Viewpoints for exploring the exhibition
The Accademia in Venice holds a mysterious portrait by the famous Venetian painter Giorgione, which in the literature of art history is commonly referred to as La Vecchia. Wearing a simple dress, a dirty white cap on her head and a fringed scarf on her shoulder, the old woman appears against a dark background, behind a greenish parapet. Her age is underlined by her crinkled, parched skin, light hair and scanty teeth; from the corner of her small eyes she glances out of the picture, broken. As if she were looking into a mirror and examining herself. The power of the picture comes from the spontaneous movement with which she turns towards us over her left shoulder while pointing at her own chest, addressing the viewer. The motif of the inscription in the picture follows the tradition of the “talking picture” that had taken root since Giovanni Bellini; however, due to the fact that the warning about the power of Time is not on the parapet or in the background, but on the scroll of paper the woman is holding, one has the impression that the inscription bears the old woman’s silently uttered words. As if she, once a beautiful woman, were talking about the natural laws of ageing, as if she were asking, “is this old creature still me?” Giorgione’s picture has, in the literature, been time after time interpreted as Vanitas, an allegory of the vanity of life and the transience of things. Accordingly, the inscription would be the same commonplace as the skull in a Dutch still life: everything and everyone is vulnerable to time and nothing ever lasts forever.
The afterlife of the painting has a more interesting development in that even in the early inventories it is recorded as “Giorgione’s mother.” This claim does not stand up to scrutiny, and in any case we know almost nothing about the painter genius who probably died of the plague at thirty-two. But where does this idée fixe of posterity come from, attaching to such an expressive face (the picture enjoyed special honour very early on) a name and an identity? Why don’t we content ourselves with the title The Allegory of Old Age? Does Giorgione’s special artistic gift not lie in the fact that he is able to evoke on the painted canvas the voice and presence of this old woman with such power that we feel she simply must have an identity, a story of her own, even if she cannot tell it? We are at a loss with the face of the Other, because we clearly sense she is somebody, yet we do not know who. Individuum est ineffabile.
[The glance glancing at itself]
Surprisingly, even in Western civilisation, the start of the twenty-first century is a period of burgeoning ethnic mistrust and paranoid xenophobia – for many reasons related to globalisation and the economic and political reshuffle of post-industrial societies. Western man, raised on the values of universal humanism, finds himself automatically examining his fellow passengers’ features or clothes on the underground, assuming he can gauge whether the Other can be trusted or not. The paranoid glance is driven by visual stereotypes and ethnic-cultural prejudices, for the most part subconsciously. At such times, we are chiefly blind to our own glance.
Péter Forgács’s Col tempo explores the blindness of sight. The exhibition is built on a single, seemingly clichéd yet eternally mysterious motif, the human face. We are prone to perceive every face as round and closed, something which, although it keeps changing in every moment and is subject to the passage of time, is self-identical and self-purposed. It always belongs to somebody, yet it cannot be freely possessed; it is not an object that can be replaced at will, but rather an interface that we share with others; it is a summary of our social self. It might be mine, but it concerns the Other. The anthropological fact that everyone has a face creates some sort of a universal reciprocity among people: we see others through it and offer our own face to be seen. To this extent, the face is the place for exchanging glances: a common ground. However, for the very same reasons it is a battlefield that is subjected to human hierarchies, the constraints and dynamics of social and power relations.
[The birth of the mask]
According to the story of the Fall, the first thing Adam and Eve obtain by setting their teeth in the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge is knowledge of their own nakedness, and this experience the Biblical text unmistakably associates with the human faculty for seeing. “And the eyes of them both were opened, and they knew that they were naked.” (Gen 3:7) What they see is not their own body, but the presence of what they perceive to be an external, alien look that has been free to see and watch them without themselves being aware of it. According to Hegel, man is the creature whose essence is that he cannot remain in the state of paradisal innocence. The story of nakedness in this story is a metaphor of being vulnerable to the sight of the Other (God or another human being). The only possibility of defence is hiding and the paranoid sharpening of one’s own sight seeking-identifying the Other (God or another human being). Sharp-sightedness is the faculty of man who has left the Garden of Eden and left to stand his own ground. Yet at the same time it is a source of suffering, a weapon that grants autonomy but at the same time creates a consciousness of vulnerability. Man therefore not only takes a fig leaf to conceal himself, but also, as part of the “coats of skins” referred to in the Genesis (Gen 3:21) that he dons in his misery in the wilderness, his face, to be used as a protective mask in social communication. Because from that time on he will be forever watching, searching, identifying, making the Other his object, conscious of the fact that he, too, is being watched, searched, identified. Man takes his face, therefore, at the gates of Paradise, and sets out in search of faces. Thenceforth he will have to live with the anxiety that, together with the Other, he is doomed to reciprocity, but he can never be unsuspecting or innocent in this state. For the lack of certainty presents itself in the form of a compulsion to identify: it makes it obvious who the Other really is, and who he (the Self) should be seen as by the Other. That is why he dons clothes, covers his body in signs, and comes up with new masks of the facade; and that is why he keeps searching for signs, patterns, fixed identifiers, to “get his bearings.”
