When an Artist and a Novelist Let Their Creative Powers Loose on a Fabulous Apartment Filled With Art

For W‘s Art Issue, we put together the artist Alex da Corte and the novelist Hanya Yanagihara in a collaboration across mediums. A couple of art world insiders invited Da Corte to have his way with their Jacques Grange–designed apartment, while Yanagihara imagines the many past lives that led them there. Here are the fascinating results.

Alex Da Corte
Portfolio by Alex Da Corte

You’re thinking I died. I thought so, too. When I opened my eyes, I assumed I was in the sky, because I knew that’s what would happen to me after I’d died: I’d be hung in the heavens as a constellation, my outstretched hand rendered as one star, my sandaled foot another. When I was a boy, long after sword practice, my teacher would sometimes instruct me in reading the stars, naming the constellations for me, tapping one of his hooves against the stone as he did. I was his fighter, his warrior, but in those minutes, he was tender, and would place his hand on my head as he recited the names of arrangements I already knew: Andromeda, Boötes, Cassiopeia. If I fought bravely enough, he said, if I became a hero, then I too would one day be made into stars. “When?” I remembered asking him once, and he laughed, though not unkindly. “You have to die first,” he said.

Even after I became a man, I believed him. It was the last thing I thought before I felt that fire in my heel, and then the venom surging upwards through my bones, my limbs, filling me with something hot and dark: I am going to become immortal; I am going to be made of stars.

But that, of course, is not what happened—or not all of it, at least. Instead, I opened my eyes, and there was Athena, her broad ugly face looking into mine. She had always been good to me, Athena, and although I pretended not to be, I was a little scared of her, which I think she knew and which I think she liked. Though I should say that much of my fear of her is related less to who she is and more to what she is: For she is a goddess and I was—am—a man.

“You’re awake,” she said. She sounded irritated, as if my waking had somehow complicated her life, as if her life was finite and my existence was stealing something from it.

“I thought I’d be in the skies,” I told her.

But she ignored this. She could offer me something, she told me; she could bring me back. And she could not only bring me back, she could bring him back as well.

“What would I owe you?” I asked her. Everyone knows that the gods never offer something without expecting something in return; that if they give you a cake, inside that cake will be secreted a scorpion’s stinger, a hard bead of poison, a Hydra’s fang. Maybe you will eat the piece that has it, and maybe you won’t. But you can be sure it will be there.

“Nothing,” she said, and then she paused. “But you will never die,” she said, “not really.” She explained to me what this meant: I would die, and so would he. But we would never rest. We would live and die, and then we would be brought back to live again. It would be forever. We would live and die until the world itself died, and that might be a thousand years—but it might be a million. Only the Fates knew, and they had gone elsewhere, someplace not even the gods could find.

And there was one more thing: I had to decide for him, as well. If I came back, he would, too, and he would never be able to unmake the decision I had made for him—we would be bound for history, for eternity.

“Yes,” I said. All I wanted was to see him again.

She squinted at me. “Think about this,” she said. This was unusual. I should have known gods never encourage circumspection when they’re negotiating with humans. “Being alive is hard work.” She looked tired then. “I know.”

“So is being dead,” I said. “Bring us back.” So she did.

In the living room, one of a pair of Warhol’s Male Torso (Buttocks), 1977, hangs above one of a pair of 18th-century Regency ormolu–mounted and brass-inlaid ebony Chinese armoires; the bronze carved-log stool is by the artist Alma Allen; the chaise longue was designed by Grange.

Portfolio by Alex Da Corte

In the first of my second lives, I was a slave boy in Mesopotamia—­Athena’s idea of a joke. The boy had been drowning in a river, trying to retrieve a gold ring tossed into the rocks by a local lord who made a sport of throwing small valuables into the water and having his slaves dive for them. This boy had died, as many of them did, but just for half a second, so briefly no one knew. As one of his fellow slaves, an older, kind-faced man, was breathing air into his mouth, trying to revive him, I entered him, and when I woke I was in the body of this boy. I was nine and always hungry. I did whatever I was told: I washed clothes and scrubbed cobblestones and fetched wine and brushed horses. At night I was hit when I had been too slow. She had promised me that I would find him in this life and in every life, but she couldn’t tell me when or where it would happen, and so I was always looking.

