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Larry Doyle walked straight into the supervisor’s office without knocking. Nolan looked up from his desk, careful not to disturb the precarious architecture of his comb-over. The flyaway strands of hair were the bane of his existence. Nolan dreamed of close-cropped wiry hair and the luxury of holding his head upright in the wind. Larry stared him in the eye and announced, “I am an exhibit.” Nolan was speechless.
Larry stood next to Montauti’s Bust of a Grotesque Old Woman. He posed, arms akimbo and left knee bent, face uplifted to display his imperfection to the passing trade. He greeted onlookers with an enigmatic smile.
“Get back to work,” Nolan demanded.
Larry ignored him.
The other guards hissed angrily, “What do you think you’re playing at?”
He took no notice and concentrated all his effort on being an exhibit.
Larry Doyle had an unsightly wen on the side of his head, below his left eye. He was born with the growth, a narrow tapering cyst like the sprouts on potatoes stored for too long. The growth was diagnosed as non-malignant, an unfortunate polyp but entirely harmless. His father would not hear of surgery, “I’m not letting those chancers near Larry.” He swore by raw garlic as a cure-all and had no time for doctors or hospitals. “Leave the thing there,” he said, “it’ll be character building.”
Wen aside, Larry was different from other children. When he was three, he insisted on sleeping in the kitchen sink. There was nothing his mother could do. He kicked and squealed when she tried to move him. She lay down towels as bedding and a pillow on the draining board to cushion his stubborn head. He slept in the sink for three weeks until, for no apparent reason, he abandoned his nest and returned to his cot.
He spoke backwards on Sundays, walked backwards and put on his clothes back to front. On his way to school, he avoided cracks in the pavement or stepped on every crack. He kept his father amused with his attempts at mimicry. For a short time after seeing Julius Caesar on TV, Larry adopted the persona of the venerable Shakespearean actor, Sir John Gielgud. He addressed his schoolmates in a decent approximation of Sir John’s mellifluous voice, informing them that they were of such things as dreams are made of. He was told to “clear off you ugly git unless you want a good kicking.”
His teachers were unhappy with his progress and went so far as to consult an educational psychologist. In his report, the psychologist wrote that “there is evidence of psychosis with elements of a delusional disorder.”
“What a load of nonsense.” His father was outraged. “There’s nothing wrong with the lad that a good hat won’t cure.”
Larry tried different caps and hats but containment of the wen caused irritation and it turned a deep crimson.
Allowing his hair to grow and brushing it to one side provided partial cover. Even this was denied him when in his late teens he began to lose his hair. Baldness was a legacy of a paternal grandfather who possessed a smooth pate by the time he was twenty-five.
“Your great grandfather had a fine head of skin,” Larry’s father liked to say.
In the company of strangers and those who knew him, Larry looked away or at the ground. He avoided mirrors. By the time he no longer needed his father's consent, he could not face the thought of an operation. The prospect of going under the knife was too frightening. Worse still was the ordeal of exposing his deformity to close examination. Not knowing what to do, he put off making a decision.
Larry found work as a guard in an art gallery on Dublin’s north-side. The collection included two Picasso drawings, lesser Giger surrealism and some German decadents. His first day on the job, Larry braced himself in anticipation of the staring eyes. He need not have worried. Nobody looks at a guard in a uniform whether in a museum, a shopping mall or an airport. The natural inclination is to look away.
The job was not taxing and the eight hour shifts hung heavy on his hands. He had little to do but observe the visitors as they examined the paintings and read the panels that gave the artist’s name, years and place of birth and death. He watched the faces of those who stopped at Montauti’s sculpture of the wizened crone and noted their expressions of interest and appreciation.
The experience of being an anonymous gallery guard was alienating. Every day, the gallery goers walked past him without a second look, as if he wasn’t there. Larry was drawn more and more to the artworks and the Montauti piece in particular. He barely paid attention to his duties, such as they were. One morning, he woke up believing he was an exhibit.
On his second day as an exhibit, Larry took up his position beside the Montauti bust, this time standing on an upturned metal bin he had brought with him to serve as a pedestal.
“Get off that bin,” Nolan ordered.
Larry turned his head. The wen appeared larger and redder. Nolan shook his head with frustration, undoing his delicate arrangement of sparse hair. There was nothing for it, he would have to inform the gallery director.
Alexander Halliday was working from home on plans for a retrospective on decadent art banned in Germany in the 1930s. He was spending less time at the gallery, preferring to devote himself to pet projects. The humdrum of administration and tedious logistics he left to Nolan.
“Halliday speaking,” he answered the phone with his unmistakable plumminess.
