"Please Don't Touch The Art" by Ian Canon
This story originally appeared in the Spadina Literary Review.
It would take me hours of slow wandering before I got anywhere, but I was not a man who moved quickly (or at all, as you’ll see) under the watchful eye of the public. As long as there was some forward movement, I’d find my way. And at exactly the moment I wanted to give up, at exactly the moment I realized I was lost, there it was. It was a thin three story condo, no more than a half meter across, its exterior a rotting black wood, couched between two monstrous high-rises. “Art Show” was painted across the door in white paint.
As I took a step towards it, the door burst open. From its high steps came a rush of high-society, snub-nosed men and women, dressed in their evening’s best. They laughed as they smoked their cigarettes on long-tipped sticks, turning sideways to get through the skinny doorframe. They rushed past me, a dead fish floating in the water.
Once the rush dissipated and my heart rate slowed, I took the first of three steps, then looked up. At the door was a man in a butler’s outfit, penguin tail and all, holding onto the door knob. I froze and looked up at him.
“Welcome,” he said, looking past me. His eye sockets were filled with milky, pupil-less marbles. He stood back, holding his hand out to the hallway behind him. “After you,” he said.
I peered in. The hallway was nothing more than a dark corridor, narrowing to a tiny door.
“Sir?” the man said, raising an eyeless brow.
At the time, I remember thinking I was standing at the precipice of another world, panic filling my being and bursting from my fingertips. If I had any time to decide, I may not have stepped forward, as I did, but the man began to close the door and I had no other choice. Once it was closed, the hallway went dark, except for the illumination spilling from the cracks of the miniature door. I walked a few feet before having to get on my hands and knees. I turned the tiny door handle and crawled through.
On the other side was the pale wood walls of a sprawling, open gallery, washed in a clinical white light. Despite the previous high-society horde that escaped as I’d arrived, the room was still teeming with others, walking slowly and idly, from art piece to piece. I, not wanting to bring attention to myself, decided to blend in and do the same. Hands clasped behind my back, I walked through the gallery, passing by paintings of horse-headed men, a cigarette smoking starfish in bed with a six-slotted plastic pop ring, giants playing marbles with earth-like globes, an alternate historical timeline where Stalin and Hitler were lovers, and a sun with sunglasses titled “cool dude” before stopping at a small alcove, set off from the rest, with a single painting hidden away by the notched wall.
It was a pastel painting of a young man, who stared back at me, as if I stumbled upon a mirror. He had the same blue eyes, dotted with grey, as if the artist went all sorts of Pollock across his pupils. Like me, he had the same shoulder length blonde hair, parted down the middle. The collar of the identical suit that my grandfather gave me when I turned 18, which I now wore, was jutting up from the bottom of the painting, barely perceptible, unless you knew what already lay beneath the visible universe of the painting. I scratched my chin in wonderment and half expected the painting to do the same.
As I wondered where this mysterious work of art, this man-made mirror, could have originated, I felt someone watching over me, from above my shoulder. It was an old woman whom I could see in the reflection of the glass that covered my lost pastel twin. She wore her hair, like the thick spokes of a broom, proudly, in a high grey ponytail.
Just then I noticed, not in the reflection, but in the pastel of the painting, a hand extending over my very likeness’s shoulder. At the same moment I could feel the heat of her body, the warmth of her soul, invading my space. I imagined her fingers extend towards me, as if she were poking through gelatin in the thick air. The veins of her hand were prominent blue tubes fighting their way to the surface, the blood cells alerted to the oxygen rich environment on the other side of her thin skin. It was an all you can eat buffet, they told one another—whispers from another land. That hand, and those fingers, full of rebellious blood, each individual cell wearing a shirt with Che Guevara’s face on it, stabbed a long cold finger into my shoulder. But she didn’t press once, or twice, or three times. No. She kept it there, palpating the skin, testing it for realness.
“Hello? Boy? May I ask you a question?” Her voice was underweight and waning, barely making the gap from her mouth to my ear.
