Helping a sculptor pull off an elaborate prank on hundreds of unsuspecting art-world blowhards taught me one thing: no one pays attention to anyone.
I got an email from Pete: “Murray you have to do this!” Pete’s the friend we all have who plans elaborate shindigs that always require riding a bus or wearing a costume and always result in you getting too drunk to deal with such things. But at 35, I was finally savvy enough to know I could stop the vicious shindig cycle by simply deleting the email and not finding out what I “had to do.”
But as they say, curiosity’s a cat-murdering whore, so I opened the email to find a forwarded post: an artist, Bert Rodriguez, was looking for a “method actor” to play his double at Art Basel the following week in Miami. I’ve done some acting. Enough to know I’m a terrible actor. Furthermore, based on the artist’s surname Rodriguez, and my first name Murray, one is to assume an obvious ethnic discrepancy that wouldn’t result in a perfect match. But as I scrolled down to find the attached photo of Bert Rodriguez… there I was. In white Ray-Ban eyeglasses. Shit. Now I have to do this.
We set a lunch. When I got to the restaurant, I instantly recognized Bert. Wearing white eyeglasses is the male equivalent of walking around topless—it’s all anyone notices. When he stood to greet me, I couldn’t help but also notice other details that weren’t discernible in the photo: he was a half-foot shorter than I am, clearly Latin, and looked nothing like me. Well, this clearly won’t work. But Bert didn’t seem the slightest bit concerned and gestured for me to sit.
Over lunch, Bert explained himself in as few words as possible. He was an artist whose work was primarily focused on performance. He told me about a few past projects: “I married a total stranger.” “I painted myself silver like Kim Kardashian.” “I cooked food with my mom in a museum.” When I posed the obvious questions, Bert was ever laconic, shrugging off my queries with casual statements like, “I just did it to do it,” and, “Art doesn’t have to be about anything.” He was either a genius or a moron.
We ate and briefly went over the plan. He had made a sculpture that was residing on a cruise ship. The ship and sculpture were both named Reflection and, keeping with the nominal theme, he wanted two of him there to present his work at an event that would kick off Art Basel. “You’d just have to tell people you’re me at a party. The whole thing will take two hours, and I’ll fly you to Miami and put you up.” A game-show audience echoed in my brain: “Take the trip to Miami!!!”
The next day he called me to say I got the gig.
Bert picks me up at the airport in Miami and informs me that we’re driving straight to the cruise ship. “And then I can take a nap and change?” I ask. “Then the reception begins.” Bert turns up the music and I pass out. The next thing I remember is walking toward a massive ocean vessel: a Jewish guy in a gray suit and white glasses and a short Cuban guy in a gray suit and white glasses—we are re-creating a terrible scene from the movie Twins.
We meet the woman who runs the event that I learn is called “The Secret’s Out!” I do not learn what the secret is. She greets Bert with a joyous hug and me with avoided eye contact. And for the first time it truly dawns on me that for the price of an economy plane ticket and two nights in (what I soon find is a very cheap) hotel room, I am Bert’s lackey. Well, this sucks.
We board the monstrosity that is Celebrity Reflection and I at long last take in a cruise ship. It’s exactly a Vegas hotel, down to the nauseatingly busy carpets. I’m told the ship holds millions of dollars in priceless art. Truly, I’m told “millions of dollars of priceless art.” But the highlight of the tour is seeing Bert’s piece—my piece—Reflection. It’s a living tree suspended in midair with a metal sculpture of a tree upside down beneath it—its reflection, you see. “I just sketched something up and then some German guys made it with the ship.” Bert’s a fucking genius.
I’m then sent down to the reception area, where I will be the Bert Rodriguez who greets people as they enter. The other Bert will remain on the ship to mingle. For the first half hour I stand by “The Secret’s Out!” poster and replace the sign on its stand whenever the wind blows it down. I’m doing a great job. But someone named Susan doesn’t see it that way. “You have to introduce yourself. So they know you’re the artist.” It seems Susan believes I really am the artist. Because she was told I was the artist. Still, I’m emboldened by her belief in my Bert Rodriguez–ness and give it a shot. “Hi, I’m Bert Rodriguez,” I say to the next couple that enter. They nod back a hello. I got this shit in the bag.
