→ Love Performance

Alberto Olmos
Photo by Nick Fewings on Unsplash


Translated from the Spanish by Nina Perrotta

It was never my intention to ruin a work of art, but let’s start from the beginning, the first person plural. We

We, all of us, arrived in the mid-eighties in spite of—or maybe because of—firm parental opposition. We said we were going to study fine arts, but really we came to walk in circles, to open up the city streets, to create spirals. We wanted to be modern and magical.

We moved into tiny apartments in the city center, lofts as well, two-bedrooms in the Bohemian quarter (which became Bohemian the moment we decided to settle there), three- and four-bedrooms near the university campus; even, in the most unparalleled strokes of genius, under a bridge or in a shack.

We didn’t come to learn; we came to prove that no one had anything to teach us, that the department wasn’t cut out for us, that the professors didn’t share our sensibilities nor the students our brilliance. We came talented, straight from home, our fathers truckers and farmers, our mothers hairdressers and housewives; as a matter of fact, we came talented straight from our mothers’ wombs (hairdressers and housewives though they might be), artistic from birth, to bring the new light that would illuminate the essential art of the future.

We had youth and tobacco, hats and toilet paper, and youth again. We had everything we needed.

Our large group soon splintered into passionate, theoretical, naturally opposing camps. What mattered most was the knowledge that we were right and they—who were the same as we were, same age, same blue-collar father—were on the wrong path, with their laughably mimetic and pretentious art, their improvised shows on the streets and at bars of ill repute, their demonstrations at the university, waiting with bared breasts and penises for the police to break them up. We too created pretentious art, improvised street galleries, and waited with exposed tits and cocks for the arrival of uniforms at the university gates, but in our case it was authentic, triumphant.

Flare #3 was our first exhibition, the Wunderkammer of our formidable talent. All of us, eight, ten, eighteen—we never took a census of our guerrillas—installed our work in the broken-down house we called “The Cavity” because some poet had once said it looked like the product of architectural plaque, the gum disease of the city.

They were absurd, necessary works. First Dada, now abstract, now conceptual; now Greek, now postmodern; now Marcel Duchamp, now Joseph Beuys, and now, above all, Mom and Dad: pieces of truck bumpers, sewing and embroidery needles stuck through everything, canvases, statues, stuffed birds’ eyes. But he

He was Gomez, he introduced himself as Gomez, he had jet black hair that spilled over the plateau of his forehead into his face, a simple, balanced face, with frightened eyes, thick—even vulgar—lips, and a missing front tooth. It was quickly agreed that he would never amount to anything.

His contribution to Flare #3 was the seminal The Artist Standing In for His Work in Space and Time, which was nothing more than Gomez himself standing in the sinkhole that had been allocated to him in The Cavity. The truth is that no one seemed very impressed, not even seeing him hold still for hours at a time with his left hand in a boxing glove. He didn’t move all day, and only once in a while—and for reasons beyond comprehension—lifted his pugilist’s fist into the air and lowered it again after a few seconds. The interesting thing was that he stayed there at night, too, steady into the early hours of the morning, surrounded by the other artists’ shadowy, unobserved pieces, until exhaustion overcame him and he ended up on the trash-littered floor, his boxing glove doubling as a pillow. Nevertheless, he was back on his feet first thing in the morning, standing in for his work.

The exhibition lasted a week, and Gomez was there all seven days, without changing his clothes or concerning himself with food or hygiene. His nourishment fell to a group of bighearted, pragmatic people, among them a few of the artists and a number of visitors, who clearly saw in this charitable deed a chance to participate actively in the event. The need to save Gomez from starvation made The Artist Standing In for His Work in Space and Time the most striking piece in the exhibition; everyone was talking about it, more and more people came to lend a hand so the artist could keep on standing in for his work, and a few rival groups went so far as to send scouts to The Cavity to judge how talented a guy named Gomez could possibly be. And then she

She arrived. Her name was Carmen, and as it turned out, she had a trucker father and a housewife mother (you can always tell by the prose) and came from the opposite side of the country, where at any given time her parents were doing more or less the same thing as Gomez’s at the other end of the map. She was the first to feed the artist-as-substitute, giving him a chocolate bar she carried in her plain cotton bag along with a short Thomas Bernhard novel and half a plastic-wrapped sandwich. She offered the sandwich to Gomez at dinnertime.