In response I didn’t breathe and didn’t swallow. I became still, slowing my heartbeat, moving inwards into my self, hiding like a scared turtle from her touch. I would not give her my attention, but shift it and find myself in the peculiarities of the painting, as deep and mysterious as they were. I had a workman’s resolve and she would not break my gaze.
“Do you hear me?” she said, burning a hole in the back of my head, still making small indents in the skin of my shoulder. Her voice, this time, was loud and insincere, as if she knew the internal trouble she was causing me, which only strengthened my resolve. I would be here for the long haul.
“Boy? Are you listening?” she said, louder now, her voice jarring, cracking at the walls. The painting in front of me shook.
“What is it?” a hoarse man’s voice, the sound of a smoker, said from out of view of the painting’s glass reflection.
“This boy,” she said, still poking me in the shoulder. “He’s frozen stiff.”
“Now isn’t that strange?”
Who was this irritable addition, I thought, who dared taunt me in my alcove, who looked upon me with his judging gaze?
“What an odd installation,” he added.
I was no installation for their amusement. Sure, the hairs on my head showed no signs of wavering, but I would not be reduced to the level of installment. I had no maker, no artist, but my parents and theirs before me.
“An installation?” the elder woman said, her voice wavering with doubt.
“He’s not?” the only moving man in the scenario said.
“I don’t—” she said, pressing harder into the meat of my shoulder. “I don’t know.”
I could hear the man scratching a thumb against his chin, the soft rustling of hours old hair. “Looks like an installation to me.”
“May be,” she said, turning her prodding into a pinch between her two dying fingers.
“Hey James!” the man said, turning his head. “Did we see this one earlier?”
Another man, this one’s voice squeaky and feminine, joined us three. “I don’t remember, Tomás.” He was a big man, in my mind, this James—husky and red-faced.
“What’s the commotion?” a woman’s bodiless voice, much younger than the first, added.
“We’re wondering,” Tomás, the first man, said, “is this a living person, frozen in spot, or an installation?”
At that very moment, I could have broken them from their debate, but I couldn’t bare to turn and face their searching eyes, to move my lips in the presence of others. My only recourse, to save myself the embarrassment of being an oddity among men, a man not capable of speech, too nervous in public, anthrophobic, was stillness. I resolved to further freeze myself, to become a statue in their presence, and preserve my dignity. What would they have thought if I, a man-made sculpture back from the dead, were to turn around and say hello? They would not have allowed me to carry on as if I hadn’t lived my life, before that moment, as a statue. They would be forced to ask further, more prying questions. I would not allow this to occur. I would see it through to the end, as long as it took. And how long would it take, really? Once ‘the moving’ cleared out, I could make my way to the door. It would be a simple matter of patience.
“Does it matter which it is, an installation or the living?” the young woman said.
“Does it matter?” the elderly woman said, making various hems and haws of the question.
“Artistically, you mean?” James said.
“Sure,” the woman said.
“Hmmmmmmmmmmmmmm,” they all said, taking a small step back in unison.
“What are you four doing?” Another man’s voice added. At the time, I placed the accent from the Bronx.
“We’re trying to figure out if this is an installation or a person,” the younger woman said.
“You can’t be touching the art,” the newest moving man said, referring to the elderly woman, still palpating my increasingly sore shoulder.
“Oh, dear. I’m sorry,” she said, continuing to jab. “I guess I, uh, just got lost in the expression of it all. It’s a really moving piece, you know.”
“So it is an installation!” the original man, second to appear, said.
“Of course it is,” said the man from the Bronx. He stepped behind me and pulled the woman’s hand from my shoulder. He was indeed a large man, taking over the full size of the reflection in the glass of the painting. He wore a white button up shirt, with ‘security’ written on the right breast pocket.
“That settles it,” the old woman said.
“A beautiful work,” the first man said.
“I love it,” the younger woman said.
“I’ll go get a rope,” the security guard added, as he turned and left.
“It is, I believe,” the younger woman said, her voice full of self-aggrandizing arrogance. “A commentary on the contemporary milieu of lost youth.”
