There was only one exhibit, but it dominated the room. A discreet brass plaque gave its title: 'Seasons of a Tree'.
The Tree itself was an oak, I think - it's not really my area. Full size, fully grown. It appeared to be just putting out the first leaves of spring. And it was ever so slightly blurred. Not so much as to be obvious, but as you stared at it your eyeballs started to ache, and then you realised that you were constantly trying to focus properly. It was as if the light around the Tree had been slightly greased.
"What do you think?"
I turned round, mildly surprised to be addressed. I don't get invited to many of these functions, and tend to be a bit of a wallflower when I do. I'm a newcomer in this field, a hanger-on and an eavesdropper to the conversations of the Great and the Wise.
But, having said that, there were surprisingly few guests for such a prestigious event - and many of those were there 'in light only'. Nor were there as many famous faces, real or holo-projected, as I would have expected.
"I'm impressed," I replied cautiously. "It's - dramatic. Different. Totally unique, of course." Out of the corner of my eye I saw that the Tree was now fully leaved, radiating that quality of green that nature does so well and artists struggle to imitate.
"Anything else, Mr - Garden, is it?"
"Gardine," I corrected carefully, smiling to show that I wasn't offended. "I edit an Art Netzine - Insights."
He gave a polite smile to show that he'd never heard of it, or of me, which I fully expected. I was trying hard to think of his name. I was sure that that flat, hard-edged face was familiar, but I couldn't place it.
"Well, the most exiting thing about this exhibition," I continued, "is that it's something totally new in Art. I mean, this is the first completely new medium to be devised in - centuries, at least. It's radical! It's going to break the mould and let in some fresh air and new light!" As I spoke, I could feel the genuine enthusiasm breaking out from inside me. "This is exactly what Art needs just now, now more than ever - something to turn it upside down!"
Enthusiasm can be dangerous in Art circles. It can get you sneered at. But my lapse from good taste had prompted a more positive reaction: the smile became real, and then recognition clicked in.
"You're him, aren't you - Vechery, the Temporal Engineer!" The holo's I'd accessed hadn't communicated the essence of the man. Seen in the flesh, he fairly crackled with drive and intelligence. His rather ordinary features were transformed by the personality within.
"That's pronounced Veychery, Taran Vechery - and I'm here as an artist, not an engineer," he corrected, but he'd kept his smile. "I'm glad you like my first work. Here, come and look at it from over here..."
The Tree was now well into autumn, a blaze of crimson-gold that was already fading to duller shades, as leaves began to drift down.
"I think I like the Autumn best," said Vechery. "Such colours..."
"It's a real tree, then?" I asked.
"Of course. This isn't a holo projection, or some sort of trick!"
All the leaves were gone now, leaving the tree stark and bare in its winter.
"How long does it take to go through a year?"
Vechery gave me a sharp look, as if suspecting a trick question. "A year, of course. A year in its own temporal frame, that is. It interfaces with our standard temporal rate at about 14.43 KK's slip rate, that's with a precessional series boosted to..." he saw the look on my face. "Oh, sorry," he said, not sounding it. "I suppose the answer you want is that the Tree goes through a year in about a minute of our time. When it reaches 100 years old - in its reference - the field reverses, takes it back down to a seed. From our perspective, that is."
"What about the Tree's perspective? Doesn't it get a bit - ah - confused?"
"Do you?" Vechery chuckled. "From the Tree's point of view, we're the ones who keep going backwards and forwards. Temporal fields are self-contained: it's the interfaces between them that generate the apparent paradoxes. But don't try and grasp it. I can barely get a handle on it myself - you have to be a three-brained Isha'hassat to really visualize trans-temporal events. Just settle back and enjoy the show! Look, we're back in springtime... Now, who's this then?"
A small procession that had entered the room. Leading the way, dressed in a blaze of fashion, was the regal figure of Demidi De Soliel.
"You don't know?" I asked in sudden apprehension. The scent of critical disaster hung heavily in the room.
