I was commissioned to build a statue in the park. Some girl from the city council called me up and there were meetings and negotiations and the like. It would have been three years ago, now. Three and a half? Something like that.
There was the usual fuss when the announcement was made. The local papers had my picture in there with some guy from the council – who can remember? – and we were standing in the middle of the park. The ‘site’, as he kept calling it. We are very pleased with this site. Don’t you agree that this is a most wonderful site for a statue?
And there were complaints, make no mistake. People had heard of my work. They knew about the statue I did over in Clowes and what it did to that place. Some of them held a little protest in the park, all with little placards and everything. A few of them had these ridiculous puns that didn’t even make any sense, but I guess they thought they were being clever, so I didn’t even try arguing.
I don’t know why they were so bothered. The park wasn’t anything special. It was in the centre of the city, taking up about three blocks. Your standard oversized chunk of lawn, divided up by bike paths, dotted with water fountains and trees and recycling bins. A couple of benches, so you could sit and look at the water fountains and trees and recycling bins. Really, it added nothing.
I started building the statue about a month after the announcement was made. I brought the materials to the park over a weekend, running back and forth with trailer-loads from my studio. I don’t remember the exact date, but I remember that it was pissing down, and I probably shouldn’t have started construction. The rain made the ground soft and it would shift after it had dried out and change things. But the rain didn’t let up once over the weekend and I was impatient. I started to build.
I began with some plastic poles. There were ten or so of them. Black, about three metres in length. They were all the same size. I stood at the top of a small stepladder and held each pole over my head, thrusting them into the soft, muddy ground. The distances between the poles were irregular, but they all stood perfectly vertical. This isn’t to say I measured them in any way. I just have an eye for verticality.
When I returned the next day, the ground had dried and hardened (as I knew it would), pushing the poles apart. They slanted at various angles, some now crossing paths, others pointing away from the site. They resembled the dark stumps of a burnt-out forest. And so, the next logical material to be used in the statue was wood.
There was a stack of wooden planks that had been purchased from a hardware store. They were uniform and rectangular and of no use to me in that state. I began to cut them down, whittling the planks into the shape of branches. These would be attached to the poles and finish what their movement had suggested.
It was while I was in the middle of this task that some guy came up to me and asked why I didn’t just use actual branches. I asked him to repeat the question.
“Why are you spending all that time cutting down those planks? Surely it’d be easier to just use actual branches?”
“That’s not how it’s done.”
“Right. And why’s that?”
“Well, it’s a statue, isn’t it? I’ve been commissioned to make it. I’m hardly making it if I’m just taking branches. That’s not my work.”
“Oh, you’re worried about plagiarism.”
“What? No! That’s just… no.”
“So, what’s the problem?”
“I am making this statue. This statue is man-made. It should only contain man-made things.”
“Would it be alright to use things that are already made, then? As long as they’re man-made?”
I considered this for a moment. “Yes,” I told him. “That would be fine.”
I then stood on top of the stepladder and addressed the growing crowd.
“You lot!” I yelled. “Make yourselves useful! Bring things! Any things! Bring them and we will make this statue!”
And so they did. The crowd dispersed and headed elsewhere. Within minutes they began to return, bearing all manner of items. The early-comers brought smaller things that they had purchased from the convenience store around the corner from the park. Bottles of engine oil, empty wrappers from food they had eaten on the short walk back. A group of teenagers, trying to get me riled, brought boxes of condoms and sanitary products and began draping them everywhere, but it really didn’t bother me. It was no less valid than whatever everyone else was doing.
As the day grew later, people started to return from further away, with bigger objects. Some brought trailers filled with raw materials – giant sheets of metal, rolls of paper, cardboard boxes of every size. Others came in groups, lugging large garden ornaments and bigger items of furniture. These were placed about the park, fairly haphazardly, gradually shifting the borders of the statue closer to the edges of the park.
A few days into this mass construction, the removal vans began to arrive. People had packed up rooms of their homes and were now rebuilding them in the park. By that time, I was no longer building the statue in any major capacity, but wandering through it and examining the work of others. Making sure that it was up to standard. I didn’t really have a standard, but it seemed like something I should be doing. I held some vague authority, watching silently as couples set up their beds and solitary figures found the perfect arrangements for their living rooms.
