A mechanical eye is looking at me; I stand still. My breathing changes, my chest rises, and I find myself looking back at the small device as its motorized gaze is tracing details of my face. It stops, looks at me straight in the eye for a second that lasts a bit more than that. Then, just like that, its gaze rushes back down, to a piece of paper where its lifeless hand doodles what it just saw with a biro pen, and I find myself letting out a breath I did not know I was holding in.
I have always been fascinated with portraits, with the ability to capture something more than the image; to catch a glimpse of what lies under the artist’s paint, what hides behind the sitter’s eyes, with the light and the pixels and the ink and the hand that held the brush or clicked on the shutter, how much of it was translated on the portrait, how much of it is projected by the viewer.
And here I am, sitting in front of Paul, one of the 6 robots in the NEO Bankside gallery. Paul is the robotic alter ego of Patrick Tresset, the child between his artistic streak and his IT skills. The space has a quirkiness that is both unsettling and inviting; on the walls, Paul’s work is hanging in rows, covering the white surfaces with glimpses of faces he has seen in the past week. There are 5 desks, each equipped with a Paul on it. The sitter sits on a chair, and after signalling that he is ready, the Pauls get into action.
The result is a sensory symphony: the sounds of the biros digging in the paper, the mechanical movement as Paul turns his gaze from the sitter to his work, the sight of 5 desks drawing by themselves a subject that stands with a steely, yet unsure pose.
The portraits were booked solid throughout the week, but thankfully the 6th Paul worked on a drop-in basis. Left in the corner while his siblings were scribbling away, he looked like the younger, more sensitive brother of a futuristic family.
I went 20 minutes before the gallery opened to ensure a seat in front of him. Inside, a woman wearing a strange costume had her portrait done by the 5 Pauls as a part of an art project. She was wearing a mask covered with doll heads. This day is getting curiouser and curiouser.
The door opened, I walked in, sat down, and looked straight ahead. I did not expect to be self-aware in front of Paul, yet when he woke up from his electronic slumber and looked at me in a quizzical manner, I found myself tensing up. It is interesting how we react when we feel observed; even from the mechanical eye.
30 minutes later, Paul was scribbling his signature. I could not believe what was in front of me. You see, in my opinion, his work, my portrait contained something more than a depiction; it contains a moment. It has an element of me as a sitter, but also of how Paul saw me. I looked at Paul, and I found myself frowning, as if I wanted to say something, unsure what is was and who would I say it to.
I caught up with Patrick Tresset, who explained to me that this project was born when he saw his passion for drawing fading away; he then turned to his IT background to seek creativity from a traditionally non-creative outlet. He created a software that would draw in the same style he did, and Paul was born.
I take my portrait, go out, and realising that I forgot my umbrella, I cover it with my coat. I look back, and a woman in now sitting in the drop-in station, as his hand is scribbling furiously on the paper.
‘Goodbye Paul’, I say, and then walk out on the rain, feeling the drops on my skin waking me up from a dream of the future.