There is something extraordinary going on in this place. Colours line up beside one another and jostle for space, creating bulges and valleys, arching in resistance, pressing tensely against each other in uneasy compromise. Space has become colour and colour is an inconsistent kind of geometry. There is no forward and backward or up and down; we are no longer subject to these habits of perception. There is just thick and thin, dark and light, and even these notions flirt with one another and with unreality.
If you move your eyes too fast, the view turns kaleidoscopic, like streetlights racing past on the motorway of a psychedelic dreamscape. So it has a stilling effect on the body. Starting with your eyeballs but spreading through your head, your spine, your lungs, it is paralysing. A breath might be catastrophic. The landscape arrests you and holds you captive.
A planet viewed from unfathomably far away, perhaps. A millimetre of skin magnified incomprehensibly. Both at once, and neither. You could stride out across it and find yourself sinking into the surface, or else falling towards it from a great height. You could be inside it, or beyond it, or look down and find that you are made of it.
Marina finally steps away from the canvas, breathless. She might have been standing there a minute or an hour. The cast of people around her hasn’t changed: the self-satisfied art students huddle together, a particularly pensive young man faces another wall, a pair of solemn adults examine an indistinct sculpture by the entrance. It is silent in here, despite the hard, fishbone floor. Sacramental.
The young man stands before a painting on the opposite wall as if before an altar. Neither the painting nor the man show any physical signs of transformation or elevation in progress: from the outside, nothing is happening at all. But there is some kind of exchange going on. Reverie or struggle. Something seeing and something seen. Predator and prey. Something dynamic deep within the cage of immobility.
Nobody else seems interested in the bruised purples and blues of the seascape, spacescape, skinscape in front of Marina. For once, she doesn’t have to share.
She shifts her feet on the silent wooden floor.
She looks back at the canvas.
She wants it.
It only takes a glance to be totally overwhelmed by it once more. This time, she is tiny, perched on a ridge of negative space. Looking down, she realises that what had appeared purple or blue is neither and both. If you hang your head over it from here, it is a pool of black and gold and grey and green depending on the way you focus your eyes, like a trick of perception.
A punch of adrenaline startles her. It is instinct warning her that she could easily become ensnared by this spectacle, as if vines are starting to creep around her ankles.
She steps away again. This time, she crosses the room, away from her painting. Her heart is hammering. She wants it. She wants to steal it.
She weaves around a wooden bench shaped like a smooth pebble or a piece of driftwood, half function, half art. A woman perches on it, hunched over a map, and a man tries to negotiate with a weary thirteen-year-old, his back to Marina. She is walking away from the dreamscape.
The young man is still staring up at the picture on the opposite wall. Marina stands beside him but doesn’t glance sideways at his face. The canvas cradles some kind of fragmented body. Thick, black lines and awkward shapes suggest, but only fleetingly, angles and elements of a human form. Like an impenetrable map, it promises no safe route and threatens irredeemable misdirection. She tries to reassemble a person from it with her eyes but comes up with an extra arm and a hollowed-out chest. Like a child throwing aside a puzzle, she is forced to leave it as she found it: twisted, contorted, unfathomed.
In the glass over the canvas, she can still see the shape of the purple painting on the opposite wall behind her. The detail of it is obscured by the poor quality of the reflection and the distance across the room so that it looks now like nothing more than a square of dark colour. How misleading. She doesn’t want her back turned to it anymore.
As she turns around, the edge of the body catches her eye afresh. From this new angle, she is suddenly confronted by depth, perspective, scale where there was none before. In the middle distance, there’s a vanishing point. Once your brain has seized that point, it can organise everything else around it. It’s the North Star. The arm, the second one, is not truncated as Marina had thought before, but reaching out towards the room, towards her. The body, rather than being on canvas, is in it. She has the vertiginous sense of two dimensions becoming three.
Blank space behind the body becomes a white room. Studio-like but more profoundly empty than any imaginable studio. Not so much three white walls as three cardinal directions of limitless space. Of course the body should be pressed up against the canvas. What lies beyond is oppressive emptiness.
A good place to hide a stolen painting? Or the most exposed space conceivable?
She crosses the hall again, past the bench, the woman, the man and his daughter. The art students all wear brown shoes. She keeps the purple scape on her left.
At the other end of the long hall is a third painting. It is tiny, an eighth of the size of the others. At first, it is difficult to make out what the many blotchy shapes are supposed to convey. It is only by unfocusing her eyes that Marina realises it’s a painting of people, so small that they are blurred, pixelated. There are maybe a hundred of them, squeezed in around what looks like a wide blue lake. She squints closer. Something in the water is holding their interest. Some spectacle or disaster. She tries to make out their expressions, but it’s impossible to tell if they are laughing or screaming.
