. .

Some Notes on the Artwork of Chris Wilhelm

by Justin Isis

1. Wilhelm intended the first public exhibition of the artwork to take place between late February and early March 2010. For at least two months he had been in contact with Robert Lean, Director of Curatorial Services for the Art Gallery of New South Wales. His communications consisted of a series of phone calls and e-mails and, apparently, an unsuccessful attempt to meet Lean when he returned home in the evening.1 Wilhelm always specified his intention to give the artwork away rather than sell it – all he wanted was a chance to expose the public to what he had created.

2. Wilhelm was born in Western Australia on October 3, 1979, and grew up in the Thornlie suburb of Perth. His father, Chris Wilhelm Senior, was a mining engineer; his mother, Leah, a housewife. An only child interested in astronomy and model airplanes, Wilhelm lived a solitary but contented existence. His early years passed without incident; there were few conflicts with peers or teachers, no instances of destructive or rebellious behaviour. His grades were polarized; he excelled at what interested him and failed at what did not. His results in the sciences, particularly chemistry and biology, were in the top rank of his class, but his assessment report showed a total indifference to the humanities.2 He graduated from the University of Western Australia in 2001, then travelled to Sydney for postgraduate studies in molecular biology.3

3. Transcript of Wilhelm’s initial e-mail to Lean:

From: ccsrchriswhlm23@gmail.com

To: lean@artgallery.nsw.gov.au

Date: Thursday, December 23, 2009 7:45 PM

Dear Mr. Lean,

My name is Christopher Wilhelm, Jr. Although I have no prior exp. in the art world I have been to your gallery many times. I kindly request some of your time to show you an artwork I have recently created. I believe it is something that has never been seen before or thought of. I know that once you see what I have created, you will want to help me show it to as many people as possible. I am only asking for five minutes of your time and if you are not interested after that I will not contact you again.

Sincerely,

Christopher Wilhelm4

4. Much of what is known about Chris Wilhelm comes from Régine Chapel, his partner during the artwork’s creation, roughly between July and December 2009. Born in Lyons to a French father and a Vietnamese mother, Régine emigrated to Australia as a university student and obtained citizenship several years later. She met Wilhelm at a scientific conference in Sydney in late 2007. Wilhelm had prepared a presentation on RNA-based retroviruses and as Régine strolled through the convention centre she caught sight of his table. Although their areas of research differed slightly, Régine was intrigued by Wilhelm’s premises and asked if she could talk to him alone later in the evening. Wilhelm – used to the paranoid nature of the research community, where leads are guarded closely – was at first hesitant. However, Régine’s manner convinced him she had no intention of stealing his ideas. At this first meeting they mostly discussed speculative areas of research, few of which related directly to either of their current projects.

5. Lean gave a brief stock response to Wilhelm’s e-mail, explaining that since the Gallery was a public art museum, it usually only exhibited works from its permanent collection or those on loan from other collections. He advised Wilhelm to check the yearly exhibition schedule to find times when the Gallery would be accepting open submissions. In his reply, Wilhelm stressed the non-commercial nature of his artwork and repeated that nothing like it had been attempted before. In his following e-mails he made other vague but grandiose claims about the artwork’s merit while refusing to clarify its nature; he needed to show Lean in person. Lean recalls setting his expectations low; this kind of behavior, in his mind, was associated with mediocrity. But Wilhelm’s persistence, and what Lean described as the „odd, naive formality“ of his messages convinced him to grant Wilhelm the requested five minutes.5

6. Wilhelm’s coworkers described him as an unremarkable man, diligent and reliable, but introverted and somewhat awkward. At social functions he seemed passive, responding to questions but offering no observations of his own.6

7. It might be wondered why Robert Lean, obviously a man with numerous prior commitments and little time to spare, decided to grant an interview to a complete unknown who was not represented by an agent. Perhaps Lean – who as a young man had been fascinated by the outsider art of Darger, Lobanov, and Rizzoli – held out hope of discovering a prodigy. But it is more likely that he never had any intention of exhibiting the artwork. He and the other curators would convene for a coffee break, inspect Wilhelm’s efforts and offer a polite rejection. And according to Lean this is exactly what happened. He has always claimed that Wilhelm was a fraud and the artwork a hoax. The media interest in the events of late February he attributes to journalistic irresponsibility.7 Even after the deaths of Meyer and Veldenz, which he refuses to link to the artwork, Lean has maintained that his initial suspicions of mediocrity were justified.

8. Régine claimed that, although often untalkative, Wilhelm showed no signs of unusual behavior during the first two years they lived together. He seems to have had only one, minor eccentricity: sometimes he seemed to be listening to something. He would turn his head up as if he had just been asked a question, and if someone spoke to him he would not answer for a minute or so, until the spell broke. When asked about these infrequent, listening silences, Wilhelm dismissed them.

