Reading Faces: Bodies, Senses, Lives

By CHE Associate Investigator Melissa Raine, University of Melbourne

Image: 'Scene from a Novella'. by Liberale da Verona, ca. 1445–1527. Courtesy of The Metropolitan Museum of Art.
Image: ‘Scene from a Novella’. by Liberale da Verona, ca. 1445–1527. Courtesy of The Metropolitan Museum of Art.

When I attended the recent “Reading the Face” collaboratory at the University of Melbourne, I was hopeful that bringing together the diverse subjects and perspectives listed in the program would result in unexpected connections and insights. I was not to be disappointed.

I was struck by the differing understandings of how the face was apprehended; a closely related issue was the connection between the face and the body. This gave me much to think about in terms of my current interest in the interplay of the senses and emotion. Jane Davidson’s work demonstrated how, during live performance, the faces of pianists affect the listener’s experience of the music. Her paper established, to my mind, the importance of a multi-sensory approach: although we “believe” music is experienced aurally, sound does not operate in isolation when other senses have the opportunity to participate. Another striking example of “sensory entrainment” emerged from discussion of Lisa Beaven’s interpretation of a landscape by Poussin. The term “ripple” was applied to the extraordinary effect, in the painting, of emotion transmitted from one figure to the next. That ripple was clearly aural in part, originating in the horrified cry of a witness to a terrible death. Alison Inglis discussed pre-Raphaelite artist George Sandys’ repeated representations of a young woman chewing on a lock of her own hair. This gesture, it seemed to me, played with the desire to touch that is implicit in eroticised images of young women, rendering her less available to the audience. When Stephanie Downes discussed the intimacy of encountering faces in the margins of medieval manuscripts, I found myself wondering, which sense truly apprehends the written text? Does reading a text with marginal faces require two different modes of apprehension simultaneously?

In my experience of the conference, two papers spoke to each other with particular urgency, both dealing with personal responses to traumatic early life experiences, both searching intensely for empowerment. Sarah Richardson discussed the confronting work of Phoebe Gloeckner, who draws upon her own childhood and young-adult experiences of sexual abuse and addiction in her graphic novels. Her work is explicit and distressing. Bindi Cole Chocka spoke of her own history of neglect and abuse, and its relationship with her video installation, We All Need Forgiveness, where 30 individual videotaped faces look out at the audience, uttering the phrase “I forgive you”. This work affected many collaboratory participants powerfully, and positively. By comparison, Gloeckner’s work seemed overwhelming for many, but her images have stayed with me. As Richardson pointed out, Gloeckner reclaims the agency of the abused subjects she represents; by refusing to flinch from representing the explicitness of the abuses, her work challenges the shamefulness that can be so insidiously associated with the recipient of abuse.

Chocka’s work involved “face” in an almost pure form, the focus entirely on the expressions and words spoken; Gloeckner’s faces were inextricable from bodies and what was done to the whole person. Chocka spoke about an earlier phase in her work where her art was “angry”, a phase she’d left behind; I wondered if she would consider Gloeckner’s work angry? If so, would she accord it any positive value? Similarly, Chocka’s emphasis on forgiveness implied an end goal of healing; I wondered what Gloeckner, a trained medical illustrator who also creates images of herself diseased to challenge the viewer’s gaze, would make of the concept? While Gloeckner’s faces and bodies were inextricable, perhaps the most powerful face of the conference for me was Gloeckner’s luridly graphic, cloyingly innocent eight-year-old girl poised on the brink of an early abuse, the enticement by her stepfather to feel grown-up by drinking wine. I say cloying, because the hyper-innocence and sweetness of this face defied – or should have defied — the possibility of exploitation. The most disturbing detail was the girl’s missing tooth. The blackness of that gap seemed symbolically to foreshadow the possibility of trespass, bringing home the sickening vulnerability of the child, the magnitude of that betrayal of trust, the sheer damage that would be inflicted. The difficulty of looking at Gloeckner’s work underscores how important it is for her work to be looked at.

Gloeckner’s faces were powerfully connected to disturbing representations of bodies, provoking often visceral responses; the multi-sensory apprehension that is at work in more pleasing aesthetic experiences was also in play here, the results discomforting, but generating understanding and empathy. The very detachment of Chocka’s faces from context, including body, seemed integral to the sense of resolution that her work strives to promote. Not surprisingly, I found myself connecting these works with the testimony from the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse that were, on those same days, entering my awareness via the media. I wondered if either Chocka’s or Gloeckner’s works might speak to any of these people, and more importantly, make a meaningful contribution to any of those lives.

Unexpected insights? Most certainly.

Livestream videos of the presentations may be found here.

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