Felix Gmelin

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AH (Annika Hansson): Felix, I thought we could take a moment to talk about how you use the computer as a tool in your exhibition, “Nothing Becomes a Man More than a Woman’s Face” ­ and about the concept of beauty. So the title of the exhibition comes from a newspaper article, and the Swedish title comes from a nursery rhyme that every child knows?

FG (Felix Gmelin): Yes, in my school the nursery rhyme was also rather a racist game; here’s how it went: you say “Mamma is Chinese,” and pull up the corners of your eyes. Then, “Papa is Japanese,” and pull the corners of your eyes downward. Last, pull your eyelids in opposite directions, and say “poor little child.” I hope children have forgotten it by now. I used it as a title because it refers to ugliness and beauty, the central theme of the exhibition. The English title was a suggestion from Ronald Jones, who wrote the Swedish catalog text. The source was a newspaper article published in the New York Times on 1 September 1998, with the headline “Nothing Becomes a Man More than a Woman's Face.” It was about the mysteries and contradictions inherent to the scientific study of beauty. My own literature only had unimaginative headlines, like “Verfürung nach Maß,” “Der falsche Körper” or “Schönheit, was ist das?” Newspaper headlines sometimes possess a form of confrontational poetry that is perfect for my exhibitions. Good headlines are aimed at the very core of our collective awareness, yet their origins remain concealed. Their purpose is to entice us to read on, to rouse our curiosity. I spend a lot of time thinking about the titles of exhibitions and artworks. And I learn from those who create headlines. Sometimes I use the headlines just as they are, as “objets trouvés.” Like in the exhibitions “Painting Modernism Black” or “Ein kleiner Beitrag zur Sauberkeit,” both headlines from The Guardian and Bildzeitung.

AH: The exhibition confronts the viewer with his own concept of beauty, but also with normalcy. And in a collection of portraits like this, the first association that comes to mind is eugenics classifications. Have you thought about this yourself?

FG: Indeed, research has begun to study the concept of beauty again, even using a bit of the same methods as during the Third Reich. They use statistics for their method, and search for archetypes. Several current studies have found that a portrait combining, say, ten faces is considered to be more attractive than each individual alone. My exhibition follows this structure, summarizing a number of individuals into a single one. But there is one important difference; you could say it’s an intentional error in thinking. If beauty lies in the sum of all parts, as the researchers say, then I wonder whether it matters who is summarized. We could just as well compile ten ugly faces into one of beauty, as ten that are beautiful. There should be no difference in the results, I thought, and began to collect ugly faces, medical case studies, rubber masks, caricatures, computer manipulations, etc.

AH: You used painting and the computer for different purposes here. Can you tell us what you did, and about the results?

If beauty lies in the sum of all parts, as the researchers say, then I wonder whether it matters who is summarized. We could just as well compile ten ugly faces into one of beauty, as ten that are beautiful.

FG: The interpretation was the logical consequence of the ideas. It was clear almost instantly that the girl suffering from frontonasal dysplasia had to be painted to be bearable. Painting became a method of universalizing the ugly, while stepping back from the personal and tragic. Indeed, there is a long tradition of idealization and deformation in painting. For example, take Ingres’ portraits, which were recently on display at the National Gallery in London. His paintings feature idealized faces contrasted with bodies that are snake-like distortions, both in scale and perspective.

The composite picture called for a completely different method and medium. The summary of the portrait must prove or disprove the hypothesis. It confirms or denies whether many ugly faces can be beautiful in context. For this I wanted an irrefutable ­ and even objective ­ method of saying, “Here’s how I’ve done it.” Just like in science, evidence is valid when it can be repeated. That’s why the computer was appropriate; its system is better for this purpose than painting, which is always subjective and personal. I chose a morphed video projection on waxed paper as the final image of the exhibition to point out the preliminary nature of the results, suggesting that this is a work in progress. Actually, none of our experiments have succeeded yet.

AH: You’ve been morphing portraits. The word morphing makes me think of Michael Jackson’s video from a few years back. It was the first time I ever saw morphing, as it was for many others. It was pretty sophisticated then, both conceptually and technically. Why did you want to use this technique?

