Human Form In Formalin

Gordon Range

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As soon as he saw how close the woman had approached, Kurt began to hope that an otherwise tedious day might have something to offer after all. She was in her mid-twenties, dressed just on the elegant side of scruffy and her Shagability Index was about 6.9 on the Reiter Scale, as devised by Kurt Reiter, Assistant Custodian at the Gallery of Modern Art.
   He had been watching the woman, on and off, for a fortnight while she had been exploring the gallery's public areas in a rather relentless fashion. She had the air of either a building engineer preparing a tender for refurbishing the gallery or a crook mapping out routes to and from the major exhibits.
   She had been watching him, too, in his off-duty hours. Kurt had seen her in the Red Lion pub near his home, watching him settling down in his usual place to what had looked like a night's drinking. In fact, he rarely put away more than a couple of pints on a weekday night. She usually stayed for about half an hour before disappearing, but she had come back to check up on him on at least one occasion.
   By coincidence, it had been the night of a Blue Dream concert. Kurt's two pints that evening had been a quick one before two draining hours of heavy metal thunder and another quick one afterwards, but the woman had seen him sitting in exactly the same spot on both her visits, and she may have drawn the reasonable conclusion that he had been in the pub all night.
   She had also followed him out of the gallery a number of times to spy on lunchtime expeditions. He had spotted her in the café opposite the betting shop, and he had been careful to perform a ritual ticket-tearing ceremony at the litter bin outside, even if he had won. The woman might just have been a snooper from the Inland Revenue, no matter how unlikely that seemed, and there was no point in giving that sort of person the right impression.
   Now, about ten minutes from closing time on a sticky, summer Thursday, the woman seemed on the verge of making contact. She had been drifting around in his vicinity for about an hour, carrying a large, white sun hat and wearing a GoMA tee-shirt and well-shrunk jeans.
   The picture on the tee-shirt was Robin Huggett's Fractured Angel, a montage created by hacking photographs into bits with a craft knife. Kurt wondered if the title might not be a statement about the tee-shirt's owner, but there were too many victims of mindless merchandizing around to be sure - people who wouldn't know if they were wearing a Jackson Pollock or an advertisement for a pizza parlour, according to his boss. Kurt was standing in front of one of the Hadriens when the woman made her move. He became aware of a cloud of tastefully chosen perfume on his left.
   "Is this really self-destructing?" she asked in the sort of hushed tones reserved for churches and places of learning.
   "We sweep up a few more bits every evening." Kurt pointed to an area a foot from the bottom of the six-foot-square sheet of plywood. "That was a solid blue three months ago. You can just see wood coming through now."
   "Oh, yes! Do you think they'll be allowed to preserve it? Against the wishes of the artist?"
   "That's up to the owners, really. Once the artist has sold it, he loses all control over it. They're entitled to protect their investment."
   The woman laughed softly. "Makes you wonder why they ever bought a self-destructing painting in the first place."
   "There's always been a lot more money than sense floating around in the art world."
   "Perhaps they should have spent their money on something like Human Form in Formalin. That's not something that's likely to drop to pieces in a hurry."
   "So they say." Kurt kept his tone casual. He felt some relief now that the big question had been answered. Now, he knew why the woman had been prowling around the gallery so diligently.
   "It's more than twenty years old, but it's supposed to be in the same condition as on the day it was finished," added the woman knowledgeably.
   Kurt stepped closer to the Hadrien, pretending to find another area in which the cancer of decay had started to erupt.
   "But I suppose you'd know that if it's stored here," the woman said. "Are people allowed to see it while it's the subject of a court case?"
   "Access to works of art is controlled by the owner. And if ownership is in dispute, I suppose you'd need some sort of joint permission from all the claimants in that case." Kurt kept his answer general, admitting nothing. It was not the gallery's policy to advertise the presence of works that it was unable to show.
   "Look, I'd really like to see it. No one else need know. And I could make it well worth your while." The woman gave him an entreating smile. "What if we say two hundred pounds?"
   Kurt blew out a quick, scornful breath and smiled at her. "My job's worth a lot more than that, madam. And we're closing in about five minutes, so if you'll excuse me?" He turned and walked away, leaving her standing in front of the decaying painting.
   He had been approached by all sorts of people during the five years that the ownership battle had dragged on. Some had been genuinely interested in modern art, some were just sensation seekers wanting to boast that they had viewed Human Form in Formalin, which had never ever been placed on public show.
   Kurt felt that he had created exactly the right impression. He had not admitted that the work was housed in the gallery, but he had told the woman that it would cost her a lot more than £200 if she really wanted a look at it.