Forgács is interested in the face as a surface subjected to the power relations of human interaction, a civilisational achievement, or in other words, the nature of the human gaze in the eyes of the Other, its tendency to dominate and monopolise and ability to understand itself. The total installation, while it treats, and in part documents, historical material, is not a historical show; rather, it highlights the social-anthropological dimensions of the power of sight that reveal themselves in full complexity in the common context of everyday life, historical memory, art-historical tradition and contemporary art, to become – in the form of a dramatised, sensual experience – a real revelation in the eye of the twenty-first-century viewer.
[The Wastl Collection]
The raw material of the exhibition consists of a giant scientific archive, a monumental corpus of films and photographs of human faces. They are strictly standardised front and profile photographs and films lasting just a few seconds: tens of thousands of items in an extensive anthropological collection, the establishment of which is discussed by Margit Berner in this catalogue. Péter Forgács not only takes his pick of the photographs and films in this collection, but “inscenes”; he does not merely present the pictures, but assigns various contexts and viewpoints to the images. The total installation is in effect a series of spaces interrelated by means of a thorough dramaturgy, in which the viewer meets the same faces in different contexts. Viewing them is now a serene, breezy experience, now depressing and claustrophobic; now we come too close to the Other, now we feel excluded. The faces, depending on the imagerial-pragmatic context, dimensions, multitude or mediation, will appear to be live individuals, prototypes, idols, living dead or grotesque caricatures. The alternation of the mutually back-chatting viewpoints and the visual situations confronts us with the unconscious automatism of the viewing position: we must sooner or later come to realise that it is our very own look that plays the role of the protagonist in this drama.
Excursus I: The installed Rembrandt]
Back in 2006 Forgács had already made a work about the change of glances. At an anniversary hommage à Rembrandt show he had a video installation that featured 37 of the master’s self-portraits, scanned by a computer morph programme, and the moving-image-like flow of images was exhibited in a single picture frame. Rembrandt’s is one of history’s most familiar faces; his identity leaves not a trace of doubt. We know a great deal about his life, in the course of which he portrayed himself in many statuses, roles and clothes. The look of the rude adolescent, the proud young husband, the successful celebrity artist, the authoritative painter-prince, or the old sage, sniggering at the world, is unforgettable, and we have seen him as a romantic teenager, a hatted gentleman as well as weary-faced craftsman wearing a shabby hat. Forgács adjusts images of different sizes, formats and colours to a uniform face size, taking as a point of reference specific places (such as the pupils, the apex of the chin and the nose, etc.). The programme that calculates the transitions of the digitised pictures pixel by pixel creates in front of the viewer’s eye an illusion – more expressive than ever – of the man perceived to be self-identical: his liveliness, presence and direct communication with the viewer. In the chronologically blended images of the Rembrandt-morphs the oft-seen face rounds out and grows weary and eventually shrivels up, fostering an awareness of the pulsation of his life, the self-identity of his piercing look that mesmerisingly attracts our own. This flow of images eliminates all the special roles, incidental statuses and specific references with which Rembrandt associated himself now and again. His being “comes alive,” just like Giorgione’s old lady, loses his explicit life-references and completely gives up his face to the sympathetic viewer’s projection.
[The Utopia of the portrait]
Man of European civilisation in the modern age was taught by portraiture to respect in every human face the presence of the individual. This evidence of respecting the Other has become very firmly entrenched. Every portrait is the self-declaration of an autonomous individual. A person appearing in a portrait enters some sort of a public space to be seen by others. (As I mentioned above, Giorgione’s mother appears against a green parapet, that is, she is not simply there, but appears, ceremoniously comes forward, as if she unquestionably possessed the right and power to call others’ attention, demanding to be recognised – and this lingering self-confidence might be called dignity. Of course, her dignity does not belong to the representative of some sort of a transcendental value, a historical tradition or social status: she does not represent anything except the one-and-onliness of her face.) She appears because I, too, am here; she turns to me, addresses me and awaits the reciprocity of my glance. Her magic lies in her ability to evoke mutual presence, a presence that fills me, too, with dignity. There is something in the directness of this face-to-face meeting, in this symmetry of equivalence of the Self and the Other, something Utopian and phantasm-like, in that it promises and suggests that by means of coming face to face we experience and somehow understand both Her and ourselves – in all self-purposeness. We usually put this magic down to being the achievement of great art. The “masterpiece” put on display in the heterotopia of a gallery or a museum, is none other than the imaginary space of this common presence, an aesthetic Utopia that awaits sensitive viewers, enthusiasm, empathy and attention.
[Time for a look]
In the first room of Col tempo Péter Forgács stages this aesthetic Utopia of dialogue. The room is homely and intimate. We are in an elegant, properly illuminated museum space with atmospheric slow, profound, full symphonic music, with portraits in gilded frames hanging on the walls at comfortable eye level. Everything is lit by hidden reflectors, yet they radiate light from within. An almost solemn, noble atmosphere fills the space.
