Mister Trigger and me A story between Chrisitan Leigh and Diango Hernandez
Judy: I was safe when you found me. There was nothing that you could prove. When I saw you again, I couldn’t run away. I loved you so. I walked into danger, let you change me because I loved you and I wanted you. Oh, Scottie, oh Scottie please. You love me. Please keep me safe, please…
Scottie: It’s too late. It’s too late. Excerpt from Vertigo, Alfred Hitchcock, 1958
EPISODE I: The TateI can’t believe it! It was only by the end of last year when I started “talking” to you, time flies… Since then we have done days of emails and some hours of phone conversations. How come I didn’t realise that you don’t exist? That you are a ghost, just smoke!
On the 29th of July 2010 I received the following email:
From: Rachel Skelton
Sent: 29 July 2010 16:34
To: DIANGO HERNANDEZ
Subject: PRESS REQUEST – SYNTAX MAGAZINE
You may recall I emailed you on Monday regarding copyright in images/artworks that you sent us in relation to the upcoming Liverpool Biennial.
I have received a press request today from Syntax Editions magazine who would like to interview you for their next issue. Syntax is published three times yearly, edited by writer and filmmaker CS Leigh.
They would like to interview you by email, and then would like to perhaps interview you in person if you are coming to the UK at all in August, or in September for the installation.
I trust you will be keen to gain some international press coverage for your new installation here at Tate Liverpool; do let me know if you would like to go ahead and I can arrange the interviews.
All best wishes
Tate Liverpool, Albert Dock, Liverpool L3 4BB
Tel: +44 (0) 151 702 7444
During those days I’ve got the Tate request email I was about to leave Europe . I was about to leave for a one-month trip heading Latin America. I didn’t really have time for answering the interview request though I was already curious about it, specially after checking briefly the Syntax website.
On the 6th of August 2010 I received the second email from the Tate:
On Aug 6, 2010, at 5:42 PM, Rachel Skelton wrote:
Have you had a chance to think about this press opportunity for Syntax magazine?
Please let me or Aida know if you are happy to be interviewed so I can arrange this.
Tate Liverpool, Albert Dock, Liverpool L3 4BB
Tel: +44 (0) 151 702 7444
On the same day the 6th of August 2010 I managed to answer the Tate interview request:
From: DIANGO HERNANDEZ
Sent: 06 August 2010 17:24
To: Rachel Skelton
Subject: Re: PRESS REQUEST – SYNTAX MAGAZINE
I’ll be traveling to Cuba and Brazil during the whole month of Aug. I am not sure if I’ll get access to internet from Cuba, that would be the only problem, otherwise I’ll be happy to give them the interview. I am leaving on Monday. Ask them to send the questions anyway and if I get online in Cuba then I can answer them…
All the best and thanks!!!
It wasn’t until Oct. the 8th of 2010 that I heard from Syntax:
On Oct 8, 2010, at 3:19 PM, syntax editions wrote:
I hope you are well.
We missed you in Liverpool and we are hoping we can still do the interview by e-mail. Is that possible for you?
EPISODE II: The Interviewer
Syntax was absent for few weeks until “they” contacted me again asking if I would know someone close to my work that would be interested in the interview. I realised only then that the “magazine” wasn’t able to be the interviewer or didn’t wanted to be. Anyway I moved forward, fast as usual I contacted Patrizia Dander; a curator, which is close to my work and also close as a friend. I knew she could beautifully do the job fast and clean. Her answer as expected was positive and rewarding. She was happy, as I was to be in contact again and to have the opportunity to develop a dialogue about ideas we’ve been talking about “here and there” during the last moths.
I suggested her to be in contact directly with Syntax after I proposed her to them and they agreed. A couple of weeks after Syntax started organising a photographer that could come to Düsseldorf to take a picture of me in my studio. The photographer came from Antwerp in a single day trip to Düsseldorf with a single purpose: to take a picture of me. I was impressed and surprised about it, the photo episode was a sign that made me think how serious these “London guys” were taking my contribution for their magazine. In the next weeks Patrizia and I finished the interview. Syntax was extremely happy with it:
On 8 Dec 2010, at 12:39, syntax editions wrote:
We think the interview is wonderful. We’re so happy to have the opportunity to publish it.