As she left the gallery, Kitty Wescot told herself that she had known she would end up being mugged. The real question had always been For how much? rather than Will it happen?. Still, she was on the last lap of her quest, and it was all a matter of whether she could persuade herself to meet K. Reiter's terms.
   She was quite pleased to have found positive proof that the disputed work of art was housed in the GoMA. Her two weeks of exploration had failed to provide any clues as to exactly where it could be, though. The Gallery of Modern Art was huge and it possessed three huge storage annexes in other buildings in addition to an extensive cellar system. Kitty had always known that she would have to corrupt a member of the staff.
   K. Reiter had looked the most promising of those available. He was in his middle thirties, apparently single and available, and he took the trouble to look after himself. He shaved and he had his hair cut, and he wore shoes that had to be polished instead of the usual trainers. He also spent his money freely on drink and gambling. He went to the pub before he went home most nights and his lunch break had included a trip to the betting shop twice in one week and three times in the next.
   He wasn't bad looking, either, which meant that she could make a sincere offer of something more personal that money if he became too greedy in the bribery department. Just the same, Kitty had promised herself, it would be all right to change her mind if she felt that she was unable to go through with any promised sexual favours. After all, if K. Reiter was breaking his contract with his employers by letting unauthorized persons view the works of art in storage, then he couldn't expect her to be bound by any contract with him. Both knew that they were in the jungle of grey areas.
   She had heard all sorts of stories about Human Form in Formalin since she had been intrigued by a title seen in a cuttings library. Many stories dealt with the exact nature of the work, which had acquired an almost mythical status in art history. For a start, the name of the artist was unknown and the work had never been photographed; certainly, no picture had ever been released; so even what it looked like was disputed.
   It was rumoured that officers from New Scotland Yard had visited the artist's studio to decide if he needed prosecuting for breaking the laws on obscenity. That story backed up the opinion that the human form was either a female figure in an exotic pose from the Karma Sutra or a male figure with a two-foot erection; possibly one transplanted from a suitable animal. Yet another source said that the human form was a sort of anatomical exploded diagram, with all the various parts of a human body on view as an educational aid, that the human form was repellently clinical rather than obscene.
   Another expert had written that the Human Form had the appearance of a normal, healthy male, but subtle deviations became apparent on a close inspection. The eyes, for instance, were a fiery red when the lids were opened and there were five of them placed around the circumference of the head, which gave the creation overtones of Pablo Picasso.
   There were rumours of the existence of anything from the odd photograph to a 30-minute video of the work, but they had always been seen by a friend of a friend, never by the rumour-monger. Kitty had even found a reference to a plan to make a computer program of some sort based on Human Form in Formalin, but the project had been abandoned in the design stage due to copyright difficulties.
   If she could photograph the Human Form, she knew that her reputation as a serious journalist would be enhanced considerably. A set of good pictures would guarantee the sale of her planned series of articles on other "lost to view" works of art. Publication meant follow-ups on television and a lot of money. Kitty had convinced herself that the K. Reiter barrier would have to be stormed, one way or another.
   The science of photography had come a long way in two centuries. She knew that there are limits to miniaturization, but she had been impressed by the quality of the prints from a disk camera that looked just like a wrist watch. The results would be inferior to those from a conventional camera but it was their content that really mattered. The only pictures of Human Form in Formalin would become the best ones available automatically, and she had already paid the non-cash price for borrowing the camera.

The woman was back on Saturday morning. Kurt assumed that she had spent Friday, his day off, thinking things over. They had met in front of the decaying Hadrien, as if by appointment. Her price had gone up to £1,500.
   "Look, what's your exact interest in seeing the piece?" Kurt asked her. "If you have a legitimate reason, can't you apply to the owner for access?"
   "Which owner?" said Kitty impatiently. "The boss of the PR firm, the hotelier or the industrialist? All of whom claim they bought an option on it? I'd really like to avoid all the hassle of going through that performance. Where's the harm if I just look at a work of art?"
   "That's not the point, though, madam. Access is controlled by the owner. Whoever he is, he has his rights."
   "Okay, cards on the table," said Kitty. "I'm a free-lance journalist and I want to do a piece on the futility of this sort of dispute. I'd prefer not to be indebted to any of the claimants, but I would like to see what they're all arguing about. I can't make any judgement on whether or not all the argument is worth while if I don't know what they're arguing over, can I?"
   "That doesn't stop other journalists," smiled Kurt. "When in doubt, make something up. Isn't that the rule?"
   "What time do you finish here?"
   "About half five. Why?"
   "Suppose we go for a drink and talk this over? Suppose you give me a chance to explain things to you fully?" Kitty put on her most winning smile, which hinted at non-cash rewards for co-operation.
