“By thy mask I shall know thee”, says one of the characters from the world famous Danish author Karen Blixen in her story “The Deluge at Norderney”.
A statement with so much force, it has become a kind of saying in itself. A contradiction in terms. For the mask is indeed a tool for concealing the “true face” and yet we all know that it is precisely the mask - the thing we choose to cover ourselves with, dress up in, decorate ourselves with as well as the way we pose, that we use to orchestrate ourselves. And it is by these things - the masks - that we judge each other.
A portrait is the first work of art a poor family will invest in. And being portrayed is still the greatest honour given to great men and women. In contrary to the ordinary snapshot, the person portrayed renounces his control over his image, and in return gets an authenticity, which the artist contributes. By ceding sovereignty to the photographer or sculptor, the one being portrayed trades in pretense for a purer, more objective image, with greater truth and value. The statesman, desiring an image of status, can never obtain this by posing in front of a camera alone. It is awarded to him by the artist.
Yet art history shows again and again that portraits have been used to show off, impress and manipulate. In this perspective, the dough-portraits are the purest portraits I’ve ever seen: because pretense is almost impossible. In this case it is not just the object of the portrait, who has ceded sovereignty, but also the portraitist who has had to give up controlling power to the lively and uncontrollable dough.
And that is when we begin to see. First and foremost, we register how we usually see. And then we realize what science has long claimed, that facial gestures mean more to us than we recognize and that the facial expressions generated by such feelings as fear, anger, disgust, sorrow and joy are amazingly similar all over the globe and the easiest way to communicate.
Standing before of the dough portraits bizarre faceless figures we are confronted with the difficulties of lacking the facial gestures when trying to read another person.
Immediately we notice ourselves searching for other features that will tell us who we are facing. We look at the clothes. And discovers that it says nearly nothing. Then we turn to the bodylanguage, and find it much more loaded with information. Once our attention is drawn to it, we instinctively know how to read body-language and readily use is to base our judgments on. Does she resemble me? Is she brave or cautious? Is he funny? Is she tidy or more relaxed? Would I go to bed with him? Is she lazy? When mimics are no longer possible the body takes over the posing, and the positions of the body become the important bearers of information: The situp- straight back, the open palms of the hand, the easy laid-back attitude, men with their legs wide open and girls with their legs crossed. We can see them, and read them, but are still on unsecure grounds - without the faces.
The shapeless dough-lumps are both repulsive and horrifying as deformed heads. They remind us of The Elephantman or E.T. But like both of these icons they call for tenderness, in their sorry shapelessness. Because even though it is not visible, we inevitably look for the face. See the face. Suddenly the dripping blurred, swollen dough appear as expressions of - or impressions of - the person within. Although we know that the real image of the person is to be found on the inside of the dough-lump and we are only
The shapeless dough-lumps are both repulsive and horrifying as deformed heads. They remind us of The Elephantman or E.T. But like both of these icons they call for tenderness, in their sorry shapelessness. Because even though it is not visible, we inevitably look for the face. See the face. Suddenly the dripping blurred, swollen dough appear as expressions of - or impressions of - the person within. Although we know that the real image of the person is to be found on the inside of the dough-lump and we are only looking at the outside of the mould, one cant help discovering facial features in the dough and be moved by them:
Isn’t the one with the heavy hanging doughcheeks looking mournful? And does the guy in the suit not seem coarse with that bulldog-head? Don’t you feel an urge to gently wave away the dough that has loosened itself, covering her left cheek, which has fallen down on the right side of the young girls face, as a bold unruly lock of hair? And isn’t that little girl laughing at us?
A few years ago, an image went around the world picturing an American soldier who had returned from Iraq and a collision with a bomb, with a face patched together to something, which was barely a face. It was a wedding picture of him and his wife, who had known from before the war and the accident, and continued to love him despite his lack of face. And the whole world looked on in wonder. Because we are so dependent on faces, we cannot imagine how one can love a person with no face. What then is the person, and what is the mask?
In front of the dough-portraits we are no longer able to tell, which is the truest image – the inside with its pretence, or the faceless outside with no pretense. And thus we are reminded of the difficulty of seeing anyone for what they are - love them for who they are “inside”. Without form, no content. We can get rid of layers of self-staging and posing, renounce control over how we look ourselves, but not escape the power of form. Form will always govern and dominate, manipulate and assists our perceptions of each other. But by thy dough-portrait I shall know thee.
From: 29 July 2010 To: 10 August 2010
At: National Art Gallery
Catalogue: 2010 - Dough Portraits