Angus Massey’s work that was shortlisted for the 2016 Hennessy Portrait Prize is called Twenty First Century Portrait Artist. The portrait consists of a digital projection of a man’s face onto a terracotta bust.
Given that the person depicted is not the artist himself, Twenty First Century Portrait might seem like a more appropriate title. Even if the portrait were of Massey, Twenty First Century Self-Portrait would sound more fitting. But it is not a self-portrait. The man depicted is not Massey, it is an unnamed second person who sat for the piece.
Why then is the work called Twenty First Century Portrait Artist, if the artist is not portrayed? Where does he figure in the work? Why is he named?
The answer is that Angus Massey does, of course, figure in the work. Fundamentally and intrinsically. Arguably solely. Massey made it.
Of the other thirteen portraits that were up for the Hennessy prize, ten are named after the sitters, one is named after the location of the sitter (Waiting Room), one is named narratively (This Too Will Pass) and one is untitled and is instead numbered (Untitled #5001).
Massey’s portrait however, is not named so much as what he has done, the him doing it, is named. Twenty First Century Portrait Artist does not singularly name the sitter, or the artwork. Nor does it name Massey as an artist separate from the piece. Twenty First Century Portrait Artist names something more: the reality of the artwork existing as a result of the artistic process of a co-existing creator. What is named and put before us is hard to quantify though it is fundamentally very simple: it is the understanding, the fact, that there is a person who made this. Twenty First Century Portrait Artist signifies the process, the nature and the moment of Massey’s being an artist in relation to the artwork that is physically on display.
As it exists in the National Gallery in Dublin, the piece is more than just a portrait of an unnamed man. It is a text that documents Massey’s existence as an artist in real time. His existence is inextricably included in the “art”. Massey himself is not just signified by his name above the work, he is signified by the name of the work itself.
Twenty First Century Portrait Artist is a title that makes it clear that the piece is the result of work that was carried out by someone. A living person. And not just in the past tense, because the projection means that it is constantly happening. Massey is still being the portrait artist in our presence.
In his recent essay in which he discussed “the refusal of architecture to engage with the conditions of its own materiality”, Owen Vince looked at contemporary architecture that “masks the conditions of its production and appearance”. He compared this to the work of Michael Beutler, whose Pump House exhibition at the Nottingham Contemporary, Vince said, was of a type of art that is “obvious about its being produced, about its being an assembled thing, a product of a process of assembly and curation”.
Vince’s evaluation of Beutler’s work as art that is an explicit “product of bodies and hands”, work which is not “embarrassed about its own materiality”, is an evaluation equally applicable to Massey’s Twenty First Century Portrait Artist.
What struck me on seeing Massey’s portrait for the first time was how astonishingly life-like it was. It’s the one of the most realistic, human-looking renderings of a person I have ever seen. But the piece is not simply a success because it’s so life-like, though that is a contributing factor. The success of the piece is how real the portrait looks while, at the same time, how visibly unreal it is.
While Massey’s Twenty First Century Portrait Artist is incredibly life-like, it is at the same time explicit in its unreality. The likeness is presented as being made up of two parts: a projection (from a projector about 8 feet in front of the plinth that the bust is on) and the bust itself. The work is life-like as a result of how its composite parts operate together, and that composition is made obvious.
The striving for human-like accuracy in assembly is matched by the artist’s efforts in curating the work to highlight the “man’s” composite nature, his having been made. The portrait, to use Vince’s words, “confronts and exposes the conditions and procedures of its own manufacture”. Massey goes to lengths in order to show how unreal the life-likeness is. He forces a sense of the uncanny on us. We are undeniably faced with the constructedness of Twenty First Century Portrait Artist. Not for a second are we allowed to think, this is a human.
The work explicitly reveals its constituent parts and this separation of materials means we cannot say that the portrait is ever complete. (As I said already, the projection means it is constantly being made. The artist is continually at work.) Even where the viewer stands influences the unity of effect of the projection onto the bust (the spot that offers the perspective from which to see the piece best is marked on the floor). Standing in certain places means that what we see is not the artwork as the artist intends it. The viewer can stand in front of the projector if they want, temporarily undoing the work entirely, separating the artwork’s two distinct components and turning the bust back to just a clay figure. The finished article does not exist. The portrait fundamentally exists only in the moment.
