Overnight, a studio apartment made entirely of glass appeared in the middle of the waterfront park. Every surface, every wall, every piece of furniture within (save a single pillar of stone in the dead center of the room) was made of the same sturdy, translucent glass. From the outside there was no nook or cranny hidden from the public eye, no respite from curiosity. There was also no door out, no hatch or window to the outside world. Air circulated in from small holes by the ceiling so that, if unable to escape, the famous artist Raulo Pagratis would at the very least not suffocate to death on public land.
Word spread quickly. By midday, the apartment had attracted a small crowd of onlookers.
“What’s this all about?”
“Hey! You in the box!”
But Raulo, if he heard them, did not answer. He avoided eye contact with the onlookers, committing to carving down the stone pillar or sitting in his chair of polished glass to rest. Curious onlookers would wait and watch, hoping to uncover clues to his intention here, but he revealed nothing, signalled nothing. He continued his pattern of action until the sun hung low in the sky, and most of the crowd had dissolved. That was when he first used the shower.
Within an hour, local law enforcement had arrived at the scene. Long since toweled off, Raulo had transitioned to reading a tome of a book kept beside his bed of glass. The police circled off the perimeter, shining auto-spotlights and tapping the glass to get the artist’s attention (to request to see his permits, to ask to contain displays of public nudity) but all he offered were brief and furious glances before returning to his insular world. This, of course, did nothing to de-escalate tension with the police, and soon the situation had become a primetime media circus replete with helicopter footage blaring across local media networks.
At 8:18 pm, a small man in a three-piece suit arrived on the scene carrying a manila folder and a small sign. Before his presence was noted, he had hammered the sign down into the grass just in front of the structure. The sign read:
Raulo Pagratis (b. 1967)
Raulo Pagratis, 2020
Flesh & Stone in Glass
Waterfront Park Exhibition Space (Glasshaus)
The man was Artur Palotz. To an audience of armed police, Artur demonstrated the preparedness and decorum that had led him twenty years prior to be named Raulo’s most esteemed assistant. In quick order, he procured from his folder the necessary documentation that proved that Raulo’s current exhibition had been legally permitted, taking care to underline and note the specific legalese that protected him against retaliation in the issues of public nudity, zoning laws, and fire code standards. The officer in charge, Sergeant Deborah Glade, marvelled at the documents, listening intently to Artur’s methodic breakdown of his client’s situation in regards to landmark legal cases of the past fifty years. It was as if Artur had traveled ahead to the future, sat through lengthy court proceedings compiling notes, only to return to his original timeline and systematically eliminate all proven room for error. Deborah knew that, if a case could still be made, it could not be won through the heavy hand of intimidation, and dispersed her frustrated entourage into the waiting evening.
“I would ask you to remind your client that there is a middle way between performance art and expensive, uncooperative demonstrations. It would never have escalated like this if we had been informed ahead of time,” she offered in parting.
“Everything is to his liking,” Artur replied. “One can never do everything correctly.”
Artur and Raulo did not speak before Artur took his leave. Raulo spent his first night in the Glasshaus beneath a clear and starry sky, alone save a lone vagrant who set up camp in the periphery.
By the next morning, the Glasshaus had become a destination. The previous day’s debacle had been disseminated among the city’s well-to-do, and the museum scene was ecstatic at the surprise launch of an installation by one of the art world’s biggest names. The confrontation with the police also attracted local anarchists and crust punks, who believed that Raulo’s action was either a revolutionary resistance of state authority or a dedicated satire of cultural institutions that had attempted to confine art and remove it from public space. Needless to say, tensions between the two camps ran high. The elite staked out the river-facing side of Glasshaus for themselves with crimson stanchions, leaving the inland side to the astoundingly quick growing tent city. From within his studio, Raulo paid no mind to it all, or pretended so, single-mindedly continuing the slow labor of his project.
