Translated into English by Hester Velmans
Reviewed by Christopher Michno
In Dutch writer Niña Weijers’ debut novel, The Consequences, the story of a young conceptual artist and rising star in the rarified world of international art fairs and blue chip galleries, a portrait emerges of a person who has been on the verge of disappearing into herself from the earliest moments of her life. Through various turns, Weijers explores the question of what it means to be–both as an artist and, in an even more basic sense, as a person–present in one’s skin and one’s own life.
Weijers does not attempt, as in some novels about the art world, to evoke the magical allure of objects. Instead, she finds intrigue in the game and the relationships between its players, and in the interactions and motivations that define us and make us who we are.
The novel’s epigraph, a Marina Abramović quote about the crucial moment when “performance becomes life itself,” deftly sets the stage for Weijers’ exploration of the frisson between art and life. Similarly, the art works of her protagonist, Minnie Panis, erode the boundaries between the two.
There are delicious instances of this erosion throughout the novel. In separate bar scenes involving Chartreuse, Weijers conjures Manet’s A Bar at the Folies-Bergère while evoking a sense of déjà vu. But in a passage about an artist in New York who made a year-long project of working in a restaurant—the kind of work that makes you wonder if the joke’s on you–Weijers observes the possible pitfalls and makes a point about the kind of commitment required by such a practice. During her year waiting tables, the artist exhibited and sold a set of term papers authored by others, who, she cynically jokes, couldn’t even accuse her of copyright infringement since they were sold as objects, not texts. She is quickly revealed to be a fraud and sellout: “I’m just back to making sculptures. They’re huge. Everyone wants one. My only other option was to wait tables for the rest of my life, trapped in a performance that’s stopped being a performance. What would have been the point?” she asks Minnie.
We understand Minnie to be something different, though she is just as capable of being self-absorbed. Purely by accident and still in art school, she stumbled onto the project that launched her career and made her a critical success. Yet it is her curiosity, determination and shrewdness following her chance discovery that enable her to make something of it.
After taking home an order of sushi, she finds she is unable to eat the pieces of raw fish and tosses them into the trash—a scenario in which a lecture on Orientalism that she attended earlier illuminates her own stereotyping of the sushi vendor. With a lightness of touch, Weijers connects this episode to a profound sadness Minnie has felt since childhood. Minnie later retrieves the sushi, lays the pieces out and photographs them. In her notebook, she writes: “Does Minnie Panis exist?”
Trash becomes evidence, and Minnie begins a process of methodically, even ritually retrieving the trash from her kitchen basket each day, and photographing it until there is a surfeit of evidence. Her initial intentions for the project as some kind of critique of consumerism, she realizes, are transparently false:
“The more pictures she took, the more she grew convinced that it had very little to do with ‘making art’. For the first time in her adult life she was doing something that had absolutely no purpose other than the act itself.”
This is the kind of scene that might feel contrived and underwhelming in another writer’s hands, but Weijers makes it utterly persuasive. She delves here into the process of creation, the maddening, Sisyphean labor of giving voice to something meaningful. Minnie arrives there by feeling the weight of art’s meaninglessness, or perhaps more aptly, art’s apparent uselessness. To paraphrase Chris Burden, it exists outside of the rules of society.
But she doesn’t quite know what to do with it; wondering if it is literally a mountain of trash, she decides to drop out. The Dean of her art school invokes Sisyphus and berates her lack of fortitude. The project she shapes from this pile of photographs wins her the Prix de Rome. This may seem highly cynical, but it’s actually an extraordinary discussion of the struggle to make art—of any kind.
Weijers masterfully slips back and forth between the (temporal) present and various pasts in Minnie’s life, elaborating on her disappearances and her sadness—we read in the opening line of the prologue that on that day Minnie will disappear from her life for the third time.
Back in the novel’s present, a catalyzing event with her paramour—an unscrupulous fashion photographer—sets in motion a chain of events that sharpens her existential crisis. This booty-call on the side quickly prompts a break up with her boyfriend; he is one of the endlessly hopeful aspirants and casualties of the contemporary art world, described as a “rather tortured artist who had been trying for ten years to market himself as a promising newcomer.” Minnie and the photographer end up in a queasy (not quite) truce, agreeing to a three week project of Minnie’s devising that requires him to follow and photograph her surreptitiously.
It is an exercise in self-surveillance in the guise of approximating self-portraiture; it might also be seen as an attempt by Minnie to answer the question she posed in art school: Does Minnie Panis exist? It also conjures thoughts of self surveillance within the art world. But it reaches beyond that to ask questions about how power is exercised along lines of gender and how women are surveilled, objectified, diminished in the art world and elsewhere.
Weijers’ persistent themes—presence, disappearance and the intersection of art and life—find poignancy in the cult figure of conceptual and performance artist Bas Jan Ader. In a lengthy section at the end of the first segment of the novel, she implicitly compares Minnie to Ader, an artist whose life presumably ended in his final performance. He is perhaps the quintessential example of an artist whose life was subsumed in art. Ader is a rare thing in the art world— a conceptual artist who is also a quasi-romanticist.
Weijers’ literary inspiration comes from Samuel Beckett’s Happy Days, but she leaves Beckett’s futility behind to deliver a deeply compelling search for meaning that at times turns on the slightest connections—like the fleeting nature of life itself.
Christopher Michno is a Los Angeles area art writer and the Associate Editor of Artillery. His work has also appeared in KCET’s Artbound, the LA Weekly, ICON, and numerous other publications. He is also an editor for DoppelHouse Press, an LA based publisher that specializes in art, architecture and the stories of émigrés.