The Human Visage Has Not Yet Found Its Face
by Laura Mansfield
21st September 2009
This essay was originally commissioned by Spike Island to accompany the exhibition Portraits by Hannu Karjalainen.
We are presented with three video screens each depicting a separate figure, an older man, a woman with hair blowing in an unknown wind, a body of a girl gliding across an open park. Karjalainen suggests we view the works as contemporary portraits. Historically portraits are an attempt to capture a likeness of an individual, either through their physical features or an abstract rendering of their character traits. It is an attempt to compress something essential about the subject into the single image.
If we take the video works as portraits we consequently look for a flicker of the individual, their singular identity. However, Karjalainen has used various elements to intervene with the individual face depicted: the paint falling over the old man, the hair blurring the girl. He is consciously transforming or obscuring the individual's features through a rhythmical flow of forms. The movement of paint or fall of hair creates an abundance of lines over the individual. The fluidity of line further transforms each subject, displacing their features in a converging mass of form, a form which highlights the physical body itself. The rhythmical bias within the work points to a depiction of the body as a constantly shifting and moving mass. Karjalainen does not present something specific to the model's likeness, but rather he uses the construct of the portrait as a means to investigate the transitory nature of the body itself.
With an emphasis on fluidity and the transformative image, the body in Karjalainen's work has become a terrain of movement and biological flux, a land, as it were, both familiar and foreign. Such a representation transforms the accepted portrait format into a study of the kinesthetic figure: the intense and intensive body.
The rhythmical flux of lines over each disappearing face seems to reference further the life of the body's nervous tissue, a pulsating wave of emotion and sensation running through our physical self. Once focused upon the temporal flux of sensation the unidentified figure, the single head, becomes evocative of the generic body, any body. We are presented not with an individual face but with a kinetic body, a figure, a head. It is an image to which we can then attach our own identity, it becomes a reflection of our own body, our own life of physical sensation. The portrait construct has therefore expanded from being a likeness of the specific individual depicted, to a reflection of the viewer himself. The portrait is not a formed identity but a figure in the process of transformation. As Francis Bacon noted "the human visage has not yet found its face", we are in an era of flux. We have left the physical body behind and are in a constantly shifting site of sensation and reception. Once we view the body as a moving and fluctuating wave of sensation it loses its physical weight, the heavy bulk of muscle and fat, and gains a sense of grace. In Karjalainen's work the slow and suspended movement of hair, the glide of the figure across the park, shows the body to be floating and light, the movement of hair swirls in a loose and weightless mass. We are a free and graceful body, a body without organs tracing waves of sensation.
The experience of sensation is both transient and corporeal. Our experience of sensation is furthermore one of duration. Our understanding of duration, of the passage of time through the body, brings with it the understanding of an end point. We grasp the temporary flux of emotion, and consequently experience its finality. The working of the body's physical function that inevitably breaks down into our own end, our own death. Death is a complex concept; beyond the grasp of an immature existence and the moment one accepts death, is the point when duration is brought into focus. We become conscious of our finite and physical existence.
Time is an element that resonates throughout Karjalainen's films and the bodies they depict. The images are slowed down, intensifying the perceivable movement of line and elongating the action, heightening the transformation of the face. As the action becomes slower we are able to scrutinize the displacement of the individual into the fluctuating life of the body with greater intensity and clarity of vision. Our experience of viewing, of watching the gradual displacement of the face creates a sense of prolonged waiting. The experience of the films become not only about watching but waiting; waiting for the temporary revelation of the individual face, before it sinks back into a fluctuating and physical state, partaking in the passage of time dictated by the image. As we identify ourselves with the head in motion before us, we are consequently made aware of our own waiting, our own physical and sensory experience of viewing.
The portrait by Karjalainen presents an image which invites our own self scrutiny.
Laura Mansfield is a writer and researcher living in Manchester. Laura is studying an MA in Cultural and Critical Theory at Birkbeck College University of London.
Thanks to Spike Island for the permission to republish this essay.
Finnish artist Hannu Karjalainen came to Bristol on a three month residency in 2005.