   "One drink but no promises," said Kurt. "We are talking about an abuse of trust. It may be entirely harmless but it could land me in a lot of trouble."
   "I'll be in the café across the square at half five. See you, then?"
   "Well, yeah, I guess so," said Kurt, not promising anything.
   Yes! thought Kitty as she turned away and headed for the entrance hall. She enjoyed watching greedy people putting their living at risk for a relatively small amount of tax-free money.
   Yes! thought Kurt as he watched a flake of blue paint the size of a baby's fingernail fall off The Human Condition, Grenady Hadrien's deliberately flawed masterpiece. He enjoyed extorting money from over-paid journalists, even though it came from an expense account, not their own pocket.

Both knew what the outcome would be at their second meeting of the day. Kitty suggested viewing the sculpture the following day. Kurt told her that Sunday was one of the busiest days of the week behind the scenes when the gallery had sponsorship money available for conservation work. Kitty made a trip to a cash point to top up the £2,000 in her handbag to £2,500. Kurt played the basically honest but broke curator to perfection, in his own humble opinion.
   At ten past six, after a meal in the licensed café, they crossed the square and entered the gallery by a side door. Kurt led the journalist along the fringes of the public areas to a locker room. He had to use a magnetic keycard to open a security door marked Private, Staff Only.
   "Okay, we're fairly safe now," Kurt told his guest. "I'll just have to check the tapes from the security cameras when you've gone. Make sure they don't show your face."
   "I noticed the cameras," nodded Kitty.
   "Most of them just feed into a video-recorder most of the time because they show areas that are locked up. And the tapes are re-used if they just show an empty room."
   "You have a way round the system?" Kitty put routine admiration of a clever man into her voice.
   "If you know the system, you can work round it," nodded Kurt. He opened one of the lockers and put his jacket on a hanger. "But there are certain rules that have to be observed. The first one is no pictures, no unauthorized notes and no free samples. So you'll have to leave your handbag in a locker. And you also have to wear one of these in a conservation area."
   "High fashion, eh?" Kitty looked without enthusiasm at a one-piece overall in surgical green linen. It had no pockets.
   "It also acts as a disguise. If you're back here wearing one of these, everyone assumes you're entitled to be here."
   Kitty stored her handbag in Kurt's locker, then put the overall on and pulled the zip up the front to her neck. Following Kurt's lead she enveloped her dark hair in an elasticated linen cap that looked like an un-waterproofed shower cap. The cap and a too-big overall made her baggy, sexless and satisfyingly anonymous.
   "Okay, let's do it!" She tried to keep her voice level, knowing that a certain excitement was expected of her. After all, she was about to break the rules in a way that could cost Kurt his job: would cost Kurt his job when her photographs were published. Luckily for her, there seemed to be no rule against wearing a wristwatch.
   "Right, stick close by me and stay quiet," Kurt said. "Not a word until I tell you it's okay. Right?"
   "Right," Kitty said.
   Kurt took her to a lift, timing their trip along a quiet corridor so that the security camera saw only their backs and was looking away when they entered the lift. Two floors down, he ushered her into a small room full of spare shelving and set to work with a screwdriver on a wall-mounted grill at the back of the room.
   "This may sound like a bit of a cliché, but we're travelling the last bit via the ventilation system," he explained.
   "You're kidding!" Kitty wondered if the drama was designed to make her believe that she was getting her money's worth.
   "Step up here and turn right into the duct. About five yards along, on the right-hand wall, you'll come to a branch that goes up and off to the right. Stop when you get there because I have to go first so I can tackle the grill at the other end."
   Kitty climbed up and into the ducting. There was a fair breeze blowing from behind her and the duct seemed quite clean if rather gloomy. It was about three feet square, somewhat oppressive, but she was in it and crawling before she had time to worry about claustrophobia. She moved past the junction. Kurt scrambled up into the branch. She backed up and then followed him, using shallow ridges, where sections of box had been welded together, as steps. There was a level section across the corridor, then another descent to a duct parallel to the one behind the room full of shelving.
   Kurt poked a small mirror mounted on a flexible rod through the wide mesh of the grill and examined the room. He used a flexible screwdriver to unfasten the screws, taking his time. Then, abruptly, he was out of the duct and running across the room. Obedient to her orders, Kitty stayed put and waited.
   "Okay, you can come out now," Kurt said in a quiet voice.
   Kitty slid out head first, trusting him to give her a soft landing. Then she looked across the room, at the thing propped up in front of the security camera.
