I remember January of 1990 and being dead broke and living in Montreal. In the afternoons, I’d buy a subway ticket and go back and forth from one end of the line to the other, over and over. I’d look at fellow subway riders and try to guess their secret crimes; it’s kind of amazing how transparent people are that way. You might think you got away with it but I can tell that you grossly undertipped a waiter last night.
I think back on those days and . . . I mean, I was 28 years old and living on nothing and taking the Montreal subway to fill my days and . . . I guess it all worked out in the end but there’s also another universe out there where things didn’t work out and I shudder at the thought of it. However, in the subways of Montreal I decided that there are 11 basic head shapes in Quebec — plus or minus one. I’m guessing this might be a reflection of the finite gene pool that populated the province centuries ago. One can sort of see Quebec as the end result of taking several villages from the north coast of France and putting them on an asteroid for 400 years.
Here’s a strange question: what makes someone look like themselves? Twenty years ago, I worked with a woman whose father was in the US military and, through him, she landed a job where she had to make people look as unlike themselves as quickly and dramatically as possible.
“The first thing you change is hair — put people in a wig. The second thing you do is change the way they walk.” She’d give women crazy heels and give guys shoes with odd toe-heel relationships because, subliminally, gait is the second big thing people notice in another person. Next, I’m guessing, would be the eyes, and next, the voice — and possibly next, the wallet.
If there’s one thing you learn as a 54-year-old male, it’s that in any given restaurant you’re pretty much invisible to all other people until it comes time to pay the bill, when you magically appear as if from nowhere, until the card-reader bleeps APPROVED, and then you’re once again relegated to the void.
For decades, I’ve been saying that the people history really remembers are the people who invent a new hairdo. Think of it: Caesar, Napoleon, Einstein, Hitler, Marilyn Monroe, Charlie Chaplin, Elvis, Andy Warhol, David Bowie (several times) . . . and sometimes it takes centuries for someone to make the final cut. It sounds so fantastically shallow, and yet there’s something undeniable about the notion. I’ll here mention Vincent van Gogh as one of these people — a genius, yes, but one with a proto-hipster beard and an aura of malnourished cool that for a very long time, until Bowie and Prince Harry came along, held the bar high for redhead style.
I’m fascinated by Van Gogh and, for the past month, as the first stage of my work on a large bronze sculpture commission, I’ve been holding a global casting call to find his living doppelgänger. I’ve learnt, in the most wonderful way, that almost everybody in North America and Europe knows somebody who looks like Vincent van Gogh. It’s as if he’s a truly universal archetype right up there with, say, John Wayne or Lucille Ball.
One fascinating thing I realised once the casting call began was that we only have Van Gogh’s self-portraits as a way to know how he really looked, so we’re very lucky he did them. But let us ask ourselves, what is a self-portrait but the slow-motion selfie of 1889? Just look at Vincent’s face in the portraits: he has selfie face. We all know what that is, and he distinctly has it. He’s giving the canvas his Blue Steel and, if we smoothed those paint strokes, we might well see Vincent with an iPhone 6s snapping a Tinder profile photo in an H&M changing room — something eternal, deeply male and somehow endearing.
This past week I’ve started to think maybe Van Gogh isn’t an archetype — maybe it’s merely that he was famous, and that his fame established the physical archetype that everybody else copies or refers to as his. It’s chicken and egg — or is it? Think about famous people who almost created a look but didn’t, like Lenin or Elizabeth Taylor. As history’s sifting process occurs over the next 500 years, the competition for who gets remembered is going to be brutal so . . . where’s the hair?
Here’s a personal incident: Chile’s national hero is naval captain Arturo Prat; he’s on the Chilean 10,000 peso note and he looks a lot like . . . me. So much so that every year the baristas of Valparaíso get mighty chuckles every time my table mates make a point of pointing this out. Ha ha. But wait — is Arturo an archetype? Am I an archetype? I want to be an individual but being an archetype sounds supersexy. But this is all I get, to be a subset of Arturo Prat’s archetype?
Here’s where we enter the troubled 21st-century psyche: we still have the 20th century’s craving for fame, everyone inhabiting a click-junkie world where we’re all just one more person-unit among 7.3 billion other click junkies. Fame has never seemed so close yet so far away. We want the right to be forgotten but we also want to be remembered forever. It’s a dominant theme of our era. So ask yourself: if you became massively famous tomorrow, would there be enough “you” to create an archetype? How unique are you? Wearing a bow tie or having Bettie Page bangs won’t cut it. Do you have enough you to create a Super You? Only time will tell.
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