Present Tense: An Imagined Grammar of Portraiture in the Digital Age

‘Present Tense’, National Portrait Gallery, Real Time Media Arts, August, 2010

National Portrait Gallery Until 22 August

What has become of the genre of portraiture in the digital age? What actual works have artists made in response to that vague list of usual suspects we all automatically reel off whenever contemporary media technologies are mentioned: social networking sites, mobile phone cameras, 3D scanners, rapid prototypers, tomography, and on-line avatars? This show answers that question with a diverse collection of strong works by twenty-seven well-established Australian and international artists, which are installed with intelligence and wit. It’s good to see a show of photography and digital media which has been fully thought through and tightly selected by a proper curator, Michael Desmond, who has a broad knowledge and an international horizon. This show is a refreshing change from those loose surveys ‘around’ themes which appear to be chosen mainly for their convenience, or even worse, those ubiquitous but lazily conceived competitions which we get too often.

A good way of looking at the show as a whole is that it is about the interaction of new technologies with the traditional methods of portraiture — painting, sculpture and photography — which already have their own pre-established ‘grammars’. Thus we have Jonathan Nichols’ flat, though engaging, paintings of young girls, each with a slight air of ambiguous familiarity. But wait, these aren’t paintings of the girls themselves, but of their Facebook thumbnails. The tug we feel is not towards their offering of themselves to us as individual viewers, but the offering of themselves to the generalized gaze of the world wide social network.

In another breathtaking remodalization of an old technology, both Chuck Close and Aaron Seeto work with daguerreotypes, that primeval photographic process where all of photography’s uncanniness seems to manifest itself most magically. From the point of view the twenty-first century, Close’s daguerreotyped heads and bodies remind the viewer a bit of a holograms. And as viewers move their head from side to side to get the right angle, and the image wells up from the visual depths like a surfacing whale, that familiar tingle up the spine they get, that simultaneous feeling of proximity and distance, is no longer configured historically — back into the depths of the mid nineteenth-century — but existentially, from one human presence to another. In contrast, Aaron Seeto’s daguerreotype translations of right-click grabs from web reports of the 2005 Cronulla Riots make a more overt, even arch, point about the permanence and impermanence, the legibility and illegibility, of historical memory when it is entrusted to the oceanic swirls and currents of the internet.

The viewer has to do fair bit of head wiggling in this show. Installed across from the daguerreotypes there are two anamorphic skulls, both referring to the Holbein’s famous vanitas intervention at the bottom of his 1553 portrait of The Ambassadors.  In a diptych the painter Juan Ford bravely confronts an X-Ray of a skull. From our point of view, in front of the diptych, the skull is safely distorted and in another space. But, we realize, from his point of view within the diptych it would be restored to its correct, archetypal shape of warning and fear. The American Robert Lazzarini’s anamorphic skull is a life-size three-dimensional sculpture made of actual bone material embedded in resin. As we circle warily around, it fleetingly looms out of its anamorphic parallel universe and into our own.

In a similar way, the faces of Justine Khamara’s angry and surprised parents suddenly pop out at us when we stand directly in front of the bulging aluminium constructions on which their flat images have been printed. It is the viewer’s exact position at the apex of the constructions which animates them, seemingly jolting them out of some kind of two dimensional repose.

This show foregrounds the fundamental image-making actions which have now become proper to contemporary portraiture. No longer just the snap the of camera’s shutter or the incremental description of the painter’s brush, but now also the trundling progress of the flatbed scanner and the circular pan of the 3D scanner.

Stelarc, in classic techno-narcissist style, stretches the skin of his head across a flat acrylic table that measures 1.2 times 1.8 metres, to invite us to delectate on every one of his pores and bristles. The German artist Karin Sander makes exact, three dimensional, indexical sculptures of her subjects at one-fifth scale by using three-dimensional scanning and rapid prototyping technology. What are these mini-thems? Three-dimensional photos? Optical clones? Plastic avatars? Whatever they are, one isn’t enough. I found myself wanting the artist to be true to her namesake, August Sander, and methodically create an army of miniature German people.

In contrast to the indexical, technologically produced three dimensional portrait, the Korean artist Osang Gwon takes hundreds of small photographs of every inch of her young, punky, Korean subject, and glues them on to hand-carved life-sized Styrofoam figure in a loose collagistic style. This produces a strong but unstable sense of the physical presence of her subject, as if her skin and clothes, and indeed her whole persona, is on the verge of peeling away with nothing left beneath.

There are plenty of hits of humanist sympathy to be had from this show. In 2008 the Dutch artist Geert van Kesteren collected mobile phone shots SMSed out of Iraq and Syria. Enlarged, framed and gridded up the wall, these ephemeral and off-the-cuff of images become a monumental document of geo-political conflict where snapshots of happy family gatherings and friends at play, sit insouciantly beside shots taken out of the windows of moving cars of dead bodies by the road or the interiors of burnt out houses.

The masterful Dutch photographer Rineke Dijkstra provides the emotional centre of gravity for the show. Her simple nude photographs of startled young mothers clutching their newborn babies like bags of shopping about to burst remind us again of the power of the straight photo. But her stunning two-gun video installation, The Buzzclub, LiverpoolUK/Mysteryworld, Zaandam NL, also from the mid-nineties, confirms the pre-eminence of the video portrait. Dijkstra has, presumably, momentarily pulled young off-their-faces clubbers straight from the dance floors of the two clubs and put them in front of her video camera in a bare white space off to the side. But the laser lightshows and the duff duff are obviously still going on inside their skulls. As they continue to work their jaws and jig robotically we get full voyeuristic access to them and, even though their interior individualities have temporarily gone AWOL, we nonetheless feel an extraordinary tenderness welling up for them.

The theme of interior and exterior slowly emerges as a thread in this show. For instance Scott Redford videoed fellow artist Jeremy Hynes performing a private, improvised homage to Kurt Cobain by writing his name on a cigarette and inhaling its now transubstantiated smoke deep into his lungs, before sobbing with genuine loss and longing. In a sucker punch for the attentive reader of the catalogue we learn that Jeremy Hynes was himself killed in a road accident a few months after the video was shot. Across the way from this projection is Petrina Hicks’ Ghost in the Shell where we silently circle around a pure, innocent young girl — or perhaps she rotates before us? Then, ever so discreetly, ever so elegantly, a tendril of smoke or mist escapes from between her lips. Her spirit? Her soul? Just her ciggy smoke? She just continues to rotate without answer.

In the end this is a humanist show, about ghosts more than shells. It argues that despite all of the cold digital technology in the world portraits are still about the promise of finding the warm interior of a person via their exterior. The show’s inclusion of some three-dimensional ultrasound images of foetuses in the womb could have easily been over-the-top and obvious in its point about our intimate adoption of new imaging technologies. Until we see one intrauterine image of twins in which one foetus is caught sticking its toe into the eye of its sibling. A rivalry which, we think to ourselves, will no doubt continue for the rest of their lives.

Martyn Jolly

Martyn Jolly is Head of Photography and Media Arts at the Australian National University School of Art.

One thought on “Present Tense: An Imagined Grammar of Portraiture in the Digital Age

  1. Exhibition: ‘Present Tense: An Imagined Grammar of Portraiture in the New Media Age’ at the National Portrait Gallery, Canberra | Art Blart

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