Quelle Catastrophe!

If you really want to fail as an artist, it is enough to fail once if you do it properly.

Malerier lagt ut i Sauekilen. Foto: Vibeke Tandberg.
Vibeke Tandberg’s paintings in Sauekilen. Photo: Vibeke Tandberg.

Last summer, on my third day spent in waders standing up to my waist in muddy water searching for five paintings submerged in Sauekilen, a stagnant offshoot of the river Otra in Evje; I saw myself, the artist, from an outside perspective. And I regarded myself with the same kind of indulgent, overbearing look that the local newspaper of Evje probably took the day before when the Setesdølen paper ran the story under the headline: “Has anyone seen these in the river?” Six months before, I had the idea that the combination of mud + water + time would make five unexceptional paintings interesting. The problem was that I couldn’t find them again. They had vanished into thin air; my experiment had failed, and all my effort had been to no avail. I was splashing about more or less at random in the mud, wondering whether I should keep looking. At lunchtime I relaxed with Arts of Impoverishment, reading – for the umpteenth time – what Leo Bersani and Ulysse Dutoit say about the artists Beckett, Rothko and Resnais. That always works for me when it looks as if one of my projects is going down the drain. “The writer who obstructs reading” is what they call Samuel Beckett, “The artist who blocks vision” is their label for Mark Rothko, while Alain Resnais is “The filmmaker who stalls movement”. I instantly felt at home. “The artist who won’t be seen”; I had no faith that I would ever find those paintings again, but I decided to give it one last try anyway. “Try again. Fail again. Fail better,” as Beckett would have put it. Perhaps the Sauekilen project could be turned around from being a dead loss to become a constructive failed experiment that I could benefit from; perhaps I simply ought to cut out the article in Setesdølen and frame it. I kept wading for another three hours before I gave up. I hate quitting, but I did, and after a shower and dinner I sat down and spent the rest of the evening googling the Beckett quote about failure in the hope of finding something, some approach or philosophy that might salvage the project in purely theoretical terms. Perhaps it was a little too much to hope for, dragging run-of-the-mill paintings out of the mud with words – but I did come across the coolest tattoo ever. The ink in question sits on the arm of Swiss tennis player Stan Wawrinka, a professional at Grand Slam level, in what can only be an attempt at embracing the fear of failure: “Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try again. Fail again. Fail better.” are the words written in ornate copperplate on the inside of Stan’s left forearm. The quote is his motto. “There is always disappointment, heartache. You are losing almost every tournament. You need to just accept it and be positive because you are going to lose and fail. We’re not all Nadal or Djokovic, who can win most tournaments.”

Vibeke Tandberg. Illustrasjon: Jenz Koudahl.
Vibeke Tandberg. Illustration: Jenz Koudahl.

Stan! He immediately hit Bersani and Dutoit out of the court, putting the rather overused and quite annoyingly enigmatic Sam Beckett in proper perspective. It is in a situation like Stan’s, at Stan’s level, that these words make sense, in professional sports where you can easily see and measure what failure and success really means. When you make art, those words are just an annoying smokescreen. If you really want to fail as an artist, it is enough to fail once if you do it properly. After that, no-one can be bothered to look in your direction anymore. Screw Sam.

However, even my new-won and utter admiration for Stan the Man’s profound insight was beaten by another link where Sam and Stan were both surpassed by Mrs Beckett herself. When, in 1969, she was told that her husband had been awarded the Nobel Prize for literature, her first words supposedly were: Quelle catastrophe! Her husband had become accepted by the establishment; he had become acclaimed, popular. Now I suddenly realised what kind of standards Sam tried to meet; it was all about his wife; it was her all along, she was the artistic lodestar I had been looking for. At that moment I realised that Stan will never really risk anything in the tennis court, he just wants to be the best, and Sam? He had lied about the whole failure thing, he had become famous and popular. If he had really wanted to fail, he would have. Suzanne is the one to turn to, she clearly saw it all for what it was: coquettishness. Quelle catastrophe!

The next day it’s raining cats and dogs. I stay indoors, looking out at Sauekilen. I get a call from the Setesdølen newspaper. Someone got in touch with them; a piece of plywood has been found floating farther down the Otra towards Kristiansand: ‘were my paintings painted on plywood’? I throw myself in the car. Maybe I haven’t failed, not entirely, not yet at any rate; have I even failed at all? Nope, no room for doubt here; I have to acknowledge this, I just don’t get that Beckett quote at all. Anyway, the whole thing turned out to be a false alarm; it was no painting floating in the river, just an ordinary piece of plywood.

As I continued googling that night I discovered that Stan had left his wife. Apparently he couldn’t reconcile family life with the pressures of his career. Quelle catastrophe! However, Sam was no better at handling the whole monogamy thing than Stan, if we are to believe his biographers; he just didn’t dump his spouse, and indeed why would he with a wife like Mrs Beckett?

We’re all falling into perspective now, Sam, Stan and myself. And I admit it: I don’t dare fail either, not really, and even though I’d really love to find my paintings again – they may have been improved by being under water – I have decided to throw in the towel on the whole Sauekilen project. The disappearance of the paintings is not the result of a creative fail, it’s simply a blunder: I ought to have tethered them on dry land before putting them in the water.