Visiting the Tate
“Attention, Class of 2058!”
Zhen, seated in the back row, watched the heads turn towards the sound of the teacher’s voice. The teacher adjusted her brand-new regulation outfit again. She had been trying to make it sit comfortably for most of the trip.
“Soon we are visiting London’s famous Tate Modern Art Gallery.”
An appreciative murmur rippled through the top deck. Zhen, very excited but eager not to show it, kept silent. In the seat in front of him, Xan’s boyfriend snorted loudly. Xan dipped her head, and a lock of her long hair came free.
“But before that, two matters. Firstly, we shall check our situation to ensure that safety regulations are complied with …”
Zhen, with a guilty start, surreptitiously reached for the safety belt. The long trip here had been so slow and uneventful that he had ignored the sign warning that “PASSENGERS MUST WEAR SEAT BELTS AT ALL TIMES”. He clicked the buckle home as quietly as possible. It would be a pity to do anything to jeopardize this visit.
“Secondly, before we begin, I shall give you a short introduction to this gallery and its grave importance for the lost world of Old Art.”
Another murmur, less appreciative this time. Most of Zhen’s fellow students were Art Historians (apprentice), so too intense an appreciation of Old Art was considered an anomaly. But then as an Engineer (Marine) (apprentice), Zhen was something of an anomaly here too.
In front of him, Xan was whispering. Before Zhen had a chance to overhear, the boyfriend was talking over her.
“We only learn about Old Art so we do not repeat its mistakes!”
Some scattered applause, fading quickly. The teacher held up her hand, palm outward, for silence.
“So, the Tate. One of the largest repositories of Old Art …”
Zhen knew this story well. Surprisingly, he had found himself quite interested in Old Art – even if what he had really been interested in at first had been his friend Xan. Alphabetical seating had meant that Zhen had sat behind her for four years at Chengdu Higher School (Number Fourteen). He had long admired the shape of her shoulders and the shining hair cascading to meet them. Countless times he had watched her treading water in the dormitory’s communal baths, unable to take his eyes away from that glorious hair flowing out across the water, slick and lustrous as an oil spill. Her hair was covered now, its radiance hidden apart from that stray strand. Zhen felt the urge to touch it, and laced his hands in his lap.
When the time had come to enrol at Sichuan Institute of Technology (Number Three), he had imagined that they would study Engineering together. She had always listened when he spoke of all the possibilities he could see for an engineer, how they could make so many different and beautiful things. Beauty was to be found in machines, architecture, in the concrete things of the world. Beauty was what endured. He had laughed when Xan had announced that she would study Art History, and specialise in Old Art. How useless! But after that first year, Zhen had found that her memory still moved him even more than a well-executed blueprint. He enrolled in one of her Art History courses, and enjoyed it. He had signed up for more.
“Old Art includes all works described as ‘artistic’ produced before the circumstances leading up to the Second Cultural Revolution of 2045 made such artefacts unnecessary …”
The teacher’s voice rose and fell in the familiar rhythms of a rehearsed lecture. She was explaining how the Tate had acquired its vast hoard of Old Art. Britain, not for the first time in its history but certainly the last, had become obscenely rich in the twenties when hyperinflation had struck down the Euro. Bryan Sewell III, the clone who’d been the Tate’s director, had been able to snap up incredible bargains. His greatest triumph had been the exchange of da Vinci’s Mona Lisa and the Venus de Milo for three truckloads of Irish Sea oil – the Council of the Revived Paris Commune deciding that they valued real warmth over cultural illumination. Later, his deputy, Bryan Sewell IV, carried on the work, rounding out the Tate collections until they were the most comprehensive in existence. Even the third major extension on the site of the old Southbank Centre had hardly provided enough space for them all.
Listening to the story, Zhen found himself trying to imagine the reality of what they were about to see. Of course, he’d been through the Virtual Reality lectures as part of his studies. It was eerie but exciting, sliding through the silent simulacra of the Tate, the Prado, or the Whitney, where the corridors were always bright and airy and completely deserted. He knew that the real thing would be nothing like that. It would take time to adjust to seeing Old Art without disembodied voices explaining and luminous text bubbles popping up.
“Since 2045, the law allows only the New Art. Luckily, since the New Art is the most efficient realisation of the New Functionalist Aesthetic, it is all that is required …”
A burst of applause, the boyfriend clapping the loudest. Zhen was disappointed to see Xan clapping hard too, although his own hands came together almost without thinking. The New Art: of course it was better, but secretly Zhen found it somehow unsatisfying. Their first class outing had been to the Sichuan Regional Gallery. The SRG was famous, the first big collection of New Art. It had helped cement Chengdu’s reputation as the Venice of the East. Zhen was particularly keen on the work of Enlai (Artist), (or (Engineer), since the two professions were interchangeable now). The class had crowded in around Enlai’s masterpiece, ‘Artwork Number Twelve’. Three steel cogs ascending along a blank white wall. Zhen had tried to sketch the piece, and he thought that he’d gotten the spirit of it. Most of his class had just bought one of the official holocards.
Zhen already had a holocard of the Tate. Pressing the plastic button conjured up a series of magical things: a lobster telephone, an ancient jet spitting fire, a cracked cement floor. Zhen liked the way you could zoom close in, or animate the holograms in brief tableaux. The holocard’s digital renderings were guaranteed more technically detailed than the originals. It hadn’t impressed his grandfather though, who’d visited the Tate when he’d worked as a dishwasher in London way back in 2009.
“Bring me back one of those Turbine Hall snow globes,” his grandfather had cackled, “Or maybe you can get me one of those ‘London 2012’ banners!”
Zhen had just smiled politely. They both knew that there were only half a dozen of the real ones left, valuable antiques ever since the anti-Olympic riots in Stratford Stadium had gotten out of control. Things had changed a lot here since his grandfather’s time.
Soon Zhen felt almost sleepy, lulled by the steady progress of the vehicle beneath him and the sinuous movement of the strand of Xan’s hair. The teacher’s concluding remarks brought him back: “So pay close attention, class: the history of Old Art remains a useful study.” She lifted the interphone to speak to the driver. The students broke into an excited buzz when the engine stopped. Everyone turned to the windows to look out.
All around them, sunshine glinted on water, the flat expanse of ocean that extended as far as Zhen could see. The day was calm, and the wavelets were tiny. Their peaks only rose a few centimetres, just high enough to refract the bright sun into a thousand flashes of light.
As a marine engineer, Zhen knew that there were rarely large waves on the water submerging London. There was nothing for the waves to break upon before the Ural Mountains thousands of kilometres to the east. Zhen guessed that most of the time at this spot there was only this sparkle refracting into the sky, like a semaphore blinking out the last words of a stopped history. Spread out underneath their feet were kilometres of submerged streets and sunken houses. Nothing moved down there but the rhythmic sway of the seaweed fast growing up over the stones. Seventy metres below, the drowned gallery was still holding its final exhibition. It was always open to those wilful enough to descend into the dark. The rising sea had finished the Old Art more surely than the ideological dictates of the New Art ever had.
“All are ready? Let us visit the Tate!”
The teacher clapped her hands. She mimed adjusting her breathing apparatus and checking the oxygen level. The students, quiet and serious now, copied her movements carefully. Xan tucked the loose strand of hair back beneath her wetsuit. Zhen felt the chill as seawater flooded over his feet: the submersible was beginning its dive.