Carmen had scribbled furiously in oil paint on a Skol Lager umbrella she had stolen from the corner bar with the help of her roommates. The piece was called Skull, Skol, Skill, Skol, and only opened—paint and all, it was still an umbrella—during exhibition hours; at night it was closed. Many attendees showed a misguided interest in Skull, Skol, Skill, Skol, especially around midday, which so tried Carmen’s patience that she could often be found kicking some fucking moron or other out of the pleasant shade.

On Wednesday, Carmen decided to give Gomez a Skol-branded baseball cap; her group spent so much time emptying kegs at the corner bar that the owner had rewarded their loyalty with a set of promotional goods. Of the four Skol logos blazoned on her umbrella, Carmen had left two intact, written over the other two with the necessary vowels, and filled the surface around them with visceral scratches in red, yellow, and blue. She knew that as soon as Gomez put on the hat, his work and her own would speak with one voice, instantly producing a whole new arc of interpretations. And yet, in spite of the heat and the art, Gomez rejected Carmen’s offer, blocking the cap with his boxing glove.

Did it hurt her? Yes, a lot, tons. She threw the hat violently in the nearest trash can (where, in fact, about half the works on display would also end up on Sunday night, since their own authors deemed them immature and irrelevant, no more than a rite of passage for the artists they would soon become). On Sunday, Flare #3 would come to an end, as would Gomez’s silence, a sort of anti-language protest that characterized his exceptional performance. Carmen planned to be the recipient of the exhausted artist’s first words, which she imagined would serve as an explanation for his ungrateful behavior.

It turned out Gomez had a voluminous voice, exceedingly material, which on the one hand Carmen found ironic, given the insubstantiality of his artistic work, but on the other hand struck her as very sexy. They slept together. It was Carmen’s first time. Gomez told her it was his too.

Love between artists is only as pure as their calling, and as the weeks and months passed, Carmen’s began to deflate. It took less than a year for her doubt to overpower her completely. Why study fine arts. Carmen repeated it more and more often. Why study fine arts.

She left fine arts. She left Gomez. They remained friends and he went out with Laura; later he also told her about Ana, Marta, Julia. There was a Cristina. Carmen got married, but she didn’t invite Gomez to the wedding. She got a job. She had a baby. Why Gomez. More than twenty years passed. She forgot everything. And then they

They showed up. That August, the media fell in love with the headline. It had initially spread by word of mouth among adolescent bloggers who, with typical hormonal empathy, had shared links to the “love visionary” with their followers. Soon it was appearing on amateur contemporary art blogs (clearly managed by art students or compilers of pseudo-artistic curiosities), and from there it made its way to social media. Finally, a few newspapers headed their culture sections with Gomez’s face.

They said Gomez was an unknown artist who had spent twenty years working on a piece called Love Performance. They quoted his purposely absurd litany of names, which, in point of fact, differed completely from one newspaper to the next. Rosa, Maria, Pepa, Magdalena; Clara, Petra, Lucía, Sara. The only name he repeated was Carmen’s.

They said Love Performance was a “retroactive love project” that Gomez had started in the eighties and whose endpoint was not in the least assured. After twenty years, he was only halfway done, and the essentially sexual nature of his work was a significant obstacle to its success. Gomez—they said—had slept with seven women in his entire life and, since 1992, had been trying to sleep with those same seven women in reverse order. Some later reports alleged that Gomez was actually gay, a claim the artist denied in a blog post that also defended the purity of his art.