De Soliel drifted languidly through the sparse crowd with his entourage a discrete distance behind him. Pointedly, he did not approach the Tree, or even look at it. Instead he orbited, acknowledging greetings, bestowing a gracious word here or there, and picking up satellites. When he finally happened to notice the exhibit, he had incorporated most of the room into his train.
"Well, now." He cocked his head on one side, and gazed up and down the length of the trunk. "Well, well now. Isn't this interesting?"
He didn't sound interested. I could feel Vechery tense up beside me. "Who is he, Gardine?" he whispered.
"Demidi De Soliel," I whispered back. "Whatever you do, don't upset him!"
"Why ever not?" asked Vechery in genuine surprise. I had no time to answer. De Soliel had been slowly circling the Tree, and now stood face to face with its creator. I stepped back, so as not to be hit by a stray thunderbolt.
De Soliel had no trouble recognising Vechery - or in pronouncing his name.
"Ah, you must be Taran Vechery. I believe that you are the Engineer responsible for this.. device."
The way De Soliel pronounced 'engineer' produced an instant mental picture of oily spanners and dirty overalls.
To Vechery's credit, he sounded very calm when he replied.
"Yes, I'm Vechery. I'm the artist who has... created ... this temporal sculpture. I understand that your name is De Soliel?"
An eyebrow raised by a mere fraction was all the answer that Vechery received. De Soliel turned to look at the Tree once more.
"A temporal sculpture, you call it? How very quaint!" He turned to his nearest satellite, and spoke in a stage whisper. "I believe that I shall plant a tree and call it a 'non-temporal' sculpture!"
A titter of laughter swept over the gathering, and Vechery went pale. "Is that fatuous remark meant as serious criticism?" he asked tightly.
If the floor hadn't been carpeted, you'd have heard the jawbones bouncing. Demidi De Soliel had not been spoken to like that since he was a foetus. I was watching him closely, and I'm sure that he actually blinked.
"Oh, no, Mr Vechery." De Soliel purred. "Serious criticism is reserved for serious Art."
Dead silence. You could hear the Tree growing.
"Mr De Soliel." Vechery spoke very quietly. "You clearly do not understand what you are seeing. This Temporal Sculpture is a completely unique and original work. Nothing like it has ever been done before - indeed nothing like it could have been done before. Except by the Isha'hassat, but they have no interest in Art. Indeed, even now there are only 14 other human beings alive who could even attempt to reproduce this: and none of them are currently on Earth. You have never seen anything like this before in your life, Mr De Soliel. You should think of that before you make hasty judgments."
De Soliel's reply was loud and clear, and accompanied by a smile. A very gentle, pleasant smile. "But I have seen this before, Mr Vechery. I have a number of them in the grounds of my home - a wood, I believe it's known as." There was another outburst of titters, some of them quite loud, and even some chuckles and guffaws. "Moreover, I do not make hasty judgments, Mr Vechery. I simply know what Art is, and what it is not. And it is not the simple copying of Nature, no matter how clever the technical methods used. That is what I am seeing here, Mr Vechery - and now I have seen enough! Good day to you."
De Soliel turned and swept majestically away. Vechery raised a hand as if to hold him, but on impulse I pulled him back.
"You'll only make it worse," I hissed in his ear. He glared at me, but held back, and De Soliel was gone. With him went his whole entourage, not only those he had brought with him, but also those he'd collected since. The room was empty but for Vechery, myself, and the Tree, now once more in Autumn.
Vechery walked across to a dispenser, collected a drink, and as an afterthought got me one as well. We sipped in silence for a while, watching the Tree.
"So who is Demidi De Soliel?" he eventually asked me.
I shrugged. "De Soliel is the Voice of Art in the Twenty Second Century. De Soliel is the pace setter, the arbiter of taste, the leader of fashion, the Sun of Criticism around which all Art revolves."
"Ah. So his opinion is important, then?"
I nodded. "Absolutely. You can't get serious consideration in the Art world without a nod of approval from him. And as it is... Tell me, how did you invite your guests?"
