My work is stained glass installed in light boxes, and it plugs into an outlet. I had shipped four with lights, and four more without. Dmitri told me the lights had burnt out in the four pieces, and to bring replacements. He had never hired an electrician as planned, so the second four boxes needed lighting installed as well. And now all the lighting had to be converted to European current. So I hustled to get a case of new lights overnight, and, of course, ended up dragging a case of 24 fluorescent light fixtures with me on the plane. But, whatever: it was my first European show.
I got there three days before the opening with plenty of time to install the lighting and hang the show. Dmitri was a handsome, rakish, funny, charming fellow. He suggested we first have a few drinks and smoke some cigarettes (smoking: a favorite activity of his) before we unpacked the crates and started to work at the gallery. I was certainly up for that! The next morning I got to the gallery early and Dmitri told me he was tired from fighting and having sex with his girlfriend all night, so why didn’t we go have breakfast and smoke cigarettes for a while before starting to work. I would have rather started working, but I didn’t want to be rude, so I went.
This sort of thing went on for a while, lots and lots of smoking and drinking. The day before the show I finally insisted on installing the lighting. As it turned out, Dmitri had totally screwed up my pieces and fried the living sh*t out of the bulbs by not unpacking the foam that had been packed into the light boxes for shipping. My pieces were packed in crates and there were unpacking instructions included–but as it turns out, he wasn’t inclined to follow instructions, as he was a hot-blooded passionate fellow with no time for that sort of pedantry.
Putting in the new lights was not just a matter of simply changing a bulb–I had to reinstall the entire thingie into the box and rewire it. I struggled to wire them correctly with the little diagram I’d been given; this is hardly my forte, and as I was doing this Dmitri was trying to transform the current into European current with a “truffle” (I have no idea what word he was trying to say in English, so “truffle” it is). He must have shocked himself over a dozen times—big, scary shocks that send him flying across the gallery. I practically begged him to call an electrician, but he was too macho. He couldn’t get the truffle to work and was frying more and more light bulbs to death. I started to panic that I would run out — or that he’d die!
He also kept frying the truffle, but it could be repaired with new fuses. It was the weekend, though, and Dmitri couldn’t find an open hardware store, so where to get new fuses? We panicked over that until he finally found a place. Good thing too–he ultimately went through several dozen.
That evening he took me over to a client’s house. She had evidently shown some interest in buying one of my pieces. Madame DeVries (not her real name) was really cool. She was about 90 years old and had supposedly been the first female commercial airline pilot for KLM before retiring to become a psychotherapist. She told me right off she wasn’t interested in my work, which was fine, but it certainly was awkward to try to have a conversation after that; we talked about her fish tank. Dmitri went to the bathroom at one point and she told me she wouldn’t buy anything from him anymore under any circumstances. Dmitri was starting to come off more and more as some kind of insane, testoterized buffoon, so this made perfect sense to me.
Later, while Dmitri drove me back to my hotel, he pronounced quietly and with supreme confidence: “Madame DeVries: she wants to f**k me.”
The next day—Hooray! My Euro-debut! The bulbs were still not all installed and nothing was hung yet, but we had till five pm. I worked like crazy right up until four-thirty or so, and we actually got all the lights done, and after many, many electrical shocks, Dmitri got the damned truffle to function. We hung the show in less than a half an hour, and I ran back to my hotel to take a shower and get ready for the opening.
At last! Time to bask in the glory! But Dmitri hadn’t sent out one invitation. He hadn’t made a single phone call. NO ONE showed. NO ONE! No one except the four people I knew in Europe who I invited, but besides them, NOT A SOUL—not even a single, solitary pedestrian walk-in (Dmitri said there was a football game on and it was raining).
One more thing: I had to pay an extra $2000 to get my work out of customs in New Jersey when it was returned. And then there was trouble because it wasn’t addressed to me, but to the guy who’d made the crates. I did get the work back eventually, but I never got my $2000, and Dmitri had gone on holiday with no forwarding address.