I thought everything was over with Syntax. We finished the interview on time, the portrait was taken and I have submitted a selection of images of new works that would be featured in their new issue together with the interview. But later on during the same day, 8th of Dec. 2010 I’ve got the following email:
On Dec 8, 2010, at 12:51 PM, syntax editions wrote:
Excellent. It’s a wonderful interview. If you ever want to do a book and you’re looking for a publisher we would be very interested. Hope you enjoy your holidays.
EPISODE III: The Book
For years I’ve been working on a book about my studio in Düsseldorf. I have documented the way objects “lives” in the space I am working in. Many of the black and white pictures I’ve taken only contain objects in their way to become something else. Since I moved to this space, which is my real first studio I am interested about, how the space is shaped again and again by different objects, books and ideas and to document this has been a great inspiration for me, a kind of a reflection tool. I have even worked in the layout of this ‘imaginary’ book hoping that one day an email like the one before from Syntax would have hit my mailbox.
I was very excited and without hesitating I started to push forward the book; I sent them my first draft and I got immediately their first answer:
On Dec 10, 2010, at 10:38 PM, syntax editions wrote:
This looks wonderful. Let’s make it happen.
The main person behind our company said we would do any book that you want to make at any moment. I will show this to our team on Monday and I will get back to you right away. We also know a printer with good prices and who would be interested to exchange art works for printing charges. I’m sure we could do a strong launch and a good distribution for it too.
Do you have plans to be in London any time soon? Hope you are enjoying your weekend.
Syntax #3 – Cinephobia – Out Now
follow us on twitter
As usual my answer was very positive, I was already super excited about all this that so fast, like fire was developing in front of my eyes:
On Mon, Dec 13, 2010 at 12:29 AM, DIANGO HERNANDEZ wrote:
I am very happy to hear this! Yes, let’s make it happen!
London is a bit complicated for me since I have always to go through all the visa procedure again and again , every time I have to go there it is a real pain. For the moment I’ll stay in the continent and in case I’ll go to London I’ll let you know, for sure we’ll meet soon…
All the best and thanks so much!
Their last confirmation mail about the book gave me even more confidence about the project, after this email all the machinery I could mobilise was on.
On Dec 13, 2010, at 5:33 PM, syntax editions wrote:
We absolutely want to do the book. How about launching it at Frieze in 2011?
EPISODE IV: Dropping Names
What follows this email is a full-on chain of back and forth exciting emails. Most of them about production details and the most interesting ones about name dropping (big time names) names that would be eventually involved in or with the book.
On Feb 19, 2011, at 4:53 PM, syntax editions wrote:
Wonderful. I like the idea of Stella (Stella McCartney) better than Acne. I might also
make you a list of other potential designers. It’s LFW (London Fashion Week) now and then we
go to Milan and Paris. What would you think of collaborating with a
designer like Kris van Assche who really loves denim and actually has a
very thought through philosophy about denim. He says finding real
denim these days is hard. He also brought denim to Dior Homme in a
very new way to what the previous designer did. We like Kris a lot. I
think we can also probably get sponsorship from fashion.
The names were getting bigger and in the way also very familiar to me until the point that I would find myself talking about Kris and Stella like if I would have spent my childhood with them. There was not a single symptom of impossibility neither a limit; we were giving each other digital shocks of adrenaline; we were trusting each other; we were loving each other. Ideas were floating over keyboards and screens and the illusion was already there, not any longer as an illusion but as a reality. A reality that no one wanted to question because it was perfection as perfect as an straight black line can look on a computer’s monitor. The world we’ve created in half a year of emails and exciting phone calls was like a neat room were only positive thinking was allow, a room where the most disturbing thing would have been to let in a single doubt.
EPISODE IV: Doubts, Whenever you want to come
The printing deadline was set, the layout was finished and ready to enter the last proof reading face, the € 40. 000,00- production budget was approved and ready to hit the printer’s bank account since dh-artworks (German art edition company) decided to financially support the whole project. Since a week I was waiting for couple of important details to be submitted from London, I was getting impatience; the ISBN number, the bar-code and the Syntax logo was missing. A day before printing I managed to talk on the phone with Syntax, the ISBN number plus the bar-code won’t be needed any longer since the book we were producing was looking more like a special edition that would have different prices over the time. I kind of understood the logic behind this argument and I talked to dh-artworks and they also agreed, they didn’t seem neither worry about these missing details. Still the Syntax logo was missing but later during the same day I got the following mail:
On Aug 8, 2011, at 10:57 AM, Syntax Intern wrote:
There is very little to change or correct.