And then, three years into my servitude, I found him. He was the lord’s sister’s second son, come to live with his uncle, beautiful and soft-eyed. I was repairing a pair of sandals and I looked up and saw him with his horse, and he looked back at me, and we knew each other. “How?” he asked me.

“Later,” I promised.

His name was Kalumum; I was too lowly to have a name at all. But we met every night, and we were together for seven years. We were growing up with each other once more, which would rarely happen again, though we didn’t know that at the time. We spoke of running away, but we knew we never could—we would have to endure this life together, and hope the next one would be easier, that our meetings would be less illicit, that we would have longer with each other than just a few hours in the dark. And then, when he was almost seventeen, he died, of one of the sicknesses that occasionally whipped through the city, killing everyone it could. I lived into my fifties, my right foot (not just the heel this time) rotted into a stump from the sickness. Several times I tried killing myself, until I realized that I couldn’t. Death would claim us by disease or war or accident, but we could never claim it for ourselves.

There were many of these complications, and over the years, the millennia, we would discover them. One was that we never knew where or when we might next appear. After Mesopotamia, I wouldn’t return to Earth again for another three hundred years, when I alighted in the body of a dying (they were always dying, or briefly dead, these bodies we would inhabit) thirty-four-year-old metallurgist in the Indus Valley. Another was that we never knew how long we might have to live until we encountered each other. The worst was London, the late-nineteenth century, where I toiled day after dreary day as a bootblack in the streets for sixty-five years—I had begun as a child of six—until he happened to come by my stand one day for a shine, a handsome, rich gentleman stepping delicately from his carriage, avoiding the muddy puddles near where I plied my trade. A third was that, once we’d found each other, we never knew how long we had together. The briefest was after what would later be named The Siege of Vicksburg; he was wearing blue, I was wearing gray. I was picking through the fields, helping to load our dead onto stretchers, when I heard someone whisper my name, my true name, so quietly I at first thought it was the wind. But then I saw him, his legs exploded from him, and I knelt and pretended to be tying my shoe so the soldier I was with wouldn’t see me crying with joy. “I have to take these bodies,” I whispered back to him. “I’ll return as soon as I can. Wait for me. Don’t die. I want to hold you.” He nodded. But when I came back, eleven minutes later, he was dead. Our reunion had lasted only two minutes. I lived for forty more years, but for all those forty years, I was mourning those two minutes.

The apartment’s central corridor is lined in dark travertine from Italy; it is watched over by a 10th-century sandstone dancing Ganesha, a Hindu 
deity thought to be a mover of obstacles.

Portfolio by Alex Da Corte

But of all the rules we didn’t know, the most difficult is that he always dies before I do. Twelve hundred and thirty seven lives we have each lived since we first died on that battlefield in Troy, and in every one—including the original one—he has left me to try to live without him. Some things have changed, of course. I am less angry now than I was in my first life—or perhaps I am simply less fierce. Centuries of ignominy, of humility, have had their effect. I had been raised to be a warrior, and most of my subsequent lives have involved the unlearning of everything I had been taught. In this, my current life, Athena gave me a piece of marble that she claimed was from Troy: a little figure of a horse, a bit of stone handled so many times over so many years that it had been worn to a smooth ovoid, and had she not shown me where the artist had carved its peeled-back lips, its curving neck, I would not have known it was a horse at all. I often feel I am that horse, tumbled by history into something featureless and meek. And yet when he dies, my instinct is always to avenge him, sometimes on the battlefield, more recently in hospitals. That horrible night at St. Vincent’s not so many years ago, running down the halls, yelling for the doctors, the nurses, for someone to come help him, to come help my friend who was choking on his own saliva, someone who had in weeks been transformed from someone everyone wanted to touch to someone no one wanted to. When he died the next day, I prayed to the gods, as I always do, except in this life they decided to be merciful, and I died two months later—not our first plague, and not our last.