Their indistinct expressions unnerve her. She avoids looking back over her shoulder at the woman whose face is obscured by her map, or the father visible only from behind.
The lake scene is sinister to Marina. She thinks of her stolen painting and the water and all those jostling bodies. Her canvas would be touched, bumped, ruined. She might be laughed at for stealing it. Why would you even want that one? Not worth taking.
Yet she might be hidden in plain sight there. Flee through the crowd, one thief amongst a hundred distracted people. Perhaps there is safety in numbers.
She looks for a fourth painting on a fourth wall but there isn’t one.
She crosses the room again, this time keeping her head down completely. The people around her are just shapes, fragments of colour in her periphery.
This time she walks straight across the strange landscape, her feet treading in mauve pools of blooming shadow and skidding over the light. The surface is dusty and tremulous, as if a sharp breath, like the blowing out of a candle, could chase it away.
She turns her gaze on the horizon and heads towards it, sometimes stumbling over the uneven, shifting surface. She feels herself become smaller and smaller, disappearing towards that point in the distance, the vanishing point, the North Star. It’s like going layers and layers down into an illusion, or entering a dream within a dream. Like a child trying to hide by crawling into a cupboard, creeping behind a box, closing their eyes and putting two hands over them. Layers and layers.
She can’t stay here. The painting can’t stay in the gallery. She has to steal it.
She steps away from the painting reluctantly, finding herself once again larger than its limits, once more thrust back behind the veil. Its lines are no longer complex terrain beneath and beyond her but simply lines, one-dimensional and lifeless. It’s like fishing a glimmering stone out of the sea and taking it home only to find that it’s turned dull and dry in your hand.
She’s a fast runner. The empty space opposite will be safer than the crowd at the lake. She will grab the painting from this wall and sprint for the opposite side, where she will just have to dodge the body.
Then there would be total silence. She would find a corner of that infinite space, somewhere irretrievable. A box inside a cupboard with your eyes closed.
She glances around to see if she is being watched. The art students are still distracted by one another, the woman has not yet deciphered her map, the adults gathered around the sculpture haven’t moved. The man and his daughter are still frozen in some kind of endless silent standoff.
It’s the perfect moment. She hesitates, looks around again. The perfect moment lasts another few moments, then another. The room is perfectly still. Ignoring that fact, Marina takes two paces towards the purple painting and puts her hands on it.
Her fingers skate over its surface, finding no grip. There’s nothing for them to curl around, no frame, no edges.
There’s no difference between painting and wall: what had looked like the side of the canvas is just clever shading. It’s as if the painting is painted onto the wall.
There’s a hand on her shoulder and she steps away from the painting. Dark wood walls come into view. People’s voices, their impatient footsteps, the wailing of a child all intrude on her consciousness at once. There are fluorescent strip lights embedded in the ceiling and CCTV cameras crouching in all four corners.
She turns to see Milo looking at her.
“I don’t think you’re meant to touch them,” Milo says. Then she looks at the painting and makes a face. “Trust you to find the most boring one in the place.” She prods it. “Is it meant to be meta or something? Look, the proportions are all off. And none of the people even have proper faces.”
Milo’s finger is pointing at one of the art students. His profile is vaguely sketched but there is no definition in his features apart from some vague shading. He wears brown shoes.
“Come on,” says Milo. “I’ve found one that’s so good you’d swear it’s a photograph.”
Marina’s still looking at the painting. From here, the thirteen-year-old is no more than a hint of blue and brown beyond her father’s back. The young, reverent man never had a face.
The purple painting is not a square but a rhombus, that trick of perspective that artists use to give the illusion of three dimensions. It’s nothing but angles.
She can hear people tramping across the gallery floor, which is creaky in more than one place. Someone pauses behind her for a moment, then scoffs.
“Don’t think much of that one,” they say, and then they are gone. Just like that, all the magic is wiped away like a smear from a window.
Marina is left hollowed-out and disoriented like the contorted body. She’s about to turn away from the picture and follow Milo when she spots something she hadn’t noticed before. In the painting of the gallery, on the opposite wall, among the crowd of faceless people around the lake, someone holds something aloft. Marina steps forward.
It’s a postcard.
It bears an image of perhaps a mountain range, perhaps a desert, hinted at by the briefest of paint strokes. Probably an afterthought by the artist.
But there’s a square flag flying in the foreground of the postcard. Not a square. A rhombus.
Marina first crosses the fishbone floor and then begins to push through the crowd. They are immobile, and she doesn’t look too closely at them as she passes. The lake is eerily flat and icily blue beside her.
She has her eyes on the postcard. She wants to head into those mountains and keeping walking into the distance. She wants to follow one more North Star.