FG: When my assistant explained the program Elastic Reality to me, it meshed perfectly with my idea. Cross the Hunchback of Notre Dame with Runny Nosed Fred from Butterick’s and you might get a completely new Adonis. The ability to create a face halfway between two different faces became another approach to making composite pictures. We did all kinds of experiments. One became a commentary about the 1998 election with the title “The more we are together,” where we mixed up the faces of politicians. We called another morphing “All Year Round.” Father Christmas was transformed into the Easter bunny, and the bunny became Lucia (part of pre-Christmas festivities in Sweden), and then back to Father Christmas. The bunny and Father Christmas look pretty cool right in the middle. The computer offers a potential unlike any other medium. If you ignore the manuals, I think you can use it as an artistic tool. We used Elastic Reality a lot as a drawing tool.

AH: It is important to point out that your portraits can hardly be perceived as caricatures. We take them seriously. Did it ever feel as though you risked making light of other people’s deformities?

I think the computer can be used in a style like Jorn´s or Pollock´s. Not by transforming one thing into another, but by using the tools as they are, inherently: just because they differ from all other tools.

FG: Just the opposite; the humor and the caricature combat the tragic in the exhibition. Of course there are risks. I started with sick faces in 1996. No one wanted to show them, even as paintings. One person mentioned a brother with a harelip, someone else speculated about tragedies. I listened to these arguments, and respected them. I don’t want to cash in on other people’s pain. This is not about personal qualities, but about a general principle in our awareness. Taking other people’s deformities lightly, as you say, is a weapon against the tragic. The pictures of the children are touched up to remove all personal characteristics. Parents would never recognize their own children. That’s also why I began using caricatures and comic masks.

AH: Let’s return to your using the computer as a tool. Tools should make things easier to handle, but do you ever feel that something is lost when a computer processes the work? You often hear that both artists and observers of the work miss the definite or the tactile. You don’t exactly develop calluses on your hands from using a mouse or a trackball, do you?

FG: The tactile. I’ll gladly forego the calluses. Many artists avoid them by hiring assistants. But of course, I understand the question. Interpretation by computer is difficult; it is hard to instill life in things that normally take place through physical resistance. For example, playing the drums through a machine is not easy, since the music is based on the human pulse. How do we program a machine to follow the rhythm of the heart? The music has its sentimental theory, based on each musical phrase, each rhythm, or melody having a corresponding human gesture, breathing, pose, or similar expression. This is clear in both Mozart and Maria Callas; each melody possesses its own equivalent emotional expression: tears, laughter, or speech. That’s the way I usually look at my brushes. They increase speed, simplify, and follow the rhythm of breathing. I want to use the tool’s potential. The Danish artist Asger Jorn understood the limits of his tools, I think, when he used the motorcycle as a brush to make a monumental painting. His expressive style extended only as far as the length of his arm. Jackson Pollock ­ who broke the ice, according to colleagues ­ revolutionized painting by understanding and changing his tools. He put his canvases on the floor and dropped paint on them, instead of brushing it across the canvas. In art schools, the opposite holds true. The student steps up in format, from small to large, but never changes tools: not the quantity of paint, nor the brushes. The results are always catastrophic. I think the computer can be used in a style like Jorn’s or Pollock’s. Not by transforming one thing into another, but by using the tools as they are, inherently: just because they differ from all other tools. If we can follow the computer’s own rhythm and allow it to do what it excels at, and what it finds easy to do on its own terms, it can be useful. When it comes to chance, the computer has more variables than other methods and indeed, chance is just as useful as gesture, right?

AH: You use an assistant when you work at the computer. The artist-technician constellation has been discussed since the 1950s. Indeed, take Billy Klüver and Rauschenberg; they worked as a closely-knit unit back then. What advantages and disadvantages do you see when the artist uses another person with technical knowledge? How much does the alliance change your fundamental concept?

FG: Your question is a good one for film directors. They are often asked whether they like to control their colleagues, or if they buy their initiative. I prefer the latter. If someone interprets ­ or perhaps even misinterprets ­ my intentions, the end result is positive. The important point is whom I choose. Being a closely-knit unit is not ideal. With good assistants, the results are good and vice versa, regardless of whether we understand each other. The partnership even changes and reinterprets the ideas. Everything becomes different when idea becomes reality, whether we are alone or several. Wasn’t it Warhol that said that things never turned out as he had intended, but they still turned out well?

AH: This conversation is going in all directions. Before we finish, is there anything you would like to add?

FG: Isn’t it odd how so few painters like computers? Indeed, computers have a lot to do with pictures, right?

Translation by Johan Gille.