the joke



Everyone was talking about it like it was the greatest thing to hit the art world since, I dunno, acrylic paint or something. Every magazine, paper, blog reel, zine, video podcast and Twitter feed shamelessly linked to the same photograph, taken on an iPhone the night of the bombing. It was a burning building, limp corpses hung in the windows and viscera littered in the streets, the contrast so warped by the low-resolution that you could almost feel the heat and smell the burning flesh.

The memorable part was a woman, her head greasy with blood and sulfur, her face frozen with a half-horrified shriek, half-hysterical giggle. There was some debate as if she was laughing or not, but no one could ask her. She was never seen again, like her existence was limited to the snapshot.

Everyone called it the most iconic image of the 21st century, after the World Trade Center collapse and Bush’s Mission Accomplished speech. Alongside every reproduction of the bombing was a similar story, starting with a room full of taxidermic animals and a man named Damien Ringle. But I probably know the story best, because Damien was my brother.

Damien and I attended the same small university in Flagstaff, Arizona. He majored in Art, something our father called a “fart of a degree” and I focused on business, intending to inherit Dad’s mortgage company. Sometimes the university had a tiny show for students, encouraging the wannabe-Warhols to drag whatever hidden masterpieces they had stuffed in their dorm closets.

Even at a young age, Damien stole the show. His sculptures were stolen taxidermic animals that were painted over to look like cartoon characters. Damien’s all-star cast featured Donald Duck, Felix the Cat and Scooby Doo and managed to get the whole exhibit protested by the student animal rights population. The student paper tried to defend the little art prodigy, but once a couple windows were smashed, the animals stolen again, the Art Department shut down the gallery for the semester.

The paper quoted Damien as saying, “It couldn’t have gone better if I planned it.”

From the beginning, this is exactly what little Damien wanted. It’s what he’s always wanted, controversy, conflict, chaos.

Growing up, Damien was the middle child, between me and our sister. You know how on road trips siblings will poke at each other until a fight breaks out? Damien never outgrew that provocative mentality. And our Dad was barely in our lives enough to whip around and vaguely threaten the brat, “If you don’t cut that out, I’m going to turn this car around…”

At a young age, Damien wanted to be a stand-up comic. He marveled at the way George Carlin and Lenny Bruce could say the most provocative, fucked up shit and get away with it and still leave their audiences in stitches. Damien soon abandoned those dreams when he realized he had incredible stage fright. He couldn’t divide himself from his audience.

The general teenage delinquency, the feigned interest in graffiti, the drugs and the broken curfews, it was all just part of Damien’s act. When he decided to step up and become the next Hirst or Fairey, my father steamed with anger and disappointment, but tried not to let it show.

Damien just saw art as another way to piss everyone off.

It wasn’t hard for my brother to get funding for his next installation piece. The Los Angeles Museum of Contemporary Art opened up a basement and allowed Mr. Ringle to fill ten rooms with different artifacts, each representing a different Plague of Egypt. Most people found the Plague of Blood amusing, albeit disturbing, but entering a room fluttering with locusts and lice was too much. The Plague of Frogs once again attracted the attention of radical animal right’s groups, who broke into the museum, staging a “liberation” and releasing the plagues – the frogs, the flies, the fleas and the crickets – onto the city of Los Angeles.

The irony was not lost on the media, who praised my brother’s installation as the funniest art stunt since Phillippe Petit’s tightrope dance between the Twin Towers. The best thing some L.A. art critic said about the Plagues was, “Damien’s art is about suffering and he makes sure everyone suffers with him, intentional or not.”

For at least one week that February, Damien Ringle was the number one-trended topic on three different social media websites, overshadowing the death of a hip hop star, a pregnant model/junkie and an earthquake in Thailand. The only quote the papers could wrangle from the guerrilla artist was “Hallelujah, baby.”

More and more people were talking about art again. The general complaints of “I don’t get it” and “What’s the point?” were replaced with “Did you hear what he did at the Academy Awards? He dumped a bucket of pink paint on Jessica Alba and called her his masterpiece.”

Everyone ditched those Kanye West glasses and started wearing Damien Ringle’s bulbous headlamps. All over the country, kids everywhere were getting thrown out of art class for trying to outdo one another with daring, violent art pranks. One kid was quoted in the Chicago Tribune saying, “You know why you don’t nail dead birds to a board and coat them in that polyvinyl chloride shit they put on Christmas trees? At first, it looks cool as fuck, but then little bubbles start to form and when they pop, they smell like, well, rotting birds. And oh yeah, the mandatory counseling appointments kind of suck, too.”

If ol’ Dad had any feelings about this, he didn’t express them. Around the same time, he was sentenced to seven years in prison for stealing from his investors, just another victim of The Great Recession. I took over the company and although it was barely salvageable, I was still making a pretty penny. I guess that’s why I didn’t really mind when Damien approached me, asking for $5,000 in cash.

“This is for your next installation?”

“Uh huh.”

“Why can’t you ask someone else, someone from a museum or something? You’ve seen the economy, why come here?”

