By R J Astruc
When Ping is eleven years old, his grandmother tells him that the greatest works of art — like the greatest tales — are always love stories. She has a print of Da Vinci’s Madonna of the Rocks hanging in the kitchen, its edges peeling and discolored from the rising heat of the oven. She lifts Ping’s round chin toward the Madonna’s blank, bland face and says, “Look at her eyes, her expression, the smoothness of her skin. The way her shoulders curve and the way all things are beholden to her glow. This work was painted by a man deeply in love.”
“I’m fairly sure Da Vinci was a homosexual,” says Ping.
“Yes, well,” says his grandmother dismissively, licking her thumb and applying it to one brittle corner of the print. “Artists are men of unusual tastes. I’m sure he did a lot of other things he wasn’t terribly proud of, too.”
Five years later, Ping paints a picture of his grandmother walking into her kitchen to catch him and Da Vinci shirtless and kissing, flowers entwined in Da Vinci’s copper hair. Cherubs frolic merrily in the sink and Christian miscellany — crosses, halos, rosaries — waterfall from the kitchen drawers and sprout from the knife block. Above it all, the Madonna’s pale face hovers, her features twisted with the jealousy of a scorned woman. Ping calls the painting Awkward Moments With My Family and enters it in a local art competition.
It wins first prize.
Aubrey Hale is a difficult model; he shifts and fidgets and itches and complains and gets up to use the toilet and makes himself snacks and smokes weed and bothers the robots with questions like, “How does it feel to serve a puny mortal?” and “C’mon, say something sexy in binary?” The only way Ping can get him to stay still for any length of time is to ply him with bourbon. Five glasses later, Aubrey subsides gracelessly onto the rendering couch and allows Ping to hook him into the scanware.
“The things I do for art,” he slurs, lifting his arms as Ping plugs in the final wires. “Rather, the things I do for you, Xiaoping…”
“It’s very appreciated, Aubrey.” Back at his desk, Ping fiddles with his computer software. On the screen is a 3D rendering of his friend — a little rough at the edges, but slowly gaining clarity as the scanware details the minutiae of Aubrey’s naked body. Tablet pencil in hand, Ping begins making some modifications. First he removes the scars on Aubrey’s chest and back, souvenirs from a long-ago motorbike accident. He digitally shifts Aubrey’s thick, dark hair out of his eyes. Erases his freckles and the bags under his brown eyes. Slims his waistline by an inch or two or — hah! — eighteen.
“You’ve made me thin, you superficial prick,” says Aubrey, who can see the changes on the mod screen hanging above the couch. “Who do you think you are, Pygmalion?”
“I don’t know. Do you think you’d be a good base for my perfect man?” Ping grins, crafting Aubrey’s belly into a hard sextet of muscle with a few calculated flicks of his wrist. He turns on the scanware projector and a second Aubrey — a slimmer, unblemished, and physically younger Aubrey — appears in mid air just inches away from real-Aubrey’s nose, translucent as a ghost. “Don’t take it the wrong way,” Ping says. “It’s still you, Aubrey. Just more like the you I knew when we were in high school.”
“High school? Which part of high school?” Aubrey snorts in disbelief and reaches through his ghost-self for the bourbon bottle. “It creeps me out, seeing myself like that. Anyway, I like your old stuff better than your new stuff. Your funny square robots. I wouldn’t mind if you wanted to make me look like one of them.”
Ping winces. Those funny square robots are the culmination of three years of art school, an engineering degree, and at least a decade of rejections from galleries all the way from Qingdao to Soho. What’s more, those funny square robots represent Ping’s first taste of artistic success. He’s done two installations in London already, one in the cramped Betaworx gallery in Soho, and one in the gardens of Mergo Inc, a financial services firm. Both have received mild praise from critics, but the ‘general public’ love his work — all those blocky, square-faced robots beeping away like a scene from a 1960s B-movie. Ping’s robots, with their awkward movements and simple logic circuits, are fun and silly the way real AIs aren’t.
“I can’t keep making robots all my life,” he says. “My work has to evolve and grow. I have to move on.”