9. The interview lasted no more than five or six minutes. Wilhelm arrived at the Gallery on February 8th at around five o’clock, wearing a newly-bought white dress shirt and carrying a small metal box under his arm.8 Lean met him in the cafe in Lower Level 1. With him were Philip Meyer and Sebastian Veldenz, the head curators of photography and Asian art, respectively. Introductions were made and then Wilhelm opened the box. As neither Meyer nor Veldenz mentioned the interview to anyone before their deaths, Lean’s various conflicting statements are the only insights we have into what happened next. While never specifying what he saw in the box, in his interview with the Australian Art Review, Lean referred to it as „some piece of kitsch.“9 Given his well-known views on Wilhelm, this cannot be interpreted as a literal description. What is certain is that, after looking into the box for a few moments, Lean told Wilhelm that it was not the sort of thing the Gallery was looking for at the moment, and that it would be better for him to try sending it somewhere else. Meyer and Veldenz made similar statements, the latter recommending that he build up a larger portfolio before contacting anyone again. Unaffected by this negative reception, Wilhelm thanked the curators for their time and left the Gallery.

10. Following Wilhelm’s departure, Lean, Meyer and Veldenz remained in the cafe for approximately fifteen minutes, discussing business.10 At around five-thirty, Philip Meyer made his way to St. James Station and caught the train to his house in Hurlstone Park. His wife Marilynne, a nurse, was still at work. When Marilynne Meyer returned home at nine-thirty, she called out and, receiving no response, assumed her husband was asleep. She prepared dinner for herself and turned on the television. While watching a documentary on the Battle of Okinawa, she fell asleep on the couch and awoke two hours later at eleven-thirty. At this point she went upstairs to prepare for bed. But when she tried to open the door to the bedroom, Marilynne found it blocked by a heavy object. This, as she discovered when she forced her way in, was the body of her husband; Meyer had hanged himself from the doorknob with an electrical cord. The coroner’s report estimated the time of death at eight o’clock. On the bedside table was a note in Meyer’s hand, which read:

The light seems different in other countries. France, Southern Italy. I have always remembered summertime in America – the Midwest, where we travelled together. The light washing over the corn fields. You feel the heat of the day coming on, and then the sun stains everything a strange golden colour.11

Well-known in the arts community for his exhibitions of historical photographs of Sydney, Meyer had himself been a photographer of some distinction, specialising in urban landscapes.12

11. Robert Lean did not learn of Meyer’s death until around noon the next day. After his initial shock he assumed it to be an accident, as Meyer had no known enemies and no history of depression. When the police report made it clear that Meyer died by his own hand, Lean was left in the same position as Marilynne, that of total incomprehension. At this stage he made no connection between Meyer’s death and Wilhelm’s artwork, and while the police briefly questioned him about it, they were more interested in Meyer’s recent behavior, which both Lean and Veldenz described as normal.13 Only under the journalist Micah Peterson’s direct questioning did Lean recall the previous day’s meeting in any detail. It seems fair to say that if Peterson had not pressed Lean on this point, there might still be no public awareness of the artwork at all.

12. At six P.M. on Wednesday, February 10th, Sebastian Veldenz left the Gallery and headed to Martin Place Station. At around six-thirty he walked up to the South Coast Line platform and, as several bystanders looked on, threw himself under the train.14

13. Wilhelm conceived of the artwork some time during his thirtieth year. Prior to this he had shown no inclination towards creative work of any kind nor any interest in that of others, although as his emails to Lean suggest, he had made several visits to the NSW Gallery.15 According to Régine, during the artwork’s gestation period in early 2009, Wilhelm was even more reticent than usual. At dinner he would stare down at the table as if in a trance, often becoming fixated on a particular object,perhaps a stray train ticket or paper clip, which he would manipulate ceaselessly, tearing or twisting out of shape. When Régine remarked that something seemed to be troubling him, he would tell her that he was considering an original project, one well outside the range of his present research. Wilhelm’s behaviour during this period cannot rightly be called secretive, as secrecy would imply that he had conceived of the artwork in definite terms from the start, which does not seem to have been the case. If anything he was as surprised as Régine at the direction the project was taking, and much of the early labour seems to have been purely mental. It was not until mid June that Wilhelm began secluding himself in the spare room for the long sessions that eventually produced the artwork.

14. There is still no consensus as to what the artwork was. This might seem surprising when it is public knowledge that Wilhelm showed it to at least three people and went to some lengths to show it to more. Régine claimed that Wilhelm never specified what he was working on but promised that he would eventually reveal everything to her.

