By Joji Jacob
Paul waited impatiently for the little old lady to go. She was sitting alone on the wooden bench, hunched up in her coat, staring intently at Installation 33 as she listened to the commentary on the gallery's audio guide. Paul could have saved her the three-pound fee on the machine. He knew every word of the commentary. "Mona Vallery examines the voluptuousness of space by using the shadows of physical objects as a proxy. She challenges common spatial notions by eliminating boundaries altogether or in some instances, intruding upon and redefining that of one object with another..."
Installation 33 was a collection of solid wood objects (183, Paul had counted); spheres, cones and cubes of all sizes; all painted a dull grey. They were arranged in a circle under a pale yellow shaded bulb, casting short, sharp shadows on the gallery's white floors. Installation 33 was Mona Vallery's most acclaimed work. It had shot her from anonymity and suburban London to international fame and fortune. The gallery had paid a scandalous sum for it and had devoted an entire room to it, disregarding the clamorous controversy it had provoked in the small claustrophobic world of art critics, dealers and jealous fellow-artists. The publicity had only served to increase Installation 33's attracted huge throngs of visitors to the gallery. It also kept Paul Glascomb gainfully occupied as a gallery attendant.
The old lady finally got up and shuffled out of the room, mumbling her thanks absent-mindedly. Paul did not return her greetings. Instead he watched her walk the length of the corridor and turn right to the exit. He gave it another minute before he got off his high stool by the door and rushed into the room.
He walked around the lit circle, his eyes fixed on the shadows cast by the objects that formed the installation, careful not to let his own shadow fall in the circle. He bent low to look at the shadows; walked away and sat on the bench; came back and resumed walking, never once taking his eyes away from the yellow circle and, its thorny edge of shadows. Then, after great deliberation, he nudged one of the cones ever so little to the right.
Now he withdrew from the circle and walked to the wall. Leaning back he consulted the shadows again. He returned to the circle and moved a cone till it touched a neighboring sphere.
Paul started when the siren wailed to remind the lingering visitors and attendants that it was time to close for the day. Paul walked around Installation 33 hastily, trying to imprint the shape of the shadows on his brain. Then, satisfied that he would remember the pattern through the night, he turned on his heels and walked out of the room.
That night, alone at a table in the pub, and later in bed in his cramped apartment, Paul recalled the shadows and pondered over them. In his mind's eye, he paced the little room where Installation 33 sat; he moved the pieces around and imagined the shadows the changed configuration would throw, again and again. Finally as he see-sawed between sleep and wakefulness, it came to him. He sat up on the bed smoking, waiting impatiently for the morning.
At the gallery he spent the day in a state of agitation. It was peak tourist season and the gallery was flooded with camera-slinging men and women and noisy children. Paul shot off his stool when he saw a Japanese man point his camera at Installation 33. "Sorry, no photography please," he said, tapping the man on his shoulder roughly. It's not finished yet", he added in a low sullen voice. The Japanese man nodded, not understanding Paul's words but fazed by what he assumed was Londoners' rudeness.
A plump woman led a large bunch of school-kids into the room. Paul watched with hawk's eyes and moved fast to keep the kids from knocking the cones, spheres and cubes out of place.
Finally, after what seemed like an eternity, the matron marched the kids out of the room. As the last of the kids filed out, Paul realized that his hands were shaking and said to himself," God, I need a drink".
He sank on the bench and breathed deeply, forcing himself to calmness, trying to recall the night's vision. Yes it would work!
He walked to the installation and gingerly nudged a sphere close to a cluster of cubes. He moved another away from the centre and brought it to the periphery and married it to the biggest cube. He then traced his steps back to the bench and half-closed his eyes and peered at the shadows.
"Perfect", he thought. He wiped his face with his palms and wiped the sweat on his trousers. The gallery's evening siren wailed, louder, it seemed to Paul, than ever. But he was not done yet. Very slowly, like a priest at High Mass, he raised his gaze from the shadows to the brass plaque on the wall opposite. He walked to it, tall and proud.
" Installation 33. Mona Vallery, 1997", it said. From his coat's pocket Paul produced a chisel. He nudged it under the plaque and prised it loose with ease. Reaching into his other pocket he pulled out an identical brass plaque and a tube of 'Scubbard's extra-strong glue'. He squeezed the glue liberally onto the plaque and carefully pressed it to the wall. With the sleeve of his coat he rubbed it shiny. He stepped back a little from the new plaque and read, his whispers filling the room, "Installation 34, Paul Glascomb, 2002."
QLRS Vol. 3 No. 2 Jan 2004