Art in nature

30 December 2001 | Fiction, Prose

A short story from Dockskåpet (‘The doll’s house’, 1978)

When the summer exhibition closed in the evenings and the last visitors went away, it became very quiet. A short time later boat after boat set off from the shore and sailed back to the village on the other side of the lake. The only member of staff who remained overnight was the caretaker; he slept in the sauna changing room at the bottom of the large lawn where the sculptures had been lined up among the trees. He was very old and had a bad back, but it had been hard to get hold of someone who didn’t mind the long, lonely evenings. And there had to be a night caretaker because of the insurance.

It was a large exhibition; it was called ‘Art in nature’s. Every day the caretaker unlocked the gates and people streamed into the beautiful grounds, they came in cars and buses from every part of the country, and even from the capital, they brought their children with them and made great excursions, they swam among the water-lilies and drank coffee and strolled under the birch trees, the children played on the swings and had their photographs taken on the big bronze horse, and more and more people wanted to look at ‘Art in nature’.

The caretaker was very proud of the exhibition. All day he sat in the enormous glass box that held paintings and graphics, and saw hundreds of feet go by. Because of his back he was unable to see much of their faces, but he began to observe the feet and made a game of guessing what they were a part of, what the rest of the person looked like. Sometimes he craned his neck to see if he was right, and often he was. Most of them were women in sandals, and from their toes you could see that they were not particularly young. Nearly all the feet moved respectfully. If they had a guide with them they stood still for a while and were turned the same way, then they changed direction, at precisely the same time, in order to look at something else. The solitary feet were undecided at first, then slowly they began to walk on, diagonally, stopped, stood with their legs crossed, twisted round; sometimes they raised one leg and scratched themselves because there were a lot of midges. Then they went on again, along the last wall quite quickly. The caretaker saw a lot of feet with sturdy shoes, they often stood quite still, went past without concern and stood still again, for quite a long time. He always checked to see what the old shoes looked like on top. The old people walked with their toes turned out, the young people with their toes turned slightly in, and the children ran parallel. That amused the caretaker. One day two old shoes and a stick stopped in front of him. He could see that she was very tired.

‘Do you know,’ she asked, ‘do you know what No. 34 is meant to be? It looks like a parcel with string round it. Is one supposed to open it?’

‘I don’t think so,’ replied the caretaker. The guide said that some foreigner had started making works of art like that. Then they went on with it, wrapping up sculptures and finally whole mountains, it might have been in Arizona.

‘Are there any chairs here?’ asked the old lady. ‘It’s such a big exhibition.’

He made room for her beside him on the bench, and they sat next to each other for a while.

‘What I admire,’ she said, ‘is that they think of so many things and that they manage to make them and manage to believe in what they make. I’ll come back another day and look at the sculptures. With an exhibition like this you can’t take it all in right away, you have to go very slowly.’

The caretaker said that he liked the sculptures best.

They grew up out of the lawn, enormous dark monuments of smooth, incomprehensible shapelessness, or broken, prickly things, challenging and disturbing. They stood everywhere among the birch trees as though they had sprouted from the earth, and when the summer night came and the mist drifted in from the lake they were as beautiful as rocks or dead trees.

He went and locked the gates and continued along the shore and extinguished the sausage grill and saw that everything was as it ought to be. He picked up the moss that the children had brought down from the large stones and gathered the coins in the wishing well and put them on a newspaper to dry. He made sure there was nothing burning in the ashtrays and emptied them carefully in the open sculptural incinerator. The June night was quiet and the lake lay motionless with a reflection under each small island. The caretaker loved his customary evening walk, to lock up for the night. By the gates there was a scent of hay and manure from the surrounding farms, along the shore there was the smell of mud and grass, then the wet soot of the sauna, and as he walked past the sculptures that were made of plaster he detected the smell of tar, they had all been impregnated with tar to withstand the rain. He himself had helped to paint them. In the daytime one could not smell it, one heard only voices and feet. The caretaker liked the evenings and the night, he did not need much sleep and often sat down by the edge of the shore for many hours in peace and quiet with himself. He did not remember, he did not worry, he simply was. The only thing that troubled him was the knowledge that the exhibition would close in the autumn, but he had got used to it and could not imagine any other way of life.

One evening he took his usual walk along the whole of the grounds, he had locked the gates and everything was supposed to be in order. Then the caretaker smelled smoke, smoke from a burning fire. He grew quite beside himself, there was a fire, a fire somewhere! Half stumbling, he tried to run, a little bit this way, a little bit that, and finally realised it was only that someone had lit the sausage grill. Marauders had hidden in the grounds, and now they were cooking sausages down on the shore. His relief made him furious. He crossed the lawn down to the edge of the shore as quickly as he could, but kept quiet. Very soon he heard voices, it was a man and a woman, and they were quarrelling. The caretaker sneaked up on them and peered to see what they looked like. They were middle-aged people who ought to have had enough sense not to break the exhibition rules. The man seemed awfully pale and had an American shirt and a salmon fly in his hat, she was rather fat and was dressed in something that had little flowers on it. They were cooking sausages and drinking beer, and they were quarrelling. The caretaker listened for a while, it was a perfectly ordinary marital quarrel, and then he came out and banged his stick on the ground and shouted: ‘This won’t do at all! You can’t have a fire here after the exhibition is closed, it’s absolutely prohibited! When the exhibition’s closed it’s closed, and what are you doing here?’