15. The spatial dimensions of the artwork are also in dispute. In the early days Wilhelm often spoke of acquiring a larger room to house it, but when he presented it for inspection at the Gallery he had been carrying it in a small metal box. Some have theorised that the artwork was performance-based and not a material object at all, but if this was the case then Wilhelm still expended considerable resources devising it. From late May through to the end of June 2009 he collected materials for his project, scouring specialty stores, junk shops and internet auctions for a wide array of items. To Régine’s amusement he brought home mirrors, metronomes, hourglasses, kaleidoscopes, tuning forks, computer parts, chemical batteries and old-fashioned cameras. It is uncertain whether these diverse objects actually constituted the artwork, or whether they were a means of producing or arriving at it. Régine later claimed that when she finally investigated the spare room some of the materials appeared brand new, while others had been subtly altered and many more were missing.16

16. As the year progressed, Wilhelm spent more and more time alone in the spare room. Régine was at first pleased that he had found a hobby, but she grew concerned as his periods of isolation increased. Neither did Wilhelm’s silence reassure her. When she confronted him, she learned little more than that his project was not of a strictly scientific nature and could be more readily classified as art. However, it was not any kind of art that had been seen before. As can be imagined, his evasiveness only increased her curiosity. Wilhelm’s dependability had initially appealed to her more than his imagination, so this new direction he was taking was incomprehensible to her. But Régine was not the sort of person to be put off by eccentricity. Even as she wondered at the degree of privacy he required, she trusted that Wilhelm would do as he promised and unveil the artwork to her and everyone else. If it was truly something significant then it would justify the time spent on it. And if it turned out to be unsuccessful, there would be no cause for despair: in art, as in science, there were bound to be false starts.

17. Wilhelm completed the artwork some time before dawn on December 3, 2009. Since mid-November he had taken to waking at 3:00 AM to work on his project while the rest of the world slept, and when Régine entered the kitchen that morning she found him just finishing breakfast. Over coffee he explained that he had finished the artwork an hour earlier. She congratulated him, but he seemed more distracted than elated and said nothing about what he would do next. Régine, though, was relieved; for the past month Wilhelm had lived entirely for his project, cancelling his few social engagements and rarely leaving the spare room. Régine had grown used to him ignoring her at dinner and leaving their bed at all hours of the night. Now, with the artwork out of the way, she hoped things would return to normal.

18. If Meyer’s suicide was unexpected, then Veldenz’s was improbable enough to draw significant media attention. The deaths of two well-known curators within the space of a week was a suitably lurid topic for the papers, and before long a number of journalists contacted Lean, chief among them Micah Peterson from the Sydney Morning Herald. Lean and Peterson were acquaintances for some years, as Peterson had often visited the gallery and reported on its exhibitions for his paper’s Saturday Arts section. Now he wanted to interview Lean as soon as possible. Over the phone he explained that his article would be an appreciation of Meyer and Veldenz’s contributions to the Sydney arts community and a lament that these contributions had ended before their time. Lean consented, and Peterson arrived at his office on Friday the 12th. During the course of the interview Lean showed Peterson several of Wilhelm’s e-mails and briefly described their meeting in the coffee shop.17

19. Peterson’s article went to press on February 15th. As he indicated to Lean, it is mostly a summary of Meyer and Veldenz’s careers with sympathetic appraisals from a number of well-known artists. Wilhelm is brought in only in the final two paragraphs, which recount the two curators‘ last meeting. After describing how their deaths followed their rejection of the artwork, Peterson concludes with:

„The price of good taste?“18

20. From a distance of thirty years, Peterson’s closing line seems more frivolous than sensational. While the implication that Meyer and Veldenz committed suicide as a critical response to Wilhelm’s artwork – or were otherwise mortally affected by it – is at best inappropriate. To be fair to Peterson he could not have anticipated the epigram’s later, literal interpretations. However, within a few days, articles appeared in other publications claiming a direct link, supernatural or otherwise, between Wilhelm’s project and the deaths.19 The idea of an artwork which could trigger suicidal ideation (or, in the more embroidered accounts, sudden death) proved a fitting theme for an urban legend. Rumours spread to the effect that Lean would be the third to die, with extreme variants suggesting that curators around Australia would expire regularly until the artwork was bought by a major gallery. This generated a brief upsurge of popular references, with comedy shows, radio programs and newspaper cartoons all mentioning the artwork. Within a few months students at the University of Sydney had produced a horror film on the theme.20

21. In the week following the NSW Gallery’s rejection, Wilhelm tried to interest other galleries in the artwork, sending e-mails and phoning curators from around Sydney. He even went interstate, contacting the Sutton Gallery in Melbourne and the Queensland Gallery of Modern Art – all with no success.21 Lean had been good enough to humour him, but other directors evidently did not have the time to spare. This continued rejection seems to have forced him to a reevaluation of the artwork, as Régine described him emerging one day from the spare room and telling her he had decided to rework his project. The date is unclear, but it must have been some time around February 13th. This is a crucial point, as it means that Wilhelm reached his decision to shelve the artwork before hearing of Meyer and Veldenz’s deaths. As this is dependent on Régine’s word, it has naturally been obscured in much of the literature.

