Tim Etchells:
Memoir and Fiction


The world brings strange gifts sometimes. Friends or lovers, afternoons of conversation or late nights wandering in some city or books you chance on or songs in foreign language you overheard from an open window. Best of all perhaps, sometimes, if you are very lucky, the world will bring zebras.

You're walking, not alone, down in the no-mans land which follows the ring-road roundabout, on a street of boarded up buildings. That's where the zebra appears. And after it the lion.

It's maybe 9.45am. A spring morning on this abandoned street, the light bright, air sharp crisp and just ahead you see the two mini-cabs parked in the wide curve of the bend, the cars pulled up drivers-window to drivers-window so that the guys inside can talk whist waiting callouts for a job. Opposite from this, outside the boarded up cutlery factory (smashed windows/rusted metalwork/faded signage), there are six or seven guys loitering the pavement, sporting dirty green overalls, all chatting, some smoking, laughing as if on a break, or else maybe waiting for a van to take them off to some distant construction job. Impossible to tell of course, but you notice them anyway. And that's more or less the same moment where you notice the zebra just above them in the air. It's in the form of a tinfoil helium balloon 60-80cm long, and trailing a long grey ribbon from its tail. You and your companion stop to watch this zebra dance softly in the air above these same guys (apprentices? guys on some kind of training?), guys who are also watching it, skeptically, their eyebrows raised as the creature buffets lightly this way and that in the wind, its general direction a kind of awkward but steady upwards. For a moment you wonder if one of the guys might reach for it; try to pull this lighter-than-air-zebra down to the earth as it turns there, head over heels, marking irregular cartwheels just above their heads. But no, instead they just watch as you do, bemused and partly mesmerised. Time slows a little and the zebra turns softly. You wonder if perhaps one of the guys in the overalls released this zebra/balloon as a prank - but they show no signs of ownership of this event, staring just as puzzled as you. One of them laughs.

That's when the wind takes the animal thoroughly and the sky zebra really rises, its legs fixed stiff in a Muybridge arrested-gallop, turning over itself at leisurely pace but really ascending now, crossing the road and passing directly over your heads, upwards so that you have to crane your necks, the lost creature going up and over the hoardings, still turning, passing twenty feet above you then really going higher, up against the clear sky. You watch the zebra tumble its strange irregular route, surmising that this trajectory must be caused by its fantastically un-aerodynamic shape - the trotting legs, the tail, the outstretched head, the streamer of ribbon - all counteracting the air in their own different ways as the helium floats the creature into the wind. A zebra is a black and white animal. Certainly. You see its stripes and its shiny metallic balloon flank and it's rising and rising, and you are saying the same words over and over - 'wow' and 'amazing' - as it heads - upwards and inexplicable - high over the wasteground, tracing a jagged graph line on the sky. Amazing you say. And that's when the lion appears - a smaller balloon, also filled with helium, and also rising. The lion - in posture that's more like sleeping than prowling - seems at first to have come from behind the hoardings or from the derelict building beyond them. You can’t be sure though. Maybe these two balloon creatures are from miles away. Or they were launched from a vehicle. Or they were blown here by some freak of the winds. In any case the lion follows the zebra, upwards. It's not a scene you can photograph. You have your camera in your bag but you don't even reach for it, don't hardly even think of it. The lion chases after the zebra like some pursuit on the plains and you wonder for a moment if the lion will catch up with its prey but no of course there is no drama beyond that of the simultaneity. The two of them are rising, getting smaller - the sky is kind of taking them - turning them to small shapes, then just dots, almost nothing, then nothing, against its blue.

That's all it is really. The lads over the street were watching too but now they're leaving. The taxi-cabs are still there and the drivers don’t seem to have been that engaged - their radios are muttering on and only one leans out of his window to watch the last part of the ascent as you and your companion depart. The zebra and the lion its pursuer are vanished now into the sky and it's time to continue your journey. There are times, and this is one of them, when you feel that the world brings you strange gifts, as valuable and as temporary as they are impossible to understand. On a morning like this one – vivid, complex and beautiful in all of its ways - it's like that for sure.

