Patricia Ketola‘s novel Dirty Pictures is about artistic daredevilry. It is a cultural romp, peopled by musicians, painters and performance artists, and it conceptualizes a world in which the older artistic traditions manage to embrace the younger, more conceptual definitions of art. From stolen Rembrandts, to gypsy jazz, to free-climbing, Dirty Pictures celebrates all forms of self-expression and the will of the artist to, quite literally, take a leap into the unknown.
Below is an extract celebrating the exhilaration and the beauty of free-climbing.
“Willem was in a meeting when we got to the studio, and we decided to wait until he got out. We went in his office and Venessa sat down at his computer: ‘I found a video of the boys on YouTube, but I don’t know if we should show it to Willem. He’s not too steady on his feet since the head injury, the shock might give him a stroke,’ she brought up a video: ‘Take a look, Martel, what do you think?’
The video showed Dries and the Viper sneaking into a building site and climbing the skeleton of an unfinished skyscraper. The building was tall, and when they got to the top they had a superb view that stretched all the way to Siberia. The boys worked in bare feet and without ropes or tools. The climb had been jaw-droppingly difficult, but when they reached the summit they did not rest on their laurels, instead they began to crawl out on the exposed beams. Acting in unison they lowered themselves off the beams and into the air. At first they hung from the beams by both hands like trapeze artists, but then they took one hand off the beam and hung by one arm as their bodies dangled out into empty space. It was a frightening performance, and one that I did not think Willem would be able to tolerate.
‘Let’s just show him the picture,’ I said.
‘Pretty scary, isn’t it?’ Venessa smiled. She seemed intensely proud of her cousin and his friend.
‘Yes, but it’s also frighteningly beautiful,’ I said.
‘This is real performance art!’ Venessa was enthusiastic. ‘I wish I could write my dissertation on this mode of expression, but those old frumps at school wouldn’t stand for it.’
Just then Willem walked in followed by his secretary, Irene. He was giving dictation and she was trailing behind taking notes on an old-fashioned steno pad. Willem stopped dictating and noticed us: ‘Oh, hello you two, what brings you to my lair?’
‘We’ve got a big surprise for you. Wait till you see it!’ Venessa gushed.
‘I hope it’s not another Rembrandt.’ Willem smiled at Venessa and then turned to Irene: ‘Get that typed up and I’ll sign it this afternoon.’
After Irene left Venessa jumped up from the computer and ran to Willem with the print in her hand: ‘Look at this Uncle Willem. Dries and the Viper have surfaced. They’re living it up at a nightclub in Moscow.’
Willem took the print and studied it. ‘I wonder who made those T-shirts?’ he mused. ‘They show a great sense of design and the portrait of Stalin is authentic 1930s propaganda art. It’s a nice piece of work, but I’m surprised the boys are running around with a picture of that tyrant on their chests. ’
‘They’re just kids, Willem. It probably wasn’t a political choice,’ I said.
‘I don’t care a damn about their fucking T-shirts,’ Venessa wailed, ‘look at them, Uncle Willem, they’re with girls, and they’re smiling. Dries never used to smile. He always kept a tight lip, and now it looks like he’s happy.’
‘I can see that, Venessa, and I am deeply touched.’
I looked at Venessa: ‘Maybe we should leave, darling. I’m sure Willem is terribly busy.’
‘Yes, of course,’ she said. We started for the door.
‘No, stick around. I want to talk to you about Dries,’ Willem said. He sat down at the computer. The screen was black and he hit a key: ‘I’ll be with you in a minute; I just have to get some dates for Irene.’
Venessa’s face got very pale and she ran towards Willem’s desk, but it was too late. In her haste to show Willem the picture of Dries and the Viper she had forgotten to sign out of YouTube, and now Willem was sitting in front of a video that was labeled Dutch Daredevils Go Wild in Moscow.’
‘You weren’t supposed to see that,’ I said.
‘Then why is it on my screen?’ He clicked on the video.
‘It’s up there because you didn’t turn off your computer when you went to the meeting.’ I was trying to deflect the blame from Venessa, but I knew what I said was pretty lame.
‘I’m sorry, Uncle Willem, I just wanted to show the video to Martel,’ Venessa chimed in. She looked scared and sounded contrite.
Willem paid no attention to our excuses because he was caught up in the action on the screen. When the boys finally climbed back down to safety and were greeted by a gaggle of cops he relaxed: ‘Is Hendrik around? I want him to see this.’
‘I’ll call his office,’ I said. I got Hendrik on the first ring and told him to meet us in the studio. He said he’d be right down.
After I hung up my focus was back on Willem. ‘What did you think of the climb?’ I asked.
‘I think they’re thrill-seeking morons, but aside from that it was an exciting piece of work. I didn’t think those two little bastards had it in them.’ He paused for a moment and then said: ‘The cops took them away. Do you think they’re in jail?’
‘I doubt it,’ Venessa said, ‘the photo was posted after the climb. They seem to be celebrating their success.’
‘I hope you’re right because I don’t feel like engaging with a bunch of Moscow cops. The bribes would be outrageous.’
The door opened and Hendrik walked in. When he saw his family members gathered around the computer he gave us a wary look: ‘I hope you haven’t called me here to have a conference about my illness.’
Willem smiled, ‘No, Hendrik, it’s much more serious. Take a look at this video and tell me what you think.’
The video played through again. It was the third time I’d seen it, but it remained eminently fascinating and I couldn’t help but hold my breath when the boys started dangling in space.
‘It’s fucking brilliant,’ Hendrik exclaimed. ‘I don’t understand how those two puny little shits developed the skills to perform this kind of stunt.’‘They probably trained day and night,’ Venessa said. ‘Also, it helps to be in an environment where your hopes and dreams are encouraged by a peer group of like-minded people.’
‘What’s that supposed to mean?’ Willem asked. He was taking her comment as a slight on his parenting.
Venessa backtracked, ‘I just meant he was with people who could give him the skills and support to meet his goals.’
‘That’s enough,’ Hendrik commanded, ‘let’s not get off track here. Willem, what are you going to do about this? Frankly, I don’t like the idea of Dries and the Viper continuing in this suicidal activity. They are going to fall to their deaths if they continue.’
‘You don’t know that, Daddy.’ Venessa was really hot on free climbing. If she liked it so much, maybe she should take a trip to Moscow and get trained in the art.
‘You’re right, shatje, I don’t know, but you have to admit it does seem possible. Think about it, we don’t want to lose Dries or the Viper. We have to stop them.’
‘I’m going to Moscow and bring them back,’ Willem said. He looked at Hendrik: ‘Will you come with me brother?’
‘Of course, Willem, you know I’ve got your back. Although I do wonder if that’s the right approach. These kids are flushed with triumph after their great ascent, and I doubt if they’d welcome two middle-aged relatives busting in and trying to bust their balloon.’
‘You may be right,’ Willem said.
‘Maybe Bobby could help,’ I said. ‘I know he has a lot of influence on Dries. The kid adores him.’
Venessa had been sitting quietly at the corner of Willem’s desk. She seemed to have taken her father’s words to heart. I understood her enthusiasm for the art; you had to be a fool not to see the brilliance. These kids were the ultimate in nihilism, and you could write a whole paper on their existential activities. Venessa was a scholar and she was taking free climbing from a philosophical point of view, but now that Hendrik had forced her to see that two young lives might be dashed to pieces after a long, hard, fall, she was giving it a different take:
‘I’ll call Bobby,’ she said.”