Tang Fei, THE HEART OF THE MUSEUM
From Sinopticon https://search.worldcat.org/title/1303778134
Apart from the humans, who busy themselves like bees, there are others.
They work hard to find paths of understanding in everyday life—to understand this world. Their dedication gives them the power of queen bees.
A child walked past me and pressed the button to call the lift, his fingernail embedded with sand. I took the next lift, walked to a particular door, and pressed the doorbell. It was his mother who opened it.
The child was in the living room; he lifted his eyes from a pile of toys and just stared. Children don’t usually look at people in this intense manner. I made a simple self-introduction.
His mother invited me in, and after the customary exchange of greetings and small talk, the woman briefly outlined the duties of my role, subtly indicating the real nature of the job by way of implication. When she was certain that I had understood her intent, she happily signed the employment contract drawn up by the agency. Through the whole process, the child’s eyes remained fixed on us.
This was not a surprise. Since he was a baby, it had been how he observes the world: probing into all manner of its mysteries, and the relation between the elements within. Since signing the contract, I have been under this unending gaze for four whole years. This is my job. Ostensibly, I am the child’s art tutor. But for a family that has assumed high office for several generations, having a low-profile bodyguard who can stay with the child at all times is a great asset.
At the recommendation of the agency, I became this child’s protector, helping him avoid all the potential dangers lurking in the undercurrents of the future. People—Earth people—fear the future, yet they yearn for it. For them, that’s the realm of the chaotic and unknown, where anything could happen.
For me, everything and anything has already happened. Or more precisely, everything is happening. The flow of time is right in front of my eyes: I don’t even have to search for it. The past, the present, the future—everything that happened, is happening and will happen—flows in before me, alternating and superimposed over three-dimensional space. I sense their distance in time. This perception is innate to my people.
When we first came to Earth, we spent a long time getting to understand and adapt to human perception, by which the world is perceived in three-dimensional space via five basic sensory organs. For them, this moment only means this moment. An instant is like a slice of time, independent of the past and the future. As soon as we understood this constriction, pretending to be one of them was simple: keep silent about the world they don’t know, like a sighted person pretending to be blind.
Earth people can’t see the future. Many among them believe that their current words and actions determine their future fate. This crude simplification of cause and effect—is like a blind person believing that the knock of their cane could determine the direction of their path.
It shouldn’t be mocked. They need such beliefs.
A lot of lessons are being arranged for the child, not all of them dry and dull. Such things as Judo and violin, even though they require hard practice, he seems to find pleasure in. Yet his greatest pleasure seems to come from the sand pit in the front garden. Building walls, palaces, bridges, houses, or just drawing on the sand—mainly faces—or writing. His works are no different from those of other children. Weak, transient, uninventive. Simple and crude interpretations of the outside world—yet he gives them his all. Is he captivated by the fundamental materials that construct the myriad facets of the world, or infatuated with constructing reality in a virtual world?
I stand at a spot not too far away, quietly observing. At the same time as I’m seeing the child and the sandpit, I also see the museum he will come to build in eighteen years’ time, in another city.
At the beginning? At the beginning, it will be a mere thought. Not the story he would later recount to people, not from an old man’s collection he’d come across. Though he wouldn’t be lying: those endearing points of origin are often as delicate as dust, undetectable and inexpressible. During the last six months of his MFA in New York, he will begin to prepare his graduate show. His original plan will just be to organize an exhibition on some well-known experimental Earth photography, but slowly fermenting in his brain is a big bold idea that will come to him. He will want to build a museum. That spring, he will have become fascinated with “The Library of Babel” in the writings of Jorge Luis Borges, with finding illusions—or maybe possibilities—in that South American blind man’s alley.
A mere museum will not be enough for him, and simply filling it with virtual exhibits would never satisfy him. He needs real objects: more specific and vivid manifestations of existence. No event occurs without leaving some real aftermath. This is how his friends came to understand him; people he will only meet through dragging them into this high risk project.
In the teams he will have set up will be architects, animators, painters, multimedia artists, neuroscientists, orthopedists, interior designers, experts in optics and kinetic physics, anthropologists, doctors of physics, pilots, plus a molecular biologist-cum-vet.
Some among them will be consultants responsible for providing practical and exhaustive professional knowledge. Others will be responsible for their speciality as curators.
Yet others will be the audience.
I watch the child as he patiently rakes the pit, over and over again, impervious to the fierce midsummer heat. His eyes must ache as sweat trickles into them, stinging them with salt. He rubs them, using this interval to survey the results of his work. Now he picks up the shovel and puts the sand, little by little, into an orange sieve, patiently gathering grains that have fallen off; and then pushing them into the mould he’d made, filling, compressing and flattening the surface with a knife. And then…
It won’t be raining that weekend. Spring in New York is genial enough. He will meet up with an architect friend at the High Line. They will buy two hot dogs from a stand for lunch, and chat as they walk. The sun will dance on the leaves of the trees and on the girl’s face. They will be exchanging preliminary thoughts. After a brief silence, before Rojas’ giant concrete cube, he will invite the girl to take part in the interior design of the museum.