We are happy with the type face for our name. We always like using a discrete type rather than imposing a logo on a book design. In all cases we are happy with the way Syntax is.
On the credits page at the front under please add the following.
CS Leigh / Robert Trees / David Moore / Portia Callis
On page 40 and page 42 we would suggest changing 60s to sixties.
We suggest the following wording be added under Printed in Germany.
Printed in Germany
in a limited edition of 700 copies and 50 deluxe editions.
All of the credits on the individual images we are accepting your editing as being correct as you know the titles and the material and the names of the galleries in the different cities..
On the back cover we suggest changing the words as follows
portraits to depicts
let to lets
relation to to relationship with
allow to allows
has been produced to is produced
The book does not need the ISBN code on the back. For limited edition books it causes problems for book sellers who might want to charge a different price in different countries.
If it is possible we would like another proof reading of the print galleys before the book goes to print. If it is not possible we believe this is very close to being as perfect as possible.
After getting this email a little doubt started flying inside of my head, by night the little doubt was huge. I started reviewing hundreds of emails and one thing came across: none of Syntax promises managed to be part of the book that it was about to be printed:
-The collaboration with Kris van Assche (absent)
-Daniel Alarcón writing for the book (absent)
-The book launch at the White Chapel (not defined / not confirmed)
-The book launch at January 2012 Menswear and Haute Couture Collections in Paris (not confirmed)
By now Syntax was only correcting the English texts of the book and smartly and politely delivering believable excuses for each of of the missing elements listed above. I decided right away to go online and start with a full research about the names they have provided me with that same morning:
CS Leigh / Robert Trees / David Moore / Portia Callis
Nothing relevant on Robert Trees, David Moore nor Portia Callis but definitely a lot of relevant things on Mr. CS Leigh. All information found on Mr. CS Leigh confirmed each one of my fears. I panic and at 12 o’clock in the night I stopped the book printing process. I immediately wrote the following email addressed to Mr. CS Leigh
On Aug 9, 2011, at 1:51 AM, DIANGO HERNANDEZ wrote:
Dears or dear???
After seeing this online ( http://origin.anothermag.com/art-photography/176/laurence-ellis-photographer-on-his-absent-friend ) I had to block the printing and also and most important that link cut my inspiration. Please tell me that this is not true! and tell me that all of our communication and project hasn’t been just “hot air”?
I have automatically frozen the process of printing and I am evaluating already the possibility of another publisher until you can’t prove to me that you really exist! Taking in consideration how serious is this project for me and seeing how much energies and resources we have invested on all this I think I deserve a really good explanation.
I wish all the best!!!
The next day was a nightmare, a day I have learned a lot from. Finally I put an end to this masquerade. Syntax won’t be part of this project any longer, all possible traces of “their” presence were removed from the book, nevertheless I decided to keep only one sign: thanks to CS Leigh.
EPISODE VI: La Cucaracha is Inside The Drawer
Please read carefully what follows, it is worth to read. In case one of these days Mr. Ch “touches” you, the best advice would be: Do not reply to the sender.
The Trouble with Christian: Whatever Happened to Christian Leigh By Alexi Worth (published in ARTFORUM, March 01, 2003)
For a six-year run beginning in 1987, CHRISTIAN LEIGH was one of the most visible -and ambitious- independent curators in the international art world. Then he vanished. ALEXI WORTH looks back on an enigmatic impresario of many guises whose disappearance remains as mysterious as Leigh himself.
