A Dream If Ever There Was One

Sam Perry

The concept of time-travel has incarnations within each of the realms of literature, film, science, religion and art. Each speaks with and informs one another, but they invariably disagree with each other due to having varying and desperate approaches to the act of looking forwards and backwards, a familiar family scenario.

It was relatively recently that futuristic time-travel began to be explored in either popular, scientific or religious cultures, the backward kind being metaphysically established long before. In 1770 Louis-Sebastien Mercier had his prophetic novel The Year 2440: A Dream If Ever There Was One published, subject to several years of bandying by tentative French publishers. One of the earliest examples of a futuristic consideration in literature, the book chronicles a Parisian man’s experience of falling asleep, having engaged in an animated conversation with a philosopher the night before, to wake up centuries later, in Paris 2440. The hero of the story, surprisingly unalarmed at the situation he has found himself in and with a gung-ho sense of endeavour, sets about wandering the streets, as a colonial explorer would, depicting its people, its institutions and cultural practice with a naïve yet judgemental abandon. One of the first ports of call in his exploration of this familiarly starry-eyed but wholly improved city is the Academy of Painting. As a leftist, he delights at the reformations that have taken place in Paris’ 25th Century way of showing painting. There is no grand celebrations of battles, no portraits of greedy monarchs, no elitist culture of the ‘art connoisseur’ among its people and only morally ‘virtuous’ works are permitted to be exhibited.

This imaginary traversing of time and the re-imagining of painting, its culture and its values is reflective of Will Roberts’ paintings. Himself describing many of his works as ‘painting about painting’, they enquire into the wider realm of the painter’s role in society, the culture surrounding it and to one of the most important aspects of art history, the mythology that surrounds the medium. Mythology in painting is mused upon whilst the inherent way we (or will) produce, present and interact with painting is also explored in Roberts’ works. 

The book has been described by the cultural historian Robert Darnton as a ‘guidebook to the future’. Its vision is optimistic, yet cautious and it wants you to take note before embarking upon the future’s cultural terrain. The idea of a guidebook or user’s manual for the future inevitably draws to mind to The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, 2001: A Space Odyssey and other cult classic literature. Imagining a guidebook for the uncertainties of the future is, again, allegorical to Roberts’ dense body of paintings. I use the term ‘body’ deliberately, I’m talking about a specific post-2011 body. He prepares us for how the industry will operate in the distant future, as absurd as it looks and sounds, how we will interact with painting and the ways in which art will be presented in galleries to come. Significantly more animated than Louis-Sebastien Mercier’s vision, though it is a dream that speaks from a kindred subconscious.

Since 2018 Roberts’ practice has undergone an aesthetically subtle yet conceptually significant change. If you’ve ever seen images of McMurdo Station, Ross Island on the edge of Antarctica, a U.S-governed scientific research base in the midst of a dramatic and elementally hostile landscape, you may have let the imagery of future human colonies on other planets come to your mind. The community is populated largely by people collectively carrying out their ambitions to understand the way the world ticks, or perhaps, is ticking away. Surrounded by melting icebergs, it’s pertinent to imagine a pessimistic outlook on the future of the Earth in the minds of its inhabitants. When viewing images of McMurdo Station you can wistfully imagine their collective emigration an adaptation to other worlds with a similar imagination to Roberts’ paintings. 

Roberts references 'Wanderer above the Sea of Fog' by Casper David Friedrich, along with many others and shows an adaptation of the role of the painter in a post-terra era. Roberts gestures to the past and the future of the medium of painting. There has been speculation that Friedrich’s predeceasing painting was a self-depiction, a major clue lying in the fiery red hair of the subject. There are numerous symbols or motifs throughout Roberts’ work that suggest a degree of self-depiction, the most prevalent being a spaceman’s helmet, the classically illustrated kind from cartoons, perfectly rounded with a wide, blackened, shiny visor. The visor, performs a function of concealing the identity of the subject. With this Roberts can continue to offer we viewers the ownership of who it is we are looking at, whether it is Roberts himself, ourselves or our great-grandchildren.


Sam Perry is a curator, artist and writer.