I have never Tiktoked, but my subject is apparently a TikTok sensation. It's a robotic arm.
It's the sort of thing you might see spray-painting cars on an assembly line, only this one is housed in a glass cage so people can walk around and observe it.
The arm sits in a puddle of thickish dark-red fluid reminiscent of blood. Drawn by gravity the blood seeps constantly away from the base of the arm towards the glass walls.
At the business end of the arm is a giant fingerless hand, like one of those rubber spatulas that are no good for flipping eggs but very good for scrambling them.
As the arm, which is taller than a tall man, senses the blood seeping away from it, its spatula-hand reaches out and scrapes the blood back in, like a mother chook drawing a chick back under its breast.
But of course while one swathe of blood is being swept back in, the rest of the blood is still seeping outwards on all sides, so there is always work for the arm to do.
Nevertheless the arm dances after a fashion. It is programmed to perform writhing movements that are almost animate in nature, as if the arm were actually alive.
The whole thing is a piece of installation art entitled Can't Help Myself by Sun Yuan and Peng Yu. It was exhibited in the Venice Biennale of 2019 and has since been housed in a museum in the States.
It is open to any number of interpretations. Its creators are Chinese and some commentators have seen the installation as a political statement, with the blood-like fluid representing the people of China and the arm representing the controlling Chinese authorities.
The people are forever wandering off according to their nature, but the authorities are forever monitoring them, and the moment they get too far from the central orthodoxy they are swept back in. (Admittedly this seems an oblique and ambiguous way of conveying such an idea, but when critiquing the Chinese government oblique ambiguity is sensible.)
The first requirement of any work of art, however, is not political or intellectual. It is emotional. If the art does not evoke some sort of feeling in us, then it has fallen at the first fence.
Can Help Myself succeeds because the arm is so recognisable. Though we know it to be mechanical it is uncannily like our own arms: it has a shoulder, an elbow, a wrist, that spatulate hand. And those dancing movements are as expressive as our own gestures. In short we respond to the arm as a living thing. We like it.
At the same time we see the task facing it, a task that it can never complete. The blood will always be flowing away from it, so the arm is condemned like Sisyphus to a life of ceaseless labour.
And yet it still finds the time and the energy to do its twirls and pirouettes, to illuminate the drudgery with the pleasure of movement for its own sake. The arm, in other words, is an aesthete and an optimist. It lives as we would like to live. We find ourselves admiring and even identifying with it.
All of which is fine and dandy but it is not enough to have brought it fame on TikTok. What has excited the attention, what has made the thing a viral sensation, is that the arm is giving signs of being about to die. After years of ceaseless labour it has weakened. Its gestures have shrunk. It is losing the battle with the blood.
Whether this death was programmed into its little chips, like the scraping of the blood and the various dance movements, I cannot say. What I can say is that it has evoked strong feelings.
People - and this is the remarkable truth of it all - are expressing sympathy for a mechanical device incapable of feeling. They see it as worn down by the sheer demands of being, by the amount of work needed simply to stay alive. All its cheerful twirling has been for nothing. It was only ever dancing on the brink of the abyss. And now it is about to fall.
But in truth, of course, they are not feeling sorry for the arm at all. That is mere projection. They are feeling sorry for themselves.
Even Tiktokers know they're going to die. The arm is us. Like all art worthy of the name, the arm has held a mirror up to nature.