After a week had passed, most people were building rooms. The statue had expanded beyond the edges of the park, spilling into the streets surrounding it. And it was moving upward. Once the ground space of the park had filled, people began to construct walls and roofs around the rooms of others, so they could perch their own rooms above them. For the sake of convenience, people began to install plumbing. Electricity was pumped into the statue from masses of extension cords plugged into the buildings of the city, creating a vast, tangled web in the sky.
This was not professional building, by any means. It was more akin to constructing a house of cards – sheets of plaster and metal and wood being delicately balanced against each other with nothing to hold them but gravity and the blind hope that they would not collapse. Because, of course, they did collapse sometimes.
As the statue became more complex, the builders were confronted with their lack of planning. The statue extended well into the city and most of the streets had become blocked. Those few people living in the city who were not involved in the project were now forced to become a part. Travelling through the statue was the only way they could get from their workplaces to their homes. Inevitably, people became lost. The statue was constantly being built, and the paths through it changed as soon the statue did. People became trapped as the entrance they had walked through became sealed off only minutes after they had entered it, due to someone’s new addition. There is no way of knowing how many people were accidentally sealed in like this. I certainly didn’t keep count.
It was never really clear who had the idea to install the water feature. Probably a group effort. I suppose it was a logical step, given that the basic plumbing had been installed. It was actually placed right on top of the original site, in the park – a section of the statue that had been long forgotten. The water was diverted to flow out of those initial plastic poles and on to the ground, into a system of ravines that wove through the entire statue. It was a grand undertaking, now that the statue occupied some two-thirds of the city, rising upward to meet buildings at their fifth storey. The fountain was magnificent – for all of five minutes. Once more building commenced, the flow of water became blocked. Pools of it began to gather. Within half an hour, sections of the statue were flooded. I am told that people drowned. There is no way of knowing how many.
There was one woman who came to speak to me. Her son had been trapped in the statue on his way home from work, and the tunnel he was sealed in had filled with water. I was in the north-eastern section, applying some rubber cement to a wall to give it some texture. The light coming through a hole in near the ground caused interesting shadows on the adjacent wall, which varied with each layer of cement I applied. The woman came and stood beside me, yelling incomprehensibly. About her son, about the water, about the statue. I continued with my work. I’m not one to explain my art. Eventually others came to the section and began to build. Her yelling became muffled as she was surrounded by new walls. I walked away before her noise stopped, but I hear that it eventually did.
I suppose it was a month and a half after the day I broke ground that the smell began to rise from the site. It was a horrific combination of stagnant water and decay. This was late in Spring, and the weather was only getting warmer, which did not help our cause. There was no way to remove the smell. That would mean pulling down parts of the statue, discarding the parts that were rotting. I was not commissioned to do that. I needed to continue to move ahead. Construction could not stop. I called an old contact – I’d worked with him on a previous project – and organised for a million pine-scented air fresheners to be delivered to the site. The truck had to pull up to the border of the city. By then, it was impossible to use the roads in any capacity. People began to form a line and collect the cardboard trees from the truck, hanging them throughout the statue as they made their way back to whatever they were working on. The sickeningly sweet scent began to filter throughout the city, mingling with the decay into something even more pungent, but certainly not more unpleasant.
Of course, not everyone was satisfied with the course of things. That guy, the one who had come up to me on the first day, somehow managed to find me again. And again, he was full of questions.
“Why use air fresheners?” he asked, as though I hadn’t been answering this question for the past month and a half.
“That’s how it’s done,” was my answer. He did not take it as one.
“Why not just plant actual pine trees? They’d soak up some of this water and wouldn’t run out like these air fresheners will. Their scent’s already starting to fade. We’ll only have to order more in.”
The statue had now passed the borders of the city. I figured it was beyond my commission. So I said to the guy, “You know what? Do what you like” and left him in charge. I left the city that afternoon, and haven’t gone back. I’ve heard that they did plant trees. They started planting them the next morning. Within a year, they overran the statue, bringing down the upper levels and destroying it for the most part. But that’s what happens.