In the mid-’90s, around the time that Christian Leigh went underground, or vanished, or worse (the more lurid versions of the story pictured him at the bottom of a Venetian canal), a curious fax began circulating through New York galleries. At the time, Leigh was a familiar figure in the art world–the most flamboyant of the independent curators who had risen to prominence with the bull market of the ’80s. But the fax had nothing to do with curating or with Leigh’s widely publicised disappearance. It was a copy of a profile from People magazine, dated September 5, 1983, and titled “Kristian Leigh Had a Dream: I Was a Teenage Dress Designer.” The accompanying photo showed a swollen, melancholy -eyed kid- a kind of cross between Fatty Arbuckle and Peter Lorre flanked by a pair of sultry female models. The writers of the piece were evidently charmed by their eighteen-year-old subject and by his tea dresses, his wool suit and his evening gowns trimmed with marabou feathers and rhinestone-embroidered lace:
With price tags ranging up to $20,000, Leigh’s flashy creations are worn, he says, by private clients like Jane Fonda, Farrah Fawcett, Jessica Lange and Meryl Streep, who wore one of Leigh’s dresses to the 1982 Oscars. Bankrolled by his mother, Barbara, who once owned a series of stores that sold discounted designer clothing, Leigh employs 25 helpers in his Manhattan salon….
Leigh cut his first dress at age thirteen, when his mother told a valued client she had just taken on an in-house Parisian designer named “Pierre .” Et voila, five days later, the fictitious Frenchman, Kristian, came through.
For anyone who knew Leigh from his second act in the art world, the piece was both amusing and spooky. Everything was there already -the obsession with Hollywood, the flamboyance, the name-dropping, and above all, in the vignette about the “fictitious Frenchman,” Leigh’s predilection for self-creation. Few friends ever knew much for certain about Leigh’s past, but most remember sketchy, glamorous details. He had grown up in a mansion in Newport, he said, near the von Bulows. His mother collected Jasper Johns and was close to Barbra Streisand. He had graduated from high school at fifteen, then dropped out of Princeton. There was a stint in England , where he’d been a stylist for Boy George.
The stories were suspiciously colourful, and the ingredients varied. Some people heard Parsons rather than Princeton , Duran Duran rather than Boy George. But they rarely bothered to challenge Leigh: An air of fabrication was part of his charm. When I told his onetime friends, in the course of interviews for this article, that neither Princeton nor Parsons had any record of Leigh, and that Leigh probably wasn’t his real name anyway, few were surprised. They did wonder, though, why he never talked about the fashion career, and wondered if he’d ever really had one.
The truth, as with so many Christian Leigh stories, is elusive. Meryl Streep did attend the 1982. Oscars. At least one photo from the time (republished for a recent Oscar special in People) shows her in a long purple dress attributed to the “then-popular Kristian Leigh.” A source close to the actress, however, says she has “never heard of this person.” The business itself -Kristian Leigh Ltd.- did exist. For a few years in the early 80’s, it attracted a flurry of press notices. The earliest was an adoring 1982 piece by John Duka in the New York Times. The last, from the February 10, 1984, issue of Women’s Wear Daily, suggests some reasons for Leigh’s reticence. It tells a brief, tawdry story, involving unpaid debts to suppliers, the arrest of Leigh’s mother for writing a bad check, and a deserted office on East Twenty-eighth Street . The headline reads KRISTIAN LEIGH SHOWROOM CLOSED; DESIGNER’S WHEREABOUTS UNKNOWN.
Five years later, in the summer of 1989, a mega-exhibition of American art opened in Salzburg . “The Silent Baroque” is remembered above all for its absurdly extravagant opening festivities. A multitude of New York artists and critics were flown to Austria , put up in deluxe hotels, and treated to banquets on the grounds of Schloss Schonbrunn, outside Vienna . Attendees remember it as a fever dream of opulence, with night after night of Fellini-esque parties catered by livened footmen. For some, the junket represented the grand finale of ’80s excess, the last and most lavish party of the waning decade. But “The Silent Baroque” is remembered for other things as well. It put Galerie Thaddaeus Ropac on the map, brought the neo-geo artists to Europe , and highlighted the ascendancy of its young maximalist curator–the corpulent, brilliant Christian Leigh.
Nobody in the art world remembers exactly when they first began hearing about Leigh. He seems to have burst onto the scene during the 1985-86 season, charming dealers and artists alike with his smarts, conspiratorial humor, and intimations of financial largesse. Soon he was writing reviews for Artforum, organising loquacious dinners at Barocco, and curating memorable shows. Stefan Stux remembers being dazzled, as were many other dealers. “He would come into your gallery and say, “I love this work. How much is this one? Ten thousand dollars? Why don’t you put a reserve down on this one. And by the way, I’m going to curate a show in Europe, and I’d like to include some of your artists.” You felt like you’d reached God’s foot.
