face to face

portraiture in a digital age
The Block, Queensland University of Technology, Brisbane
27 April - 15 May 2010

Portraiture is conventionally considered a mostly contrived, self-serving and self defining form. ‘Face To Face: Portraiture In A Digital Age’ actively interrogates and deconstructs these notions. The portraits do not just sit motionless on the gallery wall, as the title suggests they are face to face in how they actively engage, question and interact with the viewer. The curator Dr Kathy Cleland, has ensured that from every angle we encounter digital ‘others’—avatars, doubles, chimera, morphs, cyborgs and hybrid-selves which have disrupted the very self-embodiment expected of portraiture.

Biohead Actualized by Anna Davis and Jason Gee presented a cheeky ventriloquist doll-head that continually spilled a diatribe from self-help audio books. The obnoxious doll in this work parodies the personae that proliferate on internet blogs, accountable to no one and full of zeal and antagonisms. Time And Motion Study by John Tonkin turns the table on us, so that we, in this case inadvertently, become the subject. A rapid series of portraits of the viewers are lined up in a kaleidoscope of splices, where only what moves becomes visible. The viewer can move back and forth through time to see previous gallery viewers. Angelica Mesiti’s Heroes re-frames David Bowie’s foggy back-lit video as twin images of women stand in a state of wonder, their mystified gaze focused beyond the viewer.

Both Denis Beaubois’s Constant and David Rosetzky’s Without You explore the concept of the morphing of one face into another. In Constant, the morphing is very gradual and fluid, the seamless transformation of identity suggests the dissolution of barriers between age and race. In the latter however, the shell-like boundaries are firmly maintained, giving us a sense of hybrid subjectivites, as when you find yourself mimicking the gestures or expressions of another. Without You employs ‘old school cutting and pasting’ animation yet maintains a very digital aesthetic. Beaubois’s work further examines the relationship of the body to digital technologies such as surveillance and police line-ups. He points out that, ‘we tend to be better at recognising members of our own racial group and will often confuse members of other racial groups’.

Adam Nash and Mami Yamanaka created their own family portrait In3Face, as an interactive installation which is a composite of their faces and their son’s face. The viewer presses the large pixel-like blocks which then change from face to face, creating a composite image. The image is a curious experiment in the merging of identities, ages, sexes and inherited features. It perhaps draws influence from the phenomenon of photo booths which combine the images of couples to produce a likely baby photo.

Stelarc’s Prosthetic Head was easily the most seductive work included in the show. A 3D animated alter ego, looking just like Stelarc, it allows us to ask ‘Stelarc’ questions with a computer key pad. It has life-like expressions and responses, the only shortcoming being that it is not the artist’s real voice, which, in a way, only gives Stelarc a new, second voice. I asked ‘Stelarc’, why the face was the last vestige to become obsolescent, to which he asked me, what science fiction I had read? Like a child, the Prosthetic Head will become increasingly autonomous in its responses to the point where, in future, they may no longer be representative of Stelarc.

The occasion of the exhibition was also a rare opportunity to witness the larger than life Stelarc, who had not been to Brisbane since 1984 when he performed one of his infamous suspension performances at the then MOCA. This time, he presented The Cadaver, The Comatose and The Chimera, in two similar talks, which encompassed his extensive array of suspension, robotic, surgical and internet based performances from the past thirty years. About midway he pulled his elbow through his sleeve to reveal the fleshy reality of his third ear poised just above his elbow. The audience was aghast, like some medieval carnival crowd. He duly dropped another of his Frankensteinian laughs, which he embellished at every opportunity. Through his explanation of the complexity of the surgical steps we could begin to grasp the resistance the body has to its own modification. Further surgery is required to turn the ear into a distributed Bluetooth handset, which will allow Stelarc to speak to remote audiences through his ear. At the end he gave us a guided tour of his Second Life site, and described up-coming performances including the Avatars Have No Organs in which his avatar interacts with the Prosthetic Head