In person, the director was a figure of gargantuan proportions, a morbidly obese mountain of flesh. His enormous bulk filled an oversized blazer. Huge elasticated trousers restrained his multiple bellies. A voluminous cravat was hidden in the folds of his neck.
“You’ve got to get over here,” Nolan was frantic. “We have a major problem on our hands.”
Halliday took a taxi as he did not drive. The contortions required to operate a car were too much for a man of his bulk. Reclining in the back seat, he indulged in his particular fantasy for Alexander Halliday liked to imagine he was a cat, covered in a shiny coat of blue-black fur from the tip of his tail to the top of his feline head. He dreamed of rubbing his slender body against the car seat and spraying his scent. His whiskers quivered with the vividness of his fantasy.
The decision to recruit Larry was down to him. Halliday was used to the looks of disdain that the very fat receive from the slim and underfed. He felt a kinship with Larry, an affinity born from a shared sense of exclusion and rebuke. His business partner, Eleanor Savage, did not agree but she left the hiring and firing to Halliday. She was a wealthy socialite and her involvement in the gallery was no more than a vanity project. She dressed in expensive gaudy outfits and had no sense of colour or understanding of art. Eleanor never felt other than herself.
Nolan was waiting for him at the gallery. “It’s an absolute disgrace,” he could barely contain his rage. “That freak says he's an exhibit.”
“What’s all this about?” Halliday asked Larry. “Are you not feeling well?”
Larry smiled. “Everything is fine.” It was all he had to say.
“Sack him,” Nolan urged but Halliday would not hear of it. “At the very least,” Nolan persisted, “stick him in with the Ferrarese paintings.” He was referring to the collection of religious art that was seldom visited.
The director refused, it would not do to have The Holy Virgin in her gold head-plate and the infant Jesus look down on Larry standing on his bin.
Halliday could see the interest the new exhibit was attracting. Never had so many people gathered around the Montauti statue. They showed initial surprise and confusion, then curiosity and fascination. He read the entries in the Visitor’s Book. “Interesting counterpoise of facial studies: Ivor Cohen, Leeds.” “I don’t know what to make of it: Ms. Emily Bea, Co. Cork.” “Cool guy with the head thing going on: Megan C, Madison WI.” “Why do you not publicise the experimental Montauti work: Bill de Gruyse, Toronto.”
There was not enough room for all the curious spectators. A dedicated space was required for such a popular exhibit. Halliday chose an area with no seating that contained four paintings. Larry climbed onto an oak veneered plinth and stood in front of the gallery’s one painting by Lucas Cranach. It was a depiction of Venus as a wanton seductress with slanting eyes and braided hair. The juxtaposition of Larry and his protruding facial growth with the alluring Venus draped in gossamer was striking.
Word of mouth brought more visitors to the gallery. Some were nosey and disapproving but more were captivated by what they saw. They looked at the wen, then the painting of the siren and back to the wen. The three portraits of important figures of the German Protestant Reformation were ignored. Nobody in the room paid any heed to Halliday, such was the hold the exhibit had on them. The young man with his dangling wen was the star attraction. Halliday could see that the viewers identified Larry as the work of art. Cranach’s painting was a backdrop, part of the scenery.
The queues grew longer and showed no signs of diminishing. Extra guards were required to control the human traffic. A barrier was erected to keep visitors separated from the exhibit. It did not stop the overly inquisitive from reaching over to touch the wen. The plinth was replaced by a raised turntable and Larry rotated out of reach of his appreciative audience. He suffered dizziness at first but it passed.
An article appeared in the Evening Herald, describing the unusual gallery exhibit. Then an opinion piece and commentary in the editorial. A column in the news section generated greater publicity. The headline read; “Living Exhibit Draws Record Crowds.” Halliday knew it was time for a temporary withdrawal of his art installation.
“I have bigger plans to showcase your artistry,” Halliday told Larry.
A bed was set up in the basement and two paintings by Tissot and Orpen were moved with a stand so Larry could pose in private.
“How do you like these arrangements?” the director asked.
“Everything is fine” was Larry’s reply.
Halliday instructed the guards to visit at regular intervals. In this way, Larry continued to exhibit albeit to a smaller audience. The guards were sick of the sight of him. They had resented him from the start, this deviant who they were sure was hired because of some equal opportunity incentive. Worse still, the deformed prick had never pulled his weight on the job.
In the meantime, Halliday expedited his plans for a retrospective on degenerate art. He called in favours, begged and cajoled in order to add to the gallery’s collection. He secured ten paintings, enough to satisfy the requirements of a retrospective. This would be a retrospective with a difference courtesy of a most remarkable inclusion, the living statue that was Larry Doyle and his wen.