Physically, Leigh was a magnificent eyesore. Short, fat, bald, of indeterminate age and sexuality, he had a sort of reverse glamour, a magnetism that suggested both warmth and secrecy. His charisma wasn’t just a matter of telling people what they wanted to hear–although he seems to have had a special knack for that. He was quick, funny, full of definitive opinions and shrewd advice. People who treated him with skepticism often found themselves singled out and won over. The initial mistrust, the sense that there was, as the art critic Adrian Dannatt puts it, “some weird gap behind it all, that you didn’t really know who this guy was,” melted into fascination. Years later, friends and acquaintances still remember Leigh with surprising fondness. He had, the artist Gary Stephan remembers, an “aura of pleasurable positive energy. Every time I saw him I would think, “Oh, this is going to be fun.”
In 1988, Leigh was invited to put together a dream project, a big-budget survey of new American art to inaugurate Galerie Thaddaeus Ropac–the show that would eventually become “The Silent Baroque.” At around the same time, he was asked to become reviews editor of Artforum. Leigh accepted both jobs, but it soon became clear he had a few too many irons in the fire for the taste of the magazine’s publishers, who made it known to Leigh that he would have to dean up his act or move on. He left after only three months. Leigh’s own writing wasn’t distinctive, but his eye for talent left a mark on the magazine despite his short tenure. He had a hand in inviting people like novelist and poet Dennis Cooper and Jack Bankowsky–the present editor-to begin contributing.
Meanwhile, the grand “Silent Baroque” catalogue, with its mix of artists’ projects and interviews, not to mention its square format, came to resemble a giant hardcover issue of Artforum. Leigh’s own contribution to the book was odd: a long, earnest analysis of sexism in Hollywood . The other forty-two contributions were equally peculiar, and heterogeneous. Like the exhibition itself, the catalogue was essentially a grab bag of up-and-coming names, from Jeff Koons, Peter Halley, and Ashley Bickerton, to Hilton Als, Jerry Saltz, and Herbert Muschamp. Any organising principle was conspicuous mainly by its absence.
This themelessness, wrote Donald Kuspit in the book’s most striking essay, was the whole point. Under the title “The Curator as Artist,” the veteran critic praised Leigh’s exhibitions as “zones of conflict in which reconciliation of the individual works and artists is suggested as a distant implication.” For Kuspit, the very remoteness of the governing premise–at one point he likened it to “an infinitely far idea”–made Leigh’s work challenging, fresh, even an art form in itself. Leigh’s exhibitions, Kuspit concluded on an extravagant note, were “more artistic than the artworks they subsume.”
The ebullience of the art market was waning, but Leigh’s career accelerated. Almost immediately, he put Kuspit’s license to work, initiating a bravura series of exhibitions named after Hitchcock films. Over the next couple of years, “Spellbound” at Marc Richards Gallery in Los Angeles was followed by “Vertigo” at Ropac’s Paris gallery; “Rope” at Alcolea in Barcelona; and “Psycho,” at a space Leigh rented on Greene Street in SoHo. The Hitchcock shows did not involve “literal illustrations of Hitchcock’s films,” as Dannatt pointed out in an amused, admiring profile for the London Independent. “There is no work that directly refers to them, and the gallery goer has only the show’s title and their own imagination to work with.” To skeptics, the titles were simply talking points, ways for Leigh to indulge his obsession with Hollywood , or to sidestep the question of theme altogether. To Leigh, though, Hitchcock was a personal symbol for his own conception of the curator as auteur, a sort of directorial mastermind creating “a temporary and autonomous work of art made up entirely of other autonomous works of art.”
Leigh’s Hitchcock shows, with their brightly painted walls, sound tracks of Kraftwerk-style electronica, and unpredictable juxtapositions, embodied the new, deliberately overweening scope of Leigh’s ambition. In print, Leigh was careful to say that the individual works remained primary, that they were not “subsumed,” as Kuspit had put it. In conversation, he was less careful. He had begun to take his role as conceptual impresario with an increasingly delighted irreverence. Plenty of gallery goers were irked. The growing backlash included people who thought Leigh’s curating was overcrowded and random, that the Hitchcock titles were branding gimmicks. Most of the time, though, as Leigh himself said in his last published interview (for Galleries magazine), “What I believe people are talking about when they question my integrity is money.”
