Of our faces (and our bodies)

For suddenly there had swarmed up from those round chambers underground a ghastly troop of monsters. Hideously masked or painted out of all semblance of humanity, they had tramped out a strange limping dance round the square. (1)

Vue de l'exposition Le meilleur des mondes
À gauche Gilbert & George : Twenty-Eight Streets, 2003
Collection Mudam Luxembourg, © Photo : Andrés Lejona

Historical art and modern art museums are full of human representations which, transposed into real life, provoke dread: can you imagine being face to face with one of the Colossus of the Sistine Chapel of Michelangelo or with a cubist personage by Picasso? The beauty of a work of art is therefore not necessarily that of the reality and the Mudam collection spills over with figures of a monstrous charm (Katharina SieverdingCindy Sherman).

But even without distortions, the faces and bodies which people contemporary art transport us into a strange universe and transform the real subjects into elusive icons: the monumentality and the photographic precision of a portrait by Franz Gertsch render the face of a girl just as abstract as an ancient goddess; the intimacy with which Nan Goldin captures scenes of her friends from life transforms these marginal instants and enhances them to the rank of archetypes of urban life; the intensity of the performances by Marina Abramović in which she compares the expectations created by the artistic canons sometimes confer on her the aura of a martyr.

Of course, humour, irony and self-derision are rarely absent at roll call, and show themselves sometimes palpably (Gilbert & George), sometimes disturbingly (Alain Declercq), sometimes through cinematographic references (Edgar Honetschläger). Or, it’s simply a matter of observing and understanding something which appears to speak for itself but which, upon reflection, proves to be an eminently more complex subject: this can be said of western cultural practices (Thomas Struth) or of the urgent budding of adolescence (Katrin Freisager).

And even when the representation seems only to reflect the reality of a testimony, artificiality is present, through the organisation of the work of art or through the technique of the actors: the face is both the first truth and the first lie of a human being (Gerard Byrne).

(1) Aldous Huxley, Brave New World, 1932