"Random Net search. Pulled out names with Art connections. How else? I've been away for 65 years, Earth time, piloting a starship. I only got back a few months ago, and I've been working on the Tree ever since. I didn't know anyone in the current Art scene. I take it I should have given De Soliel a special invitation?"
"You should have wined him, dined him, and begged him personally to favour your exhibition with a few moments of his most valuable time."
Vechery snorted. "Would it have made any difference?"
"Well - he might have been kinder."
Vechery gave me a long look. "What he said - was there anything in it?"
I took a deep breath. "Well - De Soliel's an egomaniac, but he's not without talent as a critic..."
"I thought you said you liked it!"
"I said that it's a unique new medium - and so it is. It's got potential: it could be the biggest thing in Art for centuries! Could have been. But De Soliel will trash it - and anyone who is anyone will follow his lead."
"No. I'll do my best for you. But my readership is barely in the thousands, and it doesn't include anyone who matters. Nobody who does will go against De Soliel. In the Art world, you're dead. Sorry."
"Dead? Oh, I think not, Gardine!" Vechery looked at me with fire in his eyes. "I'm not about to give up just because that arrogant bastard didn't get the right strokes to his ego!" He turned to look at the Tree. "Copying nature, eh?"
De Soliel's review of 'Tree' was witty, caustic and short. It proved as utterly damming as I'd predicted. I wrote a strong editorial in favour of fresh ideas, and saw my readership dip alarmingly.
Taran Vechery dropped out of sight. Rumour had it that he'd left Earth for good, laughed out of the Solar System. I didn't believe it: there was more to Vechery than that.
I was proved right a few months later, when a cryptic note invited me to attend a new "Exhibition of Trans-Temporal Art", to be held in a large open-air sports stadium.
As before, there was only one exhibit, but this time it was considerably larger than even the Tree. I got there early, in time to see Vechery bring his new work to life.
It started with just a flat plain, shimmering slightly within the time-field. Then holes appeared in the ground, slowly lengthening into trenches - foundations, I realised, as stone blocks began to appear out of nowhere, building themselves up into walls. A palace grew before our eyes: soaring spires, flowing buttresses, towers, walls, lakes, gardens.
It reached its magnificent peak, a huge edifice that filled the stadium. Then, as I watched, decay set in. The walls weathered, aged: tiles slipped, brickwork crumbled, stones cracked. The lakes became stagnant, the gardens overgrown. A tower fell, a roof caved in, the interior floors swiftly followed. For a brief moment the walls remained, stark skeletons, before they also crumbled, tottered and slid wearily to the ground. A pile of rubble remained, overgrown by wild vegetation. The water dried up, the plants died. The dry stones crumbled still further, an invisible wind drifting their dust away.
At last there was just a flat plain, fading into darkness.
There was a spontaneous outburst of applause from the sparse audience - not one of whom I recognised as being of any significance in the art world. I clapped as well: it had been a truly impressive performance. Glancing at my wrist tattoo, I saw that it had been a full hour from start to finish, but I'd had no awareness of the time passing. At least, not my time.
Vechery made his appearance, greeting people here and there but making his way towards me. Behind him, the plain reappeared, as the sequence began to run again.
"Well?" He asked. "What do you think of 'The Works of Humanity'?"
I held up my hands. "Incredible. Breath taking. Magnificent."
"What - all of that?" He laughed.
"Certainly. Was it difficult to achieve that decay effect?"
"The decay was the easy part. I just increased the relative time flow. The hard part was the building section. I borrowed a technique from right back in the 20th century - cartoon films. 'Animation', they called it. I had to put each building block in separately, in its own time frame, then run the frames together.... But never mind the technical details. Is it Art?"
I shrugged. "It is for me. But what about De Soliel?"
Vechery gave a wry smile. "Not here is he? Well, I tried. I sent personal invitations, with gifts... But I never did get a reply. It seems I've been snubbed."
A mere snub, however, was insufficient for De Soliel.