Sometime in 1991, a well-known art dealer (who prefers to remain unnamed), frustrated at not being called back about some missing paintings, hacked into Leigh’s answering machine. It was easy to do. “At the time,” the dealer remembers, “everyone had a Panasonic phone machine. The access number was a two-digit code. I began punching 00, 01, 02, and not too far along, I hit it.” Leigh’s messages began playing. “Half the calls were like, ‘Hey Christian, it’s so-and-so, I’d love you to come by my studio.. .'” They were solicitous, polite calls, the kind of thing you’d expect on a rising young curator’s phone machine. The other voices were not polite. They were the voices of shippers, vendors, lawyers–and they were angry. “You can’t hide from me. Pick up. I’m coming over. I know you’re there. I’m going to sue you.” The dealer listened to most of an hour of alternating solicitations and threats. He may have been the first person to get a glimpse into the underside of Leigh’s precipitous ascent.
Leigh had, as the New York Times eventually put it, a “dicey reputation,” but the scope of his financial misdealing is impossible to determine, partly because several of the people once closest to him refuse to be interviewed. What’s clear, though, is that money problems date back to the very beginning of Leigh’s curating–to his first show, the 1987 biennial in Cuenca , Ecuador . The Buffalo firm that printed the catalogue wasn’t paid. They sued, and won a judgment for $29,260.69. Leigh never paid it. A pair of later civil judgments, for smaller sums, are also outstanding. What’s surprising, at least given the extent of Leigh’s reputation, is that his legal trail is so faint. It’s possible that other financial complaints were settled quietly or that Leigh’s alleged transgressions were exaggerated. Another explanation is that Leigh was lucky to be working in the art world, where people seldom take their problems to court. The artist Sturtevant, for example, hired a lawyer to recover a presentation book (including some original artworks) that Leigh had borrowed. When her lawyer told her that Leigh wouldn’t return the book without a confidentiality agreement that would have prevented her from discussing the incident publicly, she dropped the whole matter in disgust. Most of those on “the long list of people Christian stiffed,” as the art dealer Josh Baer puts it, never even went that far. If they called anyone to complain, it was Leigh himself.
Perhaps Leigh’s biggest and most forgiving victim was Thaddaeus Ropac. During preparations for “The Silent Baroque,” Leigh had gone “totally, totally over budget,” Ropac remembers. But the gallery owner was grateful for the show’s impact, and he continued to think of Leigh simply as “a brilliant, crazy curator who doesn’t know his limits.” Leigh remained on salary for almost two years. At one point, Ropac recalls, Leigh called from New York , saying he had found a terrific early Peter Halley–something Ropac had to have. Ropac wired him thirty thousand dollars. The painting never appeared. Leigh claimed he had lost the key to the warehouse where the painting was stored. Over the course of several months, other excuses followed; things got “very fishy,” Ropac says. Finally, he gave up. “It was better for me if I step back,” he decided. He ceased doing business with Leigh but never pursued the matter further. Today Ropac speaks about Leigh mildly, with a mixture of wonder, pity, and regret.
Several friends suggest that Leigh’s missteps may have been inadvertent, the result of “administrative chaos.” But Marvin Kosmin, a collector and confidant, remembers a more deliberate policy. Leigh felt, Kosmin says, that “if he did something for an artist he should get something in return.” During a studio visit, “Maybe he would say he was buying something, but in fact he regarded it as a fait accompli… a payback.” Another close friend, the novelist Brian D’Amato, speculates along more clinical lines. “My amateur diagnosis, arrived at too late, was that he was either a congenital sociopath–although not a violent one–or someone who for obvious reasons felt himself to be a born victim and began to believe he was above ordinary standards of behavior.” By the early ’90s, friends were noticing Leigh’s oddly frequent use of the term “pathological liar.” Dealers were warning their artists not to work with him. Increasing numbers of people came to feel, as D’Amato puts it, that “this guy is the Titanic.”
