Father, Can’t You See I’m Burning?

Father, Can’t You See I’m Burning?

De Appel

Young-Hae Chang Heavy Industries, ART IS A LIE THAT JUST WON’T DIE, 2014. HD Quicktime Movie, 6 minutes. Online here.

April 19, 2014

Father, Can’t You See I’m Burning?
April 27–June 15, 2014

Opening: April 25, 6–9pm

de Appel arts centre
de Appel Curatorial Programme
Prins Hendrikkade 142
1011 AT Amsterdam
The Netherlands


The Tunnel
a short story by Pavel Pepperstein

That was how Philip Pleshcheiev entered my field of vision: on a red dragon with golden scales, seated on a lacquered bench between the sumptuous webbed wings. He shot out of multicoloured obscurity, out of an iridescent rain, and disappeared again, swirling round vertiginously way up high on the large Chinese carousel. When the dragons descended, he walked over to me and, reaching out his hand, he said: “Mr. Martov, the tunnel of horrors awaits us.” That phrase was the password, but the tunnel really was waiting for us.

By that time I was already familiar with his novel Oswald.

Somewhere in a desolate and wild place a train stops. A young man in a dirty coat gets out of a first-class carriage (with “blue-velvet seats”). He is holding a large suitcase. He has a pale face with a perpetual little smile. His lower lip has an ambitious jut to it. He is Lee Harvey Oswald, the future killer of President Kennedy. Most of the book is taken up by correspondence between Kennedy and Oswald. Oswald lives in a hotel, in a semi-desert. The hotel is located not far from a railway line. In his room Oswald takes a dismantled rifle with an optical sight out of his suitcase, painstakingly assembles it and installs it on the windowsill. The window looks out onto sunny thickets of bushes. Oswald is surrounded by stillness. But his correspondence with the President is conducted at a hysterical pitch. It is full of reproaches and surprising outcries. Kennedy seems to be a man of gigantic stature who reeks of medication, with immensely long fingers, constantly overwrought, spending entire days on end in a state of bizarre agitation. In his letters he sometimes calls Oswald “Dearest Lee” and sometime “My Dear Harvey.” Lee wants to kill Kennedy, he insists on doing it, adducing arguments, attempting to prove that he is right, to convince Kennedy. Kennedy resists frenziedly. His letters start to resemble Pasternak’s prose, with their abundant vases of ecstatically blossoming lilac, multiplied in mirrors and the surfaces of grand pianos. This lilac, together with the spring thunderstorms, the colour of the sky and the sounds of music arouse a strange, wild, over-exaggerated but infectious rapture. Choking on his rapture and terror, tramping loudly and wheezing in his immense, sprawling tail-coat, Kennedy runs through the halls and corridors of the White House. There, reflected in the parquet flooring below the incredible chandeliers, great performers perform endless concerts.

However, Lee is obstinate. Quietly, relentlessly, humbly he perseveres. Eventually he obtains agreement. Kennedy informs him of this in a terse little note: “Dearest Lee! I understand everything now. You can’t act any other way. All right, I agree. John.”

After that Oswald gets up, goes over to the rifle pointing out of the window, takes careful aim and finally fires.

Probably every creature that dwells in time must possess a certain “memory of Nothingness.” Perhaps the genealogy of comic effects can be traced back to this memory. The void lying in the depths of our memories disposes us towards laughter, just as an empty space in the depths of a rocky massif engenders acoustic resonance. But then again, Pleshcheiev’s novel is only tangentially humouristic. In any case, I was always struck by the fact that this man, a preeminently esteemed specialist in a certain highly specific area of science, who had lived abroad all his life and only rarely left the confines of his laboratory (which, by virtue of its secret nature, had tucked itself away in the deep underground levels of a small hunting lodge in an oak forest close to the small town where we met) could find time to dash off a prose work in Russian, and especially in such a measured and elegant style as the vitreously transparent Oswald.

Well then, my encounter with the author of Oswald took place in an illuminated old town square, among the lights, under a light rain. When we reached the house of horrors, we got into a black 1933-model Mercedes that moved on rails, like a little tram. And this vehicle took us into the Tunnel.

“You’re somewhat older than me, Martov,” Pleshcheiev began. “You probably remember the genuine Chinese fairground rides, nothing like the fakes such as the one that I just got off?”

“Oh, yes,” I replied eagerly, “I even remember the famous carousel that was called ‘The Peach Blossom Fan’!”

He snapped his fingers in evident delight.

“What times those were!”

“The tunnel of horrors that we’re in now is good too. Nothing here ever changes. The same sinister automobiles hurtling after each other, the same children being killed…” My words were drowned out by a rasping sound. In the bright glow that suddenly flared up, children in sailor suits skipped out onto the rails and the car mowed them down: faces illuminated by terror glinted momentarily, a little hand in a blue sleeve fluttered helplessly. The windscreen was covered with fine drops of blood.

