by J.L. Flannery

From CHM #29 November 2022

The call I’d been waiting for finally came at 2am. Max’s name flashed on screen, lighting up the surrounding dark.

When I answered there was no ‘hello’ just: ‘I’m back from the lab. Come over, you’ve got to see this.’

Driving over to her house, I didn’t care about lack of sleep or the cold air biting at my hands on the steering wheel as I waited for the heaters to kick in. The last time I’d been this excited to be woken up in the middle of the night was when Heidi was born. Only this event had a lot more weighing on it than the birth of any human. If Max had really done what she claimed she had, this would change our worlds. For her, this could mean Nobel prizes; for me, I could end up as famous as Emin, Bourgeois, Kusama.

When I pulled up on the driveway, the garage door was wide open and Max was pacing up and down in jogging bottoms and sweatshirt, jittery from too much caffeine and adrenaline. As I got out, she gave a theatrical bow, smile all over her face as though the show was over. But I wasn’t ready to celebrate yet. Not until I’d witnessed it with my own eyes.

I asked her outright. ‘So, it’s really the blackest black?’

She nodded, a smugness in her smile. ‘Blacker than Vantablack. Than Black 2.0 too’

Our creation stood on a plinth, a white dustsheet hanging down over its spherical shape; a homemade Halloween ghost. She whipped the dustsheet away to reveal it in all its blackened glory. But without the sheet, the sphere disappeared and what remained looked flat and circular. Placing my hands on its flat shape I felt its sphere underneath my fingers. It was incredible. A magician’s trick of the art world: a flat circle when you looked at it, but physically it was round like a globe.

‘It’s carbon nanotubes right?’ I liked to pretend I understood the Science but really this was Max’s specialism. I conceived the art. She made the art happen. It didn’t matter to me what it was made of; just that it worked.

Max nodded. ‘And that’s not all. Just you wait to see what happens when I switch it on.’

She grabbed a flashlight and dimmed the lights. I heard the flick of a switch and a loud hum; one long bassnote that resonated through me and caused the bottles and junk lined up like soldiers on the garage shelves to rattle and shake.

For comparison, she shone the beam on the clinking bottles to show how the light bounced off their glass curves as they trembled under the vibration. Then she shone the beam on the plinth where I knew the carbon sphere was standing. There was no bouncing of light. No reflection.

‘Where’s it gone? I can’t see it.’

‘The paint that covers it is so dark it absorbs 100% of the light. It reflects no light back at all. Do you remember when Stebe made a diamond disappear by painting it?’

‘Of course.’

‘Well, the paint she used blocked out 99.995% of the light. This blocks 100%.’

We stood a while, staring at the spot where we knew our creation was, blending into the dark that surrounded it.

‘We’ve finally done it. The blackest black that ever existed.’

Max switched the light back on and poured us both a shot from the bottle of JD she had on her workbench. We clinked glasses.

‘Well, you’re the one who did it. My artwork will just bring it to the world’s attention. What’ll you call it when pantone come calling?’ I was only half joking. A creation like this deserved a name.

Max swigged her whiskey and poured another. ‘Not sure. Void Black, I guess.’

* * *

THE MODERN ARTIST

 ARTS & CULTURE REVIEW

Anxieties of a Modern World

The Art World Is a ‘VOID’ No Longer

 *****

by Theodore T. Thompson

An artist showcase that is a truly transformative experience only comes around once a lifetime. For the generation before us, there was Sensation; for my own generation there is Anxieties of a Modern World.

The scale of the exhibition explores small world anxieties such as ‘All of the Panic Attacks I’ve Ever Had;’ an autobiographical collection of travel tickets and other ephemera from the artist Joanie Slogan as well bigger world anxieties such as ‘Mask:’ a giant facemask made from discarded facemasks found by Antony Shane during the 2020’s pandemic. But for me the stand-out piece is VOID, a playful interactive globe sculpture showcasing the discovery of Void Black. Like a Victorian illusionist’s trick and with a nod to Stebe’s disappearing diamond ‘The Redemption of Vanity’ VOID is simultaneously flat and round; there and not-there. The piece invites you to consider the impact pollution and global warming has on our earth and our imminent destruction and is a tour de force for artists Maxine Littler and Kat Charles.

* * *

Every artist’s studio is a little reminiscent of Bacon’s; paint and debris piled high and mine was no exception. The piece we’d temporarily named VOID stood apart from the rest of the clutter; a guardian in the corner of the room overseeing everything while I worked on a new piece. It loomed in my peripheral vision; a constant reminder that everything else I’d made was dogshit in comparison. With only days left until the exhibition, I was desperately trying to create new pieces that would match its greatness but two hours later and all I had was twelve sketches screwed into paper balls. Finally, I had the idea of painting a canvas in various shades of gold to contrast with VOID but I had barely started mixing the shade I wanted when Max turned up red-eyed and stinking of last night’s booze.

‘I’ve just popped over to see how our new offspring’s looking.’

I didn’t look up. ‘Looks the same as it did in the early hours of this morning.’

‘Well, great because I just want to check it over before we take it to the exhibition hall.’

