Alright, Philip, they’ll be here in five minutes. Are you sure you’re ready?”
“Yes, yes. It hasn’t been that long, has it?”
Philip Legrand was seated on the couch as his manager flitted about the space, straightening out the coffee table books, and fluffing up the pillows. This would be Philip’s first sit-down interview (or any kind of interview for that matter) in over 10 years – an in-depth profile piece conducted at his home and studio space in Johannesburg’s Houghton.
“Who’s the writer again?” he asked Matthew.
“Zinhle Mthembu. She’s some new hotshot who’s been making a big name for herself lately,” Matthew called from the next room. “Wrote an essay on Mary Sibande a while back that’s pretty much revitalised her career. She’s even got a solo show coming up at JAG.”
“Mary Sibande?” Philip set his coffee down. “I thought she stopped making work entirely.”
“Exactly. Now, Philip, are you absolutely sure you’re ready for this? Trust me when I tell you that this writer can make or break a career and I just want to make sure –”
“Oh god, Matthew, I’m ready, I’m ready. I’ve dealt with my share of journalists over the years. Whatever happened to Sean? I liked him.”
“Sean? He left the country years ago. Pretty much only covers the international fairs and shows these days. Although I did hear he’s writing another book. Should I find out who he’s talking to?”
The doorbell rang and Matthew rushed over to the intercom. He buzzed the writer in and stuck his head around the corner and into the living room.
“Okay I’ll see her in and take her through the usual stuff before she meets you. Please, Philip, promise me you’ll behave. The climate’s changed, you know. They’ll smell blood the second –”
“Jesus, Matthew, I’m not some senile old relic. I know what they want to hear.”
Matthew stared at him.
“I promise I won’t say anything offensive,” said Phillip.
“Good,” said Matthew.
“Mr Legrand, I’m Zinhle Mthembu. An absolute pleasure, thank you so much for taking the time,” said the writer as she sat down on a plush couch opposite Philip. “Can I just say you have a beautiful home?”
“Thank you. And, please, call me Philip. Can we offer you anything to drink?” Phillip remained seated on his side of the coffee table.
“Just some water, thank you,” replied Zinhle. “So you’ve been briefed on the interview, I’m told.”
“Yes,” said Phillip, crossing his legs and leaning back into the couch. “You want to talk about old Steven, do you?”
“In part, yes.” She produced a notebook and a garish-looking pen, and placed a phone atop a stack of magazines on the centre of the table. “Don’t mind if I record? For notetaking purposes. I’ll be writing a profile piece on you, partly focussed on your relationship with Steven Vermeulen, as it’s the 20-year anniversary of his death. It’ll detail your history with him – your friendship, your collaborative works, how you influenced one another’s practice, and how his death impacted your own work.”
“Suicide,” said Philip.
“I’m sorry?” said Zinhle.
“His suicide. You referred to it as his death, but it’s a well-known fact that he took his own life, and you’ll excuse me for being pedantic, but I believe it’s important to call these things what they are. Steven was always blunt in his work, I think he’d like it to remain the same in his death.”
Matthew entered with two bottled waters and a bowl of pretzels on a wooden tray. He set them down on the table between the two of them.
“You must understand that discussing Steven is a difficult thing for Philip,” said Matthew, now standing with his hands together. “You won’t mind if I sit in at all? It’s just that I know Philip well, we’ve worked together for many –”
“Actually, I was hoping to interview him alone,” said Zinhle. “I conduct all of my interviews in private settings. It’s the only way to get to the heart of a truly good story, I find.”
Matthew looked over at Phillip, who kept his eyes fixed on the young writer. She was cold and unsentimental in the way she spoke and presented herself.
“That’s alright, Matthew,” he said, eventually looking up at his long-time manager. “No need to babysit. I may be getting on in age, but I still know how to conduct myself.” He shot a smile over to Zinhle. She gave a short smile back and nodded at Matthew. The anxious manager looked over at Philip again before turning to leave the room. “I’ll be at the office if you need anything, alright?”
“Thank you, Matthew,” said Zinhle. “Much appreciated. Now, Phillip, shall we begin?”