“I think you’re quite right,” the man with the feminine voice said. “It’s a statement about one’s ability to look oneself in the eye and recognize the long years wasted on indulgent hedonism. Really powerful, if you ask me.”
“I can certainly relate,” the elderly woman said, a tinge of distance in her voice. “Who was the artist?”
“Unknown,” the guard said, returning with a rope. “Here’s the piece’s placard.”
“The Boy. Artist: Unknown,” the younger woman read. “A perfectly apt name. Really true to form.”
“I didn’t know this gallery had anything but paintings,” the first man said.
“We don’t,” the guard said, clasping the rope over hooks on either side of the alcove.
It would only be a few hours more, I thought at the time, where I would have to bear the brunt of their talks about which modern, postmodern, or post-postmodern movement I represented. Before long, the sun would fall, the room would empty, and I would have an opportunity to rouse my stiff body from its slumber. That would, however, not be the case. As he was leaving, I overheard the Bronx guard—or perhaps he was from Brooklyn, I’ve never been one for discerning accents, but it was all I had back then —punching in an alarm code, some sort of a motion sensor, which would spell my embarrassing doom. Imagine the press “Social Pariah Breaks Into Gallery, Pretends To Be Statue.” I would be the laughing stock of the city, a noncommittal cretin. No, the night was not my gambit. I would wait it out until a more opportune moment presented itself. The moment, I had lied to myself, could be morning, before anyone arrived. I would pretend to be a patron, slipped in unnoticed, as the doors opened.
But word had gotten around town that “The Boy” was a sight to behold—more a medium for the message, than a message itself, I’m told. What you wanted to see within me, what artistic emotions you wished to spill out of your soul, I provided. I was a vessel of creation, moving self, no matter the circumstances.
Albrecht Richter, the great art critic and writer, was the first through those doors that very next morning. I had not known it at the time, but now I respect the name, having become something of a knowledgeable historian of art, since my time interned in the gallery. He said little, though I heard him shuffling behind me, trying to find an appropriate angle to take me in, followed by many exasperated hmmmmmmmmms and the scratching of lead on paper.
Segments of his review would later find my ears, through the mouths of my admirers, who chose to read his words out loud as they looked up and judged them for their accuracy.
Here are a few of his quotes that, to this day, still stick with me:
“You may agree and / or disagree with some of the things that have been heretofore said, but the subaqueous sexuality presented in the piece, the absence of all sexual binaries represented in all backsides, is conceptually seen through an internal critical crises of self.”
“With regard to the issue of the content represented in the man represented in the painting represented in all of us, even you, dear reader, the disjunctive becomes conjunctive and we all gain a greater understanding of what it is to be in its purest form, without any utterance of incoherence.”
“The optical suggestions of purity, which form along the lines of the rotting corpse in front of me, contextualized in the near death we all experience as we lay awake at night, gives us a humble reprieve from our own burdensome lives.”
Or my personal favourite, “I know no horizon after this. It is the pinnacle of mankind.”
Despite the elusiveness of his words—or perhaps because of it—men and women, children and babies, dogs and cats and their respective owners, spacemen and cowgirls, the purple and the pink, came from far and wide to lay their eyes upon “The Boy.” It gave me and my thirty-six short years on earth some modicum of meaning. I was, for a time, beyond my wildest imagination, famous. It sustained me for weeks, through some sort of attention-based photosynthesis, powering my self-made prison.
Then, my singular movement gained momentum and it became bigger than just I in the alcove, the boy unknown. Imitations started popping up in other galleries, performance artists went days without moving, holding up paintings of their own likeness, plush toys were given out as gifts, postcards were sent to loved ones with my face on it. After a while, and, to be clear, not a long while at that, people became desensitized to the original. My little alcove was soon passed over by the patrons of the gallery and I began to collect dust under my nose and in my armpits and in the space between my thighs. It might as well have read “Nobody. Artist: Unknown” on my placard.
At my end, when I had withered away to bones and dust, the older woman who had first discovered my artliness came by to see me. She commented flippantly and without attention how ‘smart’ it was to have ended this way and I’m likely to agree with her.