She began making adjustments, each clinking sound grating on my nerves. It was only when it started making that horrendous humming sound that I was forced to turn around and intervene.

‘What is that noise Max? What are you doing?’

I didn’t know quite what adjustments she’d made and maybe it was down to lack of sleep but, to me at least, VOID no longer looked flat. It looked like a hole had opened up mid-air in the centre of my studio.

‘Max, can you not just do whatever it is you’re doing at the gallery? I can’t concentrate with all that noise and I’m trying to get this painting finished. Does it even need adjusting anyway?’ I could hear the choke of desperation in my voice, and so could Max.

She flicked the switch off and the hum ended.

‘Of course, of course. I’m sorry.’

At college, we used to joke about how artistic temperament was a myth and now here I was becoming a stereotype. I couldn’t help myself. I was relieved when Max was gone with her exuberant chatter and frantic energy. There was silence again, but she’d left one hell of a mess behind. All over the floor where the plinth had been, void black paint had dripped and formed a small puddle.

‘For goodness’ sake Max. You could have cleared this up.’

I bent down and wiped it away, tossing the used shammy leather rag on my desk, next to the rest of the clutter.

Resting my canvas on my easel, I began pouring the gold paint over it, like I was icing a cake. Where VOID represented the future destruction of the earth and climate change, GOLD would be representative of the world’s greed and capitalism.

Minutes quickly turn into blissful hours, and when I was finished I turned to see it had turned dark outside and I hadn’t even noticed. I’d missed three messages from Carl asking if I was coming home to read Heidi a bedtime story. I hadn’t even eaten anything.

And my head was humming with ideas like the cavity inside my skull was full of bees.

* * *

THE REVIEW

Anxieties of a Modern World

VOID of any originality.

*

by Susan Young

As a critic, one longs for something fresh and exciting to review and Anxieties of a Modern World has certainly been billed as such by critics and art dealers the world over. Imagine my disappointment to find an exhibition of stale ideas that have been done before by other artists (and dare I say it with greater finesse). Even the most talked about exhibit, Littler and Charles’ VOID is merely an attempt to outdo Stebe’s painted diamond ‘The Redemption Of Vanity.’ At least Stebe’s diamond did its job quietly. The incessant humming of the globe is distracting and ruins the illusion that VOID is something other than a man-made machine.

* * *

They say creativity breeds creativity and that night I barely slept, brain buzzing with ideas. Next morning I dragged myself out of bed, exhausted to drop Heidi off at nursery and head straight over to get my latest piece finished.

The paint on GOLD had dried but it still wasn’t the stand-out piece I wanted. Like most of my art, the concept was better than the execution. GOLD just didn’t demand your attention the way VOID did. Didn’t burrow its way into your brain.

I sat staring at it a while, head buzzing.

No not buzzing; humming.

Where was that sound coming from? I got up and took a good look at where VOID had been plugged in, but of course, it was pointless. There wasn’t even a power cable plugged in anymore. Max had taken it with her when she had taken the piece away. So why could I still hear that irritating noise? I came back to my easel, but the sound only grew louder.

Then my gaze fell upon my desk. All the clutter that had been piled up; balled up paper, pens, paintbrushes, bottles of paint and inks. All of it had disappeared.

My head ached. Had I cleared up yesterday and forgotten? No, I was sure I hadn’t. Maybe Max had come back and cleared up for me. But where the paint covered rag had been sitting, a hole had burned right through the wood and a rag shaped VOID had opened up.

I stared at the tiny whirling black galaxy. This couldn’t be happening.

Tentatively, I poked the very tip of my finger into the hole and instantly pulled it out again; heart pounding, hand trembling. It felt like I’d put my finger through flame. I looked down at my reddened finger and its bubbled skin and felt sick. This thing we’d made, could be dangerous.

And then I realised that not only was it dangerous. It was where the humming was coming from.

There was no time to lose. I dialled Max, jabbering hysterically and, of course, she came right over and began lecturing me about burning the candle at both ends the second she stepped through the door. But when I showed her the rag shaped hole, for a moment, she was speechless.

Then when she did talk, it was with such excitement, I was a little taken aback.

‘This is amazing!’ she laughed. ‘You know what we’ve created? A goddamn miracle! That’s what.’

‘Are you crazy? It burned my finger.’ But when I held my hand out to show her, there was no blister there anymore.

She stared at my finger. And then at me.

‘I swear to you Max, when I touched it, it burned.’

But I could tell from her stony look that she didn’t believe me. And who could blame her? I knew it sounded crazy. But that made me even more determined to prove to her I was telling the truth.

‘Look, I’ll show you.’

Before I even knew what I was doing I’d plunged my fingers back in and my whole hand disappeared into my desk like the wood was made of liquid.

‘Jesus!’ Max stepped back, scared.

I gritted my teeth against the burning but then my wrist disappeared. And my forearm.

Soon I was up to my elbow.

‘Okay Kat you’ve proved your point. I think you should stop now.’

I tried to pull it back, but it wouldn’t budge. My whole arm seared in pain as the VOID pulled me in, deeper and deeper.

‘I can’t stop Max! Pull me out!’

