The unconscious attribution of human traits or characteristics to inanimate forms is a built-in mechanism which enables humankind to cope with, and somehow relate to, anything new and unknown. To some extent this applies to the art world too. The projection of such human features onto drawn, painted or sculpted objects brings meaning to, and builds a connection with, a reality which may in fact not have rules or significance. The infinite number of possibilities of expression available to an artist is left barely explored as people cannot regain absolute artistic freedom once the unbound creativity is lost in early childhood.
Whilst it is a contradiction, it shouldn’t entirely surprise that a contributing factor to the appeal of abstract art should be the perceived anthropomorphic nature of many artworks; rather than accepting the meaningless neutrality of some pieces, viewers cling onto anything which might pass as familiar. Whatever twisted, unusual and preposterous shapes and forms this non-representational form of art assumes, we bring them back to a dimension we can all understand: ourselves and our experience. Despite the opportunity of exploring uncharted territories, we prefer not to go any further than rather mundane roots.
Another common instinctive reaction, which I am truly fascinated by, is our immediate response when presented not with a single work, but a series of them. It doesn’t matter if they are abstract, figurative or anything in between. Before our rationality kicks in, our instinct not only recognises them as familiar, but goes as far as placing them in a “danger” zone. In short, our primal reaction of fear takes over; the uneasiness of the individual when facing a pack. We do not focus on the autonomy and originality of each piece anymore, but we take them all in at once like we do when watching a scary theatrical performance. These works find a disturbing, even threatening new dimension in numbers.
An eccentric, ugly or evil expression is quirky, amusing and interesting; several become sinister. Even neutral or benevolent expressions become creepy when grouped together. A smiling cherub is sweet, a line of them seemingly watching you is unsettling. Rationality is not our forte.
Kader Attia – Culture, Another Nature Repaired, 2015
Inspired by photographs of injured veterans, many of whom were drafted from African colonies, les gueules cassées – or broken faces – are the result of a collaboration of French Algerian artist Kader Attia with craftsmen from Mali and the Republic of the Congo.
Whilst the immediate result might be a renewed attention to the predicament of disfigured soldiers, who were shunned for their maimed features rather than celebrated for their bravery, the firm intention of the artist is to heal the deep wound in the unbalanced and broken relation between the African and the Western cultures.
Similarly to his installation ‘The Repair from Occident to Extra-Occidental Cultures’ at dOCUMENTA13 in 2012, where the holes in a piece of cloth made by the Kuba people had been roughly patched up with Vichy fabric, the crude surgery on the faces of these soldiers is a very basic, necessary, yet deeply symbolic act of repair.
These five wood sculptures were exhibited at Kiasma in Helsinki as part of the exhibition Demonstrating Minds.
Thomas Schütte – Innocenti, 1994
In this series the artist was inspired by the work of the Swiss poet and philosopher Johann Kaspar Lavater in the field of physiognomy. In his “Physiognomische Fragmente zur Beförderung der Menschenkenntnis und Menschenliebe (1775 -1778)”, he introduced the idea of a direct link between the personality and nature of an individual and his or her facial features. Innocenti combines photography, micro-sculptures of wax models of faces and specific light arrangements with heavy shadows to create unnerving theatrical portraits.
We came across them while visiting Accrochage at Punta della Dogana.
Franz West – Lemurenköpfe (Lemur Heads), 1992
Made out of plaster, papier-mâché, wire, polyester aluminium and a variety of ordinary materials, these sculptures are part of the Viennese artist’s “Pass-stücke” or “Adaptives”, a series of portable works he created in the 1970s. The specific four in this exhibition are inspired by the Roman mythology: “Lemures” were the wandering and vengeful spirits of those who had not received proper burial after their death.
These too were part of Accrochage at Punta della Dogana.