22. Régine came across Peterson’s article while reading the paper at breakfast. Alarmed, she immediately showed it to Wilhelm, who seemed indifferent to the idea of a major newspaper linking his name, however facetiously, to unexplained deaths. But Régine encouraged him to take legal action, as any negative publicity could have repercussions on his job. Wilhelm told her he would contact the paper, but before the day was out he was himself contacted by journalists who had read the article. Régine saw this as a chance for Wilhelm to defend himself in print, and at her urging he agreed to a number of interviews.22 This was the beginning of his brief period of public prominence. Although the interviews never gained the readership of the Herald piece, they prompted further interest in the curators‘ deaths and inspired many of the later, more speculative articles.

23. None of the interviews are worth quoting at length. It is enough to say that Wilhelm maintains his characteristic approach, stressing the artwork’s singular nature while never offering a specific description of it. He appears indifferent to the suicides, expressing a perfunctory sympathy for the deceased but giving no insight into their possible motivations. His responses display a total absence of rhetoric; he gives no motivation for creating the artwork, no indication of having anything to say. There is no sign of the spirited public defence Régine had expected.

24. Wilhelm took little advantage of the media attention. If he had been purely mercenary he could have produced any object and passed it off as the artwork, as even a stray piece of trash would have commanded a high price merely by association with his name. Within a few weeks galleries and private collectors were offering him large sums to unveil or sell the artwork, all of which he – perversely, given his earlier efforts at promotion – refused.23 He was invited to parties and exhibitions and attended some of them, always maintaining an air of detachment. He became, in a sense, the ultimate conceptual artist, his career founded on an abstraction, a phantom artwork which amassed significance even as it lacked any definite qualities. But if the artwork was a hoax then Wilhelm went to great lengths to maintain it, even in the privacy of his home. To Régine’s disappointment he was now spending as much time in the spare room as he had during the previous year. He rarely slept and often went for long night walks, not returning until after Régine had left for work. All this suggests a sincere uncertainty about the direction of his project.

25. During this period Robert Lean did his best to downplay the interest in Wilhelm, dismissing the articles‘ speculative fancies and shrugging off any fears about the artwork’s negative influence by boasting of his perfect health.24 It is clear from his remarks that he blamed Peterson for mentioning Wilhelm in the first place, and the journalist was presumably no longer welcome at the NSW Gallery.

26. On April 22nd Wilhelm attended a video-themed exhibition at the David Channing Gallery in Surry Hills. Curated by Tomoko Ishihara, the exhibition showcased a number of new artists, some of whom would go on to long careers. The highlight was probably an early Jeff Dowling installation, which Wilhelm would have seen as he strolled through the Gallery. One incident from this exhibition stands out: towards the end of the evening, the artist Danny Curry remarked that Wilhelm – who was relaxing in a chair with a glass of wine, evidently lost in thought – would soon have to get back to work. In response to this reference to the artwork, Wilhelm said:

„I’m editing it right now.“

He made no attempt to explain what he meant. 25

27. On June 17th Régine returned from work to find the house empty. She assumed Wilhelm was in the spare room or out on one of his walks. When he had not returned after several hours she called his mobile and received no response. She tried again in the morning, and when Wilhelm did not answer she called his workplace and learned that he had not shown up the previous day. After this she contacted the police. They informed her that every day over twenty-eight people were reported missing in New South Wales, and over ninety-nine percent of them were eventually located. 26

28. Wilhelm’s coworkers were bewildered by his disappearance.27 Although he had exhausted himself over the artwork in his spare time, Wilhelm had performed his duties at work with his usual care, showing no signs of instability or unusual behaviour. His parents, when contacted, claimed not to have heard from him in weeks. No one in the art world had any idea either, as Wilhelm had not cultivated any close friendships. While most disappearances of this kind have banal explanations, the police were left with very little to work with. They continued to reassure Régine that he would most likely turn up, even as weeks and then months passed with no sign of him. With no way of knowing whether Wilhelm would return, or if he was even still alive, Régine was left in a state of total uncertainty.

29. With the passing of time, the popular references to the artwork gave way to a more specialised interest, academic in tone but often equally dubious. I am referring here to books such as Eric Han’s Chris Wilhelm and the Art of Invisibility and J. Scott Abbott’s The Enigma of Chris Wilhelm. While valuable in some cases for the information they provide on Wilhelm’s life, most of them are heavily tainted by the authors‘ prior agendas, with the worst being indistinguishable from the kind of pseudo-mystical tracts which conflate angels, aliens and Atlantis into some vague cosmology.28 The problem is that, judging from the publicly available evidence, the conservative researcher is liable to agree with Lean that Wilhelm accomplished nothing. The artwork remains inaccessible, and there is no accurate way to determine what role, if any, Wilhelm played in the curators‘ deaths. The entire affair would seem to be nothing more than one of those improbable curiosities which arise from time to time, catching the public eye for a while but quickly forgotten when no longer topical.