Twelve faces from Doctor Wastl’s immense collection look down on us. The pictures are of different sizes, and all of them radiate light from within and pulsate. A stubborn, disillusioned middle-aged woman whose dullness and tightly-clenched lips recall Durer’s astonishing drawing of his own mother (an inscription in the artist’s own hand confirms that this is true). Then the genial, smiling elderly gentleman winks at us. We learn nothing about him except his strikingly high forehead and calm, neat countenance. Then we see the profile of a plump-faced fair youth and his naked, round shoulders, then, from the front, a middle-aged bald man with a scared and puzzled look. He, too, is half-naked, but his bareness seems to make him vulnerable and miserable. It takes a while for us to realise that while are in a “gallery,” the exhibited pictures are neither still images nor portraits. The faces – albeit in a barely perceptible way – are moving. What we are looking at are moving images of faces, dozens of them in extreme slow motion, turning towards us or away from us. And in all of them there comes an exceptional, one might say dramatic, moment where they freeze, the look that has our attention suddenly breaks away or, conversely, the slowly moving glance suddenly comes to meet our own. It is a mechanical moment which does not arise from the personal interest of the Other (directed at us or turning away from as, as the case may be), but is generated, in part, by the prescribed mechanical movements and, in part as a matter of course, unstoppably and in masses, by the imaging technology. With this simple technical trick Forgács instantly renders uncanny the fictitious Humanist dialogue between the viewer and the subjects of the portraits. In doing so, he highlights the artificiality of the presence, which made these people pose for a camera.
[Excursion II: Rembrandt Installed]
In Rembrandt Morphs too, through its bravura tricks of personification, there was no lack of quotation marks or, for that matter, irony. Forgács seems to have been reflecting on the illusionism to which Rembrandt himself was no stranger; like the master painter, he also brought the most advanced media technology to bear in order to spellbind viewers. His post-modern farce in practice exalted the highly prestigious icon of “Rembrandt” like a commercial film with its bag of special-effect tricks, at one moment breathtakingly real, at another parodicly playful. In some ways it is reminiscent of Andy Warhol’s frivolous use in his famous series of images of Marilyn Monroe or Mao Ze-dong: it is hard to miss the media- and culture criticism that is projected by Forgács’s irony, with its roots in the avant-garde. Even as he seemingly fabricates a thousand and one “new” Rembrandt pictures, he is in reality poking ironic fun at fame and visualisation: the materiality and factual quality of the original works, the pigments and brushstrokes—everything that Rembrandt rendered, by purely painterly means, as movement of his still self-portraits on canvas vanishes completely in the phantoms of liveliness, in the optical unconsciousness of the viewer of the technological picture, as Walter Benjamin put it, of the digitally dematerialised icons of the artist.
Though Rembrandt Morphs is a work with moving images, it is not a “film”: it is an installation an essential feature of which is the place in which it is erected (among the walls of a genuine old art (picture) gallery along with the museum framework around the monitor which stands for the tradition of great painting and is the normative situation for the reception of an individual work of art. It enacts the customary practice of reflective, aesthetic viewing of paintings and at the same time brings that face to face with a spectacle that fits into a motion picture of a face with a star reputation. It can also be read as a parody of a museum utopia with which the humanist tradition of great portrait-painting would beguile viewers and now, in the installation at the Col Tempo “Gallery”, proves to be a trap for viewing by a naïve recipient.
The photographs and films that were produced as part of the Wastl project are therefore not portraits, not even if German thoroughness in recording data kept a full and accurate log of the personal identities and a long list of other attributes of its models. The original intention was that these should belong to a scientific data-gathering exercise, and they give no intimation of the presence or absence of the Other. They are records of facial features, not of individuals. The individuality that they were hunting for is not individual in the sense of being unique, inimitable, but as a representative example of a general type; everything that strikes one as individual and accidental—the occasional mischievous wink at the camera, a playful posture, a smile, a pitiful expression—merely interferes with the attainment of the purely scientific aim.
It was no accident that the anthropometric shots made for the purposes of race-biology were taken in compliance with a strictly laid-down methodology; not without reason that the camera’s spatial position, the neutral background, the way the lighting was arranged, the rules by which the models had to be recorded and to pose, the movements they were required to make were all fixed in advance. The kinds of lenses that were part of the box of technical devices already available to data-recording photographers at the turn of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries—these included lenses manufactured by Carl Zeiss in Jena—had coordinate auxiliary lines which facilitated the reading of measurement data etched on them in the factory, and these no doubt played a major role in setting the exact pose the models had to adopt. This means that Wastl’s procedures were not far removed from what is general practice in scientific photography. Scientific experiments likewise model the occurrence of hypothetical events, or in other words, they have to be planned on the basis of a pre-determined hypothesis; in the same way scientific photography searches for pre-determined facts. If properly set, the camera—like any “blind” automatic apparatus—captures on light-sensitive plates from “reality” the changing values of the types of data that the protocol sets out in advance. What the physical anthropologist observes is not so much individual peculiarity and exceptionalism as difference in all its pure abstraction. For him any given photograph cannot be interpreted in itself, it is a fog; only the pre-set parameters of comparison and the numerability of samples makes “sense” of the individual case. For Wastl the face was not so much an image as a formula, a figure that was defined along predetermined parameters and had to be compared with others of a similar kind in order that the differences and race-specific characteristics should be made visible, or in other words unambiguous. His research in reality was aimed at visualising concealed racial features that were obscured by the communicative gaze. For Wastl the plaster cast was an ideal form in that it provided an exact spatial figure of the face, with the major advantage that it did not look back at the person measuring it.