But what makes Massey’s work a “twenty first century portrait”? As mentioned, it isn’t simply an artwork that Massey has claimed to be twenty first century. It’s what I have tried to quantify above: the holistic experience and existence of creator and artwork.
This insistence on the lived reality of the artist being inseparable to their work is something I’ve written about in this publication before as being part of our historic moment. Vince makes a similar case in his essay for architecture and art that “celebrate and anchor the making body within the architectural [or written or artistic] space, reconnecting it with real people”.
However, it’s one thing to say that the presence of the artist and the explicit nature of the artwork’s having been made are “twenty-first century”. It’s another to say why those concepts are representative, or symptomatic, of our contemporary moment.
There is, of course, nothing new or exceptional in attaining a radical human likeness. It has been achieved for centuries in various media and is reaching a zenith today with CGI.
Last century, John Berger, late of this parish, wrote of the painted portrait that “We may still rely on ‘likeness’ to identify a person, but no longer to explain or place [them]. To concentrate on ‘likeness’ is to isolate falsely.”
If “likeness” was Massey’s only aim, he might have created a portrait that was simply either sculpture or digital projection on its own. Such a piece could be considered more complete in its life-likeness than his mixed media portrait because it would be fixed in one medium (whether just sculpture or just projection or any one medium).
But, as Berger says, it wouldn’t truly tell us anything about the person, or people in general, and so no great claim could be made for such a portrait being a twenty first century portrait, that is to say, a portrait that specifically reflects something about the nature of people in the twenty first century. Even if the portrait were entirely digital, a twenty-first century medium, if it simply portrayed a likeness (though it might be impressive) then it would still be nothing new.
But Massey’s Twenty First Century Portrait Artist is not simply a life-like portrait. The portrait, by the nature of the media of which it is composed, insists on revealing the necessary construction behind what might otherwise be taken as entirely real. With Twenty First Century Portrait Artist, the uncanny human likeness operates in juxtaposition with the emphasis on the work’s incompleteness and composite material nature.
Any single medium portrait belies the complexity of the human experience: of the nuance and fluidity of the individual’s reality. Berger in the same essay, speaking for the twentieth century, writes that “We can no longer accept that the identity of a [person] can be adequately established by preserving and fixing what [they look] like from a single viewpoint in one place.” By using two different media, Massey’s portrait gets closer to portraying the fragmentary nature of the human condition. That might justify the title of Twentieth Century Portrait Artist.
But it is Massey’s specific choice of media, the mixed media of sculpture and digital imagery, that has resulted in him producing a portrait that depicts the true nature of the self today, a portrait that can be called a twenty first century portrait.
Massey, as a portrait artist in the twenty first century, is faced with the question: how do you present a portrait of someone when their body, that is to say they themselves, is no longer the primary site of their self and their humanity? When their physical being is no longer their centre of reality and lived experience?
The twenty first century has seen us increasingly conduct our selves and our lives across social media and instant messaging. We are becoming more aware of our selves online and less so of the self as it exists in the seat of the body, as we invest more and more in an experience that isn’t based on the physical reality of our being. Our experience of the self is increasingly an online first experience, or online full stop.
We are less and less concerned with how much maintaining the self online intrudes on our living in the real world. The online self interrupts more and more. Constant notifications, constant contact, constant updates means we don’t fully engage with people, or our selves, where we are in real time. How we engage with others, how we are, is decreasingly anchored in the physical world.
There is a growing erasure of the social physical moment: the loss of the real and the immediate in human interaction as we invest more and more of our real time in cultivating and maintaining our selves online. The lived experience of being together in time and space is being supplanted by the constant maintenance of our online presence, the constant monitoring of how the other self is getting on with people whose company we are not in.
(You put a photo of yourself and a friend having coffee up on your snapchat story. Your friend does the same. The online self is seen to be living. People react, you both respond. You’re both also maintaining several WhatsApp conversations in real time and instagramming your coffees. The reality of the moment is that you sit in each other’s presence, looking at your phones or with your phones on the table, exerting and experiencing the self not there with your friend, but primarily online. Online it looks like you’re just having coffee with your friend but the reality of the moment is that you’re both more invested in the experience of a self that isn’t present. You sit in each other’s company, producing an experience for the online self.)