30. In late February 2011 I attended a party in Watsons Bay thrown by my friend Anthony Gordon. The usual medical crowd was there, along with a few unknowns. I have never liked those sorts of parties and before long I grew bored and headed outside for a smoke. I remember the feeling of relief as I stepped onto the veranda: it had been a dry summer, but now I felt the stirrings of a breeze coming to me from across the city. Boats moved across the harbour. A handful of stars were visible. As I took out my lighter I noticed another smoker leaning against the railing a few feet away from me. She looked to be in her early thirties, and while her head was inclined in my direction, her gaze seemed to move past me, so that I was not sure whether she had noticed me at all. She was striking, but the first thing I noticed was her extraordinary thinness; she seemed almost emaciated and there was something sad about her. I introduced myself and learned she was a research scientist – a friend of a friend, one of Anthony’s numerous acquaintances. This was my first meeting with Régine. I was familiar with Wilhelm in a vague way, but I did not learn of her connection to him until some time later. All that struck me then was how distant she seemed.

31. In The Enigma of Chris Wilhelm, J. Scott Abbott contends that Wilhelm repeatedly exposed Régine to the artwork. He admits to having little evidence, as Régine refused all requests for interviews, but claims that, as he shared a house with her while developing the artwork, Wilhelm would naturally have shown it to her, even if she was not aware of it.29

32. When I could not forget Régine after a week, I contacted her and asked if she remembered me. She did, and we agreed to meet for coffee. It did not take me long to determine that something terrible had happened to her. But I did not question her – it was enough for me to see fragments of her personality rising to the surface, a vibrancy that nothing had been able to kill. Most of the literature on Wilhelm has confined her to the role of a victim, which is a misconception I will do my best to correct. Régine Chapel was a capable scientist in her own right and more than Wilhelm’s equal. In an era when pharmaceutical companies were reducing medicine to a series of pre-written recipes to be followed without question, Régine was passionate about every area of her research, never thinking of health in terms of profit. Everyone who worked with her spoke of her patience and dedication. To these I would add her generosity and, that even rarer quality, her absence of self-pity. No one who really knew her was able to forget her.

33. I continued to meet Régine, sometimes for coffee, sometimes for dinner. I was ten years older than her but I rarely felt the difference. She told me about her past, and of Wilhelm, although I never pressed her. At first it seemed important only in an abstract sense; all that mattered to me was that she was alive and sitting across from me. I was never certain what she thought of me, but I had to assume she appreciated my company. While naturally sociable, she had grown increasingly isolated after Wilhelm’s disappearance. In retrospect I can see that I did not have anyone I could speak with honestly either, and perhaps this is what drew me to her in the first place. We remained friends for a few months, until it seemed more reasonable for us to move in together.

34. Régine and I lived together for five years. I did my best to support her, but it became clear that her problems were not anything I could solve. She admitted to suffering from blackouts and instances of missing time, although routine physical and neurological examinations revealed nothing. In addition to these regular medical checks I encouraged her to talk to a psychologist, and on my recommendation she made an appointment with Dr. Amit Sharma, who was familiar to me through Anthony. From October 2011 to January 2012 she spoke to him for an hour every week and at her request he taped their sessions together. The following is excerpted from a session dated November 3, 2011:

[Régine] Chris was out of the house, I was alone and –

[Sharma] He was working?

No. I can’t remember. He was just out. I went to the spare room…

The door was unlocked?

Well he never actually locked it, I just thought he didn’t want me to go in there.

And when did this take place?

Towards the end, in November. I was getting worried about him – I thought what if he’s doing something dangerous or, I don’t know…he never said anything and I was worried about him. I always trusted him but I wanted to make sure everything was okay.

So you went into the spare room…

I went in and, I don’t know how else to say it but it was like stepping outside. It wasn’t like going into a room in a house. I felt like I’d stepped out the front door to somewhere. I felt the sun overhead; there was grass under my feet. Somehow I knew I was in France, it was France when I was a little girl. It had all happened to me before. I must have been twelve or thirteen and I was with my parents – we were having a picnic.

You were watching all this?

No, I was inside it. I was inside myself. Does that make any sense? It was like I’d walked into my memory. Everything I’d forgotten, I remembered it all perfectly, it all came back to me so suddenly: that day, the picnic. But I wasn’t watching it, I was twelve, thirteen years old. Everything happened just as I remembered it, but it felt like the most natural thing in the world. [A pause] Do you understand? I was myself now and thirteen years old at the same time. I was thinking about school and my friends – I could remember everyone’s name. I felt the entire day passing, and when it got dark we got in the car and went back home.

What happened then?

I woke up. I was sitting on the couch, but I had no idea how I got there. It wasn’t like I woke up slowly, I didn’t feel sleepy at all. I was just there. But then I forgot everything again. By the time Chris got home I couldn’t remember any of it.

And you entered the spare room again?

