This short story was inspired by a piece of public art outside the International Perfume Museum in Grasse in the South of France. The city has a century long association with the perfume industry and much more detail than I can possibly convey can be found by following this link to its website at http://www.museesdegrasse.com/en/history-international-perfume-museum
It is worth a read and the Museum, as well as the city of Grasse itself, are worth a visit. The picture above is of me outside the Museum in 2014 alongside this fabulous work of public art called The Man Who Wrote On Water. Bizarrely you will find no mention of the piece on the Museum website. Foolishly I did not take the artists details or note the exact French title of the work on the basis that, as this is the modern world, as with everything else, you can ‘google’ it.
As a courtesy I would like to mention the artist and give them due credit as my inspiration. Okay, not a Nobel Prize but I feel they are due some acknowledgement! Problem is, I cannot find this piece anywhere on the web. My English title draws a blank, while my attempts to use my GCSE level French to get back to the original title are not helping either.
Quite possibly I am missing something obvious so if anyone out there can help with the original French title or name of the artist, let me know.
For now, here is the story…..
The Man Who Wrote, On Water
It seemed like a good idea at the time. One of seven artists, each challenged to come up with a piece, on water. Or so he thought.
In retrospect he could see that the wording was ambiguous:-
Seven new talents required to write, act, dance, paint, play or otherwise perform, on water. No previous experience required.
He set to work immediately, honing perfumed phrases, making endless trips to the harbour. At the quayside he calculated the flow and rhythm of the river, its rise and swell from the passing ships, the sound of its lapping against the ferry landing.
Having advanced his name he was delighted to quite quickly find an acceptance in the post.
Please attend at such and such a place, on such and such a date, at such and such a time, being prepared to write, on water. Dress code: smart casual.
Smart casual? The requirement was strange for a writer but, determined to make a good impression, he had the second of his two decent suits dry cleaned.
Inspired by the prospect of publication the words began to flow even more freely. A cascade of words, a waterfall of words, an ocean of imagery. Nothing could stem the tide of his imaginative outpouring. In short, his creative cup was overflowing.
The day arrived.
He entered a building of luminous yellow and, having made his enquiries at reception was directed into a waiting area with all the personality of a government department, formal noticeboards, laminated instructions and not a drawing pin out of line.
He had arrived promptly and expected that, whatever form the interview might take, he would be able to come and go anonymously without meeting the other candidates. Within minutes however six others had joined him, each displaying that uneasy mix of enthusiasm and fear, characteristic of those edging towards the unknown. The room bristled with anticipation.
Each greeted each with polite nods and a certain sense of uncertainty. How would these artforms mix? Some form of anthology, or video diary? A performance piece perhaps?
Nothing had been requested in advance but it was clear that all seven were in a state of readiness and preparation. The papers containing his notes, poems and prose pressed heavily against his chest inside his suit jacket. It was tighter than he remembered, having confined its use to the occasional wedding, funeral or interview occasions.
At last the first name was called and an unkempt youth sprang to his feet then through an open door, as indicated by an assistant. From the other side of the door muffled voices, silence, then a brief exchange.
The young man emerged, evidently flustered, with his right arm wet up to the elbow, shaking his head.
“They have got to be joking, man!”
he blurted, to no-one in particular, before hastily leaving the building.
The remaining six exchanged bewildered glances before a second name was called. A smartly dressed woman moved tentatively towards the door. The assistant smiled benignly, the woman edged past her nervously.
In the waiting room it was possible to hear a similar routine being played out behind the door. Tension around the room increased. The woman emerged, red-faced and exasperated, shaking her wet left arm. She quickly smoothed her skirt then left without a word.
Twice more similar performances followed with equally baffling results. Whatever the interview process, the candidates did not appear to be measuring up!
Two men and two women had ventured and returned so far. He looked at the two women who remained in the room with him, trying not to be conspicuous about the fact that he was looking at them. Exchanges between the women over the course of the proceedings so far suggested that the two knew each other, or at least had met before.
The first, upon being called, gave the other a hug, which was reciprocated along with a warm,
before the assistant, now taking on something of the aspect of a guardian at the gates of Hell, guided her through the door.
This time the voices were raised more quickly and the exchanges were sharper. The woman emerged, this time with both arms wet, and declared to her friend,
“I’ve done yours too. Really, it isn’t worth it!”
Shaking both arms she headed quickly for the exit, pursued by her friend, leaving him alone in the room.
Moments later the assistant emerged and, upon seeing him alone, an eyebrow quivered slightly in silent supplication.
“She’s gone”, he said, stating the obvious.
“Okay”, she replied, “we’ll just have to take you then.”
He reflected briefly on the woman’s lack of people skills but decided against saying anything for fear of prejudicing his chances.
He stood up, feeling uneasy in the underworn suit and followed her through the door. He touched the papers in his inside pocket as he passed through into a huge amphitheatre space. At the back of the hall was a makeshift desk, behind which sat three officials, pens poised.
This much he had expected but, just in front of the desk and the officials, was a far stranger site; seven ceramic baths lined in a row.
