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Installation view, Elmgreen & Dragset: The Nervous System, November 10 – December 18, 2021, Pace Gallery, New York © Elmgreen & Dragset

Essays

Serve

By Katie Kitamura

The boys filed in, smaller than he had expected, but impeccably dressed in tennis whites as requested. He watched them through the glass. They looked forlorn and uncertain, but as they began to play—the ball sailing back and forth over the net, the steady thwack of their rackets—they seemed to grow in confidence. Soon, they were playing with real gusto, expelling little puffs of air as they ran for the ball.

The emotion he had chosen for that day was TRIUMPH. When he had put in the order, it had not occurred to him that for there to be TRIUMPH, there must also be DEFEAT. Hence two small boys, playing behind the wall of glass. As he watched them race vigorously across the court, he wondered which of the two was the designated loser. He knew that one of them would have been told to experience defeat, in order that the other boy might express triumph.

He turned away from the glass and walked to the bar, where he poured a drink. Carefully, he straightened the assorted bottles before turning back to the glass. His eye went to the smaller and younger of the two boys, who he naturally imagined was the designated loser. He saw that his serve was weak, that he expended needless energy, rushing too close to the net and then too far back, the boy was possibly even—he leaned closer to the glass—knock-kneed.

He frowned. This detail was excessive, an error in direction. He watched as the boy flailed back and forth across the court, his mien growing increasingly dejected as the game progressed. The older boy watched him first with light contempt, then irritation, and then finally with something approaching consternation. The weaker boy’s incapacity on the court only diminished the stronger boy’s inevitable victory, and thus his expression of TRIUMPH.

The man was focusing too much on the weaker boy. He could almost smell the stench of his pending loss through the glass. He retreated from the wall and sat down on the sofa. There was a tray of sandwiches resting on the table and he picked one up absentmindedly and began to eat. As he chewed, the dullness came over him once more, his sense of self—the locus of emotion and sensation—again vacating his body.

It was not that he did not feel emotion. But it had become so that he could only feel through proxies, at a prescribed distance. For this reason, the elaborate commissions had begun, performances of emotion that he observed through a wall of polished glass. It had begun—of course it had begun—with LOVE, and then DESIRE, and then JEALOUSY and ANGER. He sat on the sofa, drink in hand, and recalled the first staging. The piercing sensation as he watched the two figures through the glass, tentatively reaching out, the space between them vibrating until, at last, they touched.

Over time, and with each new staging, those sensations had grown fainter, and never again had he experienced that first, sharp crackle inside. The stagings became more and more elaborate, the drama of the scene requiring increasing amounts of narrative, until he had begun to feel that the entire process had been sullied in some way, the emotion now set too far back. The artifice did not bother him, but at times he felt he was in danger of forgetting what he was meant to feel, the message encoded in too many layers of story.

Today’s performance was a prime example. He had intended to feel only TRIUMPH, and yet other emotions had contaminated the purity of that feeling—he had felt defeat, and also confusion, perhaps even pity and contempt. Those emotions were wrong. Abruptly, he stood and returned to the glass wall. The game seemed to be reaching its conclusion, and yet he did not understand what he was seeing. Through the glass, the boy, the designated loser, was smashing the ball across the court while the older boy stumbled, exhausted and half-hearted, in the vague direction of the ball.

Despite himself, he felt the stirring of something inside, the ordering of his attention. The designated loser served again. It was match point—another moment and it was over. The older boy collapsed on the ground. The man watched him through the glass, his face impassive. Then he looked at the other, smaller boy. He was clutching a large trophy and staring at the body on the floor.

On his face was an expression of contrition, even regret. But as he turned away from his opponent and toward the glass, the heat of victory spread through his body and to his face. He began to smile, his lips pulled back so that the rows of neat and even teeth were exposed. The man leaned closer, his eyes on the boy’s face. He reached out and touched the glass. His breath caught. Much later, when he lifted his hand from the glass, the etching of his fingerprints remained.

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Elmgreen & Dragset

The Nervous Fictions

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Essays — Serve, by Katie Kitamura, Dec 16, 2021