Big Echo

Critical SF

The Work of Art in the Age of Molecular Reproduction

by Anton Rose

Even the most perfect reproduction of a work of art is lacking in one element: its presence in time and space, its unique existence at the place where it happens to be. 
—Walter Benjamin

After dinner, Richard ushered his guests through to the exhibition room. They shuffled forwards, the air thick with anticipation, each of them eager to see what delights had been prepared. Ben followed at the back of the group, holding a glass of wine, thinking how much more fun this would have been if Laura had come too.

The room had been transformed in the three months since Ben’s last visit. Then, Richard was obsessed with twentieth century art, and the walls had been covered with the stuff: Cezanne, Klimt, Warhol, Duchamp. The centrepiece of the collection was Picasso’s Guernica. It hung there in its splendour, all four by eight metres of it, a perfect copy, molecule for molecule.

Now Richard had cast his sights further back into history. The paintings were gone, replaced by glass cases with papyrus scrolls, rows of jewellery shaped like scarab beetles, and a gold and blue bust of Tutankhamun.

“Welcome to the land of the Pharaohs,” Richard said, grinning.

After a short impromptu round of applause, the huddle of guests began to disperse around the room. Ben saw Richard standing next to a large clay vase, talking to a couple he didn’t recognise. He drained the glass of wine and set it down by one of the display cabinets.

He approached a table in the corner of the room. A metallic frame rested on the wood, propping up a sheet of papyrus. It was covered with symbols and shapes, lines of white-robed people waiting to be judged, and jackal-head Anubis, standing by his scales.

Next to the papyrus was a small tag: The Book of the Dead (1275 BCE – 2034 CE). One number for the original carbon dating, one for the date of the copy.

“Planning a funeral?”

Ben turned to see Richard’s wife walking towards him. “Julia, hi,” he said. He kissed her on the cheek. “It’s lovely to see you.”

“You too. I’m sorry I didn’t get to speak to you over dinner. That’s the trouble with having so many guests. I always tell him to trim the invites, but you know what he’s like.”

Ben smiled. “If there were fewer guests, there’d be fewer people to show off to.”

“Quite.” Julia leaned forwards, looking at the book. “There’s something a bit creepy about this, don’t you think?”

“It is slightly morbid. Interesting, though.”

Julia looked around the room. “No Laura tonight?”

“No, I’m afraid not. She wasn’t feeling very well. She asked me to send her apologies.”

“Sorry to hear that. Tell her I hope she’s feeling better soon.”

One of Julia and Richard’s daughters appeared in the doorway, waving her hand. “It looks like I’m needed,” Julia said. She touched Ben’s shoulder. “Make sure you don’t leave without saying goodbye.”

Ben turned to look at the centre of the room. Richard stood alone, by a glass table. He wore a cream jacket and a red and blue striped tie, a relic of their days together at college. When he saw Ben, he beckoned him over.

Ben approached the table, seeing the dark lump of stone sitting on top of it. He looked at Richard. “Is that the-”

“The Rosetta Stone, yes,” Richard said. “Well, not the Rosetta stone, of course. But you wouldn’t be able to tell either way.”

“It’s marvellous,” Ben replied.

“You can touch it if you like.”

Slowly, Ben ran his fingers across the surface of the stone, feeling the different textures, the cuts and grooves of the engraved letters. “Do you have a translation for it?” he asked.

“Sort of. It came with a piece of paper, but for the life of me I can’t remember where I put it. I’d use the translation app on my phone but I don’t think it works on hieroglyphics.”

“Did you make it here?”

“God, no. I’ve got an old molecular printer in my study, and we’ve another in the kitchen, but neither of them are big enough for something like this.”

The stone sat on a rotating podium. Ben turned it until he could see the other side. “How much did it set you back, if you don’t mind me asking?”

“Oh, cheap as chips really. The scans are public domain now. There’s a chap on the Internet who does them, I’ve used him a few times before. The material is inexpensive at wholesale, so the biggest cost was delivery. I could order one for you, if you like?”

“I think I’ll manage without. But thanks for the offer.” Ben rotated the podium again.

