The internet is many things. Vast, complicated and ever-evolving. Yet perhaps, on its most fundamental level, it is no more than a portrait. A detailed snapshot of the individuals, society and culture that built, contribute towards, and use it.
If so, what does it reveal? A great deal. The way it has evolved over time from an open, democratic, grassroots sphere, into one of increasing corporate control and privatisation reflects the makeup of the 21st century. While, on a more human level, it bears witness to some of our most basic wants and desires: a longing for community, connection, self-expression and freedom – freedom to live beyond the constraints of our immediate, offline, physical reality.
This can partly be observed in the way that many people use social media to present and ‘embody’ a virtual identity based on a carefully-constructed version of themselves; a version closer to how they wish to be perceived. We see it most, however, in the popularity of avatar or role-play based online games and player-built virtual worlds, which grant users the opportunity to invent entirely new fictional identities, to live ‘by proxy’, and to exercise choice over the realm(s) they inhabit. In other words; to do and be the things one can’t in the ‘real’ world, within a relatively like-minded community of others.
As an artist, David Hancock has long been interested in self-identity, self-expression and alternative subcultures; subjects which he explored extensively in his earlier work, particularly in relation to the goth and punk scene – communities which he describes as “working towards their own collective utopias.” Hancock’s most recent output, however, suggests a shift in focus. A turn in attention towards other forms of self-expression: namely the expression of identity through the creation or adoption of another.
This new direction began with a portrait series he made based on the worldwide phenomenon of Cosplay; where participants dress and act as specific ‘ready-made’ characters from anime, cartoons, videogames and other sources, often sharing pictures of themselves ‘in character’ online. The degree of escapism and fantasy involved is often heightened through interactions with other cosplayers, cosplaying the role of different characters from the same character universe. One element of the practice that Hancock became especially fascinated by was the collectors of Ball Jointed Dolls (BJD). Another global subculture, built around a highly customisable type of doll produced in East Asia, which collectors create unique identities for; often posing this avatar in photos uploaded to digital platforms such as Instagram, Deviant Art and Tumblr.
Hancock’s latest work explores the cultural significance of the BJD trend, specifically in regard to the incongruous relationship between the dolls’ existence as both physical objects and virtual ‘personalities’ – tapping into the surreal quality of the many hyper-realistic, yet simultaneously artificial, images of them shared online. In approaching each of the paintings, Hancock fashions his own doll, which he presents within a staged tableau comprised of a thematically related physical object and digitally sourced background. The inspiration behind each composition is typically rooted in his own cultural pool reference – particularly art historical. Ophelia (2017), for example, is based on John Everett Millais’s 1852 Pre-Raphaelite masterpiece of the same name, and shows a girl-doll dressed in a sailor’s outfit floating in a shell-shaped vase set against a watery backdrop.
Hancock has long been drawn to the Pre-Raphaelites and Romanticism because of the utopian and escapist visions encapsulated by both movements. Yet failed utopia is the predominant theme within his work. The scenic background of each of the BJD paintings is based on screenshots he captures whilst wondering the cities and streets of Second Life – an avatar-based virtual world that once had the potential to become an online utopia, but has since morphed into a vaguely sinister, sparsely populated realm.
Perhaps the most important element of Hancock’s latest output, however, is the bridge that the doll provides between the non-virtual world (referenced by the object) and the virtual world (referenced by the background). Placed together within the narrative space of the composition, they seem anachronistic; emphasising both the artificial and fantastical nature of the overall image. As such, the dolls of these paintings both echo and emphasise the function of their real-life counterparts: acting as a portal for BJD collectors and followers between reality and fantasy. A tangible gateway into a land of alternative possibilities.
Words by Sara Jaspan