“At one time,” I said, “I used to ride through this tunnel as often as I rode the ordinary tram, and now these horrors merely tweak nostalgically at my nerves. But after my first visit I dreamed about the children’s little faces, and a little gold anchor on a sleeve… However, since we’ve already started talking about the entertainments of former times, everything pales in comparison with the House of Dry Flowers. It used to appear not long before Christmas, on a dark, snowy night. Usually it found a spot for itself on some lively street, in a gap between two apartment buildings. I would come out in the morning to buy hot chestnuts and see it standing there, where only yesterday there was a dark waste lot – so austere, with absolutely black panes of glass in its long, narrow windows. And reflected in those opaque window panes was the light of cake shops and the submerged lights of traders selling live fish…”

“Live flesh—you mean slaves?” asked Pleshcheiev, mishearing.

“Live fish,” I corrected him. “The House of Dry Flowers was a genuinely mysterious place. The sombre signboard announced that children, juveniles, impressionable women and people with weak nerves could not enter.”

My words were drowned out by a rumbling sound. As we rounded a breathtaking bend a burning building appeared, moving rapidly towards us. A mighty plume of fire billowed above it. People were jumping from windows, scattering all around like dandruff and smashing themselves to bloody smithereens. The top floor had already slumped over with a crash and was hanging above the road in a blazing bulk. We had to shoot through under it.

“Will we manage to slip through?” Pleshcheiev asked, surrendering for a moment to the fascination of the game.

Like in a slow-motion movie, the sides of the house moved apart, it split open and collapsed. We could see the details of the subsiding walls and the defenceless little boxes of life opening up behind them—the exposed apartments, as familiar to me as my own. I gazed at them damp-eyed—after all, I had seen them so many times! There’s a green bottle on a table—now it will be reduced to a cloud of glass dust as it is caught by a brick flying past. There’s a woman falling through the floor with a barely audible scream. There’s a man running out onto a landing, falling into the stairwell and evaporating. I recognise the pattern on his tie…

Our car miraculously remained in one piece among the disintegration, and we carried on hurtling along the tunnel.

“We slipped through!” Pleshcheiev shouted, looking round at the rear window. The house, still burning out, disappeared behind the bend.

We rode out onto the One Hair Bridge—a golden string stretched out over an abyss, along which our Mercedes hurtled, miraculously maintaining its balance on something like an ice-skate—the kind with which little girls in short skirts carve the ice at skating rinks—which it extended from its under-plate. I realised that this place was called the One Hair Bridge by virtue of a certain contraction that occurred in the region of my hippocampus—but this had never happened before in the Tunnel: I realised with a thrill that my Tunnel, as familiar to me as my own knees, had changed, that for the first time since its appearance it had been remodelled and from now on the numbers on its playbill would include new dramatic scenes, together with the newly constructed thematic spaces in which they would  unfold. The space through which the hair stretched (a One Hair Bridge is found in many descriptions of the hells that exist in the subsurface depths of various languages and traditions) created the illusion of a boundless expanse—it was not the Tunnel, but a break in the Tunnel, when the black tube around you suddenly disappears and your vehicle carries you out onto the slimmest bridge in the world: above you, the abyss of the heavens; below you, an abyss of hells. The hells retreat in a gigantic multi-storeyed shaft towards the core of the Earth, and all the hells on all the levels are empty and abandoned, lying in ruins, uninhabited, there are no tormentors there, and no victims, only desolation, and there is only a single functioning hell, stretched out on a gigantic sheet of glass above the other hells—the hell of dual creatures.

Set out on the transparent glassy surface are thousands of thousands of swings, and swinging to and fro on them are creatures who possess a dual nature: when the flat wooden seat of the swing carries them forward, their faces are like those of angels and are clad in laughter, but when the board draws them back, their faces become more terrible than those of the most hideous demons. Sometimes one of these creatures leaps off its swing and is immediately borne away, a feeble dot roaring with laughter, into the sublime, exalted heavens.


Pleshcheiev, agitated by what was happening, gladly accepted the offer of a cigarette. Smoking in the Tunnel is actually forbidden, but up ahead the One Hair Bridge broke off, as if it was stretched to an invisible point hanging above the abyss.

“Into the gulf?” Pleshcheiev asked, blowing out smoke. “For ever?”

The Mercedes was approaching the brink.

But a gigantic bat swooped down from the heights, grabbing up our car and carrying it over the gulf in a single sweep.

I opened my eyes slightly. We were hurtling through the tunnel again. Pleshcheiev was smiling in the semi-darkness.

“It’s fun being here, in this hell,” he said pensively. “Our time is a time of revolution in this business,” he added. “The new effects lend a radiant veracity to the old ravings. You and I can appreciate the naivety of the traditional tunnels, but young people are not much interested in the old amusement rides. And yet, the naive is closer to the sensation of horror. The simplest things are sometimes horrific. It is only the naive that disquiets me.”