“The galleries are afraid to touch me now. Too many arsons, lawsuits, whatever.” Then my brother looked at me with those sad, sorry, “Please forgive me” eyes that he used when were kids, begging me not to tattle on him. And the trick always worked.

Leaving the bank, handing my brother the cash, I said, “I want this back before Christmas.”

“You’ll get it before Labor Day.” He smiled, like all that sibling rivalry bullshit didn’t matter any more. But I knew that wasn’t exactly true.

Come Halloween, I still hadn’t heard from my brother. I didn’t really have to anymore, I just had to pick up a newspaper or look on Google trends. Unfortunately, it wasn’t good news.

The Huffington Post ran a headline that read “Ringle’s new installation busts — literally.” Every other magazine, newspaper, Livejournal entry and the mandatory Boing Boing feature echoed the same sentiment – Damien had blown it.

Damien’s big failure was stringing 4,429 balloons, one for each casualty in the Iraq Invasion, in a warehouse, filling each one with a different, random liquid. He gave each guest a rusty steak knife and an empty champagne class, instructing everyone that whoever found the balloon filled with crude oil would get a free, signed Ringle print, valued at $1.4 million.

Mostly on accident, the gallery soon became one giant knife fight. People were slipping like Bambi on the ice all over dish soap, goat’s milk, bleach, dolphin semen, Smirnoff Ice, no-pulp orange juice and liquefied butter, to name a few. But mostly everyone was slipping from all the blood from all the accidental and on purpose stabbings. Someone should have said “No smoking” because when the balloon filled with gasoline popped next to a guy with a cigarillo in hand – well, it wasn’t a pretty sight.

Because the violence stood out the most from the show, that’s what all the papers, the magazines, the blogs decided to focus on, bent over with sardonic laughter. Videos of the event made their rounds on YouTube, complete with the idiotic comments and auto-tuned remixes. Some blog, something like, started a rumor that Damien was addicted to heroin. People stopped wanting to work with him so much. It didn’t matter if it was true if enough people linked to it.

I was almost furious when Damien approached me a second time, his hand extended for ten grand this time. But he always had this over-convincing way of getting anything out of anyone.

“Cash, this time, again?” I asked.

My brother nodded. “Don’t worry. The last show was a bust, but this next one will get you twice of what I’m asking, plus whatever I owe you.”

Even strapped for cash myself, I gave him the money, more to throw it in Dad’s face than to help out a sibling. I guess that rebellious streak wasn’t isolated in my brother’s genes. I hadn’t visited the old man once in prison, he even spent Christmas without a visit, but I knew he’d heard about this latest disaster. Damien’s celebrity reached even into San Quentin.

For his next act, aptly named Slaughterhouse Six Six Six, Damien bought an old slaughterhouse and built a playground inside. He didn’t remove any of the various decapitating, disemboweling machinery, but he did spread a thick layer of offal and guts all over the floor. The playground was filled with dead, decaying animals, broken glass and the ball pit was overflowing with dirty needles.

The worst part was going into the freezer, where Damien had hung towels from the ceiling, all of them dripping blood. The guests were herded to the end, which they did like sheep, assuming this was another way to get inside the mind of my brother.

I remember walking through the cold, the blood even colder, hitting my head like rain. It stained dozens of elegant, posh evening gowns of brainless trophy wives and ruined the Armani suits of their art collector husbands. I smirked the whole time, finding the stunt enormously funny, especially that anyone would willingly participate in this. Then, reaching the end, my grin faded.

At the end of the freezer a handwritten note was taped, saying the blood was HIV positive. Love, Damien.

Thirteen people sued, even though later it would be revealed no one had contracted AIDS. Damien was lucky this time, but the heat was really starting to rise.

The backlash, exaggerated as it was, made it seem like Damien was Richard Nixon. The media came up with a typical title, “Slaughtergate” and almost overnight, everyone seemed to abandon their obsession with the “pop-art infidel,” as called him.

I didn’t hear from Damien after that, but I read about his next big thing as soon as Google Alerts updated. It was called The Joke and the buzz was like Britney Spears’ comeback – completely baseless media manufactured optimism. The papers, the magazines, the blogs, they all asked questions like “Will Damien be resurrected?” because they wanted to see him raised from the dead. But it seemed like it was just so they could nail him to the cross again.

The actual theme of The Joke was kept secret, the gallery windows blocked out. For the artist’s reception and opening night, it was invitation-only. Everyone who was anyone in the art world was given a ticket and I wasn’t invited. Feeling bitter and brushed off, I decide to show up anyway.

It’s a three-hour drive from my office and I’m worried I’ll be late, but I arrive just in time. From the parking lot, I can hear music and a long line of people entering the building. I stand behind a couple, trying to see inside. This art gallery slut, someone who dates guys with names like Florence from Barcelona because he’s “so deep”, she makes me want to puke. But she has a ticket sticking out her purse. Making sure no one sees, I take it and push my way to the front of the line. The bouncer barely glances at my invitation.

