A man named Tim has been sitting alone in the Museum of Old and New Art in Tasmania for six hours a day. Tim is a human canvas for an artwork titled Tim. The work was tattooed on to his back by the Belgian artist Wim Delvoye in 2008, and now Tim must sit in exhibitions a few times a year. When he dies, his skin will be preserved. For now, with no one in the museum, he's being live-streamed – a man in his 40s sitting alone in a silent hall.
I'm watching Tim on my laptop. He stays very still, with his head shrouded in darkness, though you can see him breathing. The tattoo has blue and red roses and lotus flowers and two children riding koi fish, and a praying Madonna who looks like the PM (I'm projecting).
There are many ways of reading the scene of Tim in the museum. He could be a picture of loneliness, or self-sacrifice, or art being given priority over human life. Or maybe this says more about me – that I'm sitting here looking at some guy's back through my laptop, when I should be working. By the time I finish writing this column, he will still be sitting alone on his plinth. Then one of Tim's arms twitches, like a sleeping cat's ear. And I think that he embodies a majestic peacefulness.
It must be tiring to sit there knowing that people all over the world are watching you and judging your tattoo (look, the tattoo is not very good). But it would be even more tiring and, perhaps more lonely, to be connected with the outside world. If Tim was connected to us all via Zoom, he would be able to see us looking at him. He'd also be able to see his own face looking back. Psychologists have been busy answering questions about Zoom during the past few weeks and they say that this is one reason Zoom calls are so draining. Not only are you making more effort than usual to pick up on non-verbal cues like body language and facial expression, but the presence of your own face on the screen makes you hyper-aware of how you appear to others, so you work harder to manage the impression you're making. You're trying to act normal when there is very little social bandwidth to draw upon. This all creates a feeling of disconnection at a time when you're most seeking closeness.
I look at Tim and see a picture of self-containment. He might be alone but he is free to imagine connection, instead of looking directly at it as if at a blazing sun.
This morning, like every other morning for the past few weeks, I pulled on the same disgusting green cardigan, the same huge grey pants (I call these my elephant pants), the same pair of massive socks from 2010. I draped myself in my "work blanket" – a grey polar fleece a bit like one of the cloaks that Frodo and Sam wore to Mount Doom.
Before the pandemic, I'd thought I was one of those people who didn't get dressed for other people. No, I got dressed for myself. To make myself happy. That was what fashionable people said if they were ever accused of being over-dressed or too made-up: "It's not for you. It's for me." This was a sophisticated attitude towards fashion, I felt, because it implied that fashion's primary function was a deep, psychological one. I liked to think that if I put on a nice frock it was purely for my own emotional wellbeing.
All of that turns out to be bollocks. If I make myself presentable before going out in public, it is 100 per cent for other people. Left to my own devices, unseen, I turn into a sheep avoiding a shearing: dank and woolly in my cave, nibbling on whatever is in my immediate vicinity, hoping I will never be discovered and dragged into the light.
Getting dressed properly, like delivering a speech or baking a cake, only has real value when it can be appreciated by others. You know it's true. This is why Formal Friday – where people dress up beautifully and share photos of themselves on Twitter – has been such a hit: because the nice clothes can finally rub up against other people's opinions. If a nice top is worn and nobody sees it, was it even worn at all? It was not. Would Tim sit on that plinth all alone if he had nobody to see him? (To be fair, maybe he would. This is Tim we're talking about.) Maybe you will say, "That's not true, I put on some lovely trousers because it makes me feel ready for the work day." To you I say, release yourself. Put on your elephant pants.