“Anyway,” said Richard. “Have the two of you still not got round to getting a printer for yourselves?”

“No, not yet. You know what Laura’s like with that sort of thing.”

“Honestly, Ben. People will think there’s something wrong with you. You do have the Internet, don’t you? What about electricity? Running water?”

Ben rolled his eyes. “Yes, we do,” he said. “The outdoor toilet is a pain, though.”

Richard laughed. He took a sip of wine. “I tell you what, why don’t you come outside with me? I’ve got something I think you’ll like.”

They left the other guests and stepped out onto the patio. It was already getting late, but it was the middle of the summer and the sun was yet to complete its descent beneath the horizon. From the garden, Ben could hear a high-pitched whirring sound.

“Cicadas,” said Richard. “Irritating little shits, aren’t they?”

“I can imagine the sound wearing thin after a while.”

“The buggers kept me awake for ages last night. That’s the problem with this time of year. Close the windows, you can’t sleep for the heat. Open the windows, you can’t sleep for the noise. What’s a man to do?”

“Fix his air conditioning?”

“Fair point.” Richard led the way through the warm air, over to the annex which stood a hundred yards away from the house. Ben followed him round to the back, where a new wall had been constructed, adjacent to the old one. “What do you think?” he said.

The wall was made from white cement. A picture was painted onto it in black and white, showing a scarf-wearing thug, violence in his eyes, preparing to throw a bunch of flowers. Ben had seen it before, but only in books and on screens. “Incredible,” he said. “I thought the wall was destroyed. Jerusalem, was it?”

“It was,” Richard said. “Terrible business. But fortunately for us, some industrious so-and-so had the bright idea to scan it just in time. It was a few years ago now.”

“I thought the flowers were more colourful,” Ben said.

“They were, originally. But that’s the nature of outdoor pieces, I suppose. By the time they did the scan, the colours had faded.”

For a few minutes, they stood in silence. Ben could still hear the low hum of the cicadas in the distance. He walked back and forth next to the wall, taking in the picture from different angles.

“Did you hear about the incident with the Van Gogh the other day?” Richard said, breaking the silence.

“No?”

“Well you know what the estate is like. Very tetchy about who gets their hands on the paintings. A private collector put one of the wheat field pieces up for auction, list price of a few million. It was in the high security vault at Sotheby’s, but even still, someone managed to break in and pilfer it. The scans were available on the internet within hours, and the auction had to be cancelled. The scoundrels actually returned the painting a few days later, but by that point it was practically worthless. And of course there was no way of telling whether or not it was really the original.”

“Jesus,” Ben said, slowly shaking his head.

“So anyway,” Richard said. “Do you think she’ll like it?”

“Like what?”

“The Banksy. I got it for Julia, but she hasn’t seen it yet.”

Ben put his hand on Richard’s shoulder. “I think she’ll love it,” he said.

Back inside, Ben drank another glass of wine, had a good look at the rest of the exhibition, and made his excuses. The walk to the tube station was a short one, but on arrival Ben discovered there wasn’t a train due for another twenty minutes. Fortunately, the station held its own entertainment. Ben walked along the platform, studying the wall at the side. There were a series of posters and electronic screens advertising movies, videogames, and aftershave. But interspersed with the adverts was a new art installation, Monet’s Water Lilies arranged in chronological order.

Ben remembered a conversation he had with his Grandmother before she passed away. She told him about a trip to Paris she took when she was younger, all the famous paintings she saw at the Louvre. How she spent three hours in a Monet exhibition, and then went back for more the next day. Ben had been to Paris a couple of times, but he’d never actually been to the Louvre. It was a much smaller operation now, an anachronism kept open more because of tradition than anything else.

Slowly, he worked his way down the platform. The paintings were much larger than he expected them to be, and he paused to study each one for a couple of minutes. When he arrived at the third one, he could only shake his head and laugh. An enterprising member of the public had taken the opportunity to make their own personal addition to Monet’s work, spray-painting a large white penis across the centre of the canvas.

When Ben stepped through the front door he was hit by the smell of onions. He found Laura in the kitchen, chopping up ingredients.

