BY NICK PETROU
Shelly pricked her thumb with a safety pin and pressed it into the canvas. A month later, she was down three fingers and a toe.
Behind shades and a trench coat, Shelly entered the gallery. Students with streaks of coloured hair and satchels gathered around her work.
“What’s it supposed to be?” said one student.
“What do you think it is?” said another.
“I see a screaming face. It’s about pain, clearly.”
“See how it’s textured here — that’s her little finger. Pulverised, and mixed with her blood on a palette.”
A student with a bearish beard shook his head and walked away, passing right by Shelly, at whom he looked twice before leaving. The others did not seem to notice his departure, and went on blathering:
“I don’t get this whole menstrual art thing.”
“The destruction of one’s self so as to be seen.”
“To fit into society, represented by the square iron frame.”
“I see… prison bars. Yes, that.”
“What will she cut off next?”
Shelly rested the chisel upon her little toe, shut one eye, and lifted the mallet. A wet thud, and her toe shot across her studio. She bled herself into a bowl. Menstrual art? Amateurs. Blood is the true paint only when extracted from the vein. Shelly let the pain tolling through her like a church bell guide her hand. Her strokes were bayonet-thrusts to begin with, but then she inhaled her rust-scented blood and made a cello-bow of her brush, playing her canvas with such affection she wept.
Two ears and a leg-muscle later, and it wasn’t students studying her work but connoisseurs. Or as Shelly preferred to call them, turtlenecks. She could scoff at their tedious magazine-columns from home, but everything was truer in the flesh, so she stuffed a cash-wad in the donation box and limped into the museum. The turtlenecks gathered around her latest work and gibbered in pairs, reeking of second-hand books and sandalwood. Shelly got as close as she could without choking.
“Are the arts so saturated the contemporary must self-mutilate?” said one of the turtlenecks.
“She has all but forsaken the patterns of her earlier work,” said another.
“You’ll find your butcher makes cleaner cuts.”
This pair departed, and Shelly shadowed them into the next gallery.
As she sat on the backless sofa in the middle of the room, she winced, and the man on the far end of the sofa turned to her and said, “It’s not that bad, is it?” Shelly recognised him as the bearded student from the university gallery. He nodded to a landscape painting on the wall, a fine yet heartless work of oil portraying a valley in grades of sunlight. Cabins slept by a river. Children flew kites. “Christian,” he said, extending a hand. “It’s one of mine.”
Shelly kept both her stubs in her trench coat and stood. As she left, the pair she followed into the gallery stopped at Christian’s painting and spoke their ridiculous minds:
“Is it not a breath of fresh air?”
“Woefully simple, yet I’m… well, happy.”
“Paint what you know, I always say.”
“Yes, you needn’t have gone to war.”
Shelly sat on a stool between two mirrors and dipped her scalpel in a beaker of alcohol. Saturated? With faeces, perhaps. All art but hers was vapid — a night with a whore. She held the blade to where she approximated her kidney and drew a circle. When it was done, she staggered back into her studio, pulverised the organ, and streaked her canvas with the anxieties of God — as dark and broad as the cold end of His creation. Her vision fell in, but this only helped Shelly focus. The kidney was sticky and clotted; it needed to flow. She took up her pliers and stretched out her tongue.
Shelly wasn’t sure she could get up from the sofa in the middle of the gallery. She had arrived there long before the turtlenecks. It would be all they could do to weep blood when they saw her work. To look upon it was to know His secret pains. They could write that in their magazine columns.
The turtlenecks arrived in pairs, gasped at Shelly’s sanguinary piece, and fled. A hundred of them like this, each fleeing into the next gallery — the one with Christian’s dispassionate landscape in it.
One pair sped right past the sofa on which Shelly screamed and tore at her skin; they said:
“Dear God! I’ll be having a stern word with the curator!”
“Yes, do. This isn’t art. I don’t know what it is, but it isn’t art.”
“A perversion! False!”
When Shelly returned to the museum, the air in her lung was scarcely enough to get her up the front steps and through the door. Her trench coat painted the tiles cherry as she dragged herself through the gallery from which her last piece had been removed, and into the next gallery over. Her throat-moaning echoed through the room, and the turtlenecks retreated in a three-quarter circle around her, mouths open and black. Below Christian’s painting, Shelly fell, and her forehead slapped the floor. Her lung rattled once, twice, and collapsed. Then she oozed out of her trench coat and between the boots of the turtlenecks, who let out their breaths, and started to clap.