In New York, Labour Day Weekend, 2012, I walked to the Museum of Modern Art to see John Szarkowski’s Photographs. On the way, I stopped in the shade of a construction scaffold, to watch two street people play chess with pieces and a board made from street trash. At MoMA I studied Szarkowski’s later photographs, and reviewed an exhibition of work by the Quay Brothers, who for forty years have made stop-action animated films with mannequins and sets built from junk. Over lunch in the Museum Café, I made a resolution: for at least two years, I wouldn’t pass my creative life crouched at the keyboard of a computer.On a page of my notebook, I made a plan.
THE CHESS GAME is a story of lost work, and the questions that arise around such loss. And loss, which is a little death, is, like death, occasionally a problem of poetics.
THE CHESS GAME has three fictional narrators. First, there is the photographer – Ryszard, Richarde, Richard – who witnessed and recorded the game and tells the story of it forty years later. He is an unreliable alcoholic, a camera thief, an aimless mercenary, a reluctant spy, but a devout witness.
Then there is the sculptor – La Circassia, named for her home – a woman who comes from trouble, won’t or can’t speak, and vanishes in the Second World War, dissolved in the holocaust, leaving only two chests, containing montages (she has learned to make them from Hanna Höch), notebook drawings, and 36 plaster sculptures, 32 of which make a chess set. She is one of the chess players in the game of 1929.
Finally, there is the curator – Donald McKay – hapless and half-understanding, who – inspired by John Szarkowski – hunts the photographs and sculptures, the drawings and montages, and the story of the chess game.
I’m uncomfortable making things up, so some real people play roles: Georges Kopp, a trickster and an anti-fascist adventurer, occasional friend of George Orwell and occasional secret agent, guides the photographer.
Camille Claudelle, renowned sculptor – committed for life to an insane asylum outside of Avignon to end her unhappy love of art – is the sculptor’s teacher.
Vladimir Mayakovsky, poet and artist and provocateur, plays chess on a visit to France in 1929, and dies – a presumed suicide – in Moscow in spring of the following year.
Berenice Abbott – sculptor turned photographer – carries a portfolio of eight prints – photographs of the chess game – from Paris in to New York in 1929. Abbott includes the forgotten portfolio in a substantial collection of Eugene Atget’s prints she sells to the Museum of Modern Art. Curators unpack them in 1969, setting in motion the search for the story of The Chess Game.
And Paris – as seen by Marville, Atget, Brassai, Kertész, Doisneau – plays herself.