   Kurt grinned. "I saw that in a film once. If you put a photograph of the room in front of a camera, no one's going to know there was ever anyone down here. Still, let's get on with it."
   "Right, where is it?" frowned Kitty.
   They were in a large room with a low ceiling. Natural daylight came filtering down through plastic optical guides to save on power costs during the day. The room wasn't brightly lit, but someone with a book could read it quite comfortably.
   "Over at the door," said Kurt.
   It was show-time - always a nerve-racking moment for him. There was not just the fear of discovery to consider. He had to plan for the reaction to the work of the unauthorized visitor. The woman looked sensible enough and tough enough, but you could never tell. One of his unofficial visitors - a big, strong, he-man type - had fainted, bashing his head on a steel shelf. Gallons of blood from a ragged scalp wound had leaked out through a tear in his linen cap. Cleaning up the blood had been a major nightmare. Kurt had really earned his fee that day. None of the unauthorized visitors had puked thus far. Kurt was dreading having to clean up on that particular day. Making the usual contingency plans, he guided his visitor across the room.
   Human Form in Formalin was all around Kitty before she knew what it was. She had been expecting to see a tank of at least the size used by stage magicians for the Chinese Water Torture. Her eyes had passed over the jars of various shapes and sizes and tanks suitable for use as a domestic aquarium.
   "I hope you're not going to puke," Kurt remarked, a plastic carrier bag at the ready. "We've had a few green faces in here over the last five years."
   "God! It's really horrible!" Kitty shivered. "It's like Doktor Frankenstein's laboratory."
   The piece was indeed an anatomical explosion, except that Kitty had been expecting to see a carcase in a large tank with the insides removed but linked by coloured tape to their proper positions. What she saw was a shambolic collection of containers containing bits, both male and female, arranged on a series of stands covered in black velvet.
   As far as she could tell, the body had been split in half lengthwise and pulled apart to either side. At the top end were jars containing left and right ears, the separate halves of a skull, the halves of a brain, and between them, a jar of eyes - quite a lot of eyes, most of them looking her way. Lower down, there were tanks containing arms and ribs, and all sorts of misshapen, stringy and messy bits. Then thighs, knees, shins and feet.
   "That's generally accepted as a sign that people are looking at a great work of art," remarked Kurt. "When they look at it and don't say anything."
   "It's revolting!" said Kitty.
   "You're not sorry you came, though?"
   "Well, no, having seen this puts a whole new perspective on the court case."
   "Like, why the hell is anyone fighting over this lot?"
   "Exactly!"
   "As far as I can make out, people thought it was a lampoon of the work of a bloke called Damien Hirst when it was, well, created for the want of a better word. He was famous for preserving bits of animals in formalin. And even more famous for selling them to people with more money than sense. And after he croaked, people started to say there were bits of him in it."
   "Yecch!" said Kitty. "What is it? Surely it can't be bits of people?"
   "There are all sorts of learned opinions about that," grinned Kurt. "Someone's supposed to have smuggle a professor of anatomy into the exhibition hall where this was stored before it came here. The Prof. was pushing seventy and one of these Rent-A-Quote characters with a long and distinguished career behind him and not much money in the bank. He's supposed to have come to the conclusion that, as far as he could tell, the bits aren't human, merely pieces of meat cleverly sculpted to look approximately human."
   "No drama in that, though."
   "True, but it brings us to the pig theory. They're supposed to be very close to humans anatomically, so it might be pigs after some artful carving. But the people who want the bits to be human say that's just a silly story to make two of the claimants back off, seeing one's a Jew and the other's an Arab. Not that it should matter these days, when you get rabbis admitting on TV that they enjoy a good bacon sandwich."
   "Or you see people who are staunch Moslems in their own country pouring booze down like the elixir of life in London clubs."
   "Or it might be plastic, not actual flesh. I don't think anyone's ever had the jars open to find out. They all have quite an elaborate seal on them."
   "Sort of, the warranty is void if this seal is broken kind of thing?" Kitty pressed the shutter release again.
   She had her arms folded in front of her overall with her left hand resting on her right collar bone and her right hand holding her left forearm just above the wrist. The position steadied the wrist-watch camera against her body and, with her thumb circling the body of the watch, it was conveniently close to the shutter release. She had exposed twelve of the eighteen frames on the disc.
   "How many eyes are there," Kitty added, frowning. "Shouldn't it be called Human Forms in Formalin?"
   "I don't think the title's supposed to be taken literally," said Kurt, who was standing behind Kitty, unsuspecting and letting her enjoy the expensive view. "There is a theory there's a rule of proportion at work. The weight of the eyes is supposed to be equal to the weight of a kidney, and the weight of all the kidneys is equal to the weight of a liver, and so on."