There is a rustle of movement behind him, and Ping looks over his shoulder toward the studio’s back room. The robots from his installations are huddled in there amongst Ping’s old canvasses and discarded paints, their big shoulders clunking together. Their round yellow and blue eyes gaze at him balefully, sadly — and Ping feels guilty. They may just be AIs, and primitive AIs at that, but that doesn’t mean they don’t have feelings… well, programs that tell them they’re having feelings, at least. And considering the fact that Ping’s used his own personality as a base for their logic circuits, it’s almost like he’s being rude to himself.
“Sorry guys,” he calls to them. “Don’t worry, I won’t dismantle you. I’ll probably give you to a school — you’ll like that, won’t you? All those kids to play with…”
The robots beep in unison, lights flashing in sequence across the antique LED displays embedded in their chests. Aubrey, taking advantage of the distraction, sits up and starts groping around for his clothes. Ping groans and puts down his tablet.
“Oh for goodness sake. What are you doing now?”
“Can’t hang around for much longer. Got a date. So do you, as it happens.” Aubrey wriggles into his jeans. “You’re coming to meet Cara with me tonight, right?”
“Cara? I thought your sister’s name was Thea.”
“My sister’s name is Thea. My girlfriend’s name is Cara.”
Ping blushes. “Cara. Oh. Sorry, yes. It’d slipped my mind.”
When Aubrey leaves, Ping turns the projector on full and positions ghost-Aubrey in a standing position, one transparent hand resting on the back of the rendering couch. A few minutes of fiddling is all it takes to arrange Aubrey’s sharp, Eurasian features into the self-assured smirk Ping remembers so well from their school days. Pygmalion — fine, okay, Ping thinks, circling the projection. But is there really any harm in it?
With a critical eye he examines ghost-Aubrey’s eyes, his expression, the smoothness of his skin. The way ghost-Aubrey’s shoulders curve and the way all things are beholden to his glow. Automatically Ping holds his hands out, fingers curved so that ghost-Aubrey’s hips fit perfectly within their span. He closes his eyes and feels nothing. He opens his eyes and ghost-Aubrey is there, smug and expectant, almost like he’s waiting for Ping to make the first move. In the back room the robots click and mutter — ashamed, perhaps, of the vices and visions of their creator.
Ping goes into the bathroom and splashes cold water on his face.
When he’s ready, he calls a cab.
They’re having dinner at Blackhouse, a bohemian modern art gallery with an adjoining restaurant. Ping recognizes immediately that choosing to come here is a concession to his own tastes — Aubrey is the kind of guy who’s only really at home at an all-you-can-eat buffet, or tucking into a plate of old fashioned pub grub. Choosing Blackhouse means that Aubrey is serious about Ping being here, which means that he’s serious about Ping meeting Cara, which means that Cara is… well, it means that Cara is serious.
Ping stands in front of an installation of electronic balls that jump between two hands delineated with laser-lights. Further into the gallery he can see other pieces: a computer made up entirely of similar lights, a female AI projected in 3D into a block of ice, and a mobile of tiny spaceships that uses no strings, each machine powered by some sort of inbuilt anti-gravity device. Or maybe it’s magnets. Or a propeller secreted somewhere in the base. Ordinarily Ping would be fascinated by this sort of thing, but right now he just feels hollow.
Cara is dark and vivacious and exactly Aubrey’s type. Ping knows that as soon as he sees her, as soon as he hears her laugh and the bright, curious way she talks, like everything is fun and new to her. She’s wearing a long white sundress that falls low over her shoulders in a way that’s both elegant and casual and Aubrey cannot keep his eyes or his hands off her. She’s very pretty, so pretty and happy and pleasant that Ping wants to go home and throw up.
But he can’t. Instead he makes small-talk about the weather (bad) and politics (worse) and the usual relationship rubbish — How did you meet Aubrey and You seem good for each other and I’ve never seen him so happy. And the worst thing is that he doesn’t have to lie.
“Aubrey told me that you’re an artist,” Cara says. “He said you make funny square robots.”
“I’m not that interested in robots any more,” says Ping, glaring at Aubrey. “They were just a hobby. A fad. Not real art at all, apparently.”
“Probably more like real art than taking scans of me in the nip.” Always a child, Aubrey swipes his fingers through a hologram of decaying white roses. “You’d better not let that thing find its way onto the internet, mate.”
Cara coughs. “So what do you work with now, Xiaoping?”
“A variety of new mediums. Scanware and projections, mainly. Aubrey’s been kind enough to help me calibrate my rendering software. I don’t know if I’ll stick with it, though. I’m still searching for the best way to express my, you know, message.”