El Mucho

From out of the window you can see where kids on the wasteground that is mainly bricks and concrete have set on fire to something that used to be a car. The flames have burned up higher and then a bit higher and are now reaching up to the tree that stands there. No one could know what a tree was doing out on there anyways, they were always wondering about it and Kids were always swinging on it and climbing it right up there for no good reasons to see what was going on around which was probably not much. Now the branches are on fire. You cannot see any kids just now anyways that is for sure. Maybe they hiding somewhere or probably they all runned back to the houses. If it rained the fire in that car would go out but it will not rain for a longtime I think according to internets, so the fire will just continue along and maybe then the petrol tank will explode and fire will be everywhere. I mean I do not know if a petrol tank does really explode like that you know bang and whoosh, like how it does in a movie, or if they always just make it that way for things to be more exciting. You got to have some exciting in a movie but on a wasteground it does not matter so much if it is exciting or not. Who cares? Who is even watching a wasteground. Only nobody, only some guy or whatever looking out at a window. But for a movie it has to be exciting cos people paid a ticket or wasted a lot of time trying to get there to the movie theatre so maybe that’s why the petrol tank explode the whole time in a movie like that to send the flames right out in a ball of explosions. Now through the heat haze of the burning and the sun you can see two of the kids out there though. One is the one called Kaya,  you can always hear people calling out her name the whole time like they looking for her or she done something wrong and the other one that they call him El Mucho, I do not know why, he is a skin and bone thing he is not that much of Mucho if you ask me. Anyway. They are behind the car that is burning, more far off from the window, you cannot see what they are doing really. They are always fooling those two like playing games with a stick and stone or a big blanket out of industrialised polythene they found it somewhere or salvaged it off a vehicle that got abandoned at a road block. That Kaya makes out like she is a big boss of everything but mostly she just get in trouble and Everything does not pay any attentions to her except El Mucho though, he follows her round like a shadows, does all what she says, makes an echo in the world of the things she tell him to do. He will do anythings, that is what the other kids say and laugh at him for or throw discarded batteries or stones in his direction, or sprinkle chips of broken windscreen glass at him from up above like a cruel snow. Now they are playing in a wardrobe - Kaya and El Mucho. There is all kind of shit out there on the wasteground. Some of it just get dumped there – I mean I guess shit has to go somewhere. Some things is what people were dragging across toward houses to salvage somehow and then they got shot or planes came over or security patrols came by and they had to abandon it thinking ok ok they come back later but they did not come back so in the morning when light comes there is like a 3 Piece Sofa sitting there in a concrete middle of nowhere or a big box of canned groceries in a vastness or puddle of nothingness. Mostly that kind of stuff disappears before too long in any case cos someone else goes out to get it, but some stuff it just stays there a long time like no one wants it and no one even bothers to think about it until the rain comes and breaks it down or the kids that are in league with the rain break it down with their feet or their hands. Like one time there were books out there. Boxes and boxes, you could not see the cover and they end up all over the place all rip up and torn up by the kids and left to mush from the Rain. Anyway. Kaya and El Mucho are playing at the wardrobe. I see them play this game before. I do not understand what it is with them because to me they do boring shit. One goes in the wardrobe. Then the other one close the door and run around obviously yelling ya-ya-ya-ya-ya about one thing and then about another but you cannot hear it they are too far away. Then that one that was yelling opens the door and makes out like the other one disappeared. Like it is all a big  magic act. They play at that dumb shit a long time, taking turns. It is easier for El Mucho to fit in there than Kaya that is for sure. Now they play again. El Mucho goes inside and Kaya walk around like she explaining everything to the crowd that does not even exist, all waving arms and like on a Magic Show all ya-ya-ya-ya-ya and ya-ya-ya-ya-ya-ya but watch out, while she does that the petrol tank is exploding which at last answers the question about movies from before. If you wait an answer will come along. It is like a bang very loud that it shakes the glass on the window and it does that fireball thing exactly like Movies and the thick black smoke also and a lot of kids come suddenly running out of houses. Afterwards Kaya is lied like a doll where the explosion threw her up and down. And some kid that knew her is touching her with a stick but she not moving. Other kids are running about yelling El Mucho, El Mucho, El Mucho. They go all directions. Mucho, El Mucho. Yelling and