Sitting at a cafe table in Piazza San Marco, I anxiously turn the box of matches around and around between my thumb and ring finger while gently holding onto a single cigarette. I impatiently wait for the seasoned waiter to bring out the double espresso before I strike the match and take that first inhale. The jetlag, herds of tourists and kit of pigeons make me anxious, and I need a fix. Except, I want the ritual to be exact, just so.
The combination of nicotine and caffeine hits the blood stream and immediately the distance between me and the pigeons and tourists widens. Relief comes even before my body assimilates the chemicals. The gentle clink of the espresso cup as the waiter sets it down, the flimsy paper of the cigarette touching my lips, smell of the sulfur from the match; the fixation is as much a matter of ritual as it is a deep seated craving.
Irrespective to the object of obsession—the red soles of Christian Louboutin, the timeless proportion of Hermès Kelly handbag, the intricate hand-woven details on a Jean Paul Gaultier couture corset, the expansiveness of the world seen through Sabastio Salgado’s lens, the shine of Jeff Koon’s balloon dog or the luminescent glow of Magritte’s sky—the reaction is the same. First, a restless, eager anticipation of what is to come. Upon sight and contact, a dilation of pupils, a quickening of pulse, followed by a momentary silencing of the world. Everything fades away. There is only you and it. Satisfaction has a taste; it is as good as you imagined it would be. Release and euphoria. Nostalgia and yearning sustain you until next time, until the next fix.
It is no wonder sex, drugs and rock n’ roll tend to be the default addiction for most people over fashion or art. The sheer economics of fashion and art make them prohibitive for most to seek a constant high.
Is there a direct correlation between the cost of fulfillment and the duration of euphoria? More importantly, why must we obsess?
I chew on the word. Fixation. Addiction. Obsession. My mind freely associates and stumbles upon the authoritative glow of the red light of the darkroom, warning others off; magic is happening in these dark chambers, do not approach. The sharp chemical fumes, the individual trays with developer, fix, wash and water bath. The practiced hand navigating in the dark and Joy Division crying in the background. The negative is carefully placed in the enlarger, and a single sheet of paper comes out from the thick plastic lightproof bag, locked down on the easel providing precise borders. The light comes on for a fraction of a minute. Then the paper is dropped into the developer, and the image appears. Next comes the fix, adhering the magic permanently in silver.
The obsession is an identifier; our individual self has been crowned with a noun as well as given a pack designation, a road map to find our own kind. The chosen interest renders our sense of self, places us into a category—permanent, much like the chemical solution.
I am a Dead Head.
I am a collector of vintage Chanel.
I am a connoisseur of fine wine.
I am a collector of modern art.
I am a street artist.
I am a photographer.
Some appellations are riskier to enter into than others; art collector is an especially difficult one. The designation of collector implies expertise, wealth and knowledge, when in reality that is not always true. Herbert and Dorothy Vogel, a postal worker and a librarian amassed one of the most important post-1960s art collections in the United States. They lived frugally on Dorothy’s income, never ate out or traveled and only bought what they liked and could carry home. The Vogels dedicated Herb’s entire salary to collecting art, to getting that fix and pleasure they craved. Their pleasure was a private one, counter to the splashy headline-chasing acquisitions of others.
The self is an insatiable mistress. Her hunger is intensified by the Internet age, new media and the constant stream of endless options. Feed me, she demands. Before long, the method of construction of this self, this identity, becomes so well integrated, it is hard to tell where the label starts and the true self ends. Did we construct this sense of identity from the outside in or from the inside out? Are you choosing Yohji Yamamoto because you are avant-garde or are you avant-garde because you have an affinity for the Japanese designer?
At what point does one step over that invisible line and go from casually experimenting to being a hardcore addict? Or is this a slippery slope where once you pop, you can’t stop, and control is merely an illusion? Perhaps an even more interesting distinction is between obsession and passion. Is this addiction symbiotic and fluid? Or one-note, merely a prop like that second wife?
It’s hard to tease out the nuance. How can we build our fixations into a sense of identity while there are tourists and pigeons about? The double espresso is now a long forgotten memory, and I want to kiss the handsome stranger in the impeccably tailored suit, just to know what nicotine tastes like from his lips. Instead, I pick up my camera bag and disappear into the beautiful cliché that is Venice in a Helmut Lang jacket with Rag and Bone boots.