I’m not sure it should feel like this. I’ve felt differently at other exhibitions. There were a couple that I didn’t go to, but there was one in Amsterdam in 2003 where I felt great on the opening night. I was way more nervous, but after a few drinks I felt good, chatty, and enjoyed it. And the exhibition of my work at the Rock en Seine festival in 2007 was fun because I could be totally anonymous and I could watch people looking at my work, which was incredibly enjoyable. Plus, the stuff that was on show there, I was already fond of and confident about. This time it was different.
As I’ve said recently, I was nervous leading up to the show. I wasn’t confident about the worth of my work. All day Saturday I felt oddly blank. The nerves weren’t manifesting themselves in my belly like they ordinarily should. I felt… nothing. Empty.
In the afternoon, I went for a walk along the Rhine. It was a nice day. The sun was out and it was warm, so I abandoned my plan to go to a couple of museums and just enjoyed the sunshine by the river with my headphones on. Before the opening, Nina and I went to a fantastic sushi restaurant called Na Ni Wa, picked up the DJ, and headed to the gallery. That would be the perfect time for a beer to loosen up a bit, but my cluster headaches mean no alcohol at the moment.
Shortly after 8pm, the first people arrived, and I couldn’t make eye contact with them. I couldn’t watch them looking at the paintings. The gallery has two adjoining rooms, and when they were in one of them, I was in the other. More people arrive and there were no longer places to hide. I could go outside and smoke, though. And I could stand in the kitchen talking to Nina’s mum.
After a while, I was annoying myself with my behaviour. I still stood in an uncrowded corner of the gallery, talking to Nina’s sister Julia, and their father mostly, but as the night wore on, I ended up talking to a few people. I’m sure some people thrive on being told their work is good, but it just makes me feel awkward. I try and be gracious, I try to be chatty, but it doesn’t come naturally. It not that it’s fake, but it does feel forced. And when a couple of the paintings sold, well, how am I to cope with that? I know it sounds stupid, but it blows my mind, it’s overwhelming to think that these pictures I did whilst sat in my apartment in my slippers, drinking tea, listening to ESPN podcasts, that they will be in someone’s home.
And that’s the stupid dichotomy: if one is – for want of a better word – an artist, you want people to look at your work, and you want people to like your work. I crave it a lot of the time. If I put something online and it doesn’t get many comments or emails, it gets me down, especially if I’m particularly fond of the work in question. So there is obviously some sort of need for that validation. But I guess it says something about my personality that I’m more comfortable receiving that validation electronically.
You’d think it would get easier, (well, I feel it should be getting easier) but as time goes on, it seems to get more difficult. Part of the joy of the baseball-related infographics stuff I’ve been doing is that what I’m doing is essentially filtering information that is already there. With drawing, stories, paintings, it’s more exposed. Putting them online or in a gallery is saying, I have these ideas and I think you should look at them. And by extension, you should look at them, consider them, then tell me I’m great.
And there we are, back at the beginning: I want to be told I’m great but can’t handle it if someone tells me I’m great. It’s a big fucking mess in my head. Times like this, it’s very easy to understand the Henry Dargers of the world, who do things to only please themselves. It’s tempting. But I know my ego ultimately won’t allow it. And, yep, I know what you are thinking: I should shut up, stop being a moany dick, and enjoy it while I can. Stupid brain.
And the stupid dilated blood vessels near my stupid brain caused pressure on the stupid trigeminal nerve and gave me a stupid cluster headache. Of course, after recently feeling that I’d started to figure out ways of dampening their effects, this time it came out and gave me a five hour headache, despite chugging down Red Bull and oxygen. Five hours has never felt so long. So it was nice to have a leisurely breakfast with Nina and Julia after just four hours of sleep. And I took advantage of the bath tub in Nina’s apartment (I only have a shower in mine) before packing my bag and heading out into the windy Düsseldorf afternoon to get the train.
For the train journey back, I’d not reserved a seat. I need not have bothered on the outbound journey, and not making another reservation saved me 4.50 euros (that’s a packet of fags). Not really a problem at the start of the journey, but as we intermittently shot through the windy and rainy countryside, the weather creating several long periods of the train sitting inactive waiting for something. Each station stop filled the train up a little more until the inevitable happened and some guy told me I was sitting in his reserved seat. Fine. Not particularly stressed out to have to spend the rest of the journey standing up. I’ve got my headphones on, listening to some Black Mountain, and reading all about the 1975 Cincinnati Reds in Joe Posnanski’s thoroughly enjoyable book, The Machine. I was stood next to the door of a carriage, but there was enough room for people to get by without having to move. Not perfect, but okay.
Then – and there had to be a “then,” right? – this guy walks towards me. He’s probably in his mid-forties, kinda longish grey hair. (Note to Brits: he looked a lot like Brookside and Grange Hill creator Phil Redmond.) He walked towards the doorway and kinda came to a stop next to me and started talking. I didn’t hear his words because of my headphones, but I did recognise the slight sway, and the fumes coming from his mouth. Without removing my headphones I told him, in English, that I don’t speak German, which is a handy tactic more often than you’d imagine, especially with people wanting to sign you up for charity stuff on the street. He leant in this time, breathing that warm boozy breath all over me, and started talking again, semi-leaning on my shoulder. I pushed him off my shoulder. He leant in again and started singing along to the tune of the Black Mountain song – Druganaut – that was on my headphones, which was a bit odd. Again leaning on me, but a bit more in my face. I pushed him away again; nothing over the top, nothing aggressive, just a leave-me-alone push. He did it again and asked in English if I was American. That’s when I gave up with the charade of pretending to continue reading, and raised my voice, telling him to fuck off.
He leant in again, this time, though, I gave him a proper angry push. Considering he was drunk, he was amazingly surefooted. He called me an arschloch. And then I pulled out a German swear word that I wish I’d never learnt; once you learn the German word for cunt, its only a matter of time before you use it. I used it. Fotze. In my experience, Germans don’t use their word for cunt as willy nilly as some British people (me) do. I noticed the face of an elderly lady sat nearby. She looked as shocked as she would’ve been if I’d just done a poo on her sudoku book.
By this time, a youngish guy sat nearby had turned around to see if he could help with the situation, and another studious, friendly-faced guy had walked up the aisle. He asked if I needed help. I told him it was okay. The drunk guy was never threatening, just persistant and foul-breathed. He kept on talking, I kept doing my best to ignore him. I repeated several times that I wanted him to leave me alone. Each time he told me, “I want to tell you-” and each time I shushed him. Then friendly-faced man came back with a conductor, and drunk man was preparing himself to be taken away by offerin
g to shake my hand. I refused cos his hand with filthy and had a big open cut and dried blood on one of the fingers. I got some sympathetic looks from people around me and five minutes later the conductor returned to apologise. I smiled, told him it was no problem, and caught the gaze of the elderly woman who still looked at me like I’d soiled her puzzles.