Eleanor voiced her concerns. “How can we display a mutant with accredited works of art?” she protested, adjusting the cuffs of her loud tartan suit.
Halliday was not going to be derailed by bourgeois scruples. He dipped into his own savings to buy advertising space in art magazines and arranged for the leading critics and media savvy artists to be present at the opening night. Those who did not receive an invitation could attend and enjoy a glass of wine and hors d'oeuvre at an exorbitant price. All the tickets were snapped up.
The difficulty was in finding a way to incorporate Larry with the work of Ernst Kirchner, Otto Dix and Hans Baluschek. Halliday devised a pulley system that transported Larry on a wheeled platform along a short rail, stopping at each painting before moving on to the next. He was dressed in a white singlet and shorts, neutral clothing that threw his wen into sharper relief. It was a masterstroke. The wen drew the viewers’ eyes to the depiction of war cripples, nightmarish battle scenes and off-kilter nudes. Larry embodied the vision of the artists and illuminated the unknowable darkness portrayed in pigment and oil.
Expectant art lovers queued outside the gallery on a drizzly night in mid-December. Eleanor was there to greet them in a garish gown that clashed with the sombre paintings. Halliday recognised the influential art critic Magnus Freund among the first to arrive. With his brushed back greying hair and intense stare, he resembled an older Otto Dix. The director felt his chest would burst as he watched Freund, waiting for a reaction.
The critic emptied his wine glass, raised it in the air and bellowed “bravo”.
Bravissimo,” others took up the call and broke into loud and sustained applause. Larry continued his slow progress along the line of paintings, unmoved by the tumultuous acclamation.
Halliday drew Freund’s attention to the catalogue that went with the retrospective. The critic leafed through the pages, nodding his approval. Halliday had written a precis of the lives and work of each artist. He described Larry Doyle as the performance artist sui generis who symbolised the indomitable spirit of creativity. The Nazi doctrine of a hierarchy based on appearance was exposed as iniquitous by Larry’s artistry, which transcended the superficial.
Those present were directed to the display of catalogues. Nolan dealt with cash and credit card payments. He was wearing a jaunty Tyrolean hat for the occasion. Halliday whisked Larry away to the basement. It was crucial he was kept away from journalists. Larry posed before the Tissot for thirty minutes, then retired to bed and slept soundly.
The retrospective was a resounding success and the reviews were brimming with praise. “The Best Art Exhibition of the Year”. “Nazi Banned Art Receives an Edgy New Perspective”. “A Triumphant Take on Degenerate Art”. The name Larry Doyle spread like wild fire across the art world. The gallery was inundated with requests to interview the brilliant young performer.
“All the world and its mother wants to be an exhibit,” Nolan was typically disparaging. “Every bonehead you see is covered with tattoos. Street statues are ten a penny. Spray yourself with silver paint and stand still, where’s the talent in that?”
“Larry is different.” Halliday was quick to come to his defence. “Larry is unique.”
Nolan took malicious pleasure in the misinformation on the internet. Larry was described as a midget, a giant and a monster with two heads, the result of exposure to nuclear radiation. He could play Rachmaninoff on two pianos using the extra hands growing from his back. One blogger claimed he was a demented painter who recreated Nazi art, another was convinced he was Adolf Hitler’s great-grandson.
“We can ignore that inconsequential chatter.” Halliday was dismissive but he knew it was razzmatazz that would boost Larry’s renown.
The director considered his next move. It was best that Larry remained in absentia and shrouded in mystery. Halliday went to the basement and stood outside the door of his protégé’s room. He opened it a crack and looked inside. Larry stood on his pedestal, his face in profile. He appeared at ease, tranquil and untroubled.
Larry Doyle was in demand, crisscrossing the globe to perform at leading venues. Halliday enjoyed the benefits of success. He appreciated elaborately prepared food, vintage wine, XO cognac and the pungency of sixty-minute cigars. The opulence of luxury hotels offset the discomfort of air travel and time spent at airports. Of course, they travelled first class. Halliday no longer dreamed of an alternative self, of an imaginary sleek and svelte body.
They were in Madrid having returned from Las Vegas where Larry exhibited at the Bellagio with Warhol pop art. It was a lucrative stop on the tour though Halliday had been irritated by the naysayers who claimed he was pandering to a crass obsession with the grotesque. A triumph nonetheless, as was the week-long stint at the New York MOMA to reinterpret Pollock and Kahlo.
Audiences were still gushing over the show in Amsterdam where Larry had enlivened dismal Rembrandt. The money was rolling in. Larry Doyle was a bona fide cause célèbre.