My first impression is that what I heard outside wasn’t music. It’s the sounds of animals being slaughtered, rabbits screaming and lobsters squealing and pigs crying. The whole aura is giving me a terrible chill.

The Joke, the actual exhibit, is relatively mild for Damien, just a bunch of silk-screen prints of various historical tragedies. A Warhol take on the World Trade Center Collapse, the Mai Lai massacre, the Hindenburg explosion, the Titanic sinking. In each corner, there are fake, homemade bombs, complete with wires and synchronized countdown timers. Painted on the wall in what looks like blood is the words “IT COULD HAPPEN TO YOU.”

I walk over to the refreshments table, trying to think of something to say to my brother. I nibble on a brownie and scoop myself some punch. The air feels cold and fresh and I notice that everyone going around from painting to painting is laughing their ass off.

It almost feels like being in a sitcom, the laughter endless and inappropriate and canned. Everyone is giggling and guffawing till tears are trailing down their eyes.

I see my brother, talking to a couple of scrawny models and I tap him on the shoulder. He’s the only one not smiling and his face goes from shock to anger. He hisses at me, so not to offend the girls, but they walk off anyway.

“What the fuck are you doing here? I made sure, double sure, you weren’t fucking invited.”

“Wow, what a way to welcome your flesh and blood. I don’t know, I think I have a right to be here.”

“A right? What right?”

“I paid for your last two shithead installations, your stupid little stunts, I wanted to see how bad this was going to be. By the way, how did you afford this?”

“I maxed out four credit cards, but that doesn’t matter. You really don’t want to see how bad this one is going to get.”

“Looks like I’m gonna.”

My brother leans into me and whispers, “Why don’t we step out back for a bit?”

A bouncer’s gorilla hands suddenly clamp on my shoulder and I’m led through the back and into an alley.

“OK, so here’s how this works,” Damien says. “You’re going to go home. I don’t want to see you here again tonight. If you do, I’ll have Marvin here crush your face, got it?”

“Fine. You want to threaten me, treat me like shit, fine. But if I don’t have the cash I loaned you by tomorrow, I’ll see you in court.”

“Is this about money?” Damien reached into his pocket and gave me a business card. “Here. Call this number tomorrow and you’ll get your fucking money.”

“This is a life insurance company.”

“Exactly. And if you don’t get out of here, I’m going to kill you.”

I start to feel a little bit sick and suddenly puke. “What the fuck was in that punch?”

“Sunshine acid. There was some kush weed in the brownies, too. The nitrogen being pumped in the room wasn’t cheap either.”

Bent down in the alley, hovering over my own puke, I say, “What?”

And Damien leans down, with a smile on his face, saying, “The Joke. Do ya get it? Do ya get it?” And he laughs. “That’s not even the punch line.”

I get up and start to walk off, when Damien calls after me, “Hey, bro, tell Dad I love him, OK?” Then he stops and says, “Actually, scratch that. Tell him to go fuck himself.”

Walking back around to my car, the acid still starting to kick in, I fumble with the keys when an explosion comes from the art gallery. It’s so loud I nearly piss myself, I’m thrown to the ground and spend several minutes trying to figure out just what the fuck happened to me.

If they’re big enough, explosions aren’t like the movies, you can’t just walk away, at least in my experience. I’m barely even realize I’ve been hit in the head with a flying brick, my ears have shut off and I slump against the tire, bleeding from my forehead, trying to rationalize the irrational. I just wanted to sit and not think.

I mean, you read about post traumatic stress, but seeing a building full of people collapse on fire, killing dozens of folks that you saw breathing and laughing and alive just minutes before – well, it’s way harder to ignore. Something like that really doesn’t ever leave you.

I knew my brother was inside when the timers hit zero. The biggest surprise was that the bombs in the gallery were real the whole time. Everyone was so caught up in the artist’s illusion, they didn’t question it.

I guess Damien got his revenge, or finally made whatever statement he’d been trying to get across his whole life. In the end, I appreciated him throwing me out. Saving my life, sort of.

In the following weeks, everyone was talking about my brother’s suicide bombing like it was the greatest thing to hit the art world since, I dunno, the Mona Lisa or something. No one missed those art gallery junkies Damien murdered. Far as most art world aficionados were concerned, he did the world a favor. Things were changing already – no one was interested in stunts anymore. People wanted sincerity, truth, documentary, whatever. Most people stopped paying attention after that and art became another “thing” for weirdos and freaks and misfits.

Still, constantly watching and rewatching and hearing about the news of my brother’s death depressed the hell out of me, but later I found parts of the whole thing funny. Or at least, ironic. The Joke had become another example of the screen prints Damien had made.

I was legally able to collect my brother’s life insurance, getting my loans paid back in full, but none of that really comforted me. My doctor called me saying my blood test results tested positive for HIV. Sure, they said they wanted me to come in for some follow-up tests, but I didn’t bother. All I could think of was Slaughterhouse Six Six Six.

I went to San Quentin. My head in my hands, I sulked in the waiting room of the prison. A guard came in saying my father would see me now. I summoned the courage to stand and was led down the dim hallways and then I started to laugh.