“What on earth are you doing?” he said, smiling.

She kept chopping, her eyes trained on the vegetables. The workspace was covered: bowls full of diced vegetables, a steaming pot of stock, and vegetable scraps all over the place.

“I’m making soup,” she said.

Ben looked at his watch. It was past eleven. “Do you know what time it is?”

“I just felt like cooking. Thought we could have it for lunch tomorrow.” Laura bashed a clove of garlic with the side of her knife. “How was it, anyway? Doesn’t sound like you drank too much.”

“You would have enjoyed it,” Ben replied. “Perhaps not for the right reasons, though.”

She paused, wiping the blade of the knife. “Let me guess. Richard showed you some new additions to his collection.”

Ben took a glass from one of the cupboards. He filled it with water, drank it in one go, and filled it up again. “I touched the Rosetta stone,” he said, wiping the moisture from his mouth.

“No you didn’t. The Rosetta stone is in a case somewhere in the British Museum archives.”

Ben took a step towards her. He pulled back the hair from her fringe and kissed her on the forehead. “Seriously,” he said. “You should come next time we’re invited. I’d like it, if nothing else.”

She kissed him on the cheek. “I’ll think about it.”

Ben laughed. “That’s a no, then.” He took her hands in his and held them up to the light. They were spattered with paint, blue and green acrylics.  “You know, you should probably wash your hands before you cook.”

“I know. I forgot.”

“Well if I die from food poisoning, I’m blaming it on you.”

She slapped him gently on the arm.

“So did you have a productive evening?” he asked.

“Come and have a look.”

His hand in hers, she led him through to her studio. The floor was covered in newspaper, and a metallic easel stood in the middle of the room. The bases of the legs still held a reflective sheen, but further up, the metal was dark and blackened. A canvas rested on the easel, covered in paint.

As Ben approached the painting, he quickly recognised the scene.

“St Agnes,” he said. “Beady pool.”

“Bingo,” Laura replied. “I finished it half an hour ago.”

They had been there on their honeymoon, spent an afternoon on the beach. A picnic on the sand, followed by a leisurely swim in the sea.

Ben stood in front of the painting, slowly taking in the details. The sand was a pale yellow, and the blue sky was dotted with thin white clouds. A solitary bird hung in the air, its wings spread. But Ben’s favourite aspect of the picture was the water, glistening and shimmering, as though Laura had imbued the paint with purified sunlight. “It’s beautiful,” he said.

Laura came up beside him. In her hand, she held a cigarette lighter. She flicked back the roller, igniting the flame.

“Wait,” he said. “Let me spend some more time with it.”

“Okay,” she said. “I’ll get ready for bed and come back up.”

Laura closed the door behind her, while Ben approached the painting. With his face up close to the canvas he could see the individual brush strokes, could imagine the motion of her wrists. He could smell the paint, still drying.

He stepped back again, taking it all in. For a few minutes he studied the picture, trying to commit it to memory. He closed his eyes, holding the image in his mind, wedging it firmly into his brain.

The door opened and Laura entered, wrapped up in her dressing gown. When she was close enough, Ben put his arm around her waist. “Are you sure I can’t take a photo of it?” he asked. “Just one?”

“No.” There was steel in her voice. “No copies.” She wriggled away from his arm. Next to the light switch was another button. She pushed it, and looked up. There was a metal panel in the ceiling above the easel. It began to move, withdrawing from its position until there was a gap in the roof, a couple of metres across. Looking through the gap, Ben could see the night sky, dotted with stars.

Laura had the lighter out again. “Ready?” she asked.

Ben looked at his wife. There was a speck of blue paint, just under her left earlobe. He hadn’t seen it earlier. He looked back at the painting. “I’m never ready,” he said. “But it’s your painting. Your decision.”

Laura ignited the flame. She held it against the lower corner of the canvas until it caught on the material. The fire spread quickly. The paint crackled, spitting thin plumes of smoke which rose up, filtering through the gap in the roof. Ben felt Laura beside him, felt her hand in his.

In a matter of seconds, the colours in the painting became blackened and indistinct. Together, Ben and Laura watched the fire, until all that remained was ash.