The other thing we hadn’t considered was how much we would have to hide from the world who we were to each other. It is only in these last few years that we have been able to claim, to anyone who might wonder (though few do) who and what we are. (Can you imagine? After all these centuries? It was easier on the battlefield than in the intervening twenty-nine hundred years.)

See Alex Da Corte’s Transformation of an Upper East Side Apartment

In the master bedroom, Richard Prince’s Untitled, 2001, hangs above the fireplace; the fireplace screen is by Commune Design.

Thom Browne. New York coat; Valentino Garavani pumps.

Portfolio by Alex Da Corte

Andy Warhol’s Gun, 1981–1982, hangs above the living room mantel; the dining chairs are Vladimir Kagan, circa 1960; the patinated-bronze and petrified-wood side table is circa 1880.

Bodysuit from Amazon.

Portfolio by Alex Da Corte

The apartment’s central corridor is lined in dark travertine from Italy; it is watched over by a 10th-century sandstone dancing Ganesha, a Hindu 
deity thought to be a mover of obstacles.

From bottom: Altuzarra dress. Burberry Tuxedo; Boss shirt and bow tie; Church’s shoes. Rosie Assoulin coat; Eres briefs; Manolo Blahnik sandals. Marie Antoinette costume from Beyond Costumes, Yonkers, New York. Dior Homme tuxedo; Boss shirt; Brooks Brothers bow tie.

Portfolio by Alex Da Corte

Richard Prince’s Good Painting (Head Turningly Handsome), 2014, above the couple’s bed—their flat-screen TV is hidden underneath it; Jacques Grange designed the bronze bedside tables; the Marc du Plantier lamps are from the 1970s. On the left side, Matthew Barney’s River Rouge: Coming Forth the Seed of Horus, 2011, sits behind a ninth-century sandstone Khmer sculpture of the head of a divinity.

Calvin Klein Underwear briefs.

Portfolio by Alex Da Corte

In the living room, one of a pair of Warhol’s Male Torso (Buttocks), 1977, hangs above one of a pair of 18th-century Regency ormolu–mounted and brass-inlaid ebony Chinese armoires; the bronze carved- log stool is by the artist Alma Allen; the chaise longue was designed by Grange.

Prabal Gurung blouse and skirt.

Portfolio by Alex Da Corte

The master bathroom is also lined in travertine.

Escada jacket and pants; 3.1 Phillip Lim top.

Portfolio by Alex Da Corte

In the bedroom, the 1956 Frank Lloyd Wright cast-aluminum armchair 
was commissioned for the Price Tower, in Oklahoma; the André Charles Boulle Regency ormolu–mounted and brass-inlaid amaranth and ebony desk was commissioned by Charles-Henri II de Malon de Bercy for the Chateâu de Bercy, in Paris. A 10th-century red sandstone sculpture of Hanuman sits atop it.

Portfolio by Alex Da Corte; Photographs by David Ohl; Styled by Nora Milch; Hair by Tsuyoshi harada for Bumble and Bumble; makeup by rosemarie Bernardo; Models: Sam McKinniss, Kevin Adrian, Dylan Safranek, Alexandra Marzella, and Malcolm Evans at New York Model Management; Diana Veras at Jag Models; photography assistant: James Stone; Fashion Assistant: Jade Vallario; Hair assistant: Izumi Sato; Art Assistants: Cella Costanza, McKenzie Toma

Not that this is our first time together in New York. We were here in 1659, back when the city was called New Amsterdam (me: a fur trader; he: a sawmill owner); in 1917 (me: a teacher; he: a clerk); in 1978 (me: a banker; he: a lawyer—he always says that if we’d had more foresight, not to mention the ability to carry our life’s objects and wealth over into the next, we’d have bought a row of town houses near where we live now and be richer than Croesus). But this is the first place for which we haven’t had to invent a fiction about why we’re here at all: two grown men, one house. In our other lives, the house was sometimes actually a house, a tall skinny structure on the edge of the Laguna Veneta, its underside so waterlogged that the wood had become soft and dark as peat, something you could scoop with a spoon; occasionally it was a castle, like the one we lived in when we had been lucky enough to both serve as cooks for a daimyo in the Ashikaga Shogunate; but often it was a shack, a hut, a shed, an SRO, a lean-to, a tarp stretched over the space between two wooden crates, something mean and small that we made our own by wishing it so.