[“Studium “ vs. “punctum”]
The Wastl films are only films in a technical sense: the short clips, each 6-12 seconds long, seem more like moving photographs that plainly, for purposes of measurement, were subsequently halted at various phases. Barthes suggests that the difference between a photograph and a film is that whereas in a photograph “something was planted in front of the small aperture and has stayed there forever after… in a cine film something accidentally happened in front of the same small aperture, but the continual succession of images whisks away the pose...”1 It may be that the eeriness of each clip derives precisely from this curious intermediateness: the Wastl items are not portraits, nor are they situational conversation pieces in which the momentary situation would explain the presence and actions of those concerned. What “happens” in front of the camera is not an instance of self-representation, but neither is it something that would resolve the stiffness of the pose into a spontaneous presence. The mechanicalness and repetition makes it creepy: the small aperture inevitably makes everyone of whom a photograph like this is taken into an object.
The instructions are more or less obvious: the head is to be slowly turned from a side-profile facing one way into a side-profile facing the other way, and meanwhile the subject should say their name. The ideal model would be a bust that was rotated on a wheel: a stock-still, impassive face that is steadily turned. The movement of the lips itself yields one biometric piece of data; it does not signify human speech. Indeed, no sounds are audible; names are substituted for by tiny identification numbers. Thus, No. 26143, for instance, is a close-cropped, stubbly serial number of Asiatic appearance the paleness of whose frail upper body contrasts with the sunburnt hue of the face and scalp. He barely moves his head: like most of the “models” he visibly has difficulty in mechanically turning the head round at a constant speed and not communicating while he does so. It is strange to notice how much more awkwardly the “models” who were filmed naked in front of this abstract backdrop behave than those filmed in their street clothes or uniform, a cap or POW tunic—rather as if they had been compelled to show themselves stripped of life, of any identity. (The metaphor of the Creation may again spring to mind: nakedness is hard to bear because it exposes a person to a gaze that cannot be reciprocated.) There are some who look almost straight at the camera throughout and only at the end suddenly snatch their eyes away: a middle-aged man with a thick crop of black hair, and very obviously under duress, struggles to follow the instructions and hold his head up, and instead he turns with his gaze fixed in front before almost furtively looking back spontaneously at the camera to check whether he has done it right. Then there are some who are indignant about having to toe the line and yet others who are so awe-stricken as to break into laughter. These things are all somehow registered by us as tiny signs of discomfort: to speak in terms of the semiotics of photography, a small, insignificant detail like this which establishes a direct relationship with the object or person within a photograph is what Barthes referred to as a punctum. It is the kind of incidental contingency that suddenly and painfully makes the viewer aware of what he is looking at: not a state of affairs to be studied according to some code but a testimony to the irreproducible person who was undeniably present then and there before the camera. The intention of the pictures taken for Wastl’s project, as we have seen, was their suitability for studium, but now it becomes clear that an objective picture of things does not prove anything about their properties but their presence.
The “Gallery” opens into a long, narrow corridor which is in strong contrast to it: passing along it, we are accompanied by a huge wall of portraits of faces. Projected onto it are identically sized pictures of altogether 96 figures, separated from each other by only the narrowest of borders. They are all turning their head, but in this case filmed in their own natural colours and at a normal pace. The constant motion and alternation of the varying shades of colour of the film-shots has a nervous, flashing effect; continually different faces keep appearing in the same frame, including some who, one after the other, are recognisably the same as the persons who could be seen face-to-face in the previous room. But whereas there the “portraits” were slowed down and placed at eye-level, giving time for comfortable, leisurely, empathetic viewing, the unmanageably large (3 x 6 metres) video wall does not permit one to step back and seems to tip over onto the onlooker. The sheer extent, the uniformity of the dimensions and the formality of the pictures, their uncountability and their whole simultaneity all in all leave the impression that one is in some monumental archive where the “material” may indeed be uniform, organised and accessible but is nevertheless —one might almost say: inhumanly—immeasurably “too much”. From the apse that opens into the opposite wall the unmoving, lustreless gaze of a white phrenological bust is fixed on a single example out of the restlessly shifting multitude: this is , so to speak, the “average” head, the common denominator on which basis the “items” in the archive can be compared with one another. As viewers we are unable to do anything like that: there is no room in the narrow space for us to step back, take it all in, discover the way it is ordered and find a place for ourselves.
