How many sitters are required to make a portrait? For ‘Crowded Room’ artist Tim Mann, the answer is as many as 10,000

Tim Mann's 'Crowded Room' is on display in the Hudson Gallery of Wisbech and Fenland Museum until Fe

Tim Mann's 'Crowded Room' is on display in the Hudson Gallery of Wisbech and Fenland Museum until February 28. - Credit: Archant

The problems presented to us by contemporary art, particularly in terms of its appreciation and interpretation, may cause us to ignore, significant work that has been created in our very midst and which seeks to represent the image of our community.

It is easy to see why at first glance the multi-panel mural created by Tim Mann, which represents more than 10,000 outlines of Wisbech residents, evokes the standard response in relation to contemporary art: what is it?

At the material level it is a number of panels that make up a seven metre mural upon which a range of pastel colours have been organised, in other words: an abstract work of art.

However, if it were just this then we would be justified in saying that it amounts to very little given that abstract art has a very long pedigree going back to the beginning of the 20th century.

Perhaps we could classify it as ‘post-modern art’? However, once again the same kind of response would be apt here for post-modern art is itself quite dated.

That leaves us with only one label – the one that offers very little explanation apart from the fact that the work of art has just been made – ‘contemporary art’.

Tim Mann’s work is certainly an example of contemporary art and practice, and can stand alongside other examples of contemporary art – in all its guises – because it was made here in Wisbech in the latter part of 2017, it employs a limited range of materials, and it is non-figurative (or at least does not depend for its meaning on figurative representation).

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This begs the question, once again, which is that expression of viewer bemusement: what is it and what does it mean?

The problem with the question and any attempt to answer it is that it is tantamount to standing in front of Monet’s huge panoramic paintings of his garden at Giverny and questioning why he bothered to devote so many years of work to depicting his garden pond when a simple photograph could have achieved the same thing?

Thus, the only satisfying answer to this question is that the role of the artist is to present us with artistic statements which cause us to take notice, question, evaluate, and share in the experience (visual or otherwise) of the world around us.

Tim Mann’s work achieves all of these objectives in so far as it is a portrait of Wisbech expressed through artistic means conveying the shared experience of the community.

At the purely visual level it is an elegiac evocation through colour and line as well as the suggested form, of the character of Wisbech at the centre of the Fens.

The pastel outlines of those 10,000 participants, majestic in their primitive form, rising from the bottom of the panel towards the expanse of pale blue colour above, suggest through simple form, the ancient Fenland landscape, where reeds sway in the breeze under a ‘big’ sky.

At the narrative level it has an almost mythical power to suggest the struggle between the land, the water and the sky, which has characterised this part of England from time immemorial.

This is the same landscape of the early Britons, of the Romans, of Boadicea, the Anglo-Saxons, of King John, of Hereward the Wake, of mediaeval farmers and shepherds, of Cavaliers and Roundheads, of merchants, sailors and bankers, of revolutionary ideas and nonconformists, of patronage and great wealth, in short, the vibrant heritage of the Fens.

At the artistic level it is able to do all this because the artist has acted as the bridge between the sitters/participants and the surface of the work that he has created, which ultimately embodies all that they represent.

This truly is a portrait of Wisbech whose meaning is validated by the participation of 10,000 of its residents.

Tim Mann’s ‘Crowded Room’ exhibition is at Wisbech and Fenland Museum until February 28.

Review by Aldo Ierubino, arts officer at Wisbech and Fenland Museum