WhyTheFace? at The Central St Martins Degree Show 19-23rd June

WhyTheFace? my graduating project is finished and ready to be seen. After 10 weeks of work, today is the final day of installing the Central St Martins Degree Show. The official Private View takes place on Tuesday 18th June, and it is open to the general public Wednesday – Saturday 19-21 June from 12-8pm and on Sunday 22 June 12-6pm. Please do pop into the show to see it.

What’s it all about?

WhyTheFace? is a study of what emotions look like and feel like. A personal taxonomy inspired by Charles Darwin’s ground-breaking publication The Expression of Emotions in Man and Animals in which he defined six emotions as fundamental to human evolution and universally understood, whether you live in Pinner or Papual New Guinea: Happiness, Sadness, Surprise, Fear, Anger and Disgust.

This exploration is both figurative and abstract. 

An animated stop-motion portrait of William Pryor, Darwin’s Great Great Grandson, is interspersed with abstracted versions of the same emotions. Some of these gestural interpretations have been fired and are placed in the installation. 

The portrait of Pryor, whose expression was changed over 200 times during the shooting of the film is left as raw clay, kept damp under a glass dome in suspended animation ready to be brought back to life. Condensation on the inside of the glass begs the question: Is he still breathing? 

A cluster of fired specimens on the shelf capture other examples of the six emotions. 

The work is a response to emerging scientific evidence that young toddlers are arriving in nursery with a delayed understanding of the facial expressions of emotions. This is linked to too much time spent on flat screen devices rather than in-the-flesh interactions with their care-givers.  

The installation’s specimen shelf includes a ceramic ‘brain’ representing Digital Dementia, where the right side of the brain associated with mood control and empathy is underdeveloped, in comparison with the left.

Viewers are invited to enter my world. Both as a maker-space where I have created this work, but also as conceptual field. 

The installation is designed to evoke a whispered message from Charles Darwin on the importance of empathy and understanding emotions. In today’s fast-paced, digitally obsessed world, the viewer is given permission to slow down and stare at the flesh of emotions. In this oneiric space they might catch a glimpse of themselves mirroring the expressions on display, emotional contagion – a shared experience of empathy. 

Emotions in Paper Clay

So I am quite excited about how my exploration into portraiture is developing. My latest project is a single self portrait of me expressing a series of emotions, the kind of emotions you might have during a single day. I photographed the head as it progressed through these facial expressions and then animated it into a film. Click on the link above to watch it. It is an attempt to show fleeting human emotions in clay using analogue and digital sources and technologies.

At its core, the work is based on the idea that life is made up of fleeting emotions and micro moments.

How it came about:

At Easter I discovered the work of 18th Century Austrian sculptor, Franz Xaver Messerschmidt. In a state of mental breakdown, Messerschmidt sculpted 64, what have become known, as ‘Character Heads’. I was blown away by them and it rather took the wind out of my sails that a portrait sculptor had been exploring this so well two and a half centuries ago. What could I add?

Down the ages, most portraiture has been a kind of PR exercise, often representing powerful people in idealised ways, and with neutral facial expressions. Although this later point is probably based on practical considerations as sitters find it very tiring to hold poses with extreme facial expressions. But how might Messerschmidt portray emotions if he were alive today? And how can clay portraiture show the messy business of being human now?

Ideas Board
My Ideas Board

My ideas board got me to thinking about how feelings are expressed in time. In this fast paced digital world we live in I am interested in ways to slow down the viewer’s gaze, and reconnect them with the nitty gritty of human experience: our emotions and how they ebb and flow. Hence I sculpted my emotional portrait through time, and animated it.

My intention was also to try to reboot the genre and find a way to give the portrait a contemporary twist by bouncing between the digital and analogue realms.

The work that I had done last term with Jonathan Keep using the data from the Royal Academy 3D Scan of my head, led me to understand that there are real benefits from creating hybrid digital and analogue outputs (See my previous post)

I decided to use the 3D scan of my head as the starting point for the sculpture, then work from photographs of me showing various feelings as the basis of the emotional iterations. At certain points I also wanted to include some strange Matrix-like perspectives that the digital world now affords us.

At the start of the project, I planned to decorate the head using low-fired glazes, as I have become committed to working as ecologically as possible in my sculpting work. But as the project progressed, it became clear that really the final head did not need to be fired at all. In fact firing would have run counter to the philosophy of the piece. It is the plasticity of the paper clay that that has allowed me to work and iterate the piece. Turning it into a permanently solid sculpture would not have made sense.

The film was produced using 6 still images morphed on an iPhone app, and then set to a soundscape, that I composed in Garage Band.

So my next steps:

I am thinking about allowing the head to dry out and crumble. Perhaps outside so that the weather can gradually erode it away. Perhaps in a vat of water, so that it can slowly dissolve. Or left to gently decay under this bell jar ….

Jo Pearl Emotions In Time

What do you think my next steps should be with this head?

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