The Gardener is a text I wrote for the work of Jan Monclus. You can download a translation in Catalan here.
We clipped in and the crane raised us up the body of the colossus, we continued the conversation we’d had on the cycle ride there.
“I need a holiday,” the Gardener said, over his shoulder as he was at the control panel on the gantry,
“I know, so do I,”
He brought us to a halt at the point we’d stopped painting yesterday, me in front of the abstract patterned background I was working on, he in front of palm leaves that would be the foreground. Eventually our designs would overlap, I would work a little on his, he on mine, and then we would move the gantry and continue.
Our job was to decorate the colossus as part of the centennial celebration. Our community had spent a hundred years on this land, after the first decade it was decided to celebrate the fact and that the bodies of the colossi had begun to be decorated, there was now a celebration every year for “founding day” and the decoration of the fallen colossi that littered our land had become more elaborate.
I had only been doing the job for two years, the Gardener for five.
We don’t know where or why the colossi came from, just that they were lying there when we occupied the territory, and that they never moved, so were assumed to be dead. Though I suppose you can’t say for sure if they are alive or if they are dead, they aren’t cold like a dead body, but nor are they hot like a human. They had the warmth of moss, the soily smell of freshly cut geraniums.
We were given the freedom to paint whatever we wanted, trusted to do something appropriate, but the assumption was we would paint enough that the colossus looked covered. And after a few weeks the paint would wash off with the rain and seep beneath the yellow grass.
You were never sure which colossus the council would ask you to paint, and we had been allocated one in a region of the country I hadn’t been to before. This contributed to the fact that two years on the job and I still wasn’t used to being up so high and constantly found myself looking at our surroundings. There were few details, a tree here and there, shrubs, the soft yellowish grass covering the landscape.
We were staying in a cottage traditional to the region, that even though we’d only been on that land for 100 years was already looking dated, the wallpaper faded. The kitchen tiles yellowed from smoke, it was impossible to prepare our meals there without thinking of the layers and the changing culinary fashions reflected in the equipment and implements we found in the paper lined drawers.
It was always mild there, never really cold, except in the mornings, the chill of a journey to work, our limbs loosening as the sun rose. The sky a cold metal blue, the ground a sponge-cake yellow.
The landscape was big and wide and flat, though there were mountains in the distance, or the body of a curvy colossus lying on the horizon.
We never saw anyone on the ride to work, and were able to ride two abreast, passing croissants and a flask of quickly cooling coffee between us. When we reached the colossus we left our bikes and bags lying on the floor; there was nobody around to steal them, and climbed into the gantry.
High up on the body of the colossus there was hardly any noise, just the sound of our brushes scratching into its skin, and our constant talk. Our conversations were almost always the same:
We talked about how much we hated the work
How good we were at the work
That we needed a break
That we were good
We had rivals
The prodigal son
A small Fuck You
There was a prize to given out to the best colossus that we thought was a joke, but we talked a lot about what we would do with the money if we won
We had too much success to stop
Paintings become a chore
Success was bittersweet
We were just painting like monkeys
We used to write on the colossi but not anymore
What we would paint when we got back to our studios.
We painted all day and then had no desire to paint at home
Motifs and shapes that we wanted to recur
It’s tricky to paint "fast and easy" on big paintings, and you don’t get bigger than a colossus
We had both studied, both thought of ourselves as artists, had studios that we maintained and paid for with our colossus-painting money.
The colossi were an orangey ochre-y colour so this was like the first layer, the underpainting, and everything had to work with this. It meant you would often work with blue, as a contrast. Particularly if you were writing.
He wore gardening gloves to paint in, that’s how he had picked up his nickname. I didn’t, and often dolefully considered the condition of my hands, so dry they didn’t leave fingerprints. Though that was useful for the job sometimes, and I didn’t have a sobriquet, or not yet.
He talked about painting more than usual,
“On the last colossus I've been trying to get rid of this style and am now trying to think less about what I should or not paint...but it’s not easy. Right now, I think I have two different lines. So, on one side of the colossus I’m still painting the same things and on the other side sometimes I do less recognizable things... those one would say about they don't necessarily look like the work of ‘the gardener’”.
At lunch we went back down, pulled the lunch from our backs, sometimes cycled a little to stretch different muscles, very occasionally we’d cycle all the way around the colossus so as to inspect our work but a whole loop, stopping occasionally to talk. It took us a little over an hour and we resented spending our lunch break that way. We already felt like the work was taking over our lives.
The other side of the colossus we had just sketched out, plotted out with little ‘x’s the contours of the painting we were to do. It was a series of crosses, like a series of negations. There was a moment on the gantry when you just got into the flow of your work, sometimes it’s just about knowing what you have to do, then you let the image drive you. As if the image was already there, on the colossus’s skin, but just below the surface, and you are revealing parts of it through brushstrokes, though without knowing what it’s going to look like in the end.
“I have all these ideas that I paint onto these colossi, and then I paint them again when I’m in the studio. I’ve got so good at these motifs that I can’t stop doing them, it would be a waste of my skill. And I don’t waste anything.”
“So, it’s like you are still painting on the colossus’s ass when you are in the studio?”
I turned away from the painting once again, looking for other colossi, wondering what people were painting on them, staring across a landscape of flat colours, straight lines, and sticks.
“What’s up with you?” the Gardener asked me, interrupting my reverie.
“Nothing, just daydreaming,”
“I don’t know, some place else,”
“A holiday? Man, holidays are a mirage, so we better paint them instead.”