The image of an artwork can linger. For me this is usually because the experience of looking has provoked associations more wide ranging than formal considerations. One such experience began for me while visiting the National Portrait Gallery in London, in November 2015. I write this a mere three months later from where I live near Silicon Valley, in California, but the memory of viewing a single artwork remains so vivid, it is as though I am there still.
The National Portrait Gallery is a bit of a guilty pleasure for me. To walk through it is to walk through time, encountering mostly celebrated individuals – the celebs of their day – who lived through the upheavals of history and somehow, despite it all, kept their heads … or didn’t. I have a particular fondness for the portraits of the Tudor era – the sitter staring directly at us, isolated against a stark black background – but the portraits from other eras have moved me too – even the Victorians. We know these people are hanging there because they have witnessed or shaped history but we also know they were blood and flesh. I look at them and wonder what they might be thinking now.
On that day in November, having traversed the galleries chronologically, toward the modern era, we found ourselves at the end of a passageway. In the distance, we saw what appeared to be a man standing on a pedestal. I thought, initially, of Gilbert or George. Intrigued, we approached. As we got closer, it became clear that this was, in fact, a sculpture of a rather ordinary looking person. He was dressed casually, in jeans, with a sports jacket and a backpack over one shoulder. Was this a piece by Duane Hansen? It was shorter than life size, though, so – Ron Mueck perhaps? On closer inspection, it was too roughly hewn a work for either of them. Despite that, the effect of this painted bronze sculpture was oddly life like. Who was this ordinary looking middle aged man, not larger than life, but smaller?
I read the description on the wall. It read “Sir Tim Berners-Lee (1955-), Inventor of the World Wide Web…”. Well, of course! The sculptor’s name is Sean Henry. The work itself is not that remarkable; rather conventional, actually. At best, it is the sculptural equivalent of a painting by Lucian Freud. It is the knowledge, though, of who and what it represents that is remarkable. We had seen the likenesses of kings and queens, courtiers and composers, politicians, poets and philosophers – Henry VIII, even, for whom people did lose their heads – but at that moment, and even now, I don’t think anyone represented there has had such a profound effect on the world. Although accomplished, by reputation he is self-effacing. He is represented because of what he represents.
At another moment in time, not that long ago – in 1989 – Sir Tim made a decision that, for better or worse, would lead to one of the most profound changes humankind has experienced. Looking at his likeness, I wanted to ask, “What are you thinking, Tim Berners-Lee?”
The sculpture is mute. He’s not saying. But I tried to imagine what he might say – and then, more importantly, how I would feel if I were in his shoes? I would feel breathless, bewildered by unintended consequences and wonder if I might lose my head. Maybe Berners-Lee doesn’t, but I would. The changes wrought since that decision have been so all encompassing and continue with such increasing and irreversible velocity that even he must have trouble comprehending them. If I were he, would I be glad the World Wide Web exists? I don’t know.
As I stood there my head spun, running through the changes, thinking of the current unease. What sphere is not unstable? Are the net effects positive or negative? Does connectedness cause disconnection? Is social media antisocial? I imagined the scales of justice. On one side would be the spread of ideas and information, education, entrepreneurism, new markets, instant connectivity, decentralization, democratization, popular movements, mass entertainment, streaming media. On the other would be displacement, social dislocation, income disparity, distraction, cognitive changes, mass surveillance, mass entertainment, terrorism and streaming bloody media. I wanted to tell this mute, bronze, painted sculpture what I was thinking: The jury is out, Sir Tim Berners-Lee: too much information. Like me, it’s too distracted to decide, but I’m still thinking about it.
Ian Everard is an artist and writer who was born in St. Ives, Cornwall and lives in Santa Cruz, California. When he’s not too distracted, he tries to think about things he’s experienced in visual culture and how they relate to the world at large.
Volume 30 number 4 March / April 2016 pp 30-31