A portrait, if it’s going to convey not just a likeness, but some sense of a truth as to a person’s lived experience in the twenty first century, cannot deny this aspect of selfhood today: the increasingly online experience of the self and the loss of the physical.
The explicit construction of Massey’s portrait, the juxtaposition of the clay bust and the digital projection, takes on a new significance when we consider the dichotomy of the contemporary relationship between a person’s physical being and their online self.
Online, we curate an idealised version of our self. This is not to say that the self we present online is content all of the time, rather that we can curate what our unhappiness looks like because the experience of the self online is one that has the luxury of time that does not exist in real life. We have all the time we want, away from the gaze of others, to coordinate reactions that human interaction in the raw doesn’t allow for. To manufacture the self we want others to experience. The experience of the self online doesn’t exist in a social physical moment.
Instant messaging is not instant if we don’t want it to be. We can take our time to figure out what we want to say, to plan how we will respond. And we panic when we know the other person knows that we’ve seen their message and not replied, because it’s a perverse return to conversation in real life, which really is instant and which can be awkward and difficult and excruciating because it occurs in real time in someone else’s presence.
Any cracks we present online are ones we have chosen to show. With interaction online, there is a denial of the imperfect reality of social engagement, of the margins for error that exist in the lived moment. However, we don’t acknowledge that the self we present (how composed, or even how anxious, we appear) and the ease with which we can interact with others online, is facilitated entirely by a curated moment.
The idea expounded in Vince’s essay and exemplified in Massey’s Twenty First Century Portrait Artist, the need to recognise the process and reality of the creator behind the work, becomes applicable to the individual and their online self. The online self that we present to the world also refuses “to engage with the conditions of its own materiality”. We present it as just us, rather than something we manufacture on a more fundamental level of experience.
Online first experience of the self “masks the conditions of its production”. We don’t acknowledge that there is another realer experience of the lived moment (call it real life), in which we physically are, and where we physically are, when propagating the online self.
Even though our online selves never actually convey the true nature of living in the real, where our guard can be lowered and we can be exposed, we maintain that our social media presence is “just us” online rather than our “online self”, something we’ve produced.
The online self is not just separate from the self centred in the body, but the fact of this discrepancy is hidden, and this too is an element of contemporary selfhood reflected in Massey’s portrait.
As said above, the artist curatorially insists on how put together his life-like portrait is, how its coherence belies its true constructed nature. Twenty First Century Portrait Artist, in its composite make-up, demands that, rather than simply notice the life-likeness of the effect that the two achieve together, we acknowledge the reality in which the digital likeness exists separate from the clay figure. We are forced to acknowledge the constructed nature of what we might otherwise take as “real” and we are thus forced to acknowledge the reality in which this construction exists.
Key to the exposed composition of the portrait is the fact that a digital projection, no matter how accurate, must still be projected onto a human form for it to be convincingly life-like. It can’t just be projected 2D onto a wall. The bust is key, and not simply a background for the projection, because there has to be an illusion of physicality if we are to believe the likeness is real.
Massey’s twenty first century portrait articulates that even as we retreat further and further from the real, despite the increased primacy of the online first experience, the illusion is still maintained that our online self really is us. The hiding of the construction of the online self is an integral part of the human experience today. The life-likeness of the composite portrait mirrors and exposes the denial of the online self existing as a product of a realer experience.
In Vince’s words, Massey’s portrait demonstrates that “any 'rendering' of a coherent self is really the product of an entire process of self making and expression”. Any rendering of a self that is a denial of this nature is simply a “faked coherence”.
Tellingly in Massey’s twenty first century portrait, the sitter is not named. We do not know whose likeness we are seeing. The reality of the individual is not alluded to. The implication is that the real person is in no way linked to this digital projection onto a terracotta bust. The portrait highlights that a likeness of the self (whether a portrait in a gallery or a self cultivated online) and the physical experience of our actual being are two completely different things. (The fact of the sitter’s instantiation is not even mentioned in the title of the work.)
What is of note, and what is primarily on display, is the process by which the likeness is brought about. It doesn’t matter who the portrait is of because, redundantly obvious as it sounds, it’s not really anyone.
Twenty First Century Portrait Artist is an insistence on reality: the reality of the living artist and the reality that the artwork exists as a product of that artist’s process; the reality of the human experience and the physical reality of the body as the site of the self.
