MAGNUM OPUS

Corin Dilip Faife's macabre short story delves into the world of a secretive sculptor whose masterpieces turn out to be more unique than ever imagined.

Magenta Finn, it was agreed, had developed her signature style early on in her career. Surviving work from her art school days, still on display at the London academy where she had studied, was in fact rather gauche and amateurish. Then — with little preamble and shortly after her graduation — had come the point at which she conceived the first of the bone sculptures that were to be her sole artistic output from that point onwards.

As her work began to be exhibited, at first in small galleries and group shows, a handful of critics took note of the striking, unsettling quality of the organic-looking forms. Admirers remarked on their curious construction; from where did she acquire the bones, and from which animal? How exactly were they carved to be assembled without visible seams? And how did the artist achieve such strange textures, the drawn out filaments and oozing, gelatinous drips? On all of these points, the tall, softly-spoken sculptress gave no comment. Her reticence only added to the air of mystery around her work, which, in turn, started to increase demand. Having obtained a modest price for each piece in her first series, Magenta Finn moved to a larger studio in a warehouse shared with fellow artists and creative types. Besides the day she moved in, and a few fleeting appearances at social events that took place in the building from time to time, she was rarely seen. None of the artists in adjacent rooms ever heard her at work; in fact, as the illustrator in a nearby unit observed, her studio seemed to be devoid of tools or building materials: just a table and chair, and plinths for the new sculptures that would appear and disappear from one day to the next. As to the how, when, and where of her craft, no one was any the wiser.

Though her colleagues found it strange, these elusive ways were of no concern to buyers, who clamoured for more of the sculptures almost as fast as she could make them. Inundated by requests, she eventually agreed to be represented by an art dealer — not the most high profile of all those who had approached her, certainly, but a dry, well-respected Scot, who had simply been the most accepting of her unwillingness to give more than the most basic details about herself and her working habits.

The partnership was of great benefit. At her new agent's suggestion, Magenta began to make fewer but more ambitious pieces, which, with his help, would fetch much higher prices. Where early sculptures had been barely more than two feet high, new pieces stretched metres from the ground. The sinuous twists and turns of her youthful series were still there, but now fashioned into wild, tortured branches flailing out from twisted stems; always, the forms were worked in the same glistening white bone, so carefully fashioned that an observer would think they were moulded from a single piece, were this not impossible given the material used.

Over the next year, the work sold faster than ever before. Magenta Finn moved to a private studio all of her own, a small warehouse south of the river where she would not be disturbed. Her work was shown in more prestigious galleries, her name dropped into conversation amongst knowledgeable circles. Yet, as her art became grander and her fame increased, the sculptress herself grew ever quieter, thinner, more pale. On rare public appearances, when she was questioned about her work, she responded with the same wry smile, and a reluctance to talk that was almost as much her signature as the sculptures.

One evening, in the modest office from which he worked, the art dealer received a call. A building consortium wanted to commission a giant work by Ms Finn, to be installed in a plaza outside a new apartment complex. It was larger than anything she had worked on before, but the developers were adamant that her style would fit perfectly with the setting. Naturally, given the demands of the task, there would be a very generous recompense. Details were yet to be finalised, but would he transmit the proposal to his client on their behalf?

Conversation over, the dealer stood the handset gently on the table. Then, picking it up again sharply, he punched in his client's number, but it routed to voicemail. Leaving a brisk message about 'big news', he closed up the office for the day, climbed into his rattling coupé, and set off to Magenta Finn's studio to relay the news to her in person.

A half hour later, he pulled into the bland industrial estate where the studio was housed, and halted outside its thick metal doors. With a bottle of champagne in hand — a luxury he judged worthy of the occasion — he strolled the few yards into the recessed porch. Looking around for the intercom, he saw a plain, grey box fixed to the wall, with a pair of thin wires jutting out where the buzzer had been. It was beyond use. Shrugging his narrow shoulders, he first knocked, then shouted, but received a response to neither. He was about to walk off when, almost as an afterthought, he gave the door handle a turn. It yielded to his grip, and, with a push, the heavy steel door swung open into the dark interior. He sauntered amicably inside.

Having visited once before, he vaguely remembered a workspace at the end of the short entry corridor, which he was now inside. Far better to deliver the news in person than on the phone, he thought, and as a bonus, maybe even glimpse his client's secretive works-in-progress. Then, as he neared the end of the corridor, he heard a strange noise: a coughing, retching sound as of someone choking on a meal, mixed with an unplaceable guttural undertone. Was it an animal, a guard dog of some kind? Perhaps, but could it be a person — what if Magenta was gripped by an affliction, some type of fit? Concern outweighed trepidation. He strode the last few metres of the corridor and burst in through the studio doors. From inside there was a scream; next, a crashing sound; finally a low moan. Silence. A yellow flood of champagne bubbles trickled slowly out across the floor.

An hour later, the dealer emerged from the studio. His face was drawn and sallow, his gait barely more than a shuffle. He walked back to his car, sat inside, gripped the steering wheel with shaking palms. It was a full ten minutes before he started the engine and drove off.

Magenta Finn's last work was, without question, the finest of her career. When fully installed, it spanned the concrete plaza from edge to edge: thousands of strands of dazzling, pearlescent white suspended delicately in the air, twisting and spiralling, intersecting in bulbous nodes and dripping stalactites, woven around each other like a giant bird's nest with a small, dark ovoid shape just visible at the core.

Hordes of visitors flocked to the opening, wandering through the space with their necks craned, gazing upwards at the vast, milky filigree above them. The crowds were enraptured. Delighted couples wandered hand in hand beneath it, reviewers fawned on its 'transcendent' nature, art students with Wiro pads nodded solemnly and made notes. Curiously, in the midst of this great success, the artist herself never made an appearance at the site. Shortly before she delivered her commission, Magenta Finn had declared her retirement from the art world with a short statement conveyed to the press. From that point on she had not been seen in public. Everything, from the delivery of the sculpture to its installation, proceeded according to the sketches and written instructions she provided, with no personal intervention whatsoever. To those familiar with her work the announcement came as a surprise, but most attributed it to some capriciousness of character: she had always been such a quiet, reclusive type after all, so who could really say what whims possessed her?

Three weeks later, as plaudits for her final work continued to accumulate, the handful of colleagues and associates who had known her realised they still could not vouch for her whereabouts; she had disappeared from the radar entirely. Of course, questions were put to the agent who represented her, and who had been in contact with her just before her abrupt withdrawal — yet, when pressed on where she had gone, the art dealer, himself looking more pale and haggard by the day, remained as tight lipped as Magenta had once been.

‘She was someone who put a lot of herself into her work’, was all that he would say, struck by an almost imperceptible shiver.

‘Maybe too much.’



'Magnum Opus' was published in Popshot's 10th issue, The Wild Issue, which has now sold out. To ensure that you never miss a future issue of the print magazine, subscribe from just £10 a year.