‘Oh my God!’ cried the woman. ‘Albert, I told you we shouldn’t have!’

The man jumped to his feet and was about to pour sea-water over the sausage grill, but the caretaker shouted: ‘Don’t do that, you’ll crack the grill, it has to burn out by itself!’ He suddenly felt very tired, and sat down on a stone. The man and the woman were silent.

‘Responsibility,’ said the caretaker. ‘Does that mean anything to you? What do you know about it all? Every night I’m responsible for the whole of this big art exhibition and also for the forest. There are works of art here by some of the greatest artists in the land, and it all rests on me.’

‘Svea,’ said the man, ‘ask him if he’d like some sausage and a glass of beer.’ But the caretaker said no thank you, he did not want to be conciliated. The evening had faded into summer night, and a light mist came gliding in across the lake, hiding the islands. The trunks of the birch trees became whiter.

‘Perhaps we ought to introduce ourselves,’ said the man.

‘Fagerlund.’

‘Räsänen,’ said the caretaker.

The woman began to pack her baskets, it was clear that they did not dare to eat or drink any more.

‘And what’s that there?’ asked Räsänen, pointing his stick at a brown parcel they had placed on a stone. The woman at once explained that it was a work of art they had chosen and paid for, it was the first picture they had ever bought, and they had to celebrate, and the picture was a silk screen print.

‘You don’t need to apologise,’ said Räsänen. ‘Actually, the real name is serigraphy. They make lots of copies of them, but it’s considered art anyway. Well, what’s it a picture of?’

‘It’s an abstract,’ replied Fagerlund. ‘But we think it represents two chairs that are slightly turned away from each other.’

Räsänen said he couldn’t remember any chairs like that, and then the woman said it was right at the back on the right, two perfectly ordinary kitchen chairs against some wallpaper, she talked eagerly and it was clear that she was trying to ingratiate herself.

‘You’re wrong,’ said her husband, ‘they’re folding chairs, the kind you can put away in a moment, and anyway they’re not important, it’s the background that matters.’ He turned to Räsänen and said: ‘You know, it opens outwards. You can see the life outside. It could be a big city, it has nothing to do with kitchen wallpaper.’

His wife laughed, and said, ‘You and your ideas, it’s wallpaper, anyone can see that. Don’t be so self-important. They’ve been sitting in their chairs and have got up and left and pushed the chairs away when they left. Perhaps they’d quarrelled, what you think, had they quarrelled?’

‘they probably just got tired,’ said Fagerlund. ‘They got damned tired and went out.’

‘You bet they did,’ she said. ‘One of them went to the bar on the corner.’

Räsänen waited for a while and then he said it was a funny thing about art. Everyone saw what he was able to, and that was the intention. But why had they not purchased something lighter and more attractive, a landscape, for example?

They did not reply. The woman had turned away from them towards the lake, ahd she was wiping her eyes and blowing her nose.

The caretaker said: ‘You could also take it this way, for example. Since a work of art can be just about anything, and you just see what you want to see, you could just not bother to unwrap it, and hang the parcel on the wall. Then you wouldn’t need to quarrel.’ He raked the embers with his stick, the grill had almost burnt out.

After a while, she said: ‘How do you mean, the parcel?’

‘I mean the parcel, with paper and string and all. You saw those parcels at the exhibition, didn’t you, that’s the kind of thing they produce nowadays. Maybe you’re best just to imagine what’s inside and see something different every time you look.’

She turned round and asked: ‘Are you serious?’

Fagerlund said: ‘Svea, Mr Räsänen is making fun of you. Let’s be off.’

She got up and began violently gathering together baskets and sweaters and all the things they had brought with them.

‘Wait a minute,’ said the caretaker. ‘I’m serious. It only dawned on me just now. All you need to do is wrap the picture up a bit more nicely and use more string – fishing line or cobblers’ thread, for example. Lots of string. I’ve seen what it ought to look like.’ He drew with his stick in the sand. ‘Like this, and like this, very neatly. And glass on top of it all.’

‘But it was expensive!’ she burst out. ‘Anyone can make an art parcel like that at home and hang it up!’

‘No,’ replied the caretaker. ‘I don’t think they can. Then there’s nothing mysterious about it all.’ He was glad, almost cheerful, at having finally understood the idea behind the wrapped-up works of art. ‘You can go home now,’ he said. ‘You’ll have to climb over the gate, for I can’t be bothered going all that way to unlock it.’

‘Albert,’ she said, ‘you’ll have to carry the parcel.’ She looked at it as though it were on fire, and dangerous.

Fagerlund picked up the parcel and set it down again. ‘No,’ he said. ‘We’ll unwrap it right here and now. We’ll let Mr Räsänen decide what it represents.’

Then she shouted: ‘Stop it!’ and began to cry in earnest, and said she didn’t want to know, just wanted to see it in her own way and not be cheated, she said.

The caretaker was silent for a while. Then he said: ‘It’s too dark. You can’t see anything.’ He stood up and said goodbye to his guests. When they had gone, he sat for a while and tended to the grill, and then walked slowly back between the sculptures which now, when the summer night was at its darkest, looked like nothing but enormous, strongly-shaped shadows. He thought: ‘But what I said was perfectly true. It’s the element of mystery that’s important, very important in some way.’ He went and lay down in the sauna room, which had four empty walls. It was pleasant to look at them and fall asleep without those old recurring thoughts he was used to.

Translated by David McDuff

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