No, not until a few months later.

And what happened?

Nothing. It was just the spare room. There was nothing there, just all the junk Chris had collected.

35. Dr. Sharma concluded that the shock of Wilhelm’s disappearance had had a traumatic effect on Régine which manifested in her dreams. She was placed on antidepressants and continued to attend regular counseling sessions, and in December of that year she underwent hypnotherapy. This allowed her to work through some of her experiences of the previous year. The following are excerpted from a number of these sessions:

„I’m sitting on the couch and there are colours moving over the floor. I feel something inside me, like a baby kicking. I fall asleep, or wake up, I can’t tell which. Chris comes in and tells me everything is all right. We start watching a movie.“

„I keep having deja vu. I don’t know what it means. It’s when you feel like you’re remembering something you saw in a dream. But I have it in dreams too. I dream and I feel like I remember things…“

„A colour that moves, and people hidden in the colour. [nearly inaudible] I don’t want to keep looking…in that direction.“

36. By January Régine’s condition had improved; she seemed less distant and there were no more blackouts. Still, she never recovered completely. The dreams continued, though she tried to downplay them, and she never slept more than five or six hours a night. Sometimes she became frightened by the most trivial things: a knock at the door, a sudden bright light, a crow’s caw outside the window. I was often frustrated by my failure to understand her, but I learned to adjust to her as I imagine she must have adjusted to me. I felt then and I feel now that her problems were the least important thing about her. I loved her.

37. Despite his scientific bent, during his mid to late teens Wilhelm became interested in esoteric religions, particularly the Pythagorean cult and its prime symbol, the Tetractys. The intersection of mathematical and metaphysical ideas seems to have stirred his imagination. During this time Wilhelm kept a journal, which I have next to me as I write. It is a cheap spiral notebook, heavily dog-eared, its cover decorated with circles, pyramids, pentagons and decagons. Wilhelm’s handwriting is small and cramped, idiosyncratic but always legible. He makes no reference to his daily life; the entries are concerned entirely with commentary on books – mostly classics of philosophy and theology, but also more obscure works. Often passages are simply copied out verbatim, but others seem to be original formulations. One reads:

Even if all intelligence in the universe is concentrated on a single planet, this planet still manifests the intelligence of the entire universe. Therefore there is no „environment,“ there is only a nervous system aware of its extensions.

From a different page:

Consecration and transubstantiation are the only significant ideas ever developed by the Western orthodoxy: they only suffer from a failure of imagination. It is not enough to consecrate hosts; everything should be consecrated; everything should be indiscriminately converted into God.

By the time he entered UWA Wilhelm had apparently lost all interest in religious topics. Régine claimed that he never asked her about her beliefs or said anything regarding his own, and she never saw him attend church or any other religious service. This was borne out by his coworkers. On surveys and official forms he filled in his religious affiliation as „other.“

38. On the morning of March 7, 2016, my alarm awoke me at six-thirty, as usual, and I got out of bed. I noticed that Régine was still asleep beside me, which was unusual, as most mornings she awoke at least an hour before me and prepared breakfast. I assumed she was tired from work, and thought nothing of it as I went to take a shower. When I returned Régine was still in bed. I tried to wake her, first shaking her gently, then speaking her name. When she did not respond I shook her more forcefully – I think it was then that I realised something was wrong. I threw off the covers and continued to shake her, yelling out her name. I listened for the sound of her heart: there was nothing. She was dead. Even when I realised this I continued to press my face against her, holding her as tightly as I could.

39. Régine officially died from a sudden cardiac arrest. While she had not previously been diagnosed with heart disease, her death did not strike anyone as suspicious, and at the time I kept my thoughts to myself. The doctors, who had seen such cases before, only remarked on her age: at the time of her death she was thirty-five years old.

40. For a long time I tried to write here something of my grief, how I dealt with it, what I learned. I filled pages. I deleted them all. There is nothing I feel capable of saying.

41. Wilhelm was fascinated by the centrifuges used to collect cultured cells for immunology research. During her sessions with Dr. Sharma, Régine recounted Wilhelm’s description of the colours forming inside a single conical tube. She explained:

„The basic concept is that if you spin something really fast, the denser components will go to the outermost areas. You load a small tube with some of your cell suspension, and to get the cells you want you put it into the centrifuge and spin it for however long at whatever speed the protocol requires. At the end you have a very dense pellet of cells at the bottom of the tube, with the supernatant media above it. Afterwards you remove the supernatant and usually re-suspend the pellet in a much smaller volume that is workable for whatever experiment you’re doing. When you’re dealing with bacteria you use microcentrifuges, which are much smaller but spin much much faster, fifteen-thousand repetitions per minute. That’s two hundred and fifty spins a second. You don’t use them for human cells, though – it’s too fast, it would destroy them.“

