|Right Image, Skewed Image:
Jón Óskars One Hundred Portraits
By Halldór Björn Runólfsson
The viewer always has a distorted image of whatever he is looking at. The distortion is even greater when the thing is man-made, and grows progressively greater the more people have been involved in the making. Already at the dawn of the fifteenth century Italian renaissance artists realised the importance of giving the viewer a clear and correct a view of reality -- of natural objects as well as man-made ones -- so that his judgement would not be clouded by phantasms and mirages. Their project involved a sometimes conscious, sometimes latent protest against the international modernism that dominated Europe in the late-Gothic period: An airy and multifarious world view, somewhat like trying to make sense of the world by looking at it through a kaleidoscope.
The renaissance taught its viewers to assume a stance, preferably in front of a frame divided into sections, and to peer their eyes to avoid distorting the thing that their gaze was aiming for. A viewer emerged who got the world in his sights like a hunter his prey, and then frames off his field of vision. He sees the world as though through a window; as though he himself stood separated from it. Its no unlike perceiving the world from two irreconcilable perspectives at once: From within the skull and from without it. If man was nothing but a scull, the idea of seeing the world through a frame or a window might be tenable. One can imagine an animal somewhat like a tortoise, its shell encasing a human brain and one eye, allowing it to view the world without ever seeing any part of itself. Such a monster would be more like a four-legged movie camera than a human being.
The renaissance idea of framing the world is negated by the fact that humans can experience themselves both from within and from without. A clear example is when they wash their hands. They soap their grimy hands and wash them like any other dirty object without being troubled by the self-reflective thought that their hands are a part of their inestimable bodies. But neither do they roam the world like disembodied souls that are never interrupted in their explorations. Most people realise that they are made of flesh and blood. When they show an interest in someone else they can expect that interest to be reciprocated. Contrary to what the renaissance idea of framing entails, human interest is more often than not reciprocal.
The viewer does not examine the world like a sailor through his submarines periscope, but rather as an actor views other actors on the stage where each one is both a player and a viewer. Nothing can be determined without the determination affecting researcher and his subject in one way or another. Heisenbergs uncertainty principle show us the limits of out inquisitiveness. We cannot dissect things ad infinitum without disturbing their natural being. The world is constantly changing, confusing us and distorting our interpretations of it. When the world view of the modern man shattered and he had to face the fact that there was a real process that applied to him as well as everyone else, but that he could neither control nor fully understand, his nursery religion was finally overthrown. No religion can now expect to become absolute in the same sense as the laws of physics are. Even physics, as the uncertainty principle shows, cannot answer all our questions about the world. Even physics will not be able to reassemble a world view for us and assure us of all things as religion did before the revolution of science. Everything indicates that uncertainty and doubt will be our lot for a while yet.
Art lives as long as uncertainty prevails. Art is for those who cannot see because they do not know and who do not know because they cannot perceive. The doctor and anthropologist Rudolf Virchow noticed that his pathology students could at first rarely see the symptoms of disease in the patients they examined until they were pointed out to them. Then recognition came and they were able to point out the symptoms whenever they encountered them again. The reason Virchows students did not see the symptoms was that they did not know the art of contemplating what they saw and comparing it to other parallel phenomena. The difference between medicine and art is that there is no teacher standing beside the viewer at the exhibition, pointing out the characteristics of the works. Since it is hardly a matter of life and death if the viewer misses something in a work of art, it is thought sufficient that they tackle it on their own. And conclusions about art are seldom incontestable; they require daring. The viewer must step up and draw his conclusions on his own.
