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Seeing body and face

Biology or society?

In the past month, after finishing my journey with the photography art students of the Royal Academy of Fine Arts, Antwerp, I have met the LUCA School of Arts students. With these new encounters, I am going to leave the path of photographic interpretations of the portrait genre. But before doing that, I want to share some last empirical insights from my side.

Our bodies and faces bear traces of what we have experienced. Together they constitute the canvas of our history, revealing who we are today. Our bodies and faces also expose our inner world, making our personality visible. Many questions about someone can be answered by looking carefully at the body in question. The human body, and face in particular, is a story in itself, that tells something about human life. Who is that person? What have they been through? Does that body betray its history, or its future vision? Reading the meaning, importance and especially the complexity of people, through the canvas of the body and face, is very attractive to us as fellow human beings.

The act of looking in the museum space (III), made by Karel Tuytschaever.

This attraction lies in human evolution. As humans, we have been able to distinguish ourselves from other animals through the evolutionary advantage of being able to communicate and interpret meaning through the face. What would have happened to our ancestors if they could not read aggression or detect signs of disease on other people's faces? This ability was a matter of life or death. The extent to which we can read faces also underpins our capacity for togetherness, solidarity and empathy. When we see another person's gaze in a portrait, we instantly know how to relate to it. As an extension of human evolution, it is therefore logical that portrait art undergoes a kind of timeless evolution too - and has a long life course of artistic creativity, expression and interpretation. In whatever period, culture or society, the (re)presentation of the human figure and face is an essential artistic activity. It is important to note that faces and expressions have remained fairly universal over time. The concept of a portrait, on the other hand, as a carrier of meaning, is pretty fluid. Over time, clear differences have arised in how we interpret the portrait and the face. Just think of the enigmatic mouth of Mona Lisa, about which so much has been fantasized, written and contextualized. Only because we are constantly evolving as human beings, can we continue to extract information about someone's identity and/or personality purely from looking at an unchanging face - by viewing it from the ever-shifting context of the present day.

As the skilled artist has evolved, with technical advances continuously offering more possibilities, the representation of the body as a subject in portraiture has also changed considerably. Body image has become very dominant in our contemporary visual culture. We all have a body that can be used to attract attention, and that can be perfected and idealized by technology. The countless possibilities of utilizing the body for commercial purposes are growing like mushrooms from the ground.

That venerable tradition of the soft, pliant and passive, unclothed (and predominantly female) body, which had dominated art for more than a hundred years, necessarily gave way to the grittier, messier and fleshier genre of 'body portraits'. These portraits began to take into account the various ways in which human beings can be reinvented or reimagined. Namely, through sciences (genetics, cell biology, neurology, etc.), biomedical technologies (electronic imaging of the interior of the body), related biomedical technologies (robotics, artificial intelligence, nano-technology), commercial and advertising strategies, feminism, sociology, psychology, cultural studies, and so on. Communication theorist Marshall McLuhan (1911 - 1980) understands the electronic world as simply an extension of the human body's nervous system, concluding that body portraiture underwent a significant conflict and shift; from the material world, to the mental image-making and image-breaking sphere.

Photographer Oliviero Toscani and brand Benetton changed advertising. Image part of his book 'More than Fifty Years of Magnificent Failures', Carlton Books Ltd (GB), 2016/04.

Commercial brands opted for the face, a ‘desired’ face, as the means by which to convey its message - rather than focusing on the body. Whereas, body photography in art generally made a point of avoiding faces - which were considered distracting, too personal and too sight-specific. Body photographers sought to make statements about the universal human condition (or a subject such as the female body, male body, aging body, suffering body, and so on). Showing faces inevitably subverted this message because the image was too close to a particular individual being. Although, for viewers of body photography, such exposure was an intensely personal experience after all; they were able to scrutinize another naked body in the public domain. We all, however, walk around with our faces exposed to the gaze of others. While the body remains largely a private affair, the face, despite our culture's obsession with it, is a public one. The ‘#metoo’ movement, and the way it used the body in an image, revealed how a body without a face can be objectified; dominated by the gaze of the portrait maker, the power of the shutter-button, as well as the voyeuristic submission of the viewer. The power dynamic of the body within the image is quite disturbed.