“The artist is trying in his way to convey the claustrophobia of today’s ever-present media culture and its effect on the individual soul. His sculpture within the space represents the sanctity of true expression on a ravenous world stage that seeks to affect the end result every step of the way!” The voices ruminated.
“By surrendering all privacy in a voyeuristic human zoo of his own making, Raulo is showing us how simple and animalistic the act of creation is!”
“Who is bringing him food? Has anyone seen someone bring him food?”
“He’s gonna use the toilet again, it’s getting late, let’s go.”
For several days, the space around the display took on a festival atmosphere. On the river walkway, booths were set up advertising municipal events and selling hastily-printed t-shirts. A Peruvian food cart was the first to get a permit for the area, quickly becoming an unofficial part of the experience. The owner, Marcielo Quispe, took the city by storm with her citrus zest ceviche, which hundreds of happy patrons agreed paired wonderfully with the experience of sitting in a field and watching a famous old man carve at stone from a giant glass box.
Multiple local and national news outlets, over the peak days of the exhibit, tried to get an interview with Raulo. When that failed, they scoured the city, the globe, for anyone who could provide soundbites that illuminated the artist’s intentions. Somehow, the esteemed Artur Palotz was able to stay completely out of view, and no immediate family members or friends revealed themselves. The mystique prevailed, but mystique without payoff is a drug the masses quickly build a tolerance to. The decay of novelty, coupled with a few days of intermittent rain spelled the end of the exhibit’s golden period in the public eye.
The statue within the Glasshaus was nowhere near done.
Days passed, one as much like the other. The Peruvian food cart, Chilly Hen, still attracted waterfront park goers, who would chuckle as they leaned against the river railing, watching the artist move about in his open, private world. The anarchist punks hung about for some time, resisting the city’s efforts to displace them. The space became an Occupy-style art space, pungent with the smell of unwashed bodies, where long-haired crust punks and vagrants played banjo and sold paintings and jewelry. Tensions regarding the divide were of concern to the police, who were still under municipal pressure not to affect the newsworthy exhibition with flashy displays of violence.
It was around supper time on a Friday two weeks into the exhibition when a woman and daughter came to the waterfront park. Chewing lamb kebabs, they walked up to the open grass around the Glasshaus and sat down. Raulo had spent most of the day reading one of the books he had somehow brought with him into the studio, barely touching the pillar that had now roughly begun to resemble the shape of a human body.
The pair watched Raulo for twenty minutes in silence read his large book until his eyes rose to meet them. He twitched in his chair, his book falling to the ground. The daughter looked to the mother, who gave her a comforting nod. Raulo rose from his chair as if despite himself, on automatic. He walked up to the edge of the glass, the two women meeting his gaze.
“Why is he looking at us like that?” The daughter asked, uncomfortable.
“Because it’s very lonely in that box,” the mother offered.
“Why doesn’t he just get out?”
“He built it for himself. There aren’t any doors.”
“I don’t understand.”
“Of course you don’t, my little songbird. You’re clever and you’re free.”
Raulo watched them finish their kebabs. The daughter ran off towards the river, and he watched her go with gentle pain. The mother stayed behind for just a moment in the gravity of Raulo. Their eyes met. Raulo’s hand pressed against the glass. He feigned a kind of smile, an intimate, obvious lie. The woman shook her head, her posture calm but firm. Raulo pointed to his chest and raised his gaze outwards, towards the distant child. Again, the woman shook her head. He sighed and nodded, his fingers sliding down the cold interior glass.
By this point, the few stragglers around the Glasshaus had noticed something strange was transpiring, and had begun to congregate about the structure. The woman gave a fleeting second more to Raulo, who had retreated further into the habitat. He was now looking all about him, as if waking from a vigorous sleepwalk. When he looked back, the woman in the grass had vanished, the dedicated observers throwing pebbles at the studio to catch his eye. Raulo sat back down in his glass chair, his red leather tome still sprawled on the floor of his workspace. He did not move again for hours.
