If you could have a shot in a time machine, what year would you travel to and where would you go? It's a question I sometimes ask my English students and it's always sure to provide an interesting array of answers. Instinctively most people think of a time in their past, perhaps that moment when they made a monumentally bad decision or did something really stupid and regretful. How we would all like to rectify those mishaps!
For some people it's more of a temptation to go back further in time, perhaps to a period in history that pre-dates their own existence, to an era that has always held a fascination. If I allow myself the time to ponder such a thing then, once I've returned and fixed those idiotic things I did as a young man (and no, I'm not telling you what they are) I find myself drawn like a moth to a flame to the city of Paris. It's April 1874 and I am standing in the studio of photographer Felix Nadar. A group of frustrated and unheralded artists are about to reveal the results of their labours to an unsuspecting and largely unenthusiastic Parisien public.
As they assemble their paintings I watch these men move anxiously from canvas to canvas, quibbling with one another over lighting and wall positioning rights. I am invisible, for that's a condition I allow with my time machine travel. Monsieurs Degas, Monet, Cezanne, Renoir, Pissaro and Sisley cannot see me, but I can see them, and I can see all their pictures!
I seek out one piece of work in particular, Claude Monet's 'Impression, Sunrise', the painting that will lend its name to a whole new art movement, though not before it is roundly dismissed by one of France's leading art critics of the day as 'unfinished wallpaper'. I want to stand on the shoulder of that critic as he writes his notes and I want to whisper in his ear that he's wrong.
From here I can take in any of the next thirty years. I can stake out van Gogh as he marches into his sunflower field, observe Pablo Picasso take his steady steps towards cubism, or drop in on Paul Gaughin's tropical paradise. But should I ever have my fill of these late nineteenth century masters there are no shortages of pivotal moments in the history of art to which I can steer my time machine.
And yet, perhaps the thing to do is to glimpse the future? The past is the past and what really fascinates us is that which is yet to come. How far ahead would you dare go and could you possibly hope to understand whatever it was you saw once you got there? I don't know. For example, if I was able to show to the version of me that existed 20 years ago what he has become today, I'm quite sure he would be utterly flummoxed!
Flying on fast forward to a future time and place, without going through the necessary life experiences along the way, would be self defeating and futile. We would have no real understanding of why we were at wherever it was we had arrived.
For me, part of the power of art, and by definition life, is in making the journey. And it's why I love the thrill of a blank canvas. Often I have a strong idea for a piece of work and I know what I'm trying to achieve but every so often, I have absolutely no idea what will become of that white space staring back at me. That is a truly magical moment. To not know is somehow powerfully liberating. We cannot arrive at a destination unless we undertake the journey, and it is on the journey that our greatest adventures lie.