“He was always very sure of himself. That was apparent from the moment I met him,” said Philip. “It was a bar in Braamfontein, you know? That’s where I met him. Steven had been drinking since god knows when that day and he was running his mouth off about some show at the Goodman, half slumped over the table. Now I never had any love for the institution myself so naturally I engaged him about it. We started talking about the usual horrors – the cronyism, greedy gallerists, the scramble for identity-based works full of sound, fury and not much else. I think that was the same night he carved ‘All hail the white pube’ into the bar counter and started pissing all over it.”
“He urinated on the bar?” asked Zinhle, eyes fixed on Philip, pen firmly in her hand, but taking no notes.
“He would’ve shat on it too if I hadn’t stopped him,” said Phillip with a dry laugh. “But that was what he did, you know? He was always throwing his little tantrums in public. He loved the attention. Needed it, really.”
“And how long after that did the two of you begin making work together?” she asked.
“Oh I can’t remember when exactly, but we started collaborating on and off since we met. If you can call it collaboration. It was always more of a case of Steven approaching me with some new gripe to which I’d respond: ‘Well let’s make something out of it’. I’d come up with the idea and he’d run with it, morphing and distorting it into his own little reactionary creation. I can’t count the times he’d be in the papers for something that we started working on together. I’d wake up to a headline telling me that ‘our’ project had been performed in Nelson Mandela square the day before. It almost always resulted in him being escorted off the premises, half naked.”
“So you’re saying he took a lot of your ideas?”
“Look, I have a great deal of love for Steven, but his ideas were – how can I put it? – rather juvenile. He lacked the ability to accurately translate his thoughts and feelings into a conceptual practice. He relied heavily on me for that. But I’m not bitter about it anymore. The way he executed his work was something I could never do. I suppose you could say we needed each other in that way.”
“Then would I be correct in saying that many of his iconic works were partly your works, too?” said Zinhle, leaning forward slightly.
“We were both so drugged up and out of it in those days, I can’t remember who said what to begin with. I can say, though, that many of my ideas became the basis for his works. Like I said, I have a lot of love for Steven, he was like a brother to me, but there wasn’t much of his work that you could ever have called original.”
“Is that why the two of you had so many ups and downs over the years?”
“Ups and downs is a kind way of putting it, yes,” Phillip laughed as he scooped up a handful of pretzels. “We had our moments of not seeing eye to eye, but then, I don’t think Steven saw eye to eye with anyone.”
Zinhle flipped over a page in her notebook, browsing it lightly before looking up at the old artist again. Phillip, now seemingly at ease and perhaps even enjoying the act of being interviewed, was staring out of the window, smiling slightly as he chewed.
“I wanted to speak about some of Steven’s most well-known works with you. See if you could shed some light on a few of them from the perspective of a close friend and collaborator.”
“Dish the dirt?” said Phillip through a mouthful of pretzels. “I can do that. Shoot.”
“Steven’s 2003 work It all cums down to this,” began Zinhle. “Many still view it as a powerful statement on creation, on sexuality and vulnerability, and how public art institutions prey on those elements of artists.”
“Yes.” Phillip dusted the crumbs from his hands and leaned back into the couch. “I remember the trouble that caused. Look, the truth is that Steven never really thought all that much about the work he did. He simply went out and did it, and you lot ended up placing meaning onto it. Steven never knew what the fuck he was doing.”
“Well that was simply his process wasn’t it?” said Zinhle. “You don’t just go out and do a public performance like that without some meaning and thought having gone into it?”
“He strolled into the Johannesburg Art Gallery, whipped out his cock and jacked off to an Irma Stern,” said Phillip as he rubbed a patch of thinning hair on his head. “I’m sure the old girl would’ve had a heart attack herself, but beyond that, there wasn’t anything radical about that performance. He was a straight, white Afrikaner from Pretoria for Christ’s sake. Pulling his cock out and coming over everything is what he was brought up to do.”
“So you’d say the same for his 2010 work, It’s Time?”