Weeks passed. Over time, the block of stone was whittled down, bit by bit, into what was obviously a statue of Raulo himself. The figure of Raulo was nude, holding up a bitten apple in the sunlight. If the public had not become slowly desensitized to the image of Raulo naked, the precise, unflattering details might have created some discomfort. Instead, to those who checked in to watch the artist work, the Glasshaus had become a modest, if overwrought testament to the artist’s skill and showmanship, with the vulnerability and transparency edging out most criticisms of his obvious exhibitionist flair.
“I’ve never seen a man work so hard to normalize the image of his penis,” a college student joked, passing by the Glasshaus with an entourage of stoned cohorts.
“He really hasn’t left that box in months? Has he seen a doctor?”
“You know he’s sneaking out at night when no one’s looking. He has to be.”
Raulo looked up from his work on the contours of the left shin. He bared his teeth like an ape, the fleshy sockets of his eyes deep and wild canyons.
That night, almost none of the normal squatters remained. The twin camps of the Glasshaus had fallen quiet. The stanchioned riverside was lit by gentle string lights, barren and underutilized in preparation for the final completion of the exhibition, when it would at last again be of newsworthy significance. On the inland side, the police had long since run out the anarchist commune, leaving behind the blasted and broken wreckage of tents, beds, kilns, and baths. Hand-made pamphlets decrying the violence of the state and Raulo’s silent acceptance fluttered like butterfly corpses in the cold breeze coming in from the river. From the darkness, the long-forgotten Artur congealed into being. Raulo met him by the glass wall facing the park’s interior.
“You are holding up well, I hope,” Artur began.
“Are you prepared?”
“I will have the ship waiting at the community dock a quarter mile to the west. We have prepared passage for you into international waters. The world will believe you have vanished. You have no desire to change that plan, yes?”
Raulo nodded, a smile on his lips. He had stayed strong for this, the promise of perfect escape.
“Very well. Be sure to secure the trap door tightly on your departure. Otherwise, the tank will leak and the piping we installed will have been worthless.”
Raulo laughed. He put his hand on the glass. Artur raised his hand to meet him.
“It has been an honor serving your art, old friend.”
Raulo’s eyes shone with gratitude.
“Very well. I must be off. Prepare yourself,” Artur commanded, before vanishing again into the waiting night.
Two hours later, the lone vagrant, Raulo’s most enduring companion in the waterfront park, stumbled back into the area. He had just traded an iPhone for a baggie of smack and was in a sunken world of his own making, enjoying a stilted walk beneath the stars. Night after night, he was drawn to the glow of the Glasshaus. He enjoyed watching Raulo, feeling as if the artist was a person of the world in a manner like himself. There were always eyes on him, too, a thousand eyes and one, he could feel them in the shadows and the buildings.
When he arrived at the Glasshaus, something had changed. Water had somehow gotten in. The vagrant, with the uneven gait of a man halfway to heaven, stepped closer. All the man’s belongings were floating in the water. Loose papers, books, glass furniture circling in the slow whirl as the Haus had filled up to the air holes and run over. At the center of it all stood the statue of Raulo, still holding his bit apple on high, unburdened by the crushing pressure of the water. It was only after stepping closer that Raulo himself could be seen, his hands gripped tightly on a latch on the floor of the Glasshaus. He was not moving. His eyes and mouth were open.
The vagrant knocked on the glass, but Raulo did not answer. He knocked again. No response. This was all quite tiring. He walked over where the grass was dry and sat down. From the river nearby came the sound of a trawler’s motor coming to life, idling for a long moment, then at last driving off westward towards the awaiting sea. The vagrant did not turn to watch it go. He stared straight ahead, mesmerized by the statue of Raulo glimmering and breathing in the moonlight and LEDs. He had never seen anything so real.
John Chrostek is a Pushcart-nominated poet, playwright and author who works at Powell’s City of Books in Portland, OR. His work has been featured in publications such as Artemis, River Heron Review, and Cathexis Press.