“What’s your message?”
Ping shrugs. “Maybe I’m searching for that, too.”
An AI comes past with a plate of cocktail sausages, and Ping has a chance to politely excuse himself. The memory of his hands on ghost-Aubrey’s body is too vivid in his mind for him to continue with this farce. He needs liquor and he needs solitude and most of all, most impossibly, he needs Aubrey. He needs some sort of redemption from his friend, some way to confess and atone for his Pygmalion dreams.
No harm in it at all, he thinks bitterly, swiping a champagne glass from a passing AI. No harm at all.
He walks aimlessly around the gallery. He sees liquid magnets dancing between electrical fields and a row of costume dummies wearing outfits that change colour and shape depending on what angle they’re viewed from. He sees a bifurcating cartoon that splits and jumps its way along a white board, telling a hundred different stories that separate and interconnect depending on what the viewer wants to see. He sees an elaborate model city built out of sound frequencies and a waterfall of cascading lasers and a giant bust of Edison made of illuminated conch shells joined with spiral cabling like old fashioned telephones. He should be impressed, he knows, but it just feels like cheap electronic trickery.
As he turns a corner, he sees Cara, alone. She’s stopped by a self portrait — a three dimensional hologram of the artist, naked, in double exposure, so that he appears to have four arms and four legs. He is surrounded by both a circle and a square; his expression is steely and sincere.
“Xiaoping!” she calls, before Ping can escape into the gallery’s crowds. “Come look at this — it’s scanware, isn’t it? It reminds me of something, but I can’t think what.”
“Da Vinci’s Vitruvian Man,” says Ping automatically.
“It’s beautiful,” says Cara. “I love it.”
“My grandmother used to say that the best artwork tells a love story.”
“Whose love story does this tell?”
“Maybe it’s an ode to the artist’s ego. I wouldn’t know.”
“Have I done something wrong?” Cara asks. She’s heard the tightness in his voice. “I didn’t mean to be offensive — I just don’t really understand art.”
A white anger builds in Ping. It is stupid and senseless and useless and it froths up inside his fingers and head like a wave.
“You know,” Ping says, “of all the idiotic things I hear, as an artist, that has to be the most frustrating. How can you not understand art? It’s just art. It’s something you look at, and if you like it, you like it, and if you don’t, you don’t. What else is there to understand? Do you need footnotes? A guide, perhaps, to symbolism in the twenty-second century? Art is about emotions, about passion, about love and desire and —”
He is shouting. There is a crowd. Even the AIs have stopped and are staring at him with plastic concern. Ping’s hands are shaking and he can feel his face is hot and red. He is making a scene. He is breaking down. And all because of a girl. Because she does not know what she has got. Because she cannot even begin to appreciate it, appreciate him, appreciate Aubrey — and Ping appreciates Aubrey every second of Aubrey’s life, and has appreciated him for the last twenty bloody years…
“You’re nobody,” he says to the girl. “You’re nobody and you mean nothing. He’ll replace you within a week, you just wait for it, you just —”
“Are you two okay? What’s going on?”
Aubrey. Of course it has to be Aubrey. Ping turns, looks down. He forgets, often, that Aubrey is quite a small person, because he takes up so much room in Ping’s life and thoughts. His rage gifts him with a strange clarity of vision, and for a second he actually doesn’t recognize the dumpy little man before him. Is this really the man he loves? A fat drunk?
“He didn’t mean anything,” says Cara, quickly. “It’s my fault.”
“Oh, don’t mind Ping. He’s overworked and highly strung—it’s an artist thing.” Aubrey grins, impishly, obliviously. Aubrey doesn’t get it. Aubrey doesn’t sense the tension between them, doesn’t see Ping’s tortured expression, doesn’t understand Cara’s reticence. He laughs and tucks a protective arm around Cara’s waist, a motion so natural and easy that it breaks Ping’s heart. “Ping gets worked up about all that, you know, deeper meaning stuff,” he says. “Pretty high-and-mighty for a bloke whose only contribution to the arts so far has been a bunch of half-wit AIs —”
Ping spits. “You simpering, self-centered bastard.”
Cara puts her hand on Aubrey’s chest as if she anticipates violence from him, but it’s Ping who moves — one hard punch to Aubrey’s soft stomach, and then he’s gone, running for the door. Not because he’s a coward but because if he stays, he’s going to do so much worse.