The next half hour consists of a lot of shaking hands and even a few photos. Then something remarkable happens. A woman runs up and gives me a hug, exclaiming, “Bert!” She recounts various instances where we had met and finally asks me how my sister is doing. I fumfer my way through the conversation until she finally heads off with a kiss. I relish the moment. I’ve successfully pulled off being someone else. And not to a stranger. To a friend. I feel like a spy. A regular Bond in stupid white glasses.
“You’d just have to tell people you’re me at a party. The whole thing will take two hours, and I’ll fly you to Miami and put you up.”
And that’s not the end of it. There are others who actually know Bert Rodriguez yet still accept me as the genuine article. I find myself playing a fun game of trying to sustain conversations I know nothing about. “Bert, I met you with Joanna a few months ago!” “Right! At the Strandron?” “No! At the W!” Things like the Strandron keep slipping out of my mouth. Things that sound almost like words but are just a syllable or two off. But it doesn’t matter. Because through this exercise I learn that people don’t pay attention. Not to what you say or even look like. Highlighted most astonishingly by the final woman to enter. She lights up when she sees me, “You make me smile every day!” This woman owns a large photo of Bert painted silver. Every day, she looks at this photo of Bert Rodriguez, not me—basically naked, mind you—and smiles. And now she is looking at me—not Bert—and smiling.
With most of the guests arrived, I’m again ushered aboard the floating Sodom. With the real Bert Rodriguez in view, word seems to be spreading quickly that I am an imposter. People hate imposters. Keeping the act going now would just be shameful. But then someone who met me out front smiles, “Hello again, Bert.” If I am still Bert Rodriguez to this idiot, maybe I have other supporters. And why do I have to be the imposter? A lot of these people don’t know who Bert is—why can’t I out-Bert Bert? So I boldly stick out my hand to the next passerby: “Hi, Bert Rodriguez.” The person sneers back, “Surrre.” What he means is, “Assssshole.”
I hear a female English accent say, “I love your glasses.” I turn and look at the old lady. “Really?” She smiles back: “How did you end up here?” I sigh out, “I’m the artist. I made the tree thing.” The old gal beams, “Really?! I’m from the Tate, here to interview artists! Would you mind if I stole a minute?” I throw back a Champagne. “Let’s do it.”
We move to a table and to my surprise a man comes over, clips a microphone to my shirt and plugs it into a news-quality video camera. Well, this is a surprise. The red light turns on and the first question is fired off: “What’s your name?” “Bert Rodriguez.” Nailed it. “Where are you from?” “Miami.” This is a breeze. “And tell us about your art.” Shitfuck. “Well, my art comes in all forms. Sculpture. [Long pause] Performance. I worked with a tree on this piece so nature certainly has a large influence on my [long pause] visions.” The next many minutes are honestly a blur. She poses impossible questions. “Who are your influences? How has art changed since you began? What impact has celebrity had on the art world?” And in turn I shoot off near-incomprehensible answers. “When we explore a thing it ends up outside itself. How can anyone say what something is? The work of Jeff Koenig moved a lot forward as far as true expression. (Oops, meant to say Jeff Koons—oh well).”
The interrogation finally ends and the red light turns off. I look up to see the old woman smiling back at me brighter than ever. “I’ve interviewed every major artist over the past three decades, even Warhol, and you gave me some of the best soundbites about art I’ve ever heard.” Is she fucking with me? Or did I just prove art’s mostly bullshit?
There are two more interviews that go similarly—and even a calamitous speech given by both Bert Rodriguezes. As I listen to myself and the real Bert spew inanities, I feel terrible, as if I am mocking a world before its very benefactors. Maybe that was Bert’s intention even though he claimed not to have one. Or maybe Bert believes in what he’s saying and thinks I unintentionally stumbled into some profundities. Bert Rodriguez remains an enigma.
In the late afternoon as we pull off in the red Scion, the colossal ship shrinking behind us, Bert smiles at me. “People are going to call me tomorrow and tell me what a genius I am. It’s all so predictable.”
Is he a genius? And what did I really learn from all this? Nothing, really. My reflection in the window stares back at me in white glasses. At least I figured out that one Bert Rodriguez was definitely a moron.