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I had seen the poster in the window of an art-supplies shop on St Benedict’s Street. “Free Original Art” is a heading that would probably stop even the rampaging Ukrainian army in their tracks for a second. Normally capitalism puts prices on artworks to help us understand how good they are and one might think that free artworks would be therefore hopeless and timewasters. But the image featuring on this poster was more than competent and there was, in fact, a spot of character to it. A tonal study of a pianist, who is hunched melancholically over the keys and apparently engrossed in a single note. An image, perhaps, of amateurism but not of unseriousness.

This is the description that was on the poster:

Over 120 original drawings, paintings and mixed media artworks available absolutely free to anyone. No strings attached. One day only. One item per person. Take what you want, but love what you take.

I’m in, I decided immediately. Not because I necessarily wanted to possess or “love” any new artwork, but more because I had never experienced any exhibition like this before. I did not know how you were meant to behave at such an event and I suspected that everybody was going to have to learn whilst it was happening.

The exhibition would take place on a Saturday, from 10am to 6pm. I grew wary because the venue – 62 St Augustine’s Street – sounded a bit like a private residence. It then suddenly dawned on me that there might be scientologists somewhere at the bottom of this. I would continue to attend but I would try not to get beckoned into any back rooms or to enter into any life-changing conversations with anybody.

Come Saturday morning and the venue was revealed to be a small, hired arts studio. Due to the quantity of the exhibits, I had assumed that they were the work of some kind of collective and maybe given away to commemorate the conclusion of a workshop. Yet a single artist, a gentleman named Rassam (or Rass FZ on social media), is actually responsible for all 120+ of them. This article will be henceforth about the logistics, but also the aesthetics, of distributing art through the particular method that Rassam had chosen. Suffice to say, I will be here treating the exhibition itself as the revolutionary artwork.

A sign on the door had crowed that, “Your money is no good here.” The exhibition had begun to dissolve as soon as the public had entered the studio. I had arrived dead on ten because I had been curious to observe how this event would get going. But I was taken aback – it felt as if the storm had burst before a butterfly could succeed in flapping its wings. The studio was choked with people and it was impossible to move about between the exhibits. Rassam seemed to be stunned and he was left somewhere on the sidelines, trying to foster cellophane onto people to wrap their acquisitions in. There was sticky rain outside and I guess that an immediate concern was that unprotected artworks would get damaged out in the open air.

The exhibition was stripped down to its walls in under an hour. Soon Rassam was on social media, begging people to turn back from coming to the gallery.

The challenge for the visitor to this exhibition becomes a crisis for the discerning art critic. You have to inspect all of the artworks to decide which one is the very best or which is the one with the most heartfelt appeal to you. The more time that you spend deliberating, however, the fewer eligible artworks will remain available.

Fortunately, I had noticed a strange hesitancy in many of the exhibition’s visitors. I had noticed this because it had been also operating within myself. For example, I had found myself transfixed in front of “For Your Own Good,” a grand, fine acrylic painting of an emotional street scene. I felt that I didn’t quite deserve to get such a splendid artwork and that maybe I should accept something more modest and that maybe this painting would mean much more to another gallery-goer. Once I had recognised these silly inhibitions I was able to overcome them and I swung out rapaciously, to grab the biggest and best picture that I could see.

You might place Rassam’s exhibition on the idealistic end of the political spectrum. These days artists are always in the media complaining sourly that they cannot keep themselves in the manner to which they are accustomed, that the stipend they receive from the Arts Council is an insult, and so on. Yet out of the blue, on St Augustine’s Street, we have public art as a manorial act of generosity or of open hospitality. The exhibition is for free, the artworks are too and the framing and packaging are as well. Where this exhibition feels less progressive, though, is in how it puts forward a jungle where any faint hearts will be at a natural disadvantage. Some gallery-goers will be too frail or squeamish to get stuck in.

There is no way of really getting around this problem. If the exhibition had been previewable for several hours before the giveaway, then people would have quickly known what they wanted and where to find it and there would have been inevitably friction and confrontations once the doors were open again. Everybody had to be therefore equally lost in the jungle from the very start. Had Rassam alternatively introduced a ticketing system, in which everybody got a number and thereafter the artwork that corresponded with the number, then the possibility for “love” would have been closed off. You would have had to try to work up your love for a random artwork rather than one that you had actively fallen in love with at first sight.

The equality amongst the gallery-goers was another necessary precondition for this event. Rassam presumably has family and friends who know the stories behind certain artworks and who might consequently value them all the more. There was nonetheless no nepotistic preference given and anybody on the in had to queue and grab at the artworks just like everybody else. The exhibition thus entailed a true act of generosity because it was disinterested. Rather as in some versions of Christianity murderers will receive the Grace of God whilst people who devote their entire lives to good deeds will not, at this exhibition the most philistine visitor might get the richest artwork and the most sensitive might have to settle for the most basic.

If I was allowed to make only one criticism, I would hesitate over what it would be exactly. Some people might wage that by giving away his artworks, Rassam has lost the opportunity to make hundreds of pounds for charity. Rassam might reply that his visitors can take the artworks for free and still give their money to charity anyway. I had also wondered whether this event might look more picturesque on a warm day in springtime, out in an open space. This would be no doubt more difficult to organise and properly supervise though.

I am haunted by the idea of the final artwork. There must have been one work of art that was the very last to be left on the walls and that would accordingly acquire some diabolical status. A cursed object, it would be taken home and put on the mantelpiece, where it would give everybody the Evil Eye. Its owner would die prematurely and next it would journey between different inheriting relatives who would each meet mysterious and untimely ends. Finally it would be left to some far-flung third cousin who would pack it into a suitcase and take it with her on an ocean liner, which would be promptly lost with all hands. The artwork would be left triumphantly gloating forevermore on the sea floor.

The pastel study that I had scampered away with is called “Travelling in the mist.” I would have never known the title had I not come across it accidentally on Instagram during my research. This artwork appealed to me at once as a pleasantly atmospheric scene of water and foliage but I later felt that it was missing something, a boat or some wading birds in the foreground. A noncommittal image, it could depict a mangrove lagoon or the Norfolk broads.

When showing it to a friend, I had likened it to a theatre backdrop that is waiting for some actors to pass in front of it. My friend had suggested that I give it a spin portraitwise. Now it looks pronouncedly sexual (see here) and now I like it enormously. So this is what has been lurking beneath the water the whole time.

A gift, this picture only keeps on giving.     

[Previously on Tychy: “Arts Review: ‘Come To Your House’ by Sara Sallam.”]