And yet the allure of Leigh’s high-profile shows remained hard to resist. By 1993, the year of his disappearance, Leigh was the most visible independent curator in town, the only one who had sustained the freewheeling social and rhetorical momentum of older maverick curators like Tricia Collins and Richard Milazzo. In his final two shows, first the colossal “I Am the Enunciator” at Thread Waxing Space, and then “I Love You More Than My Own Death” (also called “Transactions”) in Venice , Leigh organised what were essentially giant cross-generational art-world balls. With more than a hundred artists, “Enunciator” mixed factions, generations, and professions: hot ’80s stars like Schnabel and Salle; cool ones like Koons and Halley; and a legion of A-list names, including Alice Neel and Louise Bourgeois, Frank Gehry and Zaha Hadid, Jean-Luc Godard and Peter Greenaway. The critical reaction, however, included the only real pan of Leigh’s career. Writing in Artforum, Thomas McEvilley called the show “all too familiar -a kind of attempt to resuscitate the ’80s long enough to squeeze one last gasp out of them.” McEvilley derided Leigh’s “empty grandiosity,” and went so far as to suggest that the curator owed the artists involved an apology. But McEvilley’s was the minority )pinion. For many viewers, “Enunciator” was a signal vent: Not only did it put the alternative venue Thread Waxing Space on the map (just as “The Silent Baroque” had done for Thaddaeus Ropac), it also defied the cautious tenor of the recession-spooked moment, offering a shot of dazzling energy and attitude.
By contrast, Leigh’s downfall, which came later that summer, was on the surface a fairly banal affair, amounting to a bureaucratic deadlock over shipping fees. It’s not clear why or how Leigh neglected to arrange virtually all the costs associated with a large-scale exhibition–something like $150,000, including even his own airline ticket, which a trusting travel agent provided. Heidi James, who was Leigh’s principal assistant that summer, believes Leigh had backers in mind, and that he expected, as a last resort, that the Biennale or the catalogue publisher would pick up the tab. As it turned out, no one did. At the end of the show’s run in September, the owners of the site, alarmed about their own missing rent, confiscated the packed artworks. Biennale officials refused to assume responsibility; the United States Information Agency was called in to negotiate.
What spiced up the media coverage for the affair was the mystery of the central player, Leigh himself, who returned to New York for a few months and then “abruptly left town,” as the New York Times put it, sometime around December 1993. His phone was disconnected, his mail returned “Address Unknown.” The Times report quoted an interview where he sounded melodramatic and paranoid: “I make a good villain…. I’ve had death threats on and off for six years now.” No one covering the story seems to have been aware of Leigh’s abortive first career, so an odd little symmetry went unnoticed: Leigh’s previous disappearance had taken place around December 1983, exactly ten years earlier.
In fact, Leigh didn’t really disappear, at least not right away. Even as rumours about Leigh lying at the bottom of the Grand Canal began circulating, Heidi James was getting long faxes from Paris, where Leigh was trying to arrange a sponsor to pay off the Biennale debts–in between visits to haute couture shows with his mother. For someone as physically bizarre as Leigh, disappearance was difficult. The artist Christian Eckart bumped into Leigh in Munich . The Times relayed reports of his presence in London . He was spotted in Paris restaurants and apparently bolted from a meeting he had set up at the Cahiers du Cinema office. Back in New York , dose friends got phone calls and letters. Eventually, friend by friend, those petered out.
Finally, in early 1998, Leigh’s Italian creditors accepted a partial settlement from a consortium of dealers and artists, and allowed the works to be shipped to New Jersey . The so-called art-held-hostage saga was over, but the curator was still AWOL. His closest friends hadn’t heard from him in more than three years. They called each other occasionally, asking for news of Leigh. Gradually even they began to wonder if something had happened, if the rumours about his death were more than just rumours.
So where is Christian Leigh? There are no warrants that would prevent him from returning to the US , and in fact, when Adrian Dannatt bumped into Leigh on the street in Paris in 1998, Leigh told him that he was back in New York regularly. We still don’t know his real name (unconfirmed reports give it as Ezra S’ftia, or Saftia, of Ocean Avenue , Brooklyn ). He remains, for now at least, off the map. But it’s possible to get a rough sense of his latest career. The Internet Movie Database lists production details for three feature films written, directed, and coproduced by Christian or “C.S.” Leigh. A photograph on another site shows Leigh on the set looking faintly sinister, calm, and Hitchcockian.