I watch the child as he grips the outside of the mould, lifting it up straight and slow. A pyramid of sand emerges from the mould, only to split and scatter to the ground…
The morning will not have gone well. When he leaves home he will find that the drains have blocked up. And his appointment with the professor to go through his graduation assignment would turn out to be a wild goose chase. The orthopedist would inform him that there’s no way to obtain the bone-dating X-rays he wanted. The science fiction novel he will have purchased from a second-hand bookstand will be missing important pages. Sitting in his usual seat in the library, he will open his laptop, and receive an email from the sculptor…
I watch the child as his gaze fixes on the stream of water splashing from the watering can, at the bubbles being forced from the sand, until eventually even the darkness of water begins to disappear. It’s now time to re-create his sand piece. He extracts the plastic tube and creates his most important work, the elliptical sand piece. Surrounding him is the ditch he has excavated to build a city.
The museum would be built, in the end.
On the day of its completion, he will celebrate with all the members of his team; on a particular late night, he will carry out a midnight inspection of the exhibits, holding his girlfriend’s hand, the love on his face resembling a small animal just about to feed. During the period he will feel most lost, every morning he will gaze down on this drowsy, waking city from the window next to the wall on which is written the law of gravity. In a few years’ time, his child would be even more fond of this spot, and have even more important tasks to complete.
Since when have I been preoccupied with this child’s future? To be more precise, his presence in the museum. I sink deeper into my infatuation. No matter where my body is, or what I’m doing, my gaze is drawn towards this small museum in ‘future’ New York, on the ninth day after its completion, the seventh day after the fourth month of completion, the tenth day after the twentieth month: any time in which it exists. In particular, I love to see it when no one is around.
No one here except the exhibits, my consciousness roaming among them.
Bright and quirky science-fiction posters, typewriters, Einstein’s formula, cat food tins, space suits, old photographs and writing desks. Objects, most of which could be found at vintage fairs, will be most deferentially and respectfully put on display here. I have compared them meticulously with new products and ordinary second-hand products. What is the difference? These objects have all been involved in major thought experiments, and cast back into everyday life afterwards. But what are the special traces that remain? What part of them have been exploited and taken?
I carefully walk past them, fearful of leaving any traces of my presence, fearful that my gaze would leave an irrevocable change. These remnants of past events are here, to prove the events they have been part of. This is unfathomable to me, for whom the streams of time are clearly visible; for whom the past, the present and the future always appear together. I have never needed these superfluous vestiges. And yet, I can’t keep my eyes from these remains of past events that have been placed here; anonymous objects placed on the shallow shores along the stream of time. Like a strange hobbyist who loves to walk in graveyards, I gaze at them, infatuated. Now, my heart feels calm and serene. Even immersed in the endless rhythms of the river of time, I am beginning to feel something akin to coming to a lulling stop that I have never felt before, the end of perception, like—
Yes, all life will eventually conclude, but the traces they leave behind will remain in other things. They may not be remembered, or even noticed, but they would be there.
This museum will live for far longer than the child will.
Longer than his friends, family, and longer than most human beings.
Several hundred years later, when the American continent will be flying like a lonely island through the solar system to seek the shelter of another star, it will still be standing in the place it was built—New York’s old Brooklyn, where an alien will decide to let her body be modified.
There she would tell Earth’s people the truth about the American continent. This truth will be remembered as an allegory.
I only need to turn 44.4 degrees southwest, look past several nexae (in terms of your three-dimensional spatial awareness, imagine directing your sight into the distance, and through any objects which happen to obscure your view, till at last you focus on the object you’re seeking) to be able to see the moment in which she reveals the truth.
That moment will exist, and to me, already does.
You should understand by now that I am not from this planet, not a “People of Earth”. People—as a word—is unique to Earth. We don’t say “people”, nor do we like to be referred to as “people from outer space.”
When the child was four, I became his bodyguard, pretending to be “People” and concealing myself within this ancient and dusty city. The city is filthy. In the winter the snow falls like goose feathers, in spring the sky fills up with sand. Where there used to be a palace, now the leaders of this country live. From the centre point of this red area, ring by ring, the city has expanded and swelled, its bloated body filling with millions of higher life forms who are all strangers to each other. For our kind, there is no safer place to hide our identity.
I protect the child and guard his time stream, guaranteeing that his past, present and future are all perfect, without a flaw. His parents have been very satisfied. The child trusts me too. He seems to know that I would keep his company forever.
Perhaps it is so. Perhaps—not.
Even when my body is here, my gaze is roaming the museum. Part of me exists there.
Of course, I will die too. At a particular time, in a particular way. If I wanted to, I could have seen my own future, seen the ridiculous fashion in which I will have died. But why would I have wanted to do that? Every moment that I am alive, I co-exist with the future, co-exist with the past, feeling every beat in the rhythm of the dance of time. Rather than a short straight line, my life can better be described as an eternal point in the chaos of time and space. My future will never disappear.
In a way, I have always been the guardian of this museum.
My heart beats, buried in the museum.
I am one of the countless beating hearts of the museum.