I have long grappled with the sheer weight of death in my work, and the reason why it has endured as a force of fascination is because it is essentially the largest and most looming of all abstractions – the blank space of the page that yearns to be filled. Like writing itself, the idea of death is a safe space, an open question, that one can crawl into and make of what one will, a portal into the naturally superior sphere of the unknown that demands evocation and invocation – the mocking super-primitive spectre that nakedly fuels the life force.
This summer, my ‘working relationship’ with death was permanently altered when I experienced the sudden loss of my best friend and soul mate. Brian Tennessee Claflin was a restless, loud, often inebriated, in your face, dazzling, hilarious and spirited rebel who scared the shit out of as many people as became fascinated and obsessed by him. He was an iconic presence in Berlin in the seven years he spent here, the source of endless gossip, bemusement, police entanglements and an inspiration for the many artists he befriended and hosted at his weekly club night, PORK, at Ficken 3000. That he was also, much less publicly, a highly empathetic person, a sweet and devoted friend – these contradictory, warring characteristics reveal the great extent to which he was an artist himself, more prone to struggle with those complexities and tribulations that life serves up, which the less sensitive among us are able to shrug off and ignore. Over the years, he worked in performance art, nightlife, writing and photography – but on his own terms, which were nearly always situated at a far remove from both the institutional and commercial sides of the art world. He made a lot of work that he never showed anyone, that we are now continuing to unearth.
Brian’s greatest work, however, was his existence. He was a nomadic being who travelled to around 70 countries in his 33 years, fuelled not merely by a desire to see the world, but out of a mystical imperative to escape the confines of his own skin. It was the overriding force of Brian’s presence in my life that made him the greatest influence on my work. Whenever I was in Berlin, we would see each other on a near-daily basis. We spoke a kind of private language – a common thing among best friends – and much of my novel The Suiciders (2013) was a transcription or inflection of that language. For this reason, Brian was the first one to read it, and probably the one who understood it best. The novel’s grotesqueries, its absurd pornography and unbelievable violence, its disregard for psychological realism and, above all, its hopeless yearning for a truth that somehow transcends the dumb bluntness of death – these are all subjects we never had to discuss: they were simply part of the perceptual fabric we shared.
When artists are asked about their influences, the expected and often predictable answer is a banal listing of those who came before, whose style, theme or media blatantly resonate with the respondent’s own output. Fair enough: without lineage, we would still be crawling on all fours. Less often evoked are the living presences who are more or less constant in our day-to-day lives, those sources of immediate and – despite their constancy – unexpected inspiration who, unlike the necessary fixedness of a work of art, are roving and vital and thus protect us and our work from the dour curse of immobility.
Art is never really ‘about’ the thing the creator purports to be addressing; this is what makes it such a mystery, even to artists themselves. Although I could never predict that Brian would end his life the way he did, as I was re-reading my text for 16 Sculptures (2014) recently, with its recurring motifs of struggle, loss, attempts at saving, and its elegiac tonalities, I realized that I had been unwittingly documenting the process of his dying as it was happening. I couldn’t have known this at the time. But now I can see so clearly how the last months of his life – last years, some might argue, as his recklessness and flirtations with death were legendary – were a gradual letting-go. It’s precisely why, as paradoxical as it may seem, he was more productive than ever before, with some of his finest photographic work produced during this period.
Following the weeks of near-paralysis brought on by shock and grieving, the day came when I knew I had to return to the land of the living and get back to work. And yet, how? The immensity of the task suddenly appeared unreal to me, having been torn asunder. I have never known an absence as ugly and unjust as this. It is like having a missing appendage, only the gap is not visible to others, so the potentialities for dialogue become limited. One becomes ugly and closed-off to the world during the mourning process, and the struggle of returning – of partially re-gaining one’s former bearings – is anathema to death’s designs. A thread has to be grasped. The only thing I have left is the language that the two of us shared, a language which only I now speak. And, of course, I always invested too much in language: that’s what Brian’s voice tells me now. I have always been aware of the dismalities of language’s ultimate ability to mean, its limited aptitude for rendering the intangibles and sweet anarchy of pure thought into a resonant, viable substance. The poignancy of the task is embedded in the end result’s failure. We are all fools for trying, and none the wiser for dying.
What I think I know now that I didn’t know before: it is when death – not life – fails us that we give in to it. Prior to that moment, we are able to amble on, enamoured of its shadow, gleefully deluded by its all-embracing spectacle. When it loses its allure, it becomes less of a mystery, more of a promise. Now that it has become my enemy, I feel less inclined to embrace its resonances, though am not stupid enough to disacknowledge its inevitability.
Still, I have to believe that, like the permanent teenagers of The Suiciders, whose constant dying continuously brings them back to life, Brian remains a part of this world. To some small extent, that is up to me. My only way forward is to sublimate Brian’s radiance and cosmic energy into everything I do, and therefore keep our shared language alive for whatever time I have left. I have to do this in recognition of the fact that the ideal Brian sought ultimately wasn’t my own, while learning to see the unfathomableness of his demise as part of the beauty and wonder that he’s left behind.
Travis Jeppesen is an American novelist, artist, poet and art critic. His novels include The Suiciders (2013), Wolf at the Door (2007), and Victims (2003). He lives in Berlin, Germany, and London, UK, where he occasionally teaches at the Royal College of Art. In 2014, his work was included in the Whitney Biennial, New York, USA, and he had a solo show, ‘16 Sculptures’, at Wilkinson Gallery, London.
First published in Issue 165