The Laptops Don’t Work, but the Messages Get Through

Last week, Steven P. Jobs was remembered as a visionary who helped bring on the digital world with the Apple II personal computer and then redefined that world with sleek gizmos like the iPod, the iPad and and the iPhone. This week, he will be remembered for something else: Providing a canvas for the artist Michael Dinges.

Mr. Dinges’s medium is discarded Apple laptops — specifically, shiny white MacBooks on which he inscribes images, sayings, sometimes even warnings. “The dead laptop series,” he calls it.

It is just a coincidence that he is exhibiting the dead laptops in New York this week. He had arranged the show — it begins on Saturday and runs through Nov. 22 at Tekserve, the Apple-only retailer on West 23rd Street — long before Mr. Jobs died.

Mr. Dinges said he engraved the laptops in much the same way that 18th- and 19th-century sailors created their scrimshaw works out of sperm-whale teeth, except that he uses an electric engraver. “Home Depot is now my art supply store,” he told Hand/Eye magazine in 2009.

The laptops are not his only medium — he has also engraved plastic chairs and a vinyl canoe. “I choose modern objects and use historical technique to reflect on the antecedents for a period of change,” he said.

But he said the dead laptops have another historical throwback: He said they echo the samplers embroidered by colonial-era schoolgirls, who labored over the letters of the alphabet and an image, often flowers. “They’re about the same size as laptop computers,” he said, “and a laptop has a keyboard, so that’s a replication of the alphabet. And it’s a teaching tool, but what is it teaching us?”

Like samplers, Mr. Dinges’s works carry sayings. “Beware the power of the spectacle,” one dead laptop warns. Another laptop shows a squirrel burying an acorn. Surrounding that image are these words: “Beware the tendency to become the things you covet. It is unsustainable and will only disappoint you in the end.” A plastic chair that Mr. Dinges engraved says, “Every process creates disorder.”

He said the first dead laptop he created had the palm of a hand over the Apple logo. “That was definitely a reference to Eve’s apple and temptation,” he said. “There is something about the Internet that facilitates the better or worse angels of our nature.”

So which was Mr. Jobs, a good angel or a bad one? “Oh, it’s up to us,” Mr. Dinges said. “What is it with human nature that allows us to be virtuous or go off the rails? That’s the thing we really have to question.”

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