The Symmetry of Chaos



My interest in Edgar L. Friedrich dates back to my college days. He was the most famous painter in my neighborhood—at the time I knew nothing about his other mediums—and I found it logical to start my intellectual pursuit with his works. Attending his exhibition The Secret Life of Insects was a mystical experience. I spent two hours in front of Gregor Samsa Revisited. When I got back home, I felt transformed, not like poor Gregor, of course, but the other way round: After two uneventful decades, I stopped being an insect and embraced my humanity. Naturally, in my M. A. thesis I analyzed Friedrich’s early paintings, while my doctoral dissertation focused on his world-famous Installations from Rikers Island. I wrote several articles on his exhibitions, both anonymously and under a nom de plume. (Once I have made sure that no legal consequences will arise from my work, I will disclose my real name.) Despite all the years I devoted to Friedrich’s art, I felt something was missing, something that would enable me to grasp his genius in all its complexity. It was then I decided to follow him.


He lived five blocks from my building, so the task wasn’t difficult. In the morning, I would follow him to the park, plant myself on a bench in his vicinity and document his behavior in my cellphone notes. I would also use my phone to record his infrequent conversations with random people. I shadowed him at the supermarket as well, noting down every product he purchased, which didn’t require a lot of effort given that his dark-green shopping bag, decorated with an hourglass sand timer, contained the same items every single day: a bottle of fresh milk, a loaf of multigrain bread, two apples, three tomatoes, four potatoes, a bottle of Maker’s Mark and a Snickers bar. In the afternoon, I went through my notes and recordings, and interpreted them in the context of his works.


It didn’t take me long to realize that I needed more details to understand his art. My notes covered only a few hours outside. There was nothing about his behavior at home. If I wanted to establish his routine, I needed to obtain reliable information on what he did the whole day. Another important aspect was missing—I had no clue about his online activities. I could find neither his email nor his social media profiles. His unofficial page on Facebook, probably run by art school enthusiasts, couldn’t give me anything new.


I had no other option but to hire a company from the dark web to hack his agent’s email, which was displayed on her employer’s website. I assumed she had to be in close contact with her most lucrative client. (Mrs. B. P. has nothing to worry about; I will never disclose any information about her personal life, only the data that would help me elucidate Friedrich’s artistic persona. As a matter of fact, that was part of my deal with the hackers for which I signed the confidentiality agreement, restricting “the use of acquired material only to the sections pertaining to the life of E.L.F.”) But, to my surprise, the correspondence between Mrs. B.P. and Friedrich wasn’t as illuminating as I had expected. They usually discussed sales of his artwork, exhibition schedules and catalogue designs, except for a few occasions when they complained about the then president or wished each other happy holidays. The most interesting detail I uncovered scrutinizing Mrs. B. P.’s email was that she and Friedrich had met in person only three times.


Dissatisfied with the results of my darknet arrangement, I had Friedrich’s email hacked as well. That proved to be the best decision of my adult life. First of all, I found out that Friedrich suffered from alkaptonuria or “black urine disease.” Approximately once in three months, he emailed his doctor, asking for more regular supply of medications and urging him to keep everything in strict confidence. This rare illness was undoubtedly behind Friedrich’s obsession with urinating (e. g. The Miracle of Rainmaking). I also learned that Friedrich had a regular correspondence with a friend whom he called Blue Princess. I couldn’t tell whether her poetic nickname referred to the color of her eyes or she was sad all the time or she was a person of noble birth; yet this interesting detail helped me understand why Friedrich often painted female bodies in cobalt blue. My biggest discovery was an email Friedrich sent to a person nicknamed Linguist—try as I might, I couldn’t find out his or her identity—an email which revealed that the great painter was particularly inspired when he changed the layout of his living room. “There’s something in the re-established, re-conquered symmetry of space, ” wrote Friedrich, “that resets my brain in a ways [sic] and opens new avenues of creativity.” It was obvious that his emails, no matter how interesting, wouldn’t be sufficient for what I was trying to achieve. To understand Friedrich’s creative imagination, I had to access his apartment.


The company in charge of hacking Friedrich’s correspondence provided other services, the most intricate of which was putting a spy camera in someone’s house. I hadn’t considered it at first because I thought the emails would give me all the answers. However, confronted with the new discovery about Friedrich’s inspiration, I needed to go for the full package, even though it meant using up my savings. As soon as I transferred the money, the company’s experts went to Friedrich’s apartment on the pretext of fixing the heating (the great artist had complained about it to his agent when she had urged him to finish exhibits by the deadline) and installed a mini-camera in his living room bookcase. A few hours later, I started to watch the most expensive livestream in my entire life.


What I discovered in a week of active surveillance justified every dollar I had spent. I realized that Friedrich’s living room was his atelier. It was packed with canvases, brushes, pencils, paint tubes, sheets of paper, hammers, screws, pipes, wires, poles and other similar materials. The minimalist furniture—a black leather sofa, rolling bookcase, dining table and two chairs—had no other purpose but to facilitate his inspiration. Not for a second did I see him relax on the sofa or have lunch at the dining table. As he had explained to the Linguist, the furniture was only meant to re-conquer the symmetry of space, so as to trigger an image in his mind’s eye which he would later transpose to his art. For instance, one day every piece was in the corner except for the dining table, positioned in the center, which served as a pedestal for a wire sculpture representing a skeleton or a concentration camp inmate or Friedrich as a young man (it was impossible to tell). The next day he replaced the table with the bookcase—changing the camera’s position and affecting my livestream—and, for three consecutive hours, he painted something I wasn’t able to decipher. I also discovered his peculiar habits that must have influenced his art. For example, he didn’t have an easel but painted on canvases laid on his hardwood floor. He worked naked despite the cold weather and his malfunctioned heating. He didn’t eat in the living room; he only drank there, his back against the wall, his eyes glued to the painting or sculpture he was working on that day. Plus, due to his rare illness, he never spent less than fifteen minutes in the bathroom.