When you have lived as long, and as variously, as we have, you come to understand that what distinguishes a certain age, a certain era, are not great wars or great men, but rather how much of one’s self one is allowed to express. In this place, we are, as Athena might say, not only who we are, but what we are. (“Your kind of people,” she said for thousands of years, until one day, two hundred years ago, she changed it to “our kind of people,” and although she is not a person, I was touched by the admission, and excited to tell Patroclus, even though it meant losing a bet we’d made back in Troy.) In this age, we can say anything we want. In this house (really, the second floor of one of those town houses we should have bought) is a collection that is the result of thousands of years of dreaming, of late-night conversations, of hoping that, one day, we would be able to live a full life, a life without concealment, a life in which no one could deny us the hard-won pleasure of being together. And so we have filled it with things from the countries and eras we have seen and lived in together: a Ming dynasty vase, its side cracked and filled with a seam of lumpy, shimmering gold, which resembles the one I made when I was a ceramicist’s assistant; a tenth-century sandstone Hanuman that could have perched in the temple where he had been a priest; a very beautiful French bureau plat from 1700 that might have been in the library of the apartment where I was a rich merchant’s spoiled eldest son (though, I should say that, for obvious reasons, I am not particularly fond of France and its moony affection for Paris: a vapid, pretty city named for a vapid, pretty man). We wanted it to look like the apartment we would have had when we were last in this city, in the 1980s, had we been able to fully possess who we were, had we not been taught by history to be so cautious.

In the master bedroom, Richard Prince’s Untitled, 2001, hangs above the fireplace; the fireplace screen is by Commune Design.

Portfolio by Alex Da Corte

“My god, you’ve really settled in here,” Athena said, sourly, when she came over for dinner last month. “How much did you spend on this place? I hope you left some travertine for the rest of us. You do realize, don’t you, that you could only be in these lives for another week?” “Or another thousand weeks,” said Patroclus, cheerily, and I smiled at him.

She scowled. “Just don’t get too comfortable.”

Now I smiled at her. “We won’t,” I promised her.

But it is too late, for we already are. And after dinner, and our ritual of berating Athena—teasingly, but not only—about her rules, about this cycle of living she has gifted us and condemned us to (to which she invariably responds, “At least you always come back as men. Or would you like me to change that? Life would be much harder if you were women, you know”), we sit together, in our apartment that is both where we live this life and where we remember the others. This has been a good life. They have not all been. But when I add up all the minutes that I have spent with him or near him or inside him, I realize that although not every lifetime has been as rich with him as I had imagined, I have in fact had hundreds of them, and they have all contained him.

Sometimes, at night, I wake in terror. It is not the terror that our friends have, which is the terror of mortality, the sudden knowledge that comes to humans like lightning, that they will soon be ash. But like their fear, ours is the fear of the unknown, of understanding that the gods have already decided our fates, and that our future is already their past, something they have glimpsed and forgotten. We have been together in this life for nineteen years, and every night I pray to the gods, Please, give me more, give me more, give me more. Because even though we will live and die and live and die and live and die—long after this building has disintegrated and Central Park has grown shaggy with unknown trees; long after this city, like so many cities before it, sighs and sinks beneath the water’s surface; long after humans have become something else, something the world has never seen before—I will still want more of this life. And so I’ll wait, and in the meantime we’ll have each other for as long as we can hope. Knowing this has not made our lives easier. But it has given them meaning. Because you know that one day, a day ten or fifty or five hundred years from now, when you’re walking down the street, or looking up from your fields, or leaving a store, you’ll sense something, a tingling, and there he’ll be: Yours again, for as long as the gods allow.

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