He did attend the exhibition. He came late, and alone, and 'in light only' - which was an insult in itself, considering the personalised invitation. He didn't talk to Vechery, or to anyone else. He merely appeared, cast a glance over 'The Works of Man', and gave it a smile of condescending amusement. Then he blinked out, without waiting to see the full cycle and without even the courtesy of pretending to use the exits.
He was noticed, of course, and his abrupt departure signified the end of the evening. Once more, Vechery and I were left alone. But this time there was no conversation. He sat and brooded, watching his creation go through its endless cycles of growth and decay, and after a while I said goodnight and went home.
It was a week or two before De Soliel even bothered to comment. When he did, it was brief and dismissive.
"Vechery is not an artist. He has no understanding of Art. He cannot distinguish between clever technological tricks and true creativity. He communicates nothing of himself: he shows nothing of his soul."
I did all I could to redress the balance. In an editorial, I pointed out that this was a new medium, and needed to be given the opportunity to develop.
"Most artists spend many years seeking to perfect their technique, whilst also developing an understanding of themselves. It takes time for the artist's message to become clear in their own mind, and only then can they communicate it to others. Vechery has entered the Art world with a brand new technique already perfected: he must be allowed time to discover what he wants to say with it."
This put me in direct conflict with De Soliel, and I added to that the crime of mentioning that he had not even given 'The Works of Man' a proper consideration. De Soliel himself didn't deign to notice my criticism, but my readership dwindled still further. A brief note from Vechery, thanking me for my support and 'taking note of' my comments didn't really redress the balance.
Over the next year, Vechery produced several more works of 'Temporal Art', none of which had any greater success. De Soliel did not attend any more of Vechery's exhibitions, and did not even mention them. For my part I believed I saw an increasing maturity and depth in Vechery's work: but I could do nothing for him. Insights was now virtually defunct, and I was reduced to freelancing the art pages of general interest netzines. Under a pen name.
It was while on an assignment for one of these netzines that I chanced to see the last but one confrontation between Vechery and De Soliel.
The event was the opening of a major Arts festival, at which De Soliel was - naturally - the guest of honour. How Vechery got in, I don't know: but as one of only 15 human Temporal Engineers he was wealthy and influential in his own right. Just not in the art world.
De Soliel was holding forth in magnificent style to his usual entourage. I was hanging back, hoping to pick up something newsworthy without being recognized. When I spotted Vechery making his way towards us, I knew that I'd get a story at least.
"Mr De Soliel." Vechery spoke calmly, but there was a bright and dangerous light in his eyes. "I have a gift for you."
De Soliel looked him up and down disdainfully. "Have we met? Ah - of course. You're the engineer, aren't you."
Vechery frowned. "You know well enough who I am, De Soliel. And this is for you - my latest work." He held out his left hand, and there on his palm a Temporal Sculpture sprang to life.
A grape vine grew up from Vechery's hand. Clusters of grapes formed. The vines vanished, whilst the grapes seemed to be imploding, crushing themselves. Juice ran freely through the air above Vechery's hand: he held up a wine glass with his other hand and caught the juice in it. The crushed grapes vanished from view.
Vechery held the glass up, showed it around. "Interactive Sculpture - untitled, as yet." He announced. "Art which you do not merely observe, but experience. It becomes part of you. Literally!" He offered the glass to De Soliel. "A glass of wine?" He asked. "I assure you, it's properly aged."
De Soliel stared at the wine glass, and for a moment I thought he would take it. He was well known to be a connoisseur of fine wines. Then he looked up from the glass, and stared instead into Vechery's face.
"My poor, dear Mr Vechery.... is this little show supposed to convince me that you are an artist? What will you do - get me drunk on your instant vintage?"
"I have shown you growth, I have shown you decay - I have shown you life transmuted before your eyes!" There was anger in Vechery's voice now, and pent up frustration all but ready to boil out. "What will it take to convince you? Or are you incapable of change - is that it? De Soliel cannot have been wrong, therefore cannot change his mind, cannot revise his opinion?"