He was the talk of social media. Everyone had something to say, from the hyperbole of cultural commentators to psychobabble about “exhibit therapy”. Through it all, Larry was the consummate professional. Whenever Halliday asked if a venue was suitable or if he required any changes, Larry would simply smile and say, “Everything is fine.”
His fame reached the schoolmates who made his life such hell. Now discontented office workers and labourers and taxi drivers, they shook their heads in wonder and remarked, “That ugly bugger Doyle has done well for himself.” When interviewed, they recounted a revised version of their shared history. “A very down to earth guy with no airs and graces,” one commented. “Larry was a good friend of mine and I don’t mind saying I had a hand in developing his art.”
If Larry’s father was asked about his son, he said something along the lines, “An artist or so I’ve been told but that’s all in the eye of the beholder.” This was usually accompanied by a burst of laughter and “I can remember him doing a half decent John Gielgud.”
Halliday watched the line of people that snaked along the walls of the Reina Sofia. Everyone wanted to say they had seen the world’s greatest performance artist. There was maximum security at the showings. No one with obvious facial growths, a boil or a carbuncle or, heaven forbid, a wen, was allowed entry. As owner of the Larry Doyle brand, Halliday was not taking any chances. Photography and filming were strictly forbidden. It had been necessary to seize and destroy concealed recording devices. Photographs posted on the internet were exposed as mock-ups and only added to the intrigue. Hand drawn sketches from memory by those who attended performances were worked into full portraits. Two of these were hanging in the gallery in Dublin where Eleanor Savage, resplendent in lemon or mauve, hosted private viewings.
Halliday walked under the banner, block capitals in black on a white background; “Alexander Halliday Brings You Larry Doyle”. He spotted Nolan who was wearing his ridiculous wig, the tight curls perched on his head so obviously synthetic.
“Is everything in order?” he asked.
Nolan pointed to the bank of screens showing footage from security cameras. Larry was on his pedestal, four bodyguards in black t-shirts nearby. The plinth was immobile; there was no need for gimmicks.
Spectators jostled one another, pushed and elbowed, climbed on the backs of those in front to get a clearer view. The stony-faced bodyguards watched the crowd as the large electronic stopwatch counted down the allotted seconds. A strict five-minute limit was imposed. They were fixated on Larry, not Picasso’s mural, that symbol of destruction in the bombing of Guernica. Their attention was given to the human miscreation.
6. An End
Halliday opened the Japan Times at the arts page. He sipped his glass of freshly squeezed orange juice and licked the pulpy residue from his lips. The art critic wrote that the staging of Larry with Eitoku panels of stylised flowers and birds was transforming. The Tokyo exhibit was set to be another crowd pleaser. He had to tell Larry the good news.
Twenty floors above the room where Halliday was having breakfast, Larry awoke in a confusion of silk sheets and pillows. He lay still for some time before pulling himself into a seated position. He raised a hand to his head and felt the wen. His heart sank as he remembered his ugliness. The selective blindness had passed, a temporary psychosis that enabled him to deal with the terrible growth. Larry had been elsewhere but the wen remained where it always was.
It was Halliday’s worst nightmare, a disaster, the worst of all possible outcomes. Larry Doyle no longer believed he was an exhibit. He would not listen to reason.
Halliday tried gentle encouragement, “You’re tired, you just need some rest to recharge your batteries.”
“No,” Larry muttered, eyes fixed on the ground, wincing at Halliday’s every word.
“Consider our commitments, you can’t stop now.” Halliday appealed to him, thinking of the up-coming exhibitions in Seoul and Beijing.
“No,” it was all Larry would say.
Nothing was fine anymore.
7. Not the End
Halliday stood waiting, a tingle of anticipation running through his body. He was not nervous, he was ready. Whatever would become of Larry, he wondered. The diehard critics had labelled him the performance artist with no performance or actual artistry. He was just a young man with a wen. His popularity was a rejection of art according to the same critics. Yet it was Larry and not any painting or sculpture that the public had wanted to see, an exhibit in the living flesh.
The wen was gone, removed by laser surgery, a relatively simple procedure that left no scarring. Larry Doyle was now an ordinary bald man with no distinguishing features, nothing that set him apart. Halliday had taken a risk with Larry. There had always been an element of unpredictability about him but that was irrelevant now. Larry had paved the way, he was a pioneer and there was no taking that from him.
Halliday could hear the whispers and coughs as the people assembled. It was almost time. He readied himself and felt the sheen of the singlet between his fingers, the same singlet and shorts that Larry had worn but of course a far bigger size and cut to best display Halliday’s fluid mass.
The cover was lowered and he adopted his pose, for Alexander Halliday was the exhibit they had come to see.