Men have aspired for untold millennia to be able to read the Other’s facial features reliably, that is, to be able to count on that person as familiar. Ever-renewed attempts to put physiognomy on a scientific basis—from Pseudo-Aristotle and Galen in Classical times, through the medieval physiognomists and Michael Scotus to Pomponius Gauricus, Giacomo della Porta and, in the 18th century, Johann Kaspar Lavater—they all serve “for us to become acquainted with the character of an individual from a knowledge of the shape of the head and body and other attributes, or on the basis of zoomorphic similarities.”2 The pseudo-science of phrenology in the 19th century sought to infer from the “bumps” and other peculiarities of an individual’s skull, including their size, the structure of the brain, and hence the mental skills and faculties. Even the identification of “born criminals” in the forensic medicine that was associated with Cesare Lombroso into the 20th century was based on the old distinctions of body and soul, the exterior and the interior. With the appearance of Darwin and his theory of evolution, however, even this thinking underwent a paradigm shift: research into the origin of species and inheritance no longer regarded an individual as a person for whom a connection needed to be found among their external and internal attributes, but saw merely singular examples who, regardless of any personal qualities, were representative of the race or species to which they belonged. Research in the area of eugenics, or racial purity, and the ideology of racial theory emphatically makes no judgement of the individual, even if a racial biologist inevitably has to deal with, and humiliate, individuals, and even if individuals inevitably perish in his name and with his indirect assistance. It may be that this is the source of that spine-chilling blend of biomedical sterility, bureaucratic pedantry and observational detachment that is emanated by the material of Wastl and his crew.
“The Jewish question is only soluble by a clear differentiation of non-Jews from Jews,” went the programmatic banner of an exhibition, intended more for “experts” than propagandistic, that Dr Josef Wastl, head of the Department of Anthropology at the Museum of Natural History in Vienna, put on in the museum’s galleries in May 1939.3 On display, alongside certain devotional articles and books that had been collected, at the bidding of the Reich’s government in Berlin, with the cooperation of the Office for Racial Policy (Rassenpolitischer Amt), the Office for Genealogical Research (Amt für Sippenforschung) and the Gestapo in Vienna, were mainly diagrams and anthropometric photographs, a few skulls, plaster-cast masks and models of reconstructed heads. The exhibition was an attempt to present to the public—with all the rigour of natural history and yet in a vivid, eye-catching fashion—“the characteristic physical features” and “mental traits” of the Jews. The display hinted that with due care the typical ‘Jewish traits’ were recognisable even on an individual face. Wastl did not place the photographs that were exhibited within a context of pure ethnic types (e.g. a typical Aryan or Russian face); simply by the fact that more or less the only faces displayed on the panels were of Jewish origin, even though they did not correspond with the stereotypes of anti-Semitic caricatures, pointed to the ordinary, run-of-the-mill fact of the interrelationship of races, and possibly thereby stimulated viewers to start scanning the facial features not only of those who professed to be Jews, but also of people who did not appear to be, in order to see whether they did not conceal, after all, unambiguous signs of their foreignness. In this way it gave, so to speak, scientific legitimacy to the paranoid climate of opinion whipped up by the Nuremberg Laws on citizenship and race, in which Germans and Austrians began to study mistrustfully the faces of neighbours and acquaintances for covert lineaments.
In Wastl’s exhibition project the individual face appears, in point of fact, as a mask that conceals the objective truth of race. The mechanical ordering on the panels of pairs of equally-sized photographs, so reminiscent of a police line-up, intimates that a part of the interest in ethnicity and eugenics is the detective gaze searching faces for features that the camera has recorded as irrefutable evidence. For the scrutinising anthropologist every picture also carries a series of “objective” data about a face that get lost in ordinary everyday communication and about which persons who appear—or, to be more accurate, present themselves—in the act of communication are themselves usually unaware. In principle this permits a statistically-based approach to a given feature that racial biology deems to be characteristic. For the eyes carrying out the comparative analysis to disregard the personality of a human glance: not to look the Other in the eye but to look at the eyes. (The nightmarishness of this de-anthropomorphisation is heightened by a collection of artificial eyes that is on display in the midst of various measuring instruments on Dr Wastl’s fictive “writing desk”.)
It is still not enough for the anthropologist researcher to supply statistically reliable series of data based on measurements: complying with the spirit of the Nuremberg Laws it was necessary to exhibit the results so that the foreigner hiding behind the Other’s maybe misleadingly attractive gaze should become visible to the naked eye. The kind of “scientific” photography that Wastl performed does not document what is individually visible at the moment of exposure, but it seeks to make manifest on the face precisely something that was not evidently “present” then. A photographic shot therefore requires subsequent analysis in order to reveal whether traits that are not even “visible” are objectively “present”.