On the seventh day of my surveillance, I saw Friedrich emerge from his bedroom, wearing only pink boxer shorts, house slippers and a VR headset. He removed the headset, wrote down something on a piece of paper and returned to the bedroom. Was he playing a computer game? That didn’t seem likely. He had never mentioned any game in his emails. However, in a reply to the Blue Princess dated 2 February, 2019, he’d said he looked forward to meeting up with her in “T-World.” At the time I thought it was a gallery where he exhibited his works, but seeing him now with a VR headset opened the door to other interpretations. Then it hit me—they had been meeting in virtual reality! And “T-World” could only mean Tetraverse.


I needed to buy a VR headset, too, which wasn’t easy as I had spent all my savings and didn’t have a regular income. I took out a short-term bank loan and made the purchase. Having learned all the technicalities of exploring Tetraverse, I was ready to immerse myself in what would become my biggest scholarly achievement.


It took me ten days to find his avatar. First I looked for him at museums and galleries, then at concerts, for he used to be a drummer in the 90s punk-rock band called The Sophist Assassins. I didn’t find anyone who fit his profile. I knew people could create any avatar they wanted—mine resembled Werner Herzog’s Nosferatu, with whom I shared no similarity in the real world—but none of the people I encountered reminded me of Friedrich. It was by pure luck that I spotted him at a collective mindfulness event held in Tetraverse’s largest park. His avatar was an ancient Greek philosopher with a purple Mohawk. His nickname, hovering above his head, was none other than Elfie. He was sitting next to Wonder Woman who had cobalt blue skin and whose nickname was H. D. T. I had no doubt she was the Blue Princess.


He must have liked my avatar as he addressed me the moment the session was over. “Mr. Kinski,” he said, “I didn’t know you’re a fan of mindfulness. ”


“Are you kidding me?” said the Blue Princess. “He’s the godfather of mindfulness. I mean, he was in that coffin for how long?”


I assumed they were referring to a scene from Nosferatu, so I said: “Well, even blood-suckers like myself need a mental exercise from time to time.”


The Blue Princess began to chat with an old man in a pinstripe suit and cowboy boots. Friedrich and I were all alone.


Afraid that she would re-join our conversation and deprive me of the best opportunity to be tête-à-tête with my idol, I asked him what he did for a living. He said he was “a post-aesthetic post-artist.” A giant metallic centipede flew over the park. Everybody applauded. It must have been a regular sight there. Probably because the princess was still chatting with her interlocutor, Friedrich asked me if I would like to take a walk. I was delighted.


As we passed by an outdoor cinema where the audience were watching a black-and-white movie in Russian, he praised Tetraverse’s “symmetry of chaos.” In the real world, he explained, cities were built on the principles of convenience and efficiency, both of which were opposed to artistic creation. Those “dreadful” patterns were imposed on our private spaces as well, so we unwillingly trapped ourselves in “predictable and unbearable uniformity” that stifled our imagination. In Tetraverse, however, there were thousands of “free-spirited” architects, most of whom couldn’t care less about convenience or efficiency.


He pointed to a glass-and-steel skyscraper in the distance and said: “Look at that building, for example. I don’t know where you come from, but in New York City this would be the headquarters of a multinational corporation or a bank or one of those ugly condominiums for the nouveau-riche. It would be designed by a famous architect and probably worth a billion dollars. And, of course, it would be surrounded by other condos or corporations. Here the building is a toy museum created for free by a kid from South-East Asia and surrounded by a botanical garden, art gallery, and a paramilitary bootcamp, which could never go together in the real world. The best thing of all is that tomorrow the toy museum might be replaced by a concert hall that looks like a tree house or a yoga retreat that resembles a ship. The space can never become too familiar. That’s why I like being here. It inspires me more than anything else. I’m even thinking of having my next exhibition only in Tetraverse. I haven’t talked to my agent yet, but I’m sure she’ll agree.” He waved at someone behind my back. “Of course,” he added, “sooner or later this precious space will be taken over by big-tech leeches and transformed into something banal and practical. But I’ll be gone by then so it doesn’t matter.”


He said he would be right back and disappeared. I took off my VR and switched to the livestream on my computer. And there he was—in boxer shorts and house slippers, Edgar L. Friedrich was on his way to the bathroom, circumnavigating the archipelago of unused materials scattered across his atelier.


That was the last time I saw him. I waited for two hours but he never returned from the bathroom. On top of all that, the livestream ended abruptly. My research was brutally terminated. The next day, in a coded, self-destructing email titled “Equipment Malfunction,” the company informed me that they had disabled the camera “as a precautionary measure.” It turned out I wasn’t the only spectator.


According to the brief police statement released a couple of days later, Friedrich had suffered a heart attack while sitting on the toilet and died instantly. There was no mention of the spy camera or surveillance. His death was linked to playing computer games.






Andrija Matic is the author of five novels and a collection of short stories. His novels and short stories written in Serbian have been translated into several European languages. Matic is based in Istanbul, where he teaches academic writing at Kadir Has University.