“Well that one did involve a lot of cocks – one for each artist he was jealous of – but I rather liked that body of work. The Skotnes member was quite good. I’d never seen a woodcut penis before that. The soccer balls were a nice touch, too. But conceptually, it wasn’t his best work. What many never knew about Steven was that he was a bully, a tyrant, and he used sarcasm and mimicry as his weapons. If he saw another artist doing well, he’d bully them through his work. He had no respect for the old masters either. Those cocks he did weren’t tributes, they were him saying ‘I can do what they did, but better. Everyone needs to pay me some respect now.’ That’s why he called the whole series It’s Time.”
“So you had no input in that one, did you?”
“Look, dear. I never said that Steven stole all of my work or my ideas and never credited me,” said Phillip, somewhat agitated.
“But you did say a lot of his great, public works came from ideas you had come up with,” Zinhle shot back.
“I was speaking sweepingly, as one does when discussing matters of the past,” Phillip said with a dramatic wave of the hand. “I know you’re looking for an angle here – a hook – but Steven and I had our good times and our bad times. We collaborated a lot, and it just so happens that a lot of what we discussed ended up forming the basis for many of his works. That’s it. If I speak poorly of him, it’s only that I miss him, and giving him a hard time reminds me of the old days.”
The writer closed her notebook and placed it on the table alongside her pen. She smoothed out the creases in her skirt and adjusted the collar of her shirt. Then she picked up her phone.
“Do you know what I love most about interviewing people?” she asked softly.
“What’s that?” replied Phillip, slightly taken aback, now, but trying to remain un-phased.
“When it’s just me and the person I’m interviewing, there’s a level of trust that develops. People seem to forget the recorder and the notebook and they open up to me. They tell me their deepest feelings, their fears, hopes – all that good stuff. I never abuse any of that trust when I write, of course, but it is the kind of intimacy that makes for a truly great story.”
Phillip looked at her, expectantly.
“What I’m saying is that I’m not getting any of that with you,” she said bluntly. “We haven’t got a lot of time left here, and I’d like to get to the heart of your relationship with Steven, your relationship with yourself, and your own practice, but I can see that you’re having some trouble opening up, so how about this?”
She picked up her phone and thumbed around with it for a second before handing it over to Phillip who shifted uneasily on the couch before taking the phone into his hands.
“It’s off,” she said. “No tricks, you can check.”
“Alright…” said Phillip, handing back the phone. “So what now?”
“Now we talk,” said Zinhle with a smile. “We really talk.”
“Well how will you remember what’s been said?” he asked.
“My pen and notebook is all I need,” she said. “Now I must warn you, Phillip. I’m going to get personal.”
“Shoot,” said Phillip with a grin.
“I’ll tell you what I think. I think you were jealous of Steven and his success. You hated the fact that his career grew so much faster than your own.”
It hadn’t been five minutes into the second half of the interview, and Zinhle’s entire demeanour had changed. She was pointed, now, and intentionally confrontational. Phillip felt as if he was losing control of the interview. Matthew would know how to handle this, he thought, but he wasn’t here. Phillip was not about to be bested by a cocky journalist hardly half his age, though. He was going to hit back.
“My dear, where were you when all of this was happening?” he asked. “Pre-school?”
He sat forward on the couch now, uncrossing his legs and leaning into the conversation.
“I was already doing work that Steven would never have achieved, even if his career wasn’t cut short,” he spat. “Steven knew that, and he bullied me for it. Not publicly, through his work, but privately, subtly. He needed me, but he hated me for it.”
“Or was it the other way around?” said Zinhle. “You weren’t producing half the amount of work that Steven was and you needed his name to remain relevant, to become successful.”
“Successful? Look at how I’m living right now. Look around you. I am one of the country’s most successful living artists. And I was always going to be, even after Steven died. He may have had the fame, but I had the talent, and talent will always come out on top. Besides, even if I didn’t have any talent, you lot – you buzzards with your notebooks and your prosaic line of questioning – would have still come knocking at my door asking about my relationship with that hack. Trying to pick up scraps of ‘what it was like to work with the great Steven Vermeulen’.”
“Mr Legrand I –”
“Do you know what it’s like to be used like that?” Philip cut her short. “Do you know what it’s like to have someone borrow from you – steal from you rather – in an intellectual capacity every single day?”