I believe that it is since the ‘#me too’ movement that popular culture has become in favour of the face, over the body, again. Faces are fundamentally the most important aspect of our public social lives. The faces we negotiate daily today, however, are not only of the physical, flesh and blood variety. Nowadays, we are also met with the age-less, defect-free, care-free, cloned faces of billboards (amplified by their large scale) and glossy magazine covers - notably, the French expression for magazines is ‘papier glacé’, or mirrored paper, symbolising that these pages reflect our collective desires. Retouched to superhuman or even non-human ‘perfection’, these faces are composite products of many commercial artists, models, art directors, stylists, make-up artists, designers, photographers and retouchers. Photos are posed to attract specific consumer audiences, using lithographers and specialised printers to enhance their desirability.

For many new millennia, the face was, and still is, one's destiny. Because of these reflections on billboards and in magazines, our relationship with our liminal bodies has gotten confused. Bodies and faces are becoming portrayed as permanent, immovable images. As a result, people have begun to long for fixed appearances. Today’s face can be constantly rejuvenated by nanotechnology, make-up and a multitude of beautifying innovations - that are more popular now than ever before. The face can even be reconstructed via cosmetic surgery. Genetic engineers, meanwhile, tell us that surgery is a merely temporary strategy, and talk about giving nature itself a helping hand - whereby maybe, one day, we might be able to choose our desired face in a designer catalogue.

The global objectivity and uniformity of consumption, marketed with its homogenized faces, does not only apply to the goods industry, but also to social-political products. In the media landscape, staged photo-opportunities are designed to render politicians and their agendas as desirable through the expertise of media coaches and designers. Human beings become the embodiment of a brand, highlighting their beauty, physical personality, or personal skill. The face of human individuality in those portraits has become a more troublesome concept now, which has led portraiture far away from the artist’s workshop. The truly meaningful differences between bodies and faces have become invisible to the naked eye, because the perfect, constructed faces that we see everywhere are subconsciously projected on images we see of people. We have stopped truly looking at people. It looks like our biological instinct to mirror those around us, has made place for mirroring those surrounding people with the society-fed image of a ‘perfect’, unaging human citizen – the embodiment of nature’s perfect prototype.

© August Sanders

In the past century, portraiture had a far more restricted agenda; it was either limited to the aim of revealing 'inner truths' about individuals, or making generalized statements about the face ‘of our time'. Here, I am reminded of August Sander’s (1876 – 1964) achievement. He is best known for his portraits, as exemplified by the series ‘People of the 20th Century’. In this series, Sander aims to show a cross-section of society in the age of the Weimar Republic. The series is divided into seven sections: The Farmer, The Skilled Tradesman, Woman, Classes and Professions, The Artists, The City, and The Last People (homeless persons, veterans, etc.). By 1945, Sander's archive included over 40,000 images. But then, the face as a thing, a (universal) object (for categorization), was a stable affair. Today, it is quicksand.

Thus, now, by going back to the skilfully embodied artistic portrait makers’ workshop, and leaving the democratic, universal social portrait behind us, I hope my research can say something meaningful about the face and body - on a sincere bodily and human level. By embracing open and receptive looking, alongside a reciprocal and balanced relationship between the maker and myself (as the one being portrayed), I will pursue this goal. I will also use and embrace contemporary and technological strategies from existing artistic and commercial practises within portraiture, but with the focus on truthful and honest imaging.

As I write this text, I realize that this research could also be seen as an attempt for bodily ownership again. I think the conventional twentieth-century approach to portraits is outmoded and irrelevant on an artistic level. I believe in the relevance, indeed urgency, of my project. Portraiture can be a battleground for science, technology, industry, commerce, and arts democratizing and globalization. But as Marshall McLuhan beautifully once said: “Once we have surrendered our senses and nervous systems to the private manipulation of those who would try to benefit from taking a lease on our faces and bodies, we don't have any rights left”.

In the upcoming period, I will meet draftsmen, painters and sculptural artists. I want to continue to peel away the facade of ‘social’ portrayals of human beings; embracing the poetic license of portrait artists; not seeing their portraits of me as a representation through their eyes, but rather the form whereby an encounter between myself and these ‘open lookers’ is expressed.


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