The Devaunt exhibition opened on a Thursday and shut forever on the next Wednesday. Taken from the collection of the late Lord Thomas Devaunt, an oil magnate and an old money friend of the Royals, it was billed as the “world’s preeminent exhibition of Transcendental and Exo-Surrealist art”. A week after it opened at the Tate Modern, eight years ago, tragedy had struck.
I was a security guard who’s assigned job was to keep the great unwashed from pawing the masterpieces. I’d always been a huge fan of art, but the Expressionist masters were more for me, Van Gogh and Monet and all that. Some of the stuff in Modern was interesting enough to me, but a lot of it seemed frankly like gimmicky trash (don’t get me started on those bloody bricks). When I’d got assigned to the Devaunt Exhibition, I’d already resigned myself to weeks of walking miles a day around edgy nonsense that no one, least of all the “art connoisseurs”, really understood.
I must have read through the guidebook three or four times to try and decipher what the heck “transcendental and exo-surrealist art” even meant. I even took myself down to the library in Ealing to try and find some definition, either online or in those huge reference books libraries always have. Again, no on seemed to have a clue. Whenever I tried asking an artist or management, they either tried to feed me some florid nonsense about it being “the art of transcending the hyper-real, and visiting a Freudian state of hypersensitivity”. That, or they looked at me like something that had crawled out from under their shoe.
The handbook was a minimalist little thing. Black pages, matte and sleek, had simple white text within thin, red borders. There wasn’t a single photo within the whole thing, and to this day I wonder whether any official photos of the exhibition were taken. The text mostly consisted of just a plain list of the artworks, along with a brief bio of the artist and, of course, the materials each work had been created with. Several artworks had very little associated text, and a couple even had “Unknown” for the materials as well as the artist. I was disappointed to see how few artists I recognised were on the list, and by the time I’d looked it all up I found there wasn’t a single artwork dating prior to 1950. In short, I expected the exhibition to be boring, as far as I was concerned. No Monet for me.
The layout for the exhibition was unlike any I’d seen before, though. We were only given a couple of hours to acclimatize ourselves to the space we’d be walking around for days on end, but I was no less confused at the end than at the start. Lord Devaunt must have had deep pockets and influential friends in Management, because a whole wing of the museum had been reconfigured in his memory. Long corridors seemed to twist at obscene angles, tightening in and veering away with a labyrinthine, terrifying geometry. While the exhibition started off with a normal appearance, sterile white walls and hardwood floors, paintings hung prim and proper behind red velvet ropes, this changed as you got deeper into the complex. The ceiling climbed away and the walls darkened as you started walking down ash-grey corridors with barely-present floors. Asides from the spotlights suspended somewhere above that shone onto the artworks, there was little light available, and I felt glad whenever I saw the glow of a friendly green fire-exit sign (god knows an evacuation would have been difficult from that place). I still have no idea who designed the Devaunt wing, but if, as I soon found out, the artists had been half as off their rockers as that architect, I knew I was going to be dealing with some very confused visitors.
As I mentioned, the art started normally, if a bit surreal for my tastes. It was clear that Lord Thomas had been extremely wealthy as, in the entrance hall alone I counted two Dalis and a Picasso, along with a couple of similarly unusual pieces that I couldn’t place. As the exhibition continued, the art got rarer and more esoteric. Man Ray photography hung alongside a few of his paintings. There were a few terrifying images by Zdzisław Beksiński, and a small plaque to his memory (placed below a gratuitous image of his murdered corpse). There were even a few charcoal images drawn by David Lynch, of all people. By the time visitors got this far into the exhibition, most were massively unnerved. I knew that I was beyond frightened already.
About three or four twists into the corridors, there was a long space without art. By this point, light sources were few and far between, and the walls were the grey of an imminently rainy sky. Ahead, the visitors would see a simple arch with columns in the classical style. Above it, one could read, in text which glowed with a pale yellow hue, “The Exo-Surrealist”.
I cannot remember the names of anyone displayed in that hall, so don’t ask me. If you can find a guidebook (they tend to sell for six or seven hundred pounds on eBay), then you could take a look, but I’d wager at least half the art was listed as by “unknown”.
The works all seemed to follow a general trend towards the unknown. Strange gods, inspired by deeply ancient characters, were painted or etched on canvas, paper, even vellum. Framed on the wall I saw pages from an unknowably ancient manuscript in an indecipherable script. The ink was green.
One work which sticks with me was a huge black-and-white sketch that hung on the wall. At first I thought it was an ink sketch, but when I approached I realised that I was looking at iron filings held against the canvas. Curious, I read the sign next to it.
The artist was an Arab herdsman, who’d been in the desert in 1978 when a meteorite had struck the earth relatively whole. As he rushed to the impact crater, he was struck with a fierce seizure, and he dreamed an epileptic dream of a beast with ten thousand streaming eyes and ten thousand twitching limbs.