Looking at them from left to right he noted that the first five baths were empty, having been drained of their contents. The sixth remained three-quarters full, while the seventh, like the first five had been drained dry.
“Bonjour,” chirped the officials in unison, “Asseyez-vous, s’il vous plait.”
French? He thought, why this?
“Parlez-vous francais?” asked official number one.
“Un petit-peu”, he responded uncertainly, feeling his chances of success beginning to drain like the empty baths.
“Perhaps we proceed in English then?” suggested official number two.
“Peut-etre,” he replied, much to his surprise and the bemusement of the officials.
“English it is then,” concluded official number three.
That settled, the initiative passed back to the first official, who launched into what was clearly a well rehearsed script.
“We are here on behalf of the Artist,” he began, “whom we have commissioned to create an iconic piece of public art.”
The ‘creation’ of icons troubled him, they should surely emerge over time? However, he kept quiet.
“The Artist has a concept,” continued number one, “about the ephemeral nature of art, indeed all creative endeavour, and is looking to represent that concept through this scene.” He waved expansively to indicate the baths. “Each of these bathtubs represents a different artform,” he continued, “and the Artist will work to deliver his message through these images.”
He considered the somewhat disconsolate array of empty tubs in front of him, wondering exactly what ‘message’ an unsuspecting public might finding winging in their direction.
“Seven”, said number two, as if reading his thoughts, “Seven is a number with metaphysical significance. The seven deadly sins, Shakespeare’s seven ages of man for example.”
“Dante’s seven circles of Hell”, offered number three, to his colleagues’ obvious chagrin.
Very literary, he thought.
“Six of the seven artforms have so far disappointed”, number one again, “they seem to have failed to grasp the concept of the Artist. Their tubs, as you can see, are empty.”
He stood up and walked down the line of bathtubs. Number two picked up the commentary as he passed the first tub.
“Painting, what is there to say after Warhol? Once it became clear that this art is not art, but product like any other, it is no longer important. Okay you have the rare exception, like Banksy, but Damien Hirst? Tracey Emin? Margaret Thatcher in an unmade bed! Dry, as you can see.”
Hard to argue, he thought. Number one picked up the thread at the second tub.
“Acting, no creative input or personal interpretation any more. All about the effects, the box office, the lowest common denominator, also dry. The lost art of photography,” continued number one as he passed the third tub, “surpassed by the digital revolution, democratised to the point of being meaningless with iphones and ipads. Anyone can take a photo now? But what about composition, meaning, impact? Show me the new Gerda Taro or Robert Doisneau.”
“Dance”, said number three at the fourth tub, “can anyone really understand it?”
These boys are not pulling any punches he thought, as he reached the fifth tub wondering what would be in store next and for whom. It was not long in coming.
“As for music”, number two picked up the baton again, “the worst offender! Oozing indiscriminately from every shopping mall, car and street corner, reduced to a catalogue of digital sequences. Virtually anyone can press a few buttons and become a millionaire overnight!”
“Yeah, keep the beat and you can stay in the seat!” chipped in number three. No one laughed.
Passing the sixth tub he was waved on briefly to the seventh.
“Video film making”, said number one.
“Not even an artform is it?” came back number two.
“Don’t know why it’s there”, added number three.
He stepped back slightly and positioned himself behind the sixth tub, finding his voice at last.
“So, what is it that you have in store for poetry and literature?” he asked. “Surely no one can measure up to the great artists of the past. We have no Shakespeare, Brontes, Cervantes or Dante. We have no Bertolt Brecht, Doris Lessing or Pablo Neruda on the horizon. Where is the new Maya Angelou? Will we find a new Toni Morrison when the time comes? Gabriel Garcia Marquez……”, his voiced trailed off as his arms opened wide to provide the missing question mark.
The officials looked as though they were about to burst into a round of applause but in a collective effort of bureaucratic restraint, prevented themselves from doing so.
“These are the very questions to which we need answers”, beamed number one, “your colleagues all failed to see that point, hoping that they had been invited here to fulfil some commission or compete for some ill deserved award. The Artist has asked for an interpretation of the current state of their art from each of the invited artforms, using the bath and water provided. Most, simply pulled out the plug.”
“The video woman didn’t event do that”, chipped in number three, “her mate pulled the plug for her.”
Very telling, he thought.
He looked across the six empty baths and contemplated the full tub in front of him. He had not met the Artist but knew some of his work and would be suitably flattered to feel that he had contributed to an important piece, should the public accord it the hoped for iconic status. On the other hand, the time and effort put into creating the poetry and prose, on water, would appear to have been wasted. There would though, be other opportunities for his writing, there may not be other chances to make a symbolic statement about his craft.
He looked each of the officials in the eye. They met his stare and awaited his response.
“Poetry and literature are immersive experiences”, he declared as, fully clothed, he stepped into the full tub of water before him.
Unbuttoning the too tight suit, he felt the water fill his boots and creep into the pockets of his trousers as he sat down. He could feel the pockets of his jacket fill as, draping his left arm over the side of the bath, he waved his right index finger over the rising water, in shapes that only he could understand.