"You dare! You dare to...!" I had never seen De Soliel lose his composure before. I doubt if anyone there had. But now his fury was breaking through the cultivated veneer, and he looked ugly with it. "You yokel! Still playing your clever little tricks and daring to tell me - me! - that it is art! It is all soulless technology - and an alien technology at that!"
Vechery laughed in his face. "So that's your problem! An anti-alien bigot! Or else just a technophobe! Is that the extent of your criticism, De Soliel? Trash what you cannot understand, denigrate what is beyond your comprehension?"
De Soliel struck out, knocking the wine glass from Vechery's hand. "What's to comprehend?" he snarled. "What is there worth my understanding? There is no insight, no depth to your.... gadgets. Art must have a human element in it. Your work has nothing of that! But then, that would be beyond your understanding! Now get out of here! Get back to your machines and devices and instruments - and leave Art to those who have true comprehension!"
They glared at each other. "Go!" De Soliel hissed. "Or I'll have you thrown out!"
Vechery shrugged. "Very well then!" He turned away, and stalked off - giving me a nod of recognition on the way. Which, under the circumstances, I did not appreciate.
"Now, then, has anyone got a decent wine, here?" De Soliel asked breezily. "Dealing with that sort is thirsty work - I hope..."
He was interrupted: Vechery, halfway across the room, swung round and called out to him.
"Thank you for your advice, Mr De Soliel. The Human Element! I shall bear that in mind!"
And with that he turned away again, and left. I left as well: after his recognition of me, no one else wanted me around. It was like leprosy.
I thought that I'd heard the last of Taran Vechery. But just a few weeks later, I got a holocom from him.
"Just called to say goodbye," he announced. He looked surprisingly cheerful. "I'm at the shuttleport now: I'm taking a new starship out in a few hours."
"Right. So - you've given up on Temporal Art?" I asked cautiously.
He chuckled. "Not quite. But I'm putting it on hold for a while. I'll take your advice, find time to think about what I really want to say. It'll be fifty, perhaps a hundred years Earth time before I'm back. I expect that the Art world will be very different then."
"Well, I hope so!" I agreed.
"Listen, Gardine, I've never really thanked you for your support. I know it cost you. Anyhow, for what it's worth, I'm giving you all my Temporal Sculptures. They might be worth something, if the market changes, and I've a feeling that it might. Meantime, they're in storage. The address is on your netzine page."
"Well - thanks a lot!" I was stunned.
"No problem. Only thing is, don't fiddle with them. Could be dangerous. Get another Temporal Engineer to work on them, if you need to."
"Ah - yes, of course."
"Right, got to go. Oh, nearly forgot. There's a new work there. Called ' The Human Element'. I think you'll like it."
He signed off.
Of course, he must have guessed that I'd be in a hurry to see his new work. But he'd set it up so that his starship had already slipped into Temporal Drive before I could reach the storage facility.
It stood in a room on its own, all set up as if for an exhibition.
It's still not clear how he got De Soliel down there. The Police think that he had some underworld contacts, and hired a professional kidnapping. However, De Soliel doesn't appear to have been physically injured: as far as we can tell, he's quite unharmed within the time field. But he's not happy. As he runs through the cycle that takes him from foetus to old age and back in the space of a minute, there are a few short moments when we can recognise the Demidi De Soliel we all know so well. And he looks... desperate.
Bearing in mind Vechery's advice, no attempt has yet been made to release him. They're waiting for the next Isha'hassat starship to bring in another Temporal Engineer. In the meantime the Police have issued an entirely useless warrant for Vechery's arrest. Not only is he quite beyond the jurisdiction of any human agency, it's not even clear what he could be charged with. It can't be murder, since De Soliel isn't dead - except perhaps for a brief moment every minute. So far they're calling it 'Unlawful Detainment', which seems rather weak.
But that's not the big debate in the Art world: and with De Soliel out of the way, we have real debate for the first time in years. Temporal Art is getting a new hearing: Insights recently did a review of Vechery's work, and the readership went sky-high.
Still, the major question about 'The Human Element' remains unresolved. What do you think?
Is it Art?