As to who exactly are depicted by, or who produced, the pictures on the walls of the “Gallery” and “Archive”, that only becomes clear from the third section of the exhibition, the room containing The W. Project, and even here it is not immediately apparent. It should be noted here that the camera shots lined up here were taken in conformity with the spirit of the Nuremberg Laws and within the framework of “research” into racial hygiene which was grounded on those laws: on them are to be seen captives of various nationalities in several Austrian POW camps during the Second World War, Jews who were at Buchenwald, together with—albeit in much smaller numbers—the Wehrmacht officers and soldiers who were guarding the prisoners, the anthropologists themselves, Austrian civilians and locals. All of them participants in any number of horrors, whether as victims or eye-witnesses.
As can be seen, what interests Forgács in the “Gallery” is the activity of the emotional-aesthetic gaze of the prosopopeia, or in other words, the thing that personifies an imaginary, absent or dead person, and in the “Archive” the interpretative, semanticising activity of the dispassionate, scientific gaze of the phrenological mind, and for that reason he systematically discloses the attributes of the persons. Up to this point, he has done nothing but juggle with the sensory-aesthetic qualities of unmarked shots of faces: dimensions, colours, speed, distance or nearness, or quality of surface, and to the extent that he availed himself of symbolic signals that was only to identify the context, not the individual persons. Although the viewer may have sensed certain incongruities or mismatches between the scenes and their enactment, there was no need to differentiate between the “artistically” staged and the “scientifically” depicted according to whether someone was standing before the camera as a Nazi officer, a prisoner of war, a collaborating doctor or a civilian volunteer. The artist has to avoid the trap of moral relativism without at the same time going down the wrong track of reciting a history lesson and trite moralising: an overemphatic explication of World War II and the Holocaust, the short-cut historicisation of what is on show can easily become exonerating explanation. Péter Forgács makes an attempt, in a consistent fashion, to enact the gaze, in this case by the roundabout route of enacting the present-day gaze as it inspects the past. He as it were restores the true historical context of Wastl’s collections but still does not allow this to be placed in the pending tray by reassuringly historicising it.
This goal is served, first and foremost, by the installation entitled “Status I”, which consists of three television monitors. On one of these can be seen the wretched everyday existences of the starving, skin-and-bone POWs in the Wolfsberg Camp in the Austrian province of Styria; on the second, marching Austrian and German guards at the same camp and convivial portraits of officers and anthropologists; while on the third are what amount to genre scenes of the ordinary lives of the inhabitants of the local Austrian villages. These film clips are taken from a colour propaganda film shot in 1940 by a certain Albert F. Messany, a friend of Dr Wastl’s, around the camp, in the district surrounding it, or in Wastl’s laboratories, which is why the only accompanying sound to be heard is a soft but jolly Viennese folk-style Schrammelmusik. It is important to the ensemble of objects that the monitors are facing each other, with Forgács using this to refer quite plainly to the inner interconnections of the former historical situation, how the various people were confined together, and at the same time he also communicates the notion that the observer of posterity can now only watch from the outside and make a retrospective effort to penetrate the historical interconnections and get an idea what happened at this specific place between 1940 and 1943. For although the installation offers, even demands, a clear moral reflection on what happened, it denies the viewer the possibility of direct access to what is on display, the illusion of face-face seizure of the “whole truth.”
Pertinent here, but in a different way—in this case referring back directly to the spaces labelled “Gallery” and “Archive”—is the context offered by the aggregate of shots that are projected in “Status II”. In this two double visual fields can be seen: the one on top shows the by now familiar figure of an alarmed Asiatic prisoner in duplicate, or rather as mirror-images that switch back and forth, while the lower, similarly, shows another familiar face repeating the characteristic to-and-fro shuttling of the head. The latter shows a naked upper torso only on one side; on the other, he is wearing a Wehrmacht officer’s jacket and cap, or in other words he is a German soldier of whom both sorts of camera shot were taken. In this semantic context the attributes of clothing and insignia of rank start to function as a sort of differential code: they do not simply identify this particular face in one of the roles at Wolfsberg, but they differentiate his nakedness from that of the other. In the one case it is optional, in the other it excludes; the one freely shows the race-specific profile of his features, the other has to be compelled to do so. Forgács now focuses the viewer’s attention on something that he has so far deliberately ignored: the signs that identify a person. And not so much on their prosaic signification, more on the performative act of labelling and differentiation that we, the viewers, accomplish when we “collate” the four visual fields. Again the installation does not so much spatially “locate” or “stage” this or that of the displayed objects as the onlooker’s gaze.