He goes drinking. It’s a bad idea.
In Soho he staggers from bar to bar, telling his unhappy love story to any soul who’ll sit still long enough. Men, women, club kids, drag queens, suits, bums, stray dogs, AIs — he’s not picky. His love transcends the barriers of gender, class, species and mineral composition. He cries and laughs and vomits twice, once into the gutter outside a liberated bookshop and once in the toilet of a gay club while a pair of tattooed biker-boys bang on the door. The city is a spin of lights and metal and people, their warm bodies and their cold, hard hands. Ping walks amongst them like a zombie, falling, getting up, falling again.
When he gets home he finds the front window of his studio shattered, and pieces of old ironworking projects littering the pavement outside. His first thought is thieves, but then he hears the crash and clatter of metal coming from inside. He stands on his tiptoes below the window and looks in. He’s left the scanware on and Aubrey’s stylized image still hangs in the centre of the room; some glitch in the program has changed Aubrey’s smirk into an idiotically bright smile. Around ghost-Aubrey Ping sees shadows moving — the glint of light on metal — the flicker of LED lights — a huge iron shoulder rising from the darkness like a ship’s hull.
The robots. His robots. They’ve broken their programming, he thinks. Their circuits have shorted out. They’ve gone mad, mental, AWOL…
But that’s not true. They’re robots. They’re only obeying the emotions he’s programmed into them, the emotions he’s unraveled from the depths of his own subconscious. Guiltily he remembers punching Aubrey — and wishing, even as he ran, that he’d struck his friend harder, and again, again, again. This predisposition toward violence has always been inside the robots, Ping realizes, molded into the dark pith of their circuit-boards and charged by their fears of loss, rejection, and change.
“No,” he says weakly — to himself, to the universe. “No, no, no.”
There’s the sound of something breaking and Ping ducks as half an easel comes flying out the window, landing with a crunch in the middle of the street. It’s followed by a broken canvas, a painting from Ping’s school days. Awkward Moments With My Family. The Madonna’s pale face gleams within the twisted frame, one half of her mouth torn away, the edges frayed. Ping notices — for what feels like the first time — that although Da Vinci’s hair is copper-colored, his skin is barely a shade lighter than Ping’s, his eyes are brown, and his cheeks and nose are sprinkled with freckles.
Da Vinci has Aubrey’s face. Da Vinci has Aubrey’s face, because everything that Ping has ever done — every canvas he’s ever painted, every robot he’s ever welded, every AI he’s ever programmed — has been about Aubrey, about his love for Aubrey.
A table slams through the window, sending the last shards of glass splintering into the street. Ping barely notices. He takes his keys out of his pocket and opens the studio door.
Inside is chaos. His robots, his funny square robots, are destroying the studio. They tear canvases from their frames, rip out wires and scan-lines, snap the legs from chairs as if they were matchsticks. Their blunt fingers punch holes in his paintings and score deep ruts along the walls. Squares of carpet and linoleum lie amongst the wreckage, their undersides thick with dust and crusted glue. The little bar-kitchen and the studio’s fridge have been pulled from the wall; the tin sink and part of the plumbing system is crushed in a heap in a corner. Over it all the ghost-Aubrey hovers, still smiling his beatific smile, shining in the air like a saint in a church window.
And Ping sees then that this is his love story, his great artistic love story, playing itself out in the ruined studio. Here are his life’s works, a hundred thousand images of Aubrey, ripped and crushed underneath the heavy feet of the robots. Here are the robots, charged with the most primitive of Ping’s thoughts, clawing at an idealized and untouchable image of Aubrey with their clumsy, ugly hands. And here is Ping himself, a spectator on the fringes of his own psychological implosion, too bloody focused on his own pain to do anything practical, to do anything helpful, to do anything at all…
Something has to give, here, now.
“Stop,” Ping says, and raises his hands. “Please stop.”
The robots stop and turn to face him, their silly flat heads tilted at questioning angles. For a long time they stand there, shuffling their feet and muttering to each other, their LED lights flashing red. Ping waits. He thinks calm thoughts, trying to will that calmness into their circuits — he thinks of fields in springtime and baby animals and those easy, early days with Aubrey, at the very beginning of it all, when they really were Just Friends and nothing more. And eventually something seems to click inside the robots. They clatter into the back room in single file, slouching like reprimanded children. Ping closes the door behind them and leans against it, breathing deeply until the world feels still and solid again.
