From The First Prehistoric Serial Killer and Other Stories
“I’ve no real enthusiasm for modern art. I can’t really see the point.” So says Fefa, the former director at the fictional MUAA (the Museum of Ultra-Avant-Garde Art) in Barcelona. Former, not just because of her indifference toward the subject that provided her a livelihood, but because of a self-confessed “error of judgment” regarding an exhibition of sculptures by the renowned artist Eudald Mataplana.
“It’s unfair,” Fela thinks about her termination. “Anyone could have made the same error. And I mean anyone.”
Well, no. (And those who care about such things should be warned that spoilers aplenty follow from here on.)
The error involves an uncatalogued addition to a forthcoming exhibition – a still life of an adult male in the fetal position. The piece has no accompanying paperwork providing provenance, and as museum director, it is up to Fefa to decide what to do with it: return it, store it in the museum’s basement, or put it on display with the other sculptures, each of which is provided only a number in place of a title (”Still Life No. 1,” ”Still Life No. 2,” etc.). Deciding that sending the massive piece back would be too costly for the museum, and following the advice of her secretary (“If they’ve sent it, it means they want it in the exhibition”), Fefa names the piece “Still Life No. 41” and puts it on prominent display with the other works.
She notes that the work “really took your breath away” – literally, after it starts stinking from what turns out to be human flesh decomposing.
Briefly, the fetal male is not a sculpture, but the corpse of Eudald Mataplana himself, murdered by one of his students, whom he had been sexually harassing. The premise may appear patently absurd, and, indeed, Catalan author Teresa Solano is forced to jump through a number of narrative hoops to explain why no one realized the sculpture was actually the corpse of the artist. Mataplana, we are told, was a recluse who assiduously avoided live events, interviews, and photos. His appearance had been altered by shaving his head and outfitting him with dark glasses. Notwithstanding these narrative justifications, some readers will find the suspension of disbelief required an insurmountable barrier. These will generally be readers who insist on viewing the story through the lens of realism.
For those who choose to read the outlandish story as a satire on the modern art world, however, there is much here to appreciate, starting with Fela’s utter ignorance of, not to say veiled contempt for, the milieu of avant-garde art. She lands the job as museum director only because her deceased uncle was her predecessor and her wealthy father intervened with the culture minister to secure her the position. (Her ignorance is provided as another reason the deception was not discovered sooner.) The nepotism involved in Fefa’s hiring lends an added sting to her declamation that “anyone” could have made the same mistake – surely in a meritocracy, the position would have gone to someone capable of distinguishing between a sculpture and a decomposing human body, especially when that body belongs to the artist himself.
When the scandal breaks, and before she is let go, Fefa gives a press conference in which she doubles down on her assertion that she is not at fault for putting the corpse of a noted avant-garde sculptor on display for the world: “I think it was quite reasonable for me not to realize it wasn’t a sculpture, don’t you agree?” The line – with its convoluted double negative and the ridiculously inappropriate term “reasonable” – is piercingly funny. More so if one accepts it as the statement of an avowed philistine who does not understand modern art and yet finds herself in a position of power with the ability to determine what gets exhibited publicly and what gets consigned to the basement.
Moreover, Fefa’s statement underscores her utterly self-absorbed nature, another source of humour in the story. Solana indicates Fefa’s narcissism right from the start: the first word in the story is “I’ve,” as in, “I’ve been sacked.” Not only does this put the focus immediately on Fefa, it emphasizes her aggrieved nature, the notion that the minister’s decision to fire her was unfair. It was not her complete lack of experience or relevant job qualifications that caused the debacle; it was a completely understandable lapse in judgment. Her own aesthetic reaction to the corpse – it ”really took your breath away” – is a testament to her obliviousness, while also hinting at a strain of artistic appreciation.
This is extended by the exhibition patrons, who not only also fail to recognize what, or who, they are looking at, but approach the work with uncritical reverence, at least until the smell drives everyone away.
There is also some piquant commentary about power and predation in the revelation of the murderer’s identity. The female student is talented enough to be able to pose the corpse in such a way that it convinces everyone from Fefa on down that it is a legitimate work of art. Solana also slyly points out that the pin that served as the murder weapon was one the student was about to use on “Still Life No. 17,” “a life-sized sculpture of a sick woman weaving while sitting in a wheelchair.” The sick woman and the student are similar in their treatment as objects at the hands of the master sculptor. Solana emphasizes the student’s lack of agency on a literary level by refusing to give her a proper name and consigning her fate to a single declarative sentence: “She’s currently in the slammer.”
“I really couldn’t care less about the student, Eudald Mataplana, his sculptures, or the whole fucking show,” Fela says, once again highlighting her commingled obtuseness and self-absorption. The final paragraph has her considering all the life options that remain open to her when she returns from her upcoming honeymoon: “I am renowned for my drive and might make Secretary of State. Or Minister of Culture … Yes, it would be great to be a minister of something. Though I’m not sure … If I were a minister, I’d have to live in Madrid. And it‘s very cold in Madrid in winter, and very hot in summer … And they don’t have a beach.” The sense of entitlement here is at once astonishing and balefully funny, and serves as a pointed juxtaposition to the life opportunities available to the student, a talented artist now confined to “the slammer.” It is a capstone on an acerbic story about power dynamics and injustice that goes well beyond its outrageous – and mordantly humorous – premise.