“And what is horrific for you?” I asked. “For instance I was in hospital as a child. At night the children told each other terrifying stories. One of them pierced me to the soul with its indefinite allusiveness. In a village somewhere there was a ruined church. Everyone who went in there and looked at the ceiling immediately died. They died of terror, because they saw something incredibly horrific on the ceiling. In effect, they saw ‘the most horrific thing of all,’ that which no one can behold and survive. The story broke off on a question: What was seen on the ceiling? Someone said that a person saw himself as a mutilated and dismembered corpse. For lack of any other explanation, most children in the ward agreed with this opinion.”

“Perhaps they saw God?” Pleshcheiev said with a shrug. “Some people believe that all who have seen God have died. I myself have always felt an incredible agitation at a sudden insight, even the most insignificant and trifling, experiencing it as the most horrific and at the same time the most sweetly agonising of situations. I vaguely recall that as a child, when I was still in Russia, I used to have a vinyl record about a character called Pukhti-Tukhti—a hedgehog, was it? I don’t remember exactly. There was one moment on it (when that moment arrived, it wrung my heart)—Pukhti-Tukhti was looking at a mountain from a distance, and suddenly he saw a little door on the surface of the mountain. He looked at it for a long time and didn’t see anything. And then suddenly enlightenment came. That moment contained what is most horrific for me.”

Our Mercedes sank down into murky green water. Drowned men snuggled against the windows, with streamers of bright-red fish gliding between their ribs. Some distance away were the black hulks of sunken steamships: through the patches of rust and venomously fleecy islets of moss the names stood out—Titanic, Lusitania… Dead people crowded the decks—their white tourist-resort costumes distended, inflating like bubbles in the water, and their artificial faces were reminiscent of flowers, seeming aloof, growing plantlike.

“Various different meditative practices,” Pleshcheiev said, “acknowledge the danger of premature enlightenment. One is overtaken by the truth in a state of vulnerability. I consider this the very height of horror. Even if I am given a surprise treat for my birthday, something in the depths of my soul cringes in horror—a surprise contains a moment of abrupt enlightenment. I must say that this tunnel, defined a priori as a ‘place of horrors,’ feels to me like a relaxing break from the swift, unheralded emergence of the horrific that occurs in everyday life. This old-fashioned tunnel of horrors reminds me of my own texts, in which I attempt to reconstruct the naive. The naive renders even fears more acute. When we are scared, we go back to our childhood—and that is the only period in our life that truly prepares us for death. The other periods—boyhood, youth, maturity, even old age—they merely distract us, they are merely a deferral.”

The Tunnel brings people closer. We walked out of it, trailing our feet slightly and squinting at the gingerbread town square as if we were a little drunk. In my hand I was clutching a narrow black capsule—Pleshcheiev had placed it there while I was lighting his cigarette in the Tunnel. The information that he delivered to us on that day saved millions of human lives.

“You are always busy in the laboratory, do you have any time left to write?” I asked.

“Yes…” he replied distractedly. “Some experiments last so long, they require almost infinite waiting. I beguile the waiting with prose. Now I’m writing a novel, Stumps. Here, if you wish, is a brief example of the style.”

He took a sheet of paper covered in writing out of his pocket and read aloud:

“Ponderously, ponderously the roses broke into bloom. Seemingly sunk in slumberous cogitation, the plump buds burst and the slim, strong petals crowded against each other in the secret grating of their small coiled corners, reminiscent of the edges of ancient manuscripts that have lain in a scrolled state for many years.

“These petals radiated an effulgence so warm and bright that it was reflected in the mica grains of sand, as delicate rose-pink patches flickering in the blue and lilac drift of long noontide shadows.

“Later, closer to evening, when the condensed-milky twilight stepped into the garden, the roses’ effulgence faded rapturously, while the scent intensified. The scent of roses burst in through the wide-open windows, the movements of the people wandering among the white-sheeted furniture slowed, and their languid hands reached for the responsive strings of a guitar. A little teaspoon, its silver blackened and abraded, worn thin by the fingers of a great many generations, fell with a jingle. Turned perfunctorily, pages rustled as if they were iced-up in a book that could not be read to the end, because the rooms were growing dark and no one wished for light.”

1987–2011, © Pavel Pepperstein


The Tunnel by Pavel Pepperstein is one of the works, which come together across time and space to compose the exhibition Father, Can’t You See I’m Burning? This translation by Andrew Bromfield was commissioned by the participants of de Appel Curatorial Programme 2013–2014. The project brings together works by Marinus Boezem, Justin Gosker, Jan Hoeft, Krõõt Juurak, Sarah van Lamsweerde, Ieva Misevičiūtė, Robertas Narkus, Pavel Pepperstein, Michael Portnoy, Jan Rothuizen, Reinaart Vanhoe, Young-Hae Chang Heavy Industries, Katarina Zdjelar, and is kindly supported by Ammodo, Kunsthalle Beijing, and Lloyd Hotel & Cultural Embassy.

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April 19, 2014

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