“No, but I –”
“Do you know what happened to the mines here once the gold dried up?” he asked.
“Excuse me?” said Zinhle.
“They just left them – great, gaping wounds in the ground. They take out the gold and the minerals they’re looking for and then they leave these holes behind,” he explained, looking the young writer directly in the eyes. “But what happens to those holes? They never fill them again. They remain deep, hollow marks in the earth, never to be whole again. Do you think that’s fair? Do you understand what I’m saying?”
“I think I do. You think Steven stole your ideas and left you empty. Is that why you’re happy that he died?” asked Zinhle.
“What?” Phillip froze, his eyes still locked onto hers.
“You knew the only way you’d be more successful than him is if he wasn’t around anymore. That once he was gone, everyone would move onto you. You’d start getting the solo shows, the headlines, the awards. You were tired of being used by him – of being ‘an empty hole’. You were happy that he died.”
Phillip felt a hot and uncontainable anger rise up within him. He could cancel the interview. He shouldcancel the interview, but what would that do? She’d probably write her drivel anyway and hundreds more like her would come knocking, probing. She lacked respect for him, and the work he had done. He looked over at her phone, it was still off.
“You realise that even if I told you I was happy to see him go, it would always be my word against yours. You’ll have no recording, nothing. Only your little notes. I could have so many lawyers on you, you wouldn’t stand a chance, let alone your career.”
Zinhle looked up at him with a determined look in her eyes. She turned a page in her notebook and raised her pen.
Phillip laughed and leaned back into the couch, crossing his legs.
“Fine,” he said. “Steven had just been selected to represent South Africa at the Venice Biennale. He was thrilled. They had him doing all sorts of television interviews, appearances, public talks – you name it. At this point in his career, Steven was starting to realise that he couldn’t just throw a tantrum and call it art. He had stopped berating the art world, because they had started embracing him. On the evening of the Biennale announcement, he stood up to make a speech. There were no theatrics, no tantrums, he even managed to keep his dick in his pants. He gave this long and heartfelt speech, thanking all of the people who had helped him get to where he was today – blah blah blah. Do you think he mentioned me at all?”
Phillip straightened up in his seat.
“He didn’t say a single fucking word about me. All of the work I had helped him conceptualise and create, he didn’t say a thing about it.”
Philip ran a finger over his lips and smiled. “So the next night, I went over to his studio, and I killed him.”
The two of them sat in silence, staring at one another. Zinhle kept her eyes fixed on Philip who now wore a wicked smile across his face as he asked: “Do you want to know how I did it?”
“I pointed a gun at him and told him to strip naked. Then I forced him to drink the paint and the thinners that were in front of him, and then…well then, I watched him die. It was agonising, excruciating to witness, but it was our final work together – my idea, his execution – just like it always was. As expected, the press dubbed it ‘his final work’.”
Zinhle closed her notebook and reached across to the table to her phone.
“Well this time you’ll get the credit you deserve,” she said. Her face had fallen back into the cold and professional expression she wore earlier. She switched the phone on and pressed it to her ear.
“I got it. Send them in.”
Phillip stared at her, wide-eyed.
“Police?” he asked somewhat incredulously. “I already told you, it’s my word against yours. Who will believe you? What evidence do you have?” He stood up now and stepped towards the coffee table. “Do you think I’m an idiot?”
“Don’t come any closer Mr Legrand. I’m warning you. I am armed.”
She stood up and looked at the pen in her hand. She clicked it once and as she did, a small, red light blinked on and off.
Phillip looked at the pen and then up at her.
“The pen? You recorded me with the pen? What are you? Some sort of fucking agent? Where’s Matthew? Where is my phone? I want you out of this house immediately!”
He moved towards her, hands outstretched and with a wild look in his eyes. Zinhle pulled out a small, but powerful tazer gun and quickly, professionally, she planted it on his right shoulder sending him crashing to the floor.
As he lay there, unable to move, Philip could see the young woman looking down at him – a mingling look of disgust and triumph in her eyes. Outside, he could already hear the sound of sirens and tyres crunching over gravel.
David Mann is a writer living and working in Johannesburg, South Africa. He is also 1/3 of Ja. magazine.
Related country: South Africa