Max gripped her arms around my waist and pulled as I screamed out, all the time the humming around us grew louder and louder. The burning sensation was moving up my body, the pain worse than labour. Worse than anything.

For every step Max pulled me backwards, I was sucked two steps farther into the hole. With one final yank backwards, I finally popped out, the two of us tumbling backwards like dominoes and crashing onto the studio floor. With the VOID still humming, Max got up, still dazed, and dashed over just as the VOID closed over.

‘It’s gone,’ she said. Then: ‘Jesus, look at the state of you. We should get you to a hospital.’

I looked down at my arm. Down one side the skin had split like a burst sausage, red flesh peeping through.

‘No.’ I cradled my wounded arm and shook my head. ‘I saw the way you looked at me. Even you thought I’d gone crazy, and you helped make this. What do you think a nurse or doctor is going to say? No. No hospitals. I’ve got a first aid kit under the sink. I’ll just bandage it up. My finger healed and went back to normal within minutes. There’s no reason why this shouldn’t heal itself either.’

* * *

The heat of my raw flesh radiates through the bandage as I pick up my brush to paint again. I grit my teeth through the pain and silently pray Max comes back soon with the painkillers I sent her to get. I remind myself that this pain will heal, but the pain of a bad review; well, that’s something I can’t afford to have. In my mind’s eye I imagine the disappointment on the face of critics like Susan Young, who’s notoriously hard to please and I just can’t leave GOLD as it is, no matter how much it physically hurts to paint.

I message Max to get me a sandwich for lunch while she’s out and I hear the buzz of her phone vibrating on my desk where she’s accidentally left it. Never mind. I guess I’ll have to go without.

Maybe it’s the adrenaline still pumping round my veins or the pain making me delirious, but whatever it is, suddenly I’m struck with an idea. A timelapse of me painting this piece. Creativity captured on film. Who cares what the canvas looks like in the end? Art is all about the process isn’t it?

So, I set my phone up opposite me and as the timer ticks by and the red light of the camera blinks, my canvas becomes transformed with streaks of gold and silver thread, a web growing and spreading across it. I’m concentrating so hard I almost forget the pain in my arm. Its only when I hear that noise again that my attention is pulled back in the room.

That humming sound.

Only this time I know it’s not anything inside the room causing it.

It’s the humming inside of me. Inside of my head.

The migraine hits, head spatchcocked in two. My paintbrush drops to the floor in what feels like slow motion. The canvas is infested by floating black shapes writhing like maggots in thin air. The room grows sepia tinted around the edges and just as Max walks in I’m overcome by an urge to rip off the bandage to heal the itch. I unravel it like an onion peel and beneath, where I expected to see burned flesh from my hand up to my elbow, instead is a whirling void.

* * *

INTO THE VOID – AN INTERVIEW WITH ARTIST MAXINE LITTLER

Fresh from her Turner Prize win for video installation ‘Memorial,’ scientist, artist and illusionist Maxine Littler looks tired and drawn. It’s no real surprise given that her prize-winning piece documents the final few hours of her long-term friend and collaborator Kat Charles, the footage filmed only a day before Charles’ family reported her missing. Such an achievement, I say, must be tinged with sadness.

‘Absolutely. I mean, for me personally, the footage is hard to watch, but Kat was so passionate about her art, and I think that really comes through in the video. She was a perfectionist and no matter what she did, she just never felt it was good enough. When I recorded that footage of her in her painting frenzy, I knew I was immortalising her genius for all the world to see.’ She sips her iced water, never quite meeting my gaze, which gives off the feeling that this is a well-rehearsed script. Perhaps that’s exactly what it is, given that everyone is scrambling to talk with her since her big win.

Littler burst onto the art scene only two months ago, exhibiting with Kat Charles, their collaborative art piece VOID but given Littler’s affection for her friend, she is surprisingly reluctant to discuss this particular piece. I have, like everyone else, heard the rumours about the lawsuit filed against her by the Heartford Gallery citing safety concerns after an eight-year-old boy got his hand caught in the exhibit, something Littler denies is her fault. There are rumours of a rift with Carl Charles too, Kat Charles husband, who has reportedly been vocal about a missing journal his wife had been writing at the time of her disappearance falling into ‘the hands of a frenemy’ and accusations that Littler is merely profiteering from his wife’s hard work. I have to admit that for someone who made her name inventing the colour Void Black, Littler appears to have developed a strange aversion to anything in this shade. All journalists when meeting her are instructed to wear only bright colours and when my black coffee finally arrives, she physically recoils at the sight of it. The waitress may as well have placed a dead rodent on the table in front of us.

She cuts our interview short, citing a family emergency, but later that evening, a quick Google search reveals that Littler has no other existing family. Who knows who or what she was rushing home to? Or from?

Our interview with her, for now at least, is terminated but one can’t help wondering what Kat Charles will have to say about ‘Memorial’ if, or when she ever does return.

END.

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JL Flannery lives in a small rural town in Warwickshire, UK and is currently working on her first novel set in 1920’s prohibition America. Her previous work has been adapted for podcast Pseudopod and has been published by Storgy and Horrified Magazine. Always happy to chat about books, film and cats, you can find her at JLFlannery.com

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