Since the world view of modern man is complicated, contradictory and imperfect, many feel that contemporary art is quite incomprehensible. But art has always been realistic and down-to-earth, and the art of the twentieth century is no exception. If it seems complicated and inscrutable, it is because our reality is infinitely diverse. Modern man lives longer than his ancestors and experiences a much more complicated view of the world. The simple acts of driving to work, reading a report or scanning the computer screen, stopping by at the bank or the grocery and ending the day in front of the television requires much more effort than their simple farming chores demanded of our forefathers. Our visual world is entirely incoherent compared to the world of the farmers of yore. Computer screens, car windows, elevators that carry us from floor to floor, endless shelves of groceries and the television screen offer a inconsistent, fragmentary and arhythmic image of the world. Travelling by air from country to country again multiplies the strain on our sense of reality. The world is seen from above, from below, on its side or on its head, through a transmitter, a CRT, the World Wide Web or at 30, 90 or 900 kilometres an hour, or disappearing like a bullet into the distant galactic darkness. Those who demand of contemporary artist an interpretation such as Rembrandt employed in the seventeenth century as unrealistic and alienated fools with only the faintest understanding of their surroundings.
It is a common misunderstanding that artists base their work on a logical deductive system, as a writer plans a novel. Often what is seen as a carefully planned effect is in fact something that came about unintentionally and surprised the artist just as much as it surprises his audience. Entirely unexpected things can be decisive in the creation of a work and have a permanent effect on an artists development, but they were not created intentionally. Yet we cannot call them accidents for as the American painter Jasper Johns showed, works of art do not happen accidentally. If an unexpected event or accident affects the creation of a work, the artist is the first to realise its value to his work. He either modifies the accident or decides to use it unchanged. If makes the latter choice he has nonetheless made the decision and we cannot call the result an accident. That could only apply if the artist did not notice the accident. To pick and choose is much more important to the visual artist than to the writer since the former works with ready-made imagery that he has found rather than created for himself. Though a writer may use found texts he is more apt to alter them and adapt them to his style.
It is also a misunderstanding that the artist always decides what he intends to do and picks his subject according to a definite, preconceived idea. More often than not an artist will hit upon an idea without having ever considered it before. They simply see or sense something unexpected that prompts an idea. Visual details that others will hardly notice or may deem so insignificant as to be irrelevant can engage the artist like a divine prophecy. As often as not these details will be meaningless for everyone except the artist. While other stare blankly at the thing, the artist reacts like an obsessive. He sees an essential difference between this thing and all others that people might think quite similar. Thus the slightest difference, a mere aspect, be a wide gulf in the artists thinking. The writer Kurt Vonnegut Jr. compared artists to the nervous canaries that miners took down with them to detect dangerous gasses. To H.C. Andersen they were like the princess on the pea. Suffice it to say that they know more than you might think.
Copied Mug, Distorted Mug
These pictures have no really history or meaning, no beginning and no end. They are absolutely irrelevant fictions, like most of the visuals in newspapers nowadays. Nameless faces peer into a computer scanner and flatten their noses against the glass while the sensors move slowly across and reflect the face onto the hard disk and the screen. The light that illuminates these faces and the wait for the sensors to complete their pass underneath the glass gives them a somewhat gaping and puzzled look, like fish in a bowl. The face does not know how appear, as it is drawn out and its relationship to the body is blurred. The distance between the eyes narrows and the lower part of the face is enlarged as the rest of the scull is diminished. It floats like a foetus or a space alien in the dark void with a white nose and shiny eyes.
People tend to stare still into the scanner and hold their breath while the process is completed. That accounts for the inflated, curvy look that seems out of breath and surrounded by water. The faces are life-size, which is disconcerting to the viewer singe they are distorted and therefore appear to be smaller than a normal face. They are, in fact, a brutal reminder to the viewer that he has no idea of the size of his own face, it being that part of the body that one sees least often and always only in a mirror. That is another reason why these images shock: They stare back at the viewer like that face in the mirror; his own disfigured face in the hall of mirrors.
Though the images are scanned in black and white, they are printed to paper in four colours. The grey grains take on colour, though it is not sufficient to enliven the pale face. The effect is all that more ghostly, like the image of a made-up corpse. Perhaps Hamlets father appeared to his as a grey fog in four colours. The faces appear to form like wraiths by the concentration of specs of light in the darkness. That is how Draculas voluptuous helpers appeared in the snow-filled air of the Carpathians -- how the apparitions look at turn-of-the-century séances. There is something about this process of scanning these nameless faces that seems likely to become the subject of folklore. Who is to say if doesnt somehow affect the soul behind the face? Can we be sure that it does not become disfigured like the face?