This confrontation happens with life-size faces and average-sized images. On the opposite wall of the exhibition room Forgács operates with another code, that of size. A pair of portraits almost three and half metres tall hang on the wall, which—not without reason—has been named “Titan.” On the colour photographs is to be seen a blond-haired, blue eyed man with a naked upper torso. This is a Belgian POW whose subsequent fate is unknown. It is one of the tens of thousands of pictures that were taken for anthropometric purposes in Wastl’s studios, as is clearly signalled by the measuring tape that was shot as part of it. Enlarged to this vast size, however, he reveals himself as an Aryan god of unearthly strength, a massive colossus who will crush anyone daring to appear before him. Unlike Chuck Close, for example, when it come to scale Forgács is not interested in how media mediate but in the viewer and the image, the power relation between the Self and the Other that is inevitably established at every encounter. Whereas the photographs in their original size serve to reduce the Other to an object, extreme magnification, by contrast, makes the subject boundlessly vast, endows him with sublime strength: “But whilst we contemplate so vast an object, under the arm, as it were, of almighty power, and invested upon every side with omnipresence, we shrink into he minuteness of our own nature and are, in a manner, annihilated before him,” as Edmund Burke said of the divinity’s likeness. Only size can cause this: the disproportion affects the beholder, influencing the place and freedom of the gaze. Thus, what originally served for the purposes of measurement, by a simple change of scale, now raises the idea of being incommensurable with the Other. It is a matter of being manipulated artistically that this calculatingly installed image works with the viewer’s bodily reality, his sensory presence: this is such a powerful insight because we know it is all being done with the likeness of an hapless prisoner of war.
The “Atelier” installation confronts the gaze of the recipient with yet another aspect. This is a barrack-like, enclosed box space into which one can look through narrow windows: motion pictures are projected onto all the walls of the box, even the floor, and the viewer can follow these, if he so wishes, by peeking from the outside. This makes it a kind of camera obscura in reverse: on peering in what can be seen are endlessly cycling loops of excerpts from Messany’s propaganda film that document the technical processes of making a plaster-cast mask and the approaches that were used in posing the models. The studio or workshop is a major and long-established subject of European painting, through which one does not just see the finished product but also catches a glimpse of the master at work. One only has to think of Vermeer’s famous 1665 painting The Artist in His Studio at the Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna, into which the viewer as an outsider looks from behind a huge curtain in the foreground at the back of the painting artist in his silent, melancholy companionship with his model. An awareness of that tradition adds to the anguish one feels on spying at the sight of one of the more elderly male prisoners who has been made to undress, and whom the photographer and his assistant are right now in the middle of carefully arranging in front of the cine camera. Or maybe peer down onto the floor onto which another filmed demonstration is being projected: a technician is in the middle of taking a plaster cast of the face of a reclining prisoner in order to prepare a mask. Forgács’s barrack/projector installation puts today’s viewer into the position of a sort of voyeur; the scenes of humiliation can again only be picked out indirectly, in double quotation marks, so to speak.
Forgács dramatises the thwarting/hampering of access to the past in the “Training” corner as well. Here we are made witness to a single case in which a narrative, a true story, is assigned to the face on display. Gershon Evan was no more than 16 when he was sent away from his home in Vienna as one of 440 Jews who, having been picked out from around one thousand individuals assembled in the Prater Stadium for deportation in September 1939, were sent off to the Buchenwald concentration camp in Germany to be measured and filmed for anthropometric purposes. Evan was furthermore one of those from whom a plaster-cast mask was made, which was found, together with a large number of stereoscopic photographs, hair samples and data cards, by research workers in the Museum of Natural History in Vienna while they were going through the material in the anthropological collection. Wastl and his staff had to work speedily: the authorities gave them only five days to use the chance to carry out extensive collection of data from an “investigative sample” that was rarely available in such a rich concentration. Gershon Evan was one of the few who managed to survive the dreadful years in Buchenwald; after the war he emigrated to America but he was eventually tracked down by the Viennese research workers. In a videotaped interview, the now elderly man recounted to Forgács the story of his life, including a detailed account of how the plaster cast mask was made.
This film is now run on a monitor placed low down in one corner of the space, as if it were the closed box of some kind of cinema, by a lath screen that gives the impression of squeezing one in. In front of the projected picture are arranged several rows of miniature seats which form a sort of virtual balcony and invite one to self-abandoned viewing of pictures. It is not possible to take a seat, however: the viewer can only look at but not enter the space where the picture is being projected. If you concentrate carefully from outside you can see the talking heads, and by listening very hard it is possible to hear Gershon’s voice. If you stick to it assiduously, it is possible to make out what the conversation is about, but even so you will find that participation in the story: sympathy, directness of identification with the Other, is denied. By keeping viewers at an embarrassed distance, Forgács stages a form of double vision: we are unable to watch only the film, the memory alone; we are inescapably obliged to take a look at the situation of watching a film and the fragmentariness of memory. The trauma is apparent; it is not accessible.
Yet in this cinema it is in fact the story of Gershon’s face that is being shown. The elderly Gershon is holding the mask of his younger self and speaking about the distant past—to us. That is how one is struck here, almost at the end of the exhibition, by the notion that this elderly gentleman, whose words come from so far away as to be barely understandable, is a reincarnation before our very eyes of Giorgione’s inaudibly speaking old woman: La Vecchia in the Accademia at Venice. Although one can learn one thing and another about Gershon, even his traumatic story will be lost over time—Col Tempo. In the end all that will be left, as with Giorgione’s mother, will be a face, and all that will be known is that this was somebody. Elsewhere I wrote about La Vecchia that even if we know nothing about her, her dignity goes without saying. Individuum est ineffabile, as the saying goes: individuals are inscrutable. Forgács’s installation does not dramatise Gershon’s story as such, but its accessibility; perhaps it is no more than a moralist artist’s simple insistence on the dignity of the Other.
