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Exhibitions and Viewers

  

 Exhibitions and Viewers

 

There was wind at least, but an inconstant one, stirring a stray leaf into a moment’s feeble agitation. The walk from the beach around the promontory usually infused Caroline with energy. Today a sultry grey pressed down, cocooning her already woolly head. A plastic bag that had been inflating and deflating like a large mouth enveloped her plimsoll, which carried it into in the air, then, scuffed it along the path with the next step. She rattled her foot up and down, but a puff of breeze held the bag in place: a gelatinous jellyfish. With more force Caroline shook her thin shoe from side to side. Still the plastic sheath clung on. She turned to face the way she’d come. A definitive flick set the bag free, careening upward into the air.

She was alone on the path, barring a figure far ahead near the rocky outcrop. It was only ten on Saturday morning, not surprising that so few people were out. She sighed and pushed forward, her arms slack and swinging. Work at the museum had morphed into an unpleasant, dreaded chore.  Because of Jim. She should leave, tell him where to go. Only six months earlier it had taken all her courage to move out of her lover’s flat. Or should she call him her ‘controller’, tisking, as he handed her a tea towel; kitchen roll was costly (lips pursed). She had found her own place, with a rent she could afford, only just. The precarious economy bade her to stay with this museum post in order to make ends meet. Her earnings didn’t offer the security of savings and how long would it take to find something else?  But how long could she put up with Jim: megalomaniacal photographer-cum-artist, who lorded it over the small staff and planned to titillate the public with his awkward, disturbing output.

When she’d started the museum post she’d been thrilled. She researched and wrote copy to catalogue the existing collection. She revised archived histories, created new entries, and then tweaked projects under guidance from the main curator, Mark. With what she was learning and her academic background in Renaissance Art History, one day she hoped to curate exhibitions herself.  Alas, Mark, her avuncular mentor, had recently sidled off on a two-year sabbatical, leaving operations ‘in your capable hands’.  Mark may have been certain of her competence but Caroline herself has become less and less convinced of her interest or perseverance. Once Jim cannonballed onto the scene two years seemed a very long time. 

As Resident Artist and Acting Curator, Jim was putting together the current exhibition - with his own work, of course, as the centerpiece. Caroline had flicked through his canvases while they were still stacked against a museum wall. He had produced monochrome negatives of car interiors just after a fatal accident, a tribute to Andy Warhol, who had launched a tamer version along the same lines a few years earlier. Whereas Warhol’s serigraphs focused on duplication of an image in his trademark silkscreen technique, Jim had not left the negatives alone.  He had subtly altered them, through distortion or aberration in dark room processes, so that what was inside the car was unclear: mangled bodies, corpses, even ghosts seemed to inhabit the space, but you couldn’t be certain. Some shots were blown-up to double life size, doubling Caroline’s discomfort as she pushed one print forward to see the next. Because it was fuzzy, diffuse and reversed, white and black rather than black and white, the image disoriented her perception. She imagined worse things than the misshapen and distorted shapes portrayed - and her mind’s eye ratcheted into overdrive - made hideous sense of hunched, perverted figures - here, a maimed limb, there, a crushed face. She shuddered involuntarily, experiencing a visceral revulsion. The macabre subject provoked the ‘how horrible!’ reflex and the ambiguity of the images forced her to look longer. Just what Jim wanted. A conflict arose between her curiosity to see more, to understand what she was seeing, and not wanting to engage at all. That wretched human propensity to gaze at death and gruesome gore - Jim was taking advantage of morbid curiosity. She twisted her lips and began to walk away.

But suddenly, here was Jim, who had seen her and come over to ‘escort’ her through his masterworks. He spoke of regulating shutter speed and prolonging exposure while his fingers flicked slowly, from canvas to canvas. Caroline looked at what was there, and hints of what might be there began to coalesce into unbidden nightmare scenes. ‘Mmm’ was the only comment she could muster in response to Jim’s commentary. Her stomach curled and she pressed teeth together to hide her grimaces. In one negative image scene the heads and limbs of two children were crumpled in unnatural angles in the narrow trench between front and back seats. The boy’s black head - crowned by a white halo of curls, white slits for eyes, white dots for nostrils - was thrown too far back, in fear or whiplash. Next to him, a small girl - sister? - was splayed like a discarded a rag doll, knee turned wrong way round, so the toe was inches from her navel. Black face, white hair. A thin, white curve uplit her chin, as if she’d been telling her brother a spook tale with a torch, when suddenly, it came true.