What has now become of the renaissance frame that ensured the viewer invisibility? Instead of him observing safely from his window a scene where nobody can see him, other viewers now flock to the window to stare back at the him and trap him in their distorting mirror. He is caught behind his window and cannot escape. It is best, anyway to relax and keep still. Any movement in the scanned face only lead to more fogging, so that the features of the face are blurred and indistinct. Thus the audience becomes the audience of an audience that looks back, staring like a floating apparition.
Some faces are disfigured through merging. Two or more images form new variants of the species, like when Bergman merged Liv Ullman and Bibi Anderson into one persona. This visual fertilisation leads to total chaos. The faces become like over-ripe mushrooms. Their features are threatened by clones. The face of our time is an impersonal mass-mask that is only a face by name. The unlimited possibilities of modern genetics are mirrored in this visual cross-fertilisation where the opportunities for combination are inexhaustible, yet are exhausted at once since they have no limit and no discernible goal. In the endless sea of faces we resemble each other like peas in a pod. When a pea is formed with the combined characteristics of two others nobody notices the difference.
These floating visages are from another dimension; they condense and appear without shape. They have no ears, for instance, as so must be deaf. The glass prevents them from making a sound, which is apt since apparitions are generally silent. Their shape is anamorphic or oval, which tells the viewer that he must change his perspective to see their true form. The reason is that anamorphisms have different perspective points and sections than those things that the audience sees in normal perspective on an even plane. It is often enough to lean up against an anamorphism to see its shape, providing you can get close enough.
It is said that the sixteenth-century master Holbein the younger wanted to jest with his subjects, the French ambassadors to the English court, Jean de Dinteville and the bishop George de Selve whom he painted in 1533. He showed them in all their glory standing on a tiled floor that can still be seen in Westminster Abbey with a curious table between them, laden with globes, navigational instruments, a watch and lute with a broken string. Between the ambassadors, lower down in the foreground, Holbein painted an anamorphism of a skull, floating like an orb over the floor. The skull can be seen by looking at it from the side. It is said that the artist wanted to show that despite their riches, knowledge and influence, these gentlemen were are fleeting as their wealth.
Others say that Holbein had merely been amusing himself by painting his signature symbolically into the picture -- the skull that is nothing but hollow bone: Hol-bein -- without any motive other than to add his tag to show that he had been there, just like his predecessor signed above the curved mirror between the Arnolfinis. The mirror reflects a face as an anamorphism. Anamorphisms of this type are rarely horizontal like Holbeins skull, but rather perpendicular like the scanned faces. But however these phenomena lie, they belong to a different visual dimension than the one we perceive every day. Anamorphisms are the fourth dimension in art, the sensed dimension that lies beyond the second and third dimensions. The dimension on which these images rest is always skewed to the audience so that he can never quite look into the distant and self-absorbed gaze of the face, no matter how he may try to approach them.
Originally published in an exhibition catalogue published by Grái kötturinn for Jón Óskars exhibition in Hafnarborg, The Hafnarfjördur Institute of Culture and Fine Art, 1996.
Text © Halldór Björn Runólfsson
Images © Jón Óskar
|The renaissance taught its viewers to assume a stance, preferably in front of a frame divided into sections, and to peer their eyes to avoid distorting the thing that their gaze was aiming for.|
|Art lives as long as uncertainty prevails. Art is for those who cannot see because they do not know and who do not know because they cannot perceive.|
|Our visual world is entirely incoherent compared to the world of the farmers of yore.|
|It is a common misunderstanding that artists base their work on a logical deductive system, as a writer plans a novel.|
|The light that illuminates these faces and the wait for the sensors to complete their pass underneath the glass gives them a somewhat gaping and puzzled look, like fish in a bowl.|
|Perhaps Hamlets father appeared to his as a grey fog in four colours.|
|The glass prevents them from making a sound, which is apt since apparitions are generally silent.|
|l instruments, a watch and lute with a broken string. Between the ambassadors, lower down in the foreground, Holbein painted an anamorphism of a skull, floating like an orb over the floor.|