Wilhelm’s area of research used centrifuges with a rate of fifteen-hundred repetitions per minute, or twenty-five spins per second. When isolating lymphocytes from a blood product, he would load the tubes into four baskets attached to a central rotor. At this point the tubes hung vertically, and they would tilt outwards as the centrifuge spun, gradually tilting downwards again as the rotor slowed and stopped. This produced a varied stratum of colours: the translucent yellow blood serum at top, filled with any soluble proteins or lipids; the whitish lymphocytes in the middle, pipetted out for analysis; and at the bottom, the red blood cells, a large viscous pellet that rippled when the tube was shaken. The last was a deep crimson, much darker than blood from the vein. Wilhelm was struck by the beauty of this hidden spectrum emerging from the prism of the centrifuge. Apparently the idea of circular motion revealing a substance’s underlying nature appealed to him.

42. On April 5, 2030, a man claiming to be Wilhelm presented himself at the NSW Gallery’s information desk. The man told the receptionist, Stephen Summers, that the artwork would soon be ready, and that it was imperative that the Gallery exhibit it once it was finished. If this proved impossible, they would have to assist him in finding some other channel to alert the world of the artwork’s existence. Summers, attempting to humor the man – who looked to be in his early thirties – told him that Wilhelm had not been seen for twenty years and would now be significantly older. Undaunted, the man offered to be photographed with Summers so that his appearance could be checked against photographs of Wilhelm. Summers consented, and another receptionist photographed them together. The man then thanked Summers and left. Unsurprisingly, few took this incident seriously, with most regarding it as an unsuccessful publicity stunt perpetrated by the Gallery. It drew only a single brief newspaper mention.30

43. In late April of that year I made my own visit to the Gallery to speak with Summers in person. After assuring him that I was seeking information only for my own satisfaction, he agreed to discuss his meeting with the man claiming to be Wilhelm. He described the man’s bearing, his tone of voice and then he showed me the photograph of the visitor, who does bear an uncanny resemblance to Wilhelm – not just his facial features, but also his clothes, as if the man had modelled his wardrobe on what Wilhelm wore twenty years before. However, this in itself says nothing; old clothes are easy to come by, and photos can be digitally altered. What interested me more was the man’s conversation with Summers. Apart from asking the Gallery for support, he had briefly described his progress with the artwork. He was as vague as Wilhelm had been, but Summers recalled him saying:

„It isn’t finished yet. It hasn’t finished assembling itself. The trick is that I don’t assemble it, it assembles itself. I only arrange it, and then it arranges me. I stand still, and it moves around me.“

44. I have with me countless photographs and videos of Régine, a fragmented record of our time together. I have grown used to the pictures, which no longer affect me as they once did. It is only the videos that trouble me. In them I can see Régine’s face from different angles, her adjusting her hair, moving to the centre of the frame, smiling into the camera held by my younger self. It is painful but I keep watching; I know that I was happy then. I cannot believe that those young people – I can call them that now – are gone. It seems more plausible to me that they are still alive somewhere, that they never became us but kept living, making the choices we did not, moving along in some other direction.

45. Régine once told me that she believed in angels, but not an afterlife.

46. If there is no afterlife, then I will not meet Régine again. Still, it seems to me that there is some form of survival after death. I have often felt presences – I would not call them ghosts. An example: I remember meeting Régine in Luna Park one weekend when I had known her for only a year. It was the middle of autumn and dusk was falling around us. We had been through the Crystal Palace, the Funhouse and now we were tired. As we rested by the harbour I felt Régine becoming distant. At these times I usually said nothing, but now I asked her what was wrong. She told me she had just remembered coming here with Wilhelm some years before. As she spoke his name I felt as if someone was standing behind us. I turned, but there was no one there. When I looked back I saw that Régine was crying. I made all sorts of promises then: that I would find Wilhelm, no matter how long it took and make him explain everything. Régine did not respond. At that moment I felt that Wilhelm was present, physically present behind us.

47. In this way, Régine is becoming more real to me even as I move further away from her in time. I often wake and expect to find her next to me; at other times I can swear that she has just left the room or is just about to enter. As I walk to King’s Cross Station I would not be surprised to look up and find her waiting for me in a cafe, troubled that I am late.

48. After I die, I imagine that I will be present at any moment in which someone remembers me. I do not intend this in an obvious, sentimental sense, but rather a literal one. What would a consciousness comprised of these instants be like, a consciousness stretched across time like a string of pearls? What would such a consciousness, if it could be seen, manifest as? Wilhelm’s teenage notebook is full of this kind of speculation.

