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stefan beyst
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'What you see is what you do not see'

Free after Frank Stella...

'Sans tête(s)' is a series of images of which it is not immediately apparent what they represent. To be sure, on first sight, you have the certain impression that it is bodies that are appearing here. But, on a closer look, this turns out to be a mere delusion: this is definitely not the way real bodies look like. Which immediately raises the question what may well be photographed here. With the first images, it is not difficult to ascertain that we are dealing with body parts, and which body parts are at stake. But soon, only additional comments can reveal the secret.

Real body parts perceived as imaginary bodies or body parts: double images hence. Double images as such are not new: suffices it to refer to Arcimboldo and Dali. But, although the images of these artist are double, after dedoubling, they lose every ambivalence: in the case of Arcimboldo you either see the still life or the portrait. What you get to see in ‘Sans tête(s)’ on the other hand, continues to resist every one-sided interpretation: the back that leans backward, suddenly turns out to be an exposed front (3); what appears to be a bust, demands to be read as a pair of thighs as well (9); the pair of buttocks that unfolds before your eyes, suddenly falls apart in two bodies, one of which can be read as being photographed from different angles (16); where you meant to descry a navel of where you expected the appearance of a penis, there suddenly opens a gaping vagina (6); and we spare ourselves the trouble to describe more complex examples like the triptych of ankles (10-12). That is why these images have rather something in common with condensed images, like da Vinci's Mona Lisa or Saint John the Baptist, where the sexes are equally merged into hermaphrodite beings. In 'Sans tête(s)' however, such ambivalence unfolds into completed polymorphism, as with Rorschach's inkblots. In that sense, the procedure followed in ‘Sans tête(s)’ is in its turn a condensation or further refinement of the double tradition of double image and condensed image.

The title ‘Sans tête(s)’ draws the attention to the fact that, in this series, there are only (parts of) bodies to be seen, no bodies with heads - let alone portraits. But it is in the first place an allusion to ‘La femme 100 têtes’, a series of collages of wood engravings published by Max Ernst in 1929. In the title of this series, the sound of the number ‘100’ is the same as that of the word 'sans' (without) - with the opposite meaning. And such double lecture cannot but remind us of the figures that the same Max Ernst descried in the grain of wood. In ‘Histoire Naturelle’ (1926) he tried to catch these images through covering the wood with paper and through rubbing it with a pencil. Whence the name ‘frottage’. Which can equally be read in another way. For ‘Frottage’ is also the term for the ‘perversion’ that derives its pleasure from rubbing the clothes that intimate the hidden forms of the body. And such double lecture of the word 'frottage’ seals the stride from ‘Histoire Naturelle’ to ‘Sans tête(s)’. For, in the latter series, the images are not conjured up from the grain of wood, but rather from the wrinkled skin of of a body in decay. A movement toward the kernel of things, then, which in the same time lends a deeper meaning to the phenomenon of double lecture. The initial image (1) of the series makes it unambiguously clear that the impetus for making of 'Sans tête(s)' has been the reluctance to feel itself at home in the very body from which the soul emerged, only to be doomed to death through the irrevocable decay of precisely the material subtrate to which it owes its existence. Which is in its turn another lecture of the expression ‘Histoire Naturelle’...

Beyond which ‘Sans tête(s)’ is moving in a double sense: not only does the metamorphosis to double image find its completion in the process of the polymorphic multiplication of images, the metamorphosis of reality to image no longer transforms peripheral material into peripheral - ‘surrealistic’ - images, but rather resolutely moves toward the most vulnerable spot of human existence where central phantasms - like erotic beauty and the immortality of the flesh - originate .

From a purely technical point of view, the development of the series is propelled by the systematic extrapolation of some very simple technical interventions. To begin with, the eye relentlessly zooms in on the very object of its abhorrence. At the same time, the diaphragm is increasingly widening, so that the bandwidth on which the horrendous is to be seen becomes increasingly smaller, only to leave room to a foreground and a background where a totally different world gradually looms up. The effect is further enhanced in that the body parts increasingly turn to the depth, so that the bandwidth of the given ultimately shrinks into a mere linear ring. And, finally, through the multiplication of lights and their shining at right angles or in opposition to one another, a new world emerges where surfaces and volumes dissolve into a purely spiritual world of pure light and darkness.

And that reminds us of the fact that it is of all things a camera - the very instrument that seems the most inappropriate to perform such a task - that works the wonder of the polymorphous metamorphosis. Wherewith becomes apparent how misleading - how untrue - it is to understand the relation between a photo and what it represents in terms of 'document'. No doubt, ‘Sans tête(s)’ departs from a concrete given: a body in decay. But, at the same time, it paradigmatically demonstrates how simple and purely photographical interventions like zooming in, opening of the diaphragm and multiplication of the sources of light, can turn such sense datainto their very opposite: in the end we witness the appearance of bodies, the erotic freight of which often surpasses that of even the most enticing real counterparts - not to mention the often ethereal worlds in which they want to weightlessly float .

Which only sheds a sharp light on what photography has in common with the more manufactural forms of image production. It appears that, essentially, the given plays no other role in photography as the good old 'model' - or 'nature' - in painting or sculpting: to warrant the probability that has to be the hallmark of every genuine mimesis. In the end, no human mind, however creative - can create beings that are more convincing than those created by nature itself. And that is precisely why not only the photographer, but foremost the painter and the sculptor, however much they are out at transforming reality - in the last resort never cