Wry Society: The sculpture sensation

Is an artist’s first show in years all it’s cracked up to be – or is it more about reading between the lines?

Image: www.phildisley.com

Kyril’s arms ached. His legs ached. He needed a shower. Installing the show had taken almost 48 hours. Gilbert had specified – so as not to compromise the gallery’s immaculate whiteness – that all the technicians wore plastic overshoes, surgical gloves and paper overalls. It was hot under the lights. And the figures were / and lifesize; Gilbert made a big fuss about that too – even with a crew and the usual apparatus of hoists and lifts.

But there it was, Enigme IV, Jasper Gilbert’s first show in two years: a clinical, rectangular space, with a series of isolated nude figures in featureless marble posed at near regular intervals around the walls. Just the centrepiece to install: a male figure standing on a shallow plinth, making sense of the space. The faces of all the other figures were inclined away from it. Kyril finished fixing the last of the underfloor bolts.

He waved his team off. “Go. Clean up. I’ll put away the gear.” He tamped down the board, scooped up the last of the hoists, and slung the long pry bar he’d used for the floorboard over his shoulder. He turned. The bar jarred into his neck. There was a muffled clang. Then a terrible dead thump.

Kyril didn’t want to turn back round. That thump – he knew in a moment of sickening clarity – was the sound of a head-sized lump of marble hitting the deck. A head-sized lump of marble insured for more money than he would earn in his lifetime. He had decapitated the centrepiece of Enigme IV three hours before the opening. He imagined confessing, being fired, never working again. And then he noticed that the break was a clean one, more or less horizontal, and he had an idea… 

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With the last of his strength, he heaved the head back up onto the figure’s shoulders. And, having a wife and young family to think of, he fled. If they asked, he’d deny knowing anything about it. He went home, didn’t turn on the news, ate spaghetti with the kids and, albeit fitfully, slept.

The next morning’s papers brought the bad news. They’d noticed all right – and it was a sensation. “What would otherwise appear a jejune exercise in naturalism was elevated to sublimity by the subtlest touch,” wrote the critic of The New York Times. “Mr Gilbert’s work – hitherto less noted for artistic profondeur than the prices it fetches among Russian collectors – has found a new register. Around the neck of the central figure a threadlike crack disturbs the shallow perfection of the surrounding exhibit.” The Village Voice quoted Leonard Cohen and made an abstruse reference to Badiou’s “rip”. The New York Observer’s critic said, “When you enter the room you think it’s the usual worthless Rodin-via-Koons schlock; and then – bam! – you notice.” Page six of the Post headed its item on the opening “Crack Addicts”.

Kyril’s horror turned to queasy fascination. There, on YouTube, was footage of Gilbert at the launch talking earnestly to a circle of admirers, flute of champagne in hand. “I wanted to play with ideas of fragility and liminality,” he was saying. “Of a sense of becoming, if you like, but also of unbecoming. Marble is a medium of permanence, but…,” he twinkled a little, “Et in Arcadia Ego… Really, though, the work speaks for itself.”

Later that day, Kyril summoned up the courage. Even if it meant he would never work again, he had to do it: he had to confess. He went to see Gilbert at home and, stammering, told the artist what had happened. Gilbert raised one eyebrow. “I should be very angry about this…” “I’m sorry,” Kyril said. “But I did make that crack. I just had to come forward.” Gilbert turned his palms upwards, magnanimous. “You were right to do so. And I thank you. I shan’t take further action. Consider the matter closed.”

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That was all it took. The sick feeling in Kyril’s stomach vanished. He left the artist’s brownstone as if a burden – a marble burden – had been lifted, and strolled down Madison in the sunshine rather than take the subway. He had 40 minutes till his appointment at Goldberg Litt. He fingered the tape recorder in his pocket. Goldberg Litt was an expensive law firm, but he had a hunch the co-creator of Enigme IV would be able to afford them. 

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