They said Gomez had met the seventh woman in 1991. After breaking up with her, he had unexpectedly run into his sixth lover on the street and ended up in bed with her. That coitus, that backwards step so common among mortals, had made an extraordinary impression on Gomez, not so much for the pleasure of the act itself as for the sensation of “returnability” it suggested. And so the media claimed that Gomez, at twenty-eight, “had seen the path of love,” which, in his words, was “circular, luminous, and phenomenal.” He continued, “With each return to the previous woman, I feel more rejuvenated. Everything makes sense: the sky seems clearer, and I know I’m moving toward the very center of art, of emotion.”

They said Gomez had spent two decades in a state of strict selective chastity, since he only allowed himself to sleep with the woman who was next in line according to his own romantic history read backwards. When this happened—and it could only happen once—Gomez would move on to the next stage of his work. That stage was called Maria. Others argued it was Cecilia.

Whether Maria or Cecilia, the media helped Gomez enormously with his lewd performance. Countless jokes on social media about the “love visionary,” obscene GIFs, and a number of imitation attempts (and the resulting descriptions posted online by unscrupulous imitators) elevated Gomez’s media acclaim—and then his project—to a new level. In other words, they put him on TV.

The subject undoubtedly lent itself to cheap and morbid interpretations, but Gomez didn’t seem to mind serving as fodder for even the most degrading of tabloid talk shows. His only goal was to reach Carmen, the emotional center of art, of poetry. They asked him again how many women he had slept with, and how many he had slept with in reverse. Seven and three, he responded. They asked him for first names, last names, ages. They nodded with strategic cynicism when Gomez listed off a string of fake names and when, confronted by a journalist with a tablet, he admitted that they didn’t match the ones he had given on other occasions, that he was protecting his friends, his art. The journalists predicted that this gallant reticence would only heighten the viewers’ interest.

They deduced that the women affected by Gomez’s “pornographic” project must be between forty and fifty years old, since the artist-lover had met them when he was in his twenties and, according to experts, our experts, few young men had the chance to taste a mature woman’s love, especially when they had a psychological profile similar to that of the subject. It would be difficult to bring Love Performance to a successful close, they observed, because the women were probably married with children; they wouldn’t have time for nonsense. The host looked straight at the camera and, pointing a pen directly at Maria or Cecilia, told Maria or Cecilia that she should consider herself invited to the program for a live debate with Gomez on whether or not she planned to fuck him again. And now I

I’m back, this time with a more intimate pronoun, after having been “she,” after having been “Carmen,” because Carmen is my name. Gomez’s work in progress touched me, and not because of its desperation and delirium, but rather because it brought me back to those youthful years when we dyed our hair all the wrong colors and, at least for a while, held out hope that we wouldn’t be like our parents (although of course we eventually admitted that they’d been right all along). I saw Gomez’s missing tooth and smiled. He alone, of all my university acquaintances, had managed to believe in his art well into his forties, while the rest of us were loaded down with kids, mortgages, divorces, and above all, the steadfast wish that our descendants wouldn’t stray into the gutters of artistic creation.

I didn’t feel threatened by Love Performance at first. I followed its twists and turns with a secret interest, confident in the knowledge that my turn would never come, that the intimacy of two women stood between my private life and total chaos. And at the end of the day, there are millions of women named Carmen.

I watched as Gomez struggled with his newfound fame. Apparently, dozens of women of all ages had started contacting him on his website and social media accounts, hoping to get a closer look at the love visionary, the man who had embarked on an urgent journey back to the origin. On a few evening radio shows, I heard flippant commentators suggest that Gomez now had two problems, strangely at odds in spite of being exactly the same: women wanted to sleep with him. He would have to overcome the resistance of his chosen few without giving in to temptation himself, and though the laughing guests couldn’t agree on who would hold out longer, many of them bet on the inviolability of Maria (or Cecilia), whoever was after her in line, and yours truly, Carmen.