Peter Gray, the cinematographer who worked on the earliest of the three films, Sentimental Education (shot in Amsterdam and Copenhagen in 1997 and 1998), talks about Leigh with professional reserve. His cinematic style struck Gray as a kind of art-house maximalism, involving lots of characters, lots -of dialogue, and some “unusual visuals.” He reluctantly mentions that Leigh “wasn’t particularly honest.” In postproduction, there were familiar-sounding financial problems. A mysterious backer Leigh had promised never turned up, and the Dutch production company went bankrupt. But Leigh found new producers in England and completed a second film, Far From China , in 2000 (with a cast that included Marianne Faithful, and a sound track by the British band Suede). The next year, he gave his third film the coyly Duchampian title Nude Descending.
Firsthand information about these films is remarkably difficult to find. Well-connected distributors in London and Paris have never heard of any of them. The closest thing to a peek at the movies themselves comes from a less-than-reliable source: a pair of Internet-posted audience reviews. Someone named Dominique Lescure offers qualified praise for Far From China, which was ostensibly screened in England on several occasions in late 2000 and early 2001: This, he writes in part, “is what we French call an auteur film, and if you like those films of the Nouvelle Vague, you will … enjoy this madness.” A second, mote enthusiastic viewer, calling himself Jack Cralth, was “taken to the premiere as a guest” and was “out and out amazed, you have the idea the director is a guy to watch, the film has a kind of cool ‘70s split and quad screen thing going on but not in the way of cliched music video, reminds me of Jarman, Todd Haines (sic), Cammel (sic), Roeg, that type film, very intense, little bit cold, but Godard and new wave too….” Both reviews focus almost exclusively on the direction. Both praise Leigh in very much his own terms. “Lescure” and “Cralth” could be covers for Leigh himself, or cronies doing favours. E-mail messages to both names, along with calls to the production companies involved, have gone unanswered. For the moment, the status, artistic merit, and even the existence of Leigh’s films remains as much a mystery as his fate.
It’s impossible to have a conversation with anyone who knew Leigh without their bringing up Patricia Highsmith’s Ripley, The Grifters, or The Duke of Deception, not to mention Catch Me If You Can. Few people would argue that Leigh was a crucial figure, but he remains a subject of speculation, irritation, and wistfulness. Could Leigh have succeeded in the long run? Could he have ended up with his own Twenty-fourth Street gallery? Was he a casualty of the recession, a spendthrift caught up in a moment of austerity? Or on the contrary, was he a beneficiary of the recession, a huckster who was tolerated because times were slack? In the art world, whatever legacy Leigh left remains divisive. He may deserve, as Adrian Dannatt points our, a niche in gallery folklore. He was, in a sense, a deliberate embodiment of the bad, self-serving curator–the paradigm, in Dannatt’s words, “of what you often see curators accused of.” For admirers, Leigh’s amazing six-year run of exhibitions makes him an avatar of something large ly missing from today’s art world–a reckless, crackpot, out-scale energy. Leigh himself was fond of this view. In the “Enunciator” catalogue, he wrote approvingly of an unnamed friend who likened his exhibitions to “an exploded movie with a thousand levels” and called him “Mr. Hurricane.” The harsher view is that Leigh is a blowfish: a small creature puffed up by desperation and chutzpah. That he had charm and drive, but no ideas of his own–or ideas that were little more than rhinestones and marabou feathers.
Perhaps the most damning assessment is that Leigh wasn’t particularly discriminating, that he mirrored downtown establishment taste, that his shows were so big simply because he had a hard time saying no. From this angle, too, Leigh is a tempting synecdoche for his times–the manic, spectacle-driven, rhetorical decade that he outlasted by just a few years. “He understood,” says the dealer Jeffrey Deitch, “how to do something that gets a lot of coverage. He mastered the system, but it was all on the surface. That’s the 80’s very much about the surface.” Deitch, like nearly everyone in the art world, speaks about Leigh in the past tense. But Christian Leigh -whatever his actual name and whereabouts- is almost certainly alive, not yet forty, and as ambitious as ever. It’s way too early to write his epitaph.