   "I think you're right about more money than sense. I can't imagine three intelligent people pouring money into their lawyers' pockets for five years to own this lot."
   "It's the power of possession, isn't it? You own the mystery and no one else does; or can. It doesn't really matter if the mystery is a load of old rubbish as long as other people want it but can't have it. I must say, you're doing better looking at this lot than quite a few academics. We usually have some smelling salts standing by when a woman is allowed down here."
   Patronizing bastard! thought Kitty. I think you've had all the payment you're getting for this. Once I'm out of this dump, I'm off!
   "It's journalistic detachment," she told him as she moved round to take some pictures from east, north and west as well as south relative to the sculpture. "It doesn't affect you, then?" You big, strong, bullshitting man?
   "No shock value any more." Kurt was still behind her, still giving her camera an unobstructed field of view. "Familiarity breeds indifference, as they say."
   Kitty took her last picture. The job was safely over; almost. She had to get out and away, but she knew that Kurt could not afford to let her be caught in the basement store room. It was like a lot of things in life, his self-interest serving her interests.
   "Okay, have you seen enough?"
   "Yes, I think that's enough for one day." Kitty smiled to herself. Kurt seemed to be reading her thoughts. The job was done and he wanted to get her out of the away so that he could spend his earnings.
   "Right, you have to give the customer value for money," said Kurt.
   Kitty stretched her arms forward to relieve the tension in the muscles. She had been holding them in the same position for too long. Then she felt a stab of unbearable pain in her neck. Then a floating sensation. She tried to look down but her head wouldn't move. Only her eyes could move. Then she started to sink down and down inexplicably.
   Supporting the tottering figure by a handful of cloth at the scruff of the neck, Kurt tucked the bolt gun back into the waistband of his trousers and drew the silent zip on the overall upwards. Then he lowered the limp figure, letting the legs fold, until Kitty was in a sitting/squatting position on the floor. He dragged her back until he could prop her up against a crate, then he walked round in front of her.
   "It's called participation art," he remarked to the staring eyes. "Everyone who penetrates the mystery by the back door becomes part of it. But not until they've had their money's worth. Never let it be said Kurt Reiter cheated someone out of their full whack! You know, human nature never fails you, does it? There you were, telling me anything to get in here so you could dash off and write about it and make yourself a fortune. You won't believe the promises I've had about protecting sources and making sure nothing backfires on me.
   "But I've never felt able to trust a journalist. Even a free-lance, like yourself. Well, especially a free-lance because they don't have a secure job and they have to try that bit harder. But, fair's fair. You've paid your money and you're entitled to the full story. Oh, in case you're wondering, it was a bolt gun I used on you. Zaps the spinal cord. You're either dead immediately or in anything up to ten minutes, depending on exactly where I hit you. Contrary to what you might think, I'm not an expert with it yet.
   "So, anyway, what's the full story on Human Form in Formalin? Well, it wasn't plastic. It was bits of pig and monkey originally. I had some bits analyzed. How, are you wondering? The famous seals are just a primitive form of reversible shrink wrapping. I can use a hair drier to heat them to the relax temperature or the shrink temperature.
   "So how much is human now? The answer is all of it now, but some of it could stand some improvement. Has any-one ever told you you've got nice eyes? But, as you noticed, we have rather a lot of them. But we don't really have a good pair of hands. The one's we've got are a bit hairy and knobbly. Yours are quite nice, though."
   Kurt looked more closely at the figure propped up against the crate. The pupils were black circles, almost swallowing the irises. They were repulsively 'fixed and dilated' in the classic way. His bolt-gun technique was far from perfect. He was never sure how much of this closing remarks registered on a dying audience.
   He closed the eyes, protecting himself from that ominous, black stare. It was not until he had seen his first dead body that he had understood why people always perform this service for a corpse.
   As he set to work, he distracted himself in the usual way with amused thoughts of three wealthy men fighting an endless court battle over the 'sculpture' when the winner would not receive the work as created. If the disputed work of art had been an old master, then he would not have been able to interfere with it. But who would ever ask if the suspended bits and pieces and stringy guts in containers of formalin were the originals?
   In fact, he was contributing in a material way to the sculpture. Five years ago, it had been a contemptible fake, a construct of pig and monkey organs. Kurt Reiter had given the eventual owner the real thing. Whoever he turned out to be, he really would be getting a Human Form in Formalin. Several of them, in fact! ■

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to top of pageCreated for Romiley Literary Circle by HTSP Web Division, 10 SK6 4EG, Romiley, G.B.
The original story Gordon Range, 1994. This version Gordon Range, 2002