chanting his name like that is gonna help and the flames die down and the smoke goes up and around and still they cannot find El Mucho. You do not notice how blue the sky is some days till you see the smoke against it. Anyways. At first none of the kids think to look in the wardrobe that is still standing there like a exhibition of ‘wardrobe’ in the middle of vast nothingness plus burning car, tree and assorted other crap. They do not think to look in the wardrobe and the door of it does not open either. No sign from it. No sign of Mucho. You just see a lot of kids running around. Four of them try to lift Kaya just like it says not to in a first aid manuals. But it does not really matter cos she is dead anyways and when they carry her away towards the houses, held between them like a miniaturised drunken sailor abducted by a ragged army of starving midgets in clothes that do not fit them, you can see that her entrails are dragging out behind. A few kids are like disgusted, miming sick faces but other ones make like they seen it all before and get bored, wander off. Takes a while till they pretty much all gone. Just the junk or stuff down there strewn around and the fire that mostly died out now and the tree that is blackened is all that’s left when the light starts to fade and you can see the stars. Later some soldiers truck by in a Jeep, they have the weapons training on anything that moves or does not move. You can see they laughing in that language they speak. Ha ha. One points his gun at the tree, another at the sky, another at the wardrobe. This last guy he suddenly fires like fifty times – bang bang bang. The others are all laughing and punching him at the shoulder cos he’s wasting Ammo and he will only draw fire from the houses. Whatever. He stops. The wardrobe is filled with all holes. How can you fill something with holes? People wonder about that. A hole is a nothing. You cannot fill something with a nothing. You cannot fill something with a ‘not thing’. Anyway it is too complicated, it is getting late, too late for things that are too complicated. When dusk comes down fully there is just one kid left on the wasteground, this one in a yellow dress-thing, a kid called Yara that slightly knew El Mucho from a time they were in a summer camp together before everything happened and she is apparently concerned where El Mucho went to so she is walking around and you can guess she is telling his name again and again but you cannot hear it, again, because of the distance involved. She is only a kid and her voice does not really travel far when it is night and when they light is fading and the stars are coming out. I guess it is pretty late by now when she has the good idea to look in the wardrobe, that is anyhow shot filled with holes. She opens the door and looks inside. El Mucho should be there of cause. He should probably by lying in a corner of it all slumped and dead. Or like he should be stood inside the wardrobe, stood in a shape fixed rigid by fear, the soldier bullets tracing a miraculous outline to him, a magic survivor. But the fact is all different than what it should be cos El Mucho is not there at all. He is not in there or anywhere around. There is no traces of him in the wardrobe or out of it. In fact you can make a list of all the places in the world and a list of all the places that are not in the world and that motherfucker is not in any of them. Yara in the yellow dress-thing does not know that. She is puzzled. She is like that magician assistant that open the door at a finale to show that the other assistant came back but it does not work. Just a empty wardrobe. I mean he is gone. Vanished. But she does not do it good, not with the right kind of attitude or gesture or smiles. She just open the door look in there and then shrug once, and shut it again, not with proper excitements. You can see that the light is really going by this point. It is really not the right kind of light for a magic act and maybe cos she can sense that Yara walks off clumsy back towards the houses and you can imagine the credits for that Magic show should scroll at that point, with the names go by so fast you cannot read them while the music plays and the screen goes dark. 

Zebra and El Mucho first appeared in Tim Etchells' Notebook

Tim Etchells (1962) is an artist and a writer based in the UK. He has worked in a wide variety of contexts, notably as the leader of the world renowned performance group Forced Entertainment and in collaboration with a range of visual artists, choreographers, and photographers. His work spans performance, video, photography, text projects, installation and fiction. His first novel The Broken World was published by Heinemann in 2008 and his monograph on contemporary performance and Forced Entertainment, Certain Fragments (Routledge 1999) is widely acclaimed. Etchells has exhibited widely in the context of visual arts, with solo shows at Gasworks and Sketch (London) and K├╝nstlerhaus Bremen. His work has appeared in the biennales Manifesta 7 (2008) in Rovereto, Italy, Art Sheffield 2008 and Goteborg Bienale (2009) and in the Aichi Trienale, Nagoya, Japan 2010. His work will feature in October Salon in Belgrade (2010). He is currently Legacy: Thinker in Residence (2009-2010) at Tate Research and LADA in London. For more on Tim's work, visit his website.

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