Jim’s mobile whistled; he strode over to the window, gesturing, in a pseudo-important manner, all panache and pretense. Good, maybe he’d be on his way now. Caroline glanced back at the children’s images. This is ‘art’, she thought, but is it good art?  Was there an agreed definition? Modern art had more to do with one’s mental engagement and response, less to do with the aesthetic appreciation that conventional art encouraged.  The goal of most modern art dictated that one be original, at all costs. And how to achieve that originality? By purposely breaking with the past, which had already inspired contemporary echoes - so that was not good enough. The problem was that modern artists were trying so hard to avoid the ‘been there, done that’ that they didn’t express their true selves. What mattered was that something never before considered to be art could be promoted as art. And that this artist would be hailed as a maverick, who broke boundaries, challenged social and artistic conventions.

Jim had returned, pocketing his phone. He smiled and flipped to the next canvas. Caroline took a step back. If only her phone would ring so she could excuse herself.

‘See that shattered windscreen?  Like a spider’s web. Makes a good backdrop,’ Jim nodded.  In the vehicle’s dimly lit interior, dark blobs looked like bundled prey.  Caroline produced an involuntary grunt when she realised that a shoulder blade was protruding, diagonal to a sideways head, the mouth, a hollow white O.

‘I go for the jugular - that’s what you’re supposed to feel.’ Jim had been energized by her grunt.  ‘Today’s museum-goers have seen it all. So, yeah, there are a few shock value canvases to crank up the effect - make’ em stare mortality in the face, ya know.’ 

Next weekend, his exhibit would go on pubic display. Jim had crowed to museum staff that they should get friends and relatives in straight away to avoid the queues. His self-generated brochure flaunted the event, calling it a ‘chiaroscuro of black and white, commanding visitors to pay attention: this is real.’ A restriction to black and white conveyed the gravity of newspaper articles, reminded viewers of the grainy, jerking film footage of Hitler’s goose-stepping troops on old newsreels, he said. Caroline stood in the small group, wondering how Jim’s image of a grey leg with black bone poking through puckered flesh could represent  ‘real.’ His brochure suggested a different idea concerning ‘real’; the uncertain nature of the scenes themselves meant that ‘real’ depended on what each viewer saw:

the artist’s focus on the negative of a photograph reverses natural order, rendering lightest areas dark, darkest areas, light. The viewer is caught off balance. And is further disconcerted by the blurry vagueness of the scenes. How can he know what he is seeing?

‘A negative image is, of course, a total inversion.’ Jim had reached the final print now. His self-congratulatory tone implied that he might well be the gifted protégée of Louis Daguerre. ‘Usually the photographic process darkens the paper relative to the subject’s exposure to light. An enlarger would then make a positive print, which puts light and dark in correct order by a second reversal. I stop at the negative.’ He certainly did, Caroline had realised, looking at her new boss.

Caroline shrugged off her thoughts and walked further along the seaside promontory. At least she was not looking at Jim’s canvases now. To her left, the bay was a frowzy, grey pane, wrinkling and unwrinkling. Waves half rose in random directions, some gliding to the shore, others sliding to the sea; cross currents, cancelled each other, making choppy, uni-directional blips. Despite her intention to avoid the topic, she couldn’t let go of it. She didn’t want to be associated with it. Friends and colleagues came to the museum’s exhibits to support her. She proudly took them on a tour, talking with intimate knowledge about the pieces on display. As the one who’d catalogued them, she knew a great deal about their importance and engaged listeners with her mix of history and quirky facts. But Jim’s exhibit was one she didn’t want them to see, much less associate with her. His exhibition encouraged voyeurism and reinforced the perverse interest humans have in misfortunes of others.  And to  ‘appreciate’ it, or any modern art, you had to surrender your old concept of art - and the idea that it should engender human warmth. Modern art can represent beauty and the darkness of death. It doesn’t necessarily reward the viewer for the effort made to connect to it, it shocks you with its cold, ugliness - it hints that this is how things really are - or insists that you can’t know how things really are, but they are bad.

