What Is the Mona Lisa of Digital Art?
Will.i.am’s Pyramidi installation at the Barbican. (Getty Images)
At the Digital Revolution exhibition at London’s Barbican Centre, the pop star and entrepreneur will.i.am couldn’t help himself when he saw the piece of art he had submitted: an Egyptianesque statue of himself, surrounded by three robotic musicians playing a song he had written.
“This is Mona Lisa times a trillion,” he declared, according to a Guardian reporter who was on the scene.
The Barbican show, a wide-ranging survey of technology and the arts, is the latest evidence that artists, galleries, museums, and even collectors have embraced the idea of Internet-age digital art. Indeed the exhibition has been characterized as revealing how technology has changed art, or even the definition of what art can be.
And that raises a question. If Web/digital art is now an established category, does it have a “Mona Lisa” of its own? Let’s say, in other words, you had to choose one iconic work to stand in as visual shorthand for art made via technology — rather than sculpted from marble or painted on canvas in oil. What would it be?
I asked a variety of curators, critics, and experts. Almost everyone questioned the premise of the inquiry … but nobody could resist offering some sort of answer anyway.
Apologies to Mr. i.am, but nobody picked the thing he was involved in.
Fittingly, however, given the endlessness of the Internet, there was no real consensus. Maybe, then, the whole idea of the iconic work has been, as techno-enthusiasts like to say, disrupted: In the future, we’ll all have our own personal “Mona Lisa.”
Viewer as protagonist
That Digital Revolution show at the Barbican takes a long view — it covers four decades, so many works predate the World Wide Web. This approach is a useful reminder that art shaped by technology is an idea with a history: Artists have worked with the latest video or other media tools for generations, often with the explicit intent of challenging what “art” can be.
Nevertheless, even Digital Revolution curator Conrad Bodman answered my inquiry in part with this caveat: “Icons are established after centuries of discussion and debate,” he wrote via email. “This is such a young and fresh area, it is hard to say which works will stand the test of time.”