49. If I were to create an artwork, what would my medium be?

50. In 2014 Régine and I went on holiday to Melbourne. We started with a tour of the city – Ligon Street and Federation Square, the Carlton and Fitzroy Gardens – and then headed south, through Geelong, down Great Ocean Road. Even before we reached the coast I felt as if we were moving towards some great extremity. On either side of the road trees crowded around us, their massed rows rising out of sight. The ferns, the canopies of eucalyptus and beech myrtle, seemed fragments of even older forests that had flowered in the eons before human life. The towns we passed through had a quaintness to them but not of the ordinary country kind; rather it was as if, by existing this close to the expanse of the ocean, their perspective had been distorted by its pull: they seemed toy-like, flat and bright and empty. As we approached the edge of the continent the air sharpened with the scent of salt. The roads narrowed, the forests giving way to cliffs. Finally we came to the Twelve Apostles. Past the headlands, enormous limestone pillars rose from the water, their ranks vanishing into the horizon. There were only eight of these pillars now, the ninth having collapsed some years before, its base worn away by the waves. As we pressed close to the railing, gazing at the spaces where the fallen pillars had stood, Régine said:

„They must have lost their faith.“

I laughed and took her hand. In front of us a Chinese tourist was drawing the sun as it set. As I watched him clutching his notebook, a strange feeling came over me. I felt that I had stepped outside of time. Around me were the cliffs, the pillars, the waves beating on the rocks below, but these were things I had seen before, or would see again or was perhaps always seeing. There was no sound. Every moment stood out with perfect clarity. The horizon thinned to a single crimson line dividing sea and sky, a thread of fire stitched between two night-blue eternities. I closed my eyes and could see it moving behind the waves, brightening as it narrowed, catching the tip of the furthest pillar: a strange golden colour.

1 Archer, Carol. „Frontiers Old and New: An Interview with Robert Lean,“ Australian Art Review, Issue 32, May 2011, p. 16.

2 Abbot, J. Scott.  The Enigma of Chris Wilhelm. The University of Queensland Press: Brisbane, 2020, p. 30

3 Ibid, p. 34

4 Han, Eric. Chris Wilhelm and the Art of Invisibility. Hinton Press: Melbourne, 2025, p. 75

5 Archer, p. 17

6 Romford, Kelly. „Cursed Artwork Causes Deaths of Curators“ The New Metro Express (Sydney) 18 Feb. 2010: B3

7 Archer, p. 18

8 Peterson, Micah. „Gallery Mourns Double Loss.“ The Sydney Morning Herald (Sydney) 15 Feb. 2010: C5

9 Archer, p. 17

10 Peterson, C5

11 Abbot, p. 54

12 Peterson, C5

13 Ibid.

14 Ibid.

15 Han, p. 82

16 Many of Régine’s statements here are taken from the transcripts of her sessions with Dr. Sharma.

17 Archer, p. 18

18 Peterson, C5

19 Romford, B3. See also: Stokes, Brett. „Art World Rocked By Deaths.“ The Statesman (Sydney) 17 Feb. 2010: C3 ; Liu, Jiawa. „Curator Deaths Suicide or Murder?“ Plain Street Digest (Sydney) 17 Feb. 2010: B1 ; Sayle, Jason. „Mystery Artist Linked to Critics’ Deaths“ Sydney Weekly Investigator (Sydney) 18 Feb. 2010: C9, etc.

20 Han, p. 157

21 Abbot, p. 73

22 Bailey, Grayson. „An Interview with Chris Wilhelm“ Sydney Weekly Investigator (Sydney) 22 Feb. 2010: C4 ; Samuels, Mark. „Stepping Outside the Box: Chris Wilhelm“ n+x Vol. 12 Issue 3, March 2010, pp. 36-42 ; and Rimer, Brody. „The Devil‘s Advocate“ smArtbomb! Vol 3. Issue 2, April 2010 pp.24-26

23 Abbot, p. 96

24 Ramanathan, Bhavani. „Filling the Gaps: A Conversation with Robert Lean,“ Artlink, Vol. 30 Issue 2, June 2010, p. 27.

25 Abbot, p. 112

26 Ibid, p. 125

27 Han, p. 163

28 Particularly doubtful is the chapter on Wilhelm in Colin Wright’s Quantum Theology in the Age of Chaos (Neon Foetus Press: Melbourne, 2018, pp. 76-92), which, besides containing questionable grammar and a number of factual errors, implies Wilhelm and Lean’s clandestine membership in a worldwide secret society resembling the Rosicrucians, and goes on to discuss their regular visits to an obscure village in central China to receive instruction from “The Masters of Time,” whose ranks are said to contain Cagliostro, Le Comte de St. Germain, Lord Byron, H.P. Blavatsky, Austin Osman Spare, Gurdjieff, etc.

29 Abbot, p. 317

30 Hasbrouck, Matthew. „The Return of Chris Wilhelm?“ The Statesman (Sydney) 7 April 2030: C2

Copyright © 2012 by Justin Isis

Justin Isis is a model, fashion designer and science fiction writer who lives in Japan and has lived in America, Australia, Italy, and various other countries. His last book was I Wonder What Human Flesh Tastes Like, and his next book is Welcome to the Arms Race. He is interested in music, ice cream, and Situationism.


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