The next thing he does is switch off the scanware and the projection unit. He’s in the middle of unplugging the latter when he hears a car pulling up outside. A few seconds later Aubrey comes barreling in, flushed and over-excited.
“My god, Ping! Where did you go? When you left like that I was — well, okay, I admit, I was pissed, you bloody punched me, but then Cara said she thought you were having personal problems. So I got dead worried about you, and I know it’s late and all, but I figured I should come back to check on you, and then I saw the window, and your stuff, and —”
He’s brought to a halt by the carnage. He stands dumbly in the middle of the room with his mouth open. There isn’t much that the robots haven’t destroyed, but perhaps that’s for the best. Ping feels like he needs a fresh start. A clean slate. A new beginning and a new lease on life—that’s how it goes, isn’t it?
“Bit of an accident with the robots,” he says. “Won’t happen again.”
“Your robots? What?! Why would they do that?”
Ping shrugs. “Because they’re like me. I made them like me. They were angry when I said that I’d leave them, that I’d trade them in for something new. The same way that I got angry about you leaving me…”
Aubrey looks blankly at Ping.
“I’m in love with you,” says Ping.
It’s not the right time or the right place but it is a time and a place and that, Ping supposes, is better than nothing.
“Oh,” says Aubrey.
“Is that okay?”
Aubrey looks at his feet, looks at the studio, looks at Ping standing in the rubble with his head held high and his eyes wet and unfocussed. “I don’t think so,” he says, one hand over his stomach. “I’m sorry, but —”
“I’m sorry, too.”
“Yeah. Um. Are you going to be —”
“Yes. I’ll be fine. You can go. Please, actually. Please, just go.”
Aubrey sighs. “For godsake, Ping,” he says, in the doorway. “I wish you’d said.”
Time passes before he sees Aubrey again.
It happens at the New Modern in Soho, at Ping’s first public show in almost fourteen months. No electronic gadgetry this time, no robots or scanware or Da Vinci homages, just a series of photographs that show the extent of the damage to his studio. One of them, a close up of Aubrey’s shoeprint in the dust, is titled Awkward Moments in My Love Life — which gives the whole affair a nice circular feel. As though in taking that picture, Ping’s managed to close off that whole section of his life. Easy and quick as the click of a shutter.
Or it should be, until he sees Aubrey hanging out around the table of hors d’oeuvres, chatting to or chatting up a waitress — Ping can’t tell. Aubrey is uncharacteristically well-dressed and looks, if not thinner, at least healthier. Ping watches him covertly from behind a cluster of polo-necked art critics. It’s not a surprise to see Aubrey here, obviously alone, not really. All year Ping has been aware that London is getting smaller, and that the circles that he and Aubrey move within are drawing closer, like ripples spreading on a lake.
Ping takes a breath; he braces himself; he walks over to the table and touches Aubrey’s shoulder.
“Hi,” he says. “Aubrey. Hi. Hi. Hello. Aubrey. Hi. You came. Hi. How are you?”
“Fine, fine,” says Aubrey. “I see you gave up the robots.”
He puts out a hand to shake and Ping flinches and steps away and steps back and sort of touches Aubrey’s palm for a second, like Aubrey’s a fly trap ready to snap. Ping has a speech he’s rehearsed for this moment, a long speech about his grandmother and great love stories and Da Vinci’s implausible romance with the Madonna, but when he opens his mouth he finds that he can’t remember the opening line. Probably a waste of time, anyway, he thinks. Knowing Aubrey, he’d probably tune out before I got half-way through.
“I lost my taste for emotional proxies,” he says instead.
“Oh. Oh.” Aubrey frowns. “Ping, you still aren’t, like — well, that’s all over with, isn’t it? I mean I’m not going to find any weird love-shit about me in this lot, right?”
Ping looks back into the gallery. There are over a hundred photographs in the collection, the catalogue of a love life that never was. The ripped paintings. The scarred walls. A lonely departing shoeprint in the dust. And Ping realizes then a truth that he supposes all artists eventually discover – that his art tells a story that’s bigger than his own.
He slides his hand into the crook of Aubrey’s elbow. “Aubrey,” he says. “Come. Let me show you something about me.”