The herdsman had hunted down all fragments of that meteorite with a religious fervor. Over the course of years, he ground up the rock and, fastening magnets to the back of the canvas, let the iron filings fall onto the picture and create the image.
There were other works there as well, terrifying nightmarish things in pastel and charcoal and blood. Nothing had made me so unnerved before, but it was nothing compared to the next set of works.
Three more corridors passed, and then another hall, another arch. The walls were pure black by now. Up ahead, a sign read:
The first thing one came across as they crossed the threshold was ‘Void’. It was a huge block of solid, dark material. No spotlight shone on it, and it was incredibly hard to see where it began and ended in the gloom. I don’t doubt that dozens of people would have bumped into it were it not for the feeling people got around it. Through some electronic trickery, people who approached ‘Void’ felt intense nausea, often having to sit down on one of the four identical benches that surrounded it to recover. Some even described themselves feeling suicidal thoughts in its presence.
There were only two more corridors in the exhibition, and two more artworks. The closest was a towering sculpture twice the height of a man. It was titled ‘Not/Human’,band the artist was credited as “Ovid”. It was made of some sort of waxy material, and, over the course of the day as the lights shone on it and people touched it (there was a sign encouraging them to), it deformed. ‘Not/Human’s arms sagged, his chest flopped down into distorted breasts, and his genitals melted into his legs. It was only in the evening that his true form became apparent, and the bulbous flesh sloughed from his metallic, alien skeleton. At his heart was a newspaper, dated the Sixth of August 1945, and a speaker that played the works of Polish composer Krzysztof Penderecki. No power source was obvious.
Each morning, the corpse-statue reformed. No one ever explained that either.
The last corridor could have been sold as an obstacle course or potholing experience had it not been so terrifying. Eight times I had to lead claustrophobic visitors away and back through the whole exhibition. The corridor spiraled up and down staircases, bent into itself and away into strange spaces. The roof drooped down to places where you had to crouch and climbed away into immeasurable heights. It should have been enjoyable, an adventure, but it was far from it.
At the end, you were birthed into pure blinding, sterile light. Or, at least, that’s what it felt like. In reality, you were left standing in a spotlessly clean room, hardwood floors and white walls and a skylight that left it a rather airy space. On the left was a door, the exit, with a smiling portrait of Lord Devaunt above it. On the right was the last artwork.
It was the smallest piece in the museum, and the one which, consistently, had the largest and most fascinated crowds gathered around it day after day. The name card that sat below the slim back-bordered frame read simply:
It was about 3″x3″, and no one was quite sure what the tiny image showed. Some said it was a nude picture of people in the public eye. Others saw similar groups of people- the Queen, Gordon Brown, Dubya- subjected to horrible tortures, scenarios which the police later linked to texts like La Divina Commedia, Paradise Lost, the Myth of Er. Some people, many of whom had to be restrained and asked to leave the museum, claimed to see their own family members in grotesque sexual and sadistic situations. Still others thought they saw bizarre semi-human entities or great, ancient landscapes. One thing was agreed upon by everyone that saw the artwork though.
Everyone was in agreement that what they were looking at was a polaroid photograph.
Of the ten thousand people who visited the exhibition over the course of those six days, seven thousand people got a good look at ‘Untitled #4’. The police found three thousand of those who reported nightmares over a week after they visited the exhibition. 329 of those had nightmares a year on. Fifty reported depression, and 20 reported suicidal thoughts associated with that photograph.
One person followed through.
Alex Torrance was a keen art student who was among the first people through the gates into the exhibition. He took his time going through, spending four hours before leaving the exhibit.
The next Wednesday, Torrance calmly returned and sat down with his backpack at the front of the crowd, looking up from the ground at the polaroid and smiling benevolently. He then produced from his bag a mug and a bottle of Mr Muscle. It didn’t take long for him to finish the bottle, but it took over an hour for anyone to pay attention to him rather than ‘Untitled #4’.
The police swept in quickly, and as they started to piece it together, it became clear to us that the Devaunt Exhibition would not be open the next day, or the day after. Soon, the artwork was moved into storage, and the wing torn down, a new development to be built above its remains.
No doubt, you are wondering why I took eight years to write about this. We weren’t told to sign a non-disclosure agreement or anything, and I moved to working the same role at the National Gallery, guarding the Monets and the van Goghs. Well, a few days ago someone sent me an envelope. It contained a brief note explaining that they were an art fan who’d tried to sneak a photo of ‘Untitled #4’ back when it was on display, and they remembered getting my name after being thrown out.
Attached was the photo, an overexposed image that showed a crowd gathered around what appeared to be an empty frame. From this frame, I could see tendrils reaching out, transparent lines that wormed in iridescent swirls into the minds of everyone looking at it. I could even see myself in the background, with my own tendril snaking into my eyes.