Massey’s chosen title for his portrait means to show that the artist and their artistic process is inextricably part of the artwork but it also insists that we read the piece as a commentary of the nature of the self in 2017, as our online self becomes increasingly as present in our actual experience as our physical experiencing self is.
Massey is not didactic in his portrayal of the self today. The portrait can be interpreted as pessimistic: the fact that the majority of the detail of the portrait is in the digital projection would suggest that the loss of the real is gone past a point of no return; the bareness of the clay bust shows what happens to the body when it’s no longer the seat of one’s experiencing self; without the projection, the physical likeness is cold and inhuman.
Having said that, in how easily the projection can be thrown off by an intervening human presence, the digital rendering of a person is shown to be so much more fragile than the physical. The slightest unaccounted for movement, the least knock from a viewer, and the image no longer aligns with the figure it is supposed to “be”. Unaligned with the bust, the projection is just something gross, false and inhuman. The bust, on the other hand, though pared back in detail, is still solid. And its presence implies that, despite the fact that the projection is the more detailed of the composite parts, we still know on some level that the body is the legitimate site of the self. If it wasn’t, then the physical aspect of the bust wouldn’t be there at all, and we wouldn’t deny the constructed nature of the selves we present online.
Twenty First Century Portrait Artist is on display in the National Gallery of Ireland until March 26th.
I want to make the point that, after my first visit to the Hennessy Portrait Award exhibition, I returned several times over the course of writing this piece. On every visit since the first, the projection has not been correctly aligned with the bust. I’ve said that the first time I saw the piece I was in awe as to how life-like it was. This essay has been written on the effect of the artwork as the artist intended it.
But when the two composite parts are not correctly aligned, the effect is underwhelming. It has the pathetic and grotesque appearance of trying and failing to look real, and elicits the particular type of disgust we have for failed human likenesses: the same reaction we have for bad waxworks or poor CGI, scorn bordering on disgust. When not aligned, the piece appears to be worthless and is really not worth seeing. It looks fuzzy and comically bad. It’s a gross injustice to Massey.
Twenty First Century Portrait Artist is a work that needs vigilance and maintenance from those charged with exhibiting it in order for it to exist as the artwork it is intended to be. There is the smallest of margins between the work being masterful and it appearing shoddy and repulsive. It requires someone live on the ground to monitor it, to make sure it’s kept looking life-like and uncompromised. It is not a hung painting. It is never finished. It can’t just be left alone. It is a piece in which there is an insistence on human engagement, not just the artist’s or from the viewer, but from the exhibitors as well.
On my first visit to the exhibition, every person who came into the room and observed Twenty First Century Portrait Artist at the same time as I was looking at it commented on it to me. This might seem like an arbitrary metric by which to judge a work of art’s merit but it’s exceptionally rare, in my experience, that strangers are actually moved to the point that they will speak together in galleries about the art they’re looking at. It just doesn’t happen that often. This is an important artwork.
I haven’t included a photo because photos don’t do the work justice (the one on the National Gallery website for example). Because there is already a photographic component to the piece, photographs of the portrait have the unreal quality that photos of photos always have, and the life-likeness of the work is lost. The effect achieved by the piece can’t be reproduced. The work’s composition means that it needs to be seen in real life.
The denial inherent to the online self is twofold, and I realise I might have taken the first for granted. Our cultivation of an online self on social media is humanity’s most recent attempt at overcoming the fragmented, ever-incomplete process (rather than nature or state) of the self and of existence. Our refusal to accept, or our denial of, this eternal condition is nothing new. We have always tried to shore this up with something: religion, ideology etc.
But there is a second denial inherent to the online self (as a remedy to this problem of the human condition), which I have looked at in detail, and that is that we deny the fact that the online self is anything other than “just us” online. We don’t admit that it is something we’ve constructed, that the online experience of the self is an alternative to being in real time that we have created. We deny that social interaction online is, essentially, a set of lies agreed upon.
We deny that online first living is a product, having already denied (through our online selves) the existence of the problem that caused the production of our online selves. Whereas the idea of god is an attempt to remedy the existential dread of being in a world without meaning other than that which we ascribe to it, online first living attempts to recreate “being” without the problem in the first place.