Face Politics

Our relationship to the face, this frontal part of the head that is linked to what is most intimate in the human being, often serves to inspire various interventions of an aesthetic or political order. Does the face, which for a long time was considered “the symbol not only of the spirit, but also of an unmistakable personality,” 1 still have this dignity today? In its etymological sense, the visage is what sees and what is seen. It is characterized by its visibility. This visibility inevitably has a socio-political dimension that is inherent in public space. As a signifying surface that is offered and presented according to one’s values and culture, the face in all its diversity appears in a face-to-face situation. Moreover, the face cannot be thought about without the contribution of the other, without the other face. It fosters bonds and a sense of community. In our hypermodern societies these principles, still viewed by many as self evident, are not unanimously adhered to.2

In the arts, in so far as the face is linked to the bust, portraiture and drawing, for a long time it has been a counterpart of the ideal human image. It represents the universal figure of our humanity, the one that through education in literature and the fine arts was to be a carrier of values and attitudes within a typically Western conception of civilization. From this humanist perspective, the representation of the face in sculpture is not comparable to the one that emerges in painting. Because it is “deprived of the soul’s eye and gaze,”3 according to Hegel, sculpture cannot compete with the aesthetic effect of the face that appears on the painter’s canvas. But this does not take into account the emergence of a new sensibility to the face, one freed from the sculpture’s traditional canons.

In the opening text of this issue, Jacques Py initially refers to the work of Franz Xaver Messerschmidt, an Austrian artist who was a contemporary of Hegel. In contrast with the sculpture of his time, which celebrated models of bourgeois society, Messerschmidt created busts that “represented the diversity of human behaviour.” In highlighting the facial physiognomy, he partook in this new scientific spirit that searched the face for significant features of human personality. It is with this new expressive comprehension of the figure that the art practices of Louis Fortier, Francis Montillaud and Simon Nicaise are analysed. Made up of either castings or masks, these artists develop a vision of the face that is far from the “conventional rules.” By way of their transgressive actions on the faces and “the introduction of fleeting emotions and unstable feelings,” these artists undermine the traditional image that made the face the seat of spirituality and intelligence. Their “propositions to minesweep the official art” thus elude to “the models of identity recognition” that society prefers for its moral and civic values.

This ideal representation, associated with the face of Christ,4 is far removed from the notion of the face such as expressed in Amerindian cultures. Indeed, as Alexia Pinto Ferretti underlines in her text, for Native peoples the face is not solely human, it also is present in certain inanimate objects. Also, the mask is not an object to be collected; it possesses a spirit, it is animated by a personality. This is because the mask is a “medium of resurgence outflanking the strategies of Western cultural assimilation” that First Nations contemporary artists such as Alison Bremner, Nicholas Galanin and Brian Jungen use to combat the appropriation of masks within the Western vision. Their works are part of a process of re-contextualizing cultural identity and contributing to “the emergence of a new Native face.” In giving the tradition of the mask a new vitality, they hope to overthrow the colonial ideology so that there will no longer be just one true culture.

The struggle for a new space of visibility can also be carried out with photography: so much the more so since photography is, according to Roland Barthes, the art of the person.5 Since the emergence of social media and the selfie, this art has been amply promoted. In her text, Marion Zilio sees this quest for visibility as part of a new imaginary world associated with ephemeral and impermanent aesthetics. Following a Deleuzian interpretation, the face is no longer to be interpreted according to the logic of inside/outside, but rather as an “overlapping interface in an immersive/interactive relationship with the environment.”

It is within this “ecology of circulation” that the author analyses the works of Chinese artist Liu Bolin and Japanese artist Kimiko Yoshida, who both employ strategies of disappearance. While Yoshida strives to question her personal identity through multiple self-portraits, Bolin protests against the cultural heritage of an authoritarian regime that attempts to efface the individual. Even if these camouflages paradoxically make him more visible, this desire “to become one with the setting,” according to the author, is part of a pervasive paradigm enabling him to counter “continuous surveillance.”

Surveillance is precisely the main focus in Vincent Marquis’ text. In these hypermodern times, the face is no longer solely the symbol of self-expression and a means for self-emancipation in public space; it is also a potential threat. Under surveillance cameras, installed in various strategic places, the face is a measurable surface that is mapped in order to be identified. In this highly regulated political context, some artists are questioning this tyranny of visibility that aims to scrutinize individuals via biometrics. Zach Blas and Ursula Johnson, each in their way, denounce the “ethical weaknesses inherent in biometric processes of categorisation;” while Mushon Zer-Aviv and Rafael Lozano-Hemmer replay this system of facial calculation in view of “deconstructing its premises.” Despite their different strategies, these artists, according to the author, attempt to rethink the face as potential for resistance.

If, as Marquis states, the face can be a weapon, this is because it is something other than a portrait. The final text on this subject, penned by the magazine’s editor, explores various art practices to propose a reading in which the face is considered as the other of the portrait. According to this analysis, it is by indicating this distinction that the ethical potential of the face becomes possible. This is notably the case in the use of memory that underpins the works of Raphaëlle de Groot and Leandro Berra, whereby they seek to compose an image of the visage. Moreover, when the face becomes a pure substratum for machines to compose a portrait, it is the human dimension that is called into question. After a presentation of Patrick Tresset’s robot-created portraits, the text concludes with a reference to the digital art of artist Paolo Almario, who, through the destruction of certain portraits, suggests the potential for another humanity.

In the “Events” section, this issue presents two texts. The first, by Bénédicte Ramade, is a reading of an exhibition recently shown at the Centre Pompidou-Metz on the aesthetics of the sublime; the second text, by Jérôme Delgado, analyzes the multiple avenues of the group exhibition PEUT MIEUX FAIRE that travelled to numerous venues between 2009 and 2016. Finally, as well as the section dedicated to the exhibition reviews, in the “Public art and Urban Practices” section, Alain-Martin Richard proposes an analysis of the work of sculptor André Du Bois installed in the Saint-Roch neighbourhood in Quebec City.

Translated by Bernard Schütze

 


  1. Georg Simmel, “The Aesthetic Significance of the Face” in Contemporary Aesthetics, Matthew Lipman (ed. Boston: Allyn & Bacon, 1973), 338.
  2. For more on this notion of the hypermodern, see: Gilles Lipovetsky, Les temps Hypermodernes, in collaboration with Sébastien Charles (Paris: Ed. Grasset, Nouveau collège de philosophie, 2004).
  3. Hegel, Esthétique, tome 2 (Paris: Le livre de poche), 281. (Our translation)
  4. Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari, A Thousand Plateaus. Capitalism and Schizophrenia 2 (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1987), 197.
  5. Roland Barthes, Camera Lucida (New York: Hill and Wang, 1981), 18.