Viewers would leave shaken and uncomfortable, partly at what they’d seen, partly at their own unavoidable reactions, their undeniable fascination for repellent images.  And, if they were sensitive like she was, they would carry images of these twisted scenes with them long afterward; negatives of mutilated, bloodied, dead bodies that had stunned and sickened them. There was the finality of death and worse, the ambiguity, which amplified the contortions, through the viewer’s lens. Pure sensationalism. There was nothing edifying in Jim’s work, no light or merriment, nor any thought-provoking symbolism. You just wish you hadn’t seen it.

            Jim, of course, would make money for the museum and fame for himself. The negative energy was a little germ that he knew how to plant and cultivate. Word would spread, the exhibition would be written up in some newspaper, broadcast on the radio, develop a Google forum, monopolise someone’s blogspot where followers would multiply. More viewers would come. The germ would infiltrate more cells, which would colonize, create a malignant tumour. The ugly phenomena would feed on itself and enlarge, week by week. And all the time it would become more ‘exhibitionist’ than exhibition, its audience, more voyeurs than viewers.

Caroline was half way along the promontory now, near the rocky outcrop. The figure who she’d seen earlier was a man, slope-shouldered, looking out to sea, hands in the pockets of a beige raincoat, which flapped like a dangle of dirty clothes on his trouser legs. He had seen her, she sensed. Sure enough, he turned as she neared and began to pick his way around the boulders in her direction. She twisted her lips; if he were a beggar he’d picked the wrong prey. She hadn’t even brought her purse; surely he could see that. He was closing the distance between them. A dank strand of his sparse hair rose, revealing a bald patch.

He stopped suddenly, opened his raincoat. She froze, mouth open. He’d whisked aside the curtains of a sordid, private theatre to reveal a fleshy penis, protruding between trousered legs like a rigid, yellow eel. The tiny slit winked like a narrowed eye. He stood there, a statue against the grey scrim, the occasional jerk of coat skirts like the feathers of a bedraggled bird. She looked away and quickened her pace. In a moment, she’d passed him, knowing that he had seen her unpreventable quiver of revulsion. Her hands made tight fists. What was worse? That he’d exposed himself, the shitty old man, or that she had been reeled in, had stared even, in disgusted fascination at the rubbery branch that levered itself in her direction. Nausea mixed with a sharp urge to scream. She could go back and shove him off the promontory, watch him fall into the sea where a gulp of briny water would bring him to his senses, if he didn’t hit his head on the rocks first.  She could report him to the beach police, who would cart him off to jail so others could be spared his offensive behavior; flashers could be sex offenders, their ‘funny’ shows evolving into bestiality and rape. Didn’t they get off on indecent exposure, rather than on the sexual act itself?   She hurried on, mouth in a flat line, thin soles slapping the concrete. Worse than the flashing had been his gloating face - revealing a frisson of delight at the effect of his unexpected surprise.

Caroline arrived home, unlocked the front door and closed it behind her. She flung her keys onto the hall table. She would replay the seascape scene again and again. It had unleashed a hot anger.  In the kitchen she poured water into a glass and drank. She filled the glass halfway up and toasted the air. Two years of Jim would be unbearable. Just as staring at ugly truths championed by some modern artists would be. She would find a new post, one in Renaissance art, one that would kindle warmth, connection, and life.

 

 

Lisa Robbins

 

I am a published American and British author and an editor with work placed in the UK and the US. Two stories were placed in Storgy Magazine in 2019, one of which made the long list for the Fish Publishing prize, the other, now part of a published compilation.

I received an Honourable Mention in The New Writer for another story  and a  London Writer of the Year Award for yet another.  I placed a two-part children’s story in Aquila Magazine.  I edit non-fiction for European scholarly publications and fiction or The Literary Consultancy in London. I judge for the Bridport Short Story and Novel competitions. http://www.robbinsskyward.com

 


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3 Comments

  1. Glad you stayed away from the kinky stuff on this one. It was well balanced and made your point without the graphics.

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  2. on the contrary it's not kinky enough and its journal likes playing it safe. starting to get bored, actually.

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  3. to each her own but i prefer more think than kink in my reading. we got hollywood and cable to undress things.

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