This story was first published in 31 parts via Twitter during March. It is now reproduced now in a complete form, and a number of small edits have been added to improve narrative flow.
I Love You
The last group of students chatter and squeal their way through the European History Gallery, more focused on mobile phones than the art their teacher brought them to study. In fifteen minutes, the Museum closes for another day, leaving only the security staff remaining within. There’s space in the room, marked off by temporary partitions, that finally can be filled. Alexis Grieg, Acquisitions Manager, has waited all month for this moment. Tomorrow, the newest piece of Museum content will finally be unveiled to the public, after months of speculation.
It is a controversial and divisive piece of European sculpture, which caused considerable debate even before being borrowed by the Museum from the collection of one of the richest men in Britain. Advanced ticket sales for the Gallery are at their highest level for several years. As July sun sets on London’s iconic skyline the sculpture is slowly wheeled from darkened basement; Gallery bowels to the only service lift, from back of building to its new, high prominence resting place. It is a journey of just under an hour, due to the fragility of the piece.
‘Icarus’ Wings’ is the last piece by celebrated Revolution artist Wilberforce Christie, completed weeks before death from natural causes aged 102. At his height in the 1960’s Christie was the wunderkind of British Pop Art: close friend of Andy Warhol, darling of Swinging London. His demise in 1994 was the least controversial thing completed in nearly thirty years. Everything else was either shrouded in contention or remains subject to various legal restrictions. He went to his grave carrying many secrets: this piece is very much a part of that mystique.
Finally, sculpture is in place with screens removed. This part of their job complete, Grieg and the rest of the Acquisitions staff retire back downstairs for a much-needed coffee and food break before the task begins of constructing a glass casing around flimsy parchment wings.
Only when it is clear that the staff are long gone, no-one remaining in earshot, do the wings themselves slowly stretch and rise; extension of the wingspan releasing tiny eddies of dust. It will be some time before the piece can move unrestricted, so time is of the essence.
The Gallery’s various inhabitants, previously immobile, slowly come to life with a new arrival. Renaissance art isn’t sure what to think of this odd interloper, 16th Century portraits awakening and observing in both confusion and disbelief. Impressionists are truly lost for words. Icarus rises above the already obvious waves of perceived snobbery: wings used to being abused and derided, part and parcel of their conception, construction and final completion. Born into the white heat of intense controversy, the delicate structure hides a cast iron soul.
When your wings are made from tax demands, sanitary towels and toilet roll, plus hundreds of other items that are daily thrown away, there is going to be some discussion on whether art is even an appropriate term to describe you. Icarus has heard it all, and knows how to react. Their owner spent considerable time explaining the ins and outs of the art word: highlighting perceived snobberies, various truths around why beauty has become the most subjective of discussion topics. Most significantly of all, Icarus’ patron’s devotion to them was obvious.
‘One day, I will let you be exhibited, and when that moment comes there will need to be preparation for the torrents of abuse and derision you will receive. These people do not grasp aesthetics, no real comprehension as to the significance of your creation. They are fools.’
The wings settle, preparing themselves for the worst.
Francesco Laurana’s pale marble bust shifts, before breaking into a smile: long, oval face tilting slightly in undoubted approval. Then their opinion is presented with a deep, rich Italian cadence: ‘Sei propria bella, cara.’
‘Beautiful’ is the last word wings had expected to hear uttered, a murmur of disbelief ripples up and down the main Gallery space. Figures in the Realism paintings are jostling at the edges of their gilt frames, looking for the best angle at which to view the newcomer’s form. The Neoclassical section is arguing amongst themselves at the significance of contemporary objects being utilised in any artistic setting. Both of the Impressionist paintings remind each other that they caused similar controversy when initially created, which is not a bad thing.
The Matisse turns to Kirchner, hearing the Impressionists’ mistaken belief they were in some way contentious, before bursting into a torrent of expletives. The French Polynesian woman in Gauguin’s landscape stares at the painting’s outburst, before putting hands over her ears. However, one part of the Gallery continues to remain silent. The space’s oldest resident, piece of Celtic Art from the 9th Century, simply hangs watching. The room slowly quells its animation, knowing it is difficult to hear the figure of Christ unless everyone is totally quiet.
The simplistic human figure stares at what counts as the apex of humanity’s expression and does not see a jumble of inappropriate objects pinned together. After thousands of years watching artists find means to express existence on the planet, this concept makes complete sense. No longer is art the preserve of simply the privileged or rich. Each day the Celt watches children as they stand in awe, making pictures on the devices that allow communication in an instant, unaware they too are creating their own expression. Everyone has now become an artist.
What makes objects in this Gallery any more or less significant than the children’s work? It is only the choice of those with enough money to possess past, claiming to show these works of historical enlightenment but more often than not exhibiting ownership as status and power. The Wings undoubtedly remain a product of this consumer-driven, disposable age. Its plumage is recognisable as what most would consider rubbish. From wing-tip to wrist, primary feathers and coverts appear perfectly engineered: beautiful and faithful reproduction without fault.
When the Celt speaks, an entire Gallery is stunned with its utterance:
‘You are the most beautiful thing I have ever seen, as much a symbol of your age as I am of mine. Between us now all art is measured and will be compared. I love you.’
Icarus’ frame shudders in response.
The murmurs begin almost immediately: frantic whispering between aesthetics, groups of historical landmarks in art and history are confused, uncertain. Has the Celt somehow lost it and gone mad? Is this rubbish-built interloper casting some kind of spell upon the Ancient One? Then, slowly, implication of these words begins to register with the more self-aware pieces. Art is simply a reflection of those who produce it. Beauty is measured individually by what is seen, how history considers significance. Substance is fleeting: passing, ephemeral interest.
The less alert works of artistry take their cues from those they trust: the newcomer might not look or feel like the rest of the Gallery, but that is not at issue. It is still very much art, only mirroring the world in which the sculptor lived and worked before he passed away. The gallery begins to move, facing Icarus as much as possible within their own artistic frames. One by one comes acknowledgement of sculpture’s presence as part of a collective whole. The Celt, as the oldest piece in the room, remains final arbiter of what is considered creation.
Having spent its entire sentient existence expecting to be ostracised the moment they had appeared in public, Icarus’ Wings still cannot believe what is happening. This acceptance from other art-forms alters the entire landscape, becoming increasingly easier to accept as truth. This is all that the sculpture has ever wanted or desired: espousal by its creator was implicit, comforting but not enough. Having accepted there would be derision and abuse wherever they were placed, to have this credence from their peers before the public have been admitted…
Icarus has come home.
For the first time ever, fragile sculpture shifts on its pedestal. Wings begin to extend and stretch, far further than they have ever moved: as they do there comes a sound never to be heard by human ears. It is the artistic embodiment of pure, unbridled joy. At their highest extension, the furthermost fragile feather constructed from toilet paper and string brushes an overhead LED spotlight.
In a moment, wing-tip bursts into flame.
As the fire alarm sounds, museum staff stare at each other in sudden terror.