They were wrong. Ana joined Love Performance after ten years of refusal, various changes of phone number and address, and a separation. Her “no” lasted an entire decade, but her eventual compliance shouldn’t be chalked up to Gomez’s (admittedly surprising) media support alone. Ana hadn’t been part of our tight-knit university group, nor even our larger network of acquaintances. She was an office worker who met Gomez in line for a French film at a theater that’s been closed for ages now. Their relationship lasted quite a while, almost three years, and with her, too, he maintained a certain closeness after the passion had faded, though at some point he stopped contacting her altogether, just as he had done with me.

He started calling her again at the turn of the century. Despite her lack of interest in reviving old relationships, she agreed to meet with him, but when he explained her role in Love Performance, she got up and left without saying goodbye, leaving a lemon iced tea untouched on the table.

Gomez didn’t give up. He kept calling her. He “ran into her” outside her house, her work, movie theaters that always showed French films. He sent her perfumed notes, postcards written in capital letters, incongruent gifts (a weathervane, a mother-of-pearl yo-yo, a children’s puzzle made up of seven large pieces), but Ana politely ignored him. She couldn’t understand why he wanted to sleep with her one more time, after so many years, with no other motive than a supposed work of reversible art. She didn’t want to do anything backwards; she was on an unremarkable but satisfactory path toward a normal old age, and she already had company.

Then her husband left her for a younger woman, and Ana understood (or thought she understood) the return to the source preached by Gomez, the need for impossible youth, for poetry. She slept with him and never regretted it, although Gomez rejected her countless times afterward, focused as he was on the re-seduction of Laura, his second lover, his sixth in reverse, the last stop before his destination: me. You

Dear Gomez, in an effort to convince me you’ve told me everything: the initial impregnability of some, the willingness (and even enthusiasm) of others, the new light in my predecessors’ faces, in your own. These women have become part and parcel not only of your work, but also of your persuasive arsenal—you actually tried to introduce me to Ana, to have her convince me, like a brush kissing the paint left on canvas by another brush, the sisterhood of materials.

I’d be grateful if you put a stop to the ridiculous TV appearances that were so helpful to you in your reconquest of Laura, who, as you say, was the most well-disposed of all your lovers. The short but terrifying harassment campaign directed at me by some of the media outlets wore away at my name, my soul. “Carmen,” they said; “When will it be Carmen’s turn?” they asked; “Carmen, the prude,” they said.

Two years have passed, I’ve told you “no,” and I’ve told you “maybe,” and you’re still there, at the end of all the streets I walk down, behind most of the doors I open, nervous and pleading, worried, maybe, that we don’t have all the time in the world, because death itself could leave unfinished your great protest against the passage of the years, the current of life’s truths.

I won’t deny that sometimes I ask myself what it would cost me. I can’t exactly claim to be a model of purity, and my husband has committed quite a few infidelities; it would be nothing more than another night of lies and fake appointments, a time, a hotel, a goodbye. Will the world end, Gomez? Will you vanish or float up into the clouds? Will you be happy forever with your reversible catalog of women? Not even you can tell.

Not even you can imagine what will happen when the arrow hits the bullseye of your intention. And all of you

Those of you who are watching, waiting, reading: my story is modest, my voice is joyful and inviting, it doesn’t dispute what we were in vain, artists at full speed, lovers to first blood, though it’s not the ending that they would want to narrate for you, because she and he continue their yearslong tug-of-war, straining it to the breaking point, and listen: you, Gomez and I we could love each other again, aim better.

Alberto Olmos is a writer and journalist from Segovia, Spain. In 1998, he published his debut novel, A bordo del naufragio (Anagrama, 2014), which was chosen as a finalist for the Premio Herralde prize. Since then, he has published seven more books. He currently lives in Madrid and writes a weekly column for El Confidencial.

Nina Perrotta is the editor of WWB Daily at Words Without Borders. She translates from Spanish and Portuguese and recently completed a Fulbright scholarship in Curitiba, Brazil.