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

Essays

The Nervous System

By Robert Franklin

What games we play on loop, my friend. What games we play.

I say this, out loud and to no one, the growl of my voice only reaching as far as the mantle, where it dissolves into flame. Perhaps the kitchen, which, empty, has a faucet left on. In my estimation, it’s been running for weeks. There are no unwashed dishes, no oil-slick floors. No rotting remains of a family meal, for the simple reason that we’ve had none in some time, and perhaps, we will never.

It is almost noon, a Wednesday, though the delineation of days is an occupation with which only I am concerned (excuse the mess on the rug, I’ll have it vacuumed eventually). There are no clocks here, no functioning watches. Just the slow and certain passage of days, of waves, unwinding their rhythms. From our perch on Point Dume, I track the sun’s blinding arc—a view, beyond the tennis court, of the lapping Pacific.

I can hear Mark as he brushes his canvas, making snail trail ink stains which, when sunset arrives and his glassed-in studio absorbs an orange hue, he will regret immediately. He will repaint it in white, leaving only a textural residue. Like yesterday and the one before last, he’ll erase his day’s work.

But “work” is a funny word for what the boys do, during daylight hours, before disappearing to their rooms. If “work” denotes productivity, then what happens here is perhaps its opposite: a kind of circular, fustian motion—a pendulum swing—that of the ball that glides across net, back and forth, until it veers toward a corner. Danny’s weak backhand; he takes aim. For a moment, it appears he might clench it, send it soaring back like a meteoroid to his elder brother’s orbit—but no. No. He slips, as always; misses. Johnny crowns himself victor and bows for an audience of one.

Was I ever so cruel?

I watch them through the window; the light slants. These boys, my boys. The view behind them is marvelous. Elsewhere, in a room I cannot see, Ricky performs what he knows about war. Bang, you’re dead, his cheerful voice sings. Bang bang. Bang. I can hear his bloodthirst—everything he’s learned (and is learning) about leisure and violence.

When I go, it will be swift and, to them, surprising. Like a boulder, I’ll roll. From the top of the driveway, down the slope to the cliffs. My body will open in waves. My boys, so smug with my love, will call it brake failure, an “ill-fated nap.” My wheelchair, mangled, will offer no clues. And finally, they will see what life looks like in motion: an old man’s last gasp as he plunges toward blue. What games we play on loop, my friend. What games we play.

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Essays — The Nervous System, by Robert Franklin, Dec 16, 2021