In this way the loop of the exhibition coils back to its starting-point, the taut dramaturgy, following the rhythm of the building’s internal space, has guided the viewer through various experiential situations. But this linear route to self-understanding of the gaze that is scrutinising faces is crossed by another, more concealed axis on the subject of the creator’s personal presence that cuts across the spaces like a virtual diagonal. Péter Forgács’s own face crops up, as a deliberate anachronism, at three points in the exhibition: first among the imitation portraits of “Gallery”; next as a photograph in the open aquarium space of “Atrium”; and finally on the screens of the narrow passage of “Dismissal” which brings the exhibition to a close. Naturally, the three kinds of self-portrait are variations on the exhibition’s underlying themes—less a cross-section of cultural history than one of anthropology. On the first he appears, as in a quasi-portrait, as a representative person: his gaze is an expression of sovereignty which corroborates his presence. That self-evidence breaks down in the photograph in “Atrium”. Here the face is duplicated: as a living person he is holding his own mask in his hand and looking at that. Much as in Gershon Evan’s case, the face’s sovereign, living look comes face to face with his own lifeless, expressionless “mirror image”. Forgács enacts all this while posing for the camera in front of a mirror. Unlike the elderly Gershon, he is not remembering while under the influence of a trauma but creating a self-portrait as a conceptual work of art. He gives the appearance of distinguishing his authentic Self from his own face and, as it were, peaking out from behind it. It is a witty piece of optical trickery that an observant recipient will, of course, spot straight away and have the ability to place the entire exhibition into context. Forgács’s ironic conceptualism, with its flip-flopping dialectic of reality and copy, negative, image and mirror image trusts interpretation to the viewer’s whim and speculative bent—and in this way the glass window installation set into the wall of “Atrium” is also a part of it, with the mask that was seen in the photograph being exhibited in its own physical reality but now enormously enlarged
In a small “jewel-box widow” lit from inside can be seen masks made from a special material by Louise McCagg, an outstanding American guest artist. Besides a mask of Forgács there are also more than a few of Hungarian intellectuals who have all visited her studio in New York. McCagg does not work with plaster but with a plastic that while it dries out shrinks to half-size and becomes deformed in an unpredictable fashion, and so although there can be no doubting the authenticity of her masks, they would most certainly be unsuitable for any “scientific” misuse. On top of that, the sculptress then casts further masks of the shrunken masks, which thus shrivel up into miniature heads. In the process of becoming deformed these acquire new and varied individual expressions: although these have lost their sight (and in that way they take on the appearance of death masks even though they are of still living people), they nevertheless take on a new life and set off on their own afterlife. The material that McCagg uses does to fix the genuine features of individuals once and for all time but functions more like memory: it diminishes, distorts and distances, but it also maintains and invites us to start again on the Other the endlessly extended and unavoidable human (and thus social) game of prosopopeia.
This is the note on which we reach the exhibition’s final chord. A triptych of Forgács’s black-and-white “self-portraits” which refers back, in its own grotesque manner, to the animated self-portrait of the Rembrandt installation. The artist himself revolves and grimaces in front of the camera: his bald head that emerges out of the dark is continually pulling weird faces, whimpering, smirking, doltishly gawping or grinning in terror. Just as with Rembrandt, the faces continuously morph into each other, but in this case it is not a matter, even in an imaginary sense, of a story, a fate or a personality. Even though we know by name who it is (the installation can be conceived of as a signature by his own hand that the creator, the artist Péter Forgács, tacks on as an afterthought to his finished work), we have lost the “Archimedean” centre of gravity from which we might be able to identify his pictures as a human face, mask, physiognomy, figure or gaze. For all that, it is not even mute: the aimless metamorphosis is accompanied by the creepy sounds of a roar, a howl, coming from very deep down, maybe from the depths of the primeval chaos. We stare uncomprehendingly and entranced at the spine-chilling spectacle: the exhibition sends us on our way with this forsaken look.
1 Roland Barthes, Camera Lucida, New York: Hill & Yang, 1981, p. 90.
2 Éva Vígh, ‘Természeted az arcodon [Your nature on your face],’ in: Fiziognómia és jellemábrázolás az olasz irodalomban [Physiognomy and the Portrayal of Character in Italian Literature], Szeged: JATEPress, 2006, p. 244.
3 Verena Pawlowsky: ‘Erweiterung der Bestände. Die Anthropologische Abteilung des Naturhistorischen Museums 1938-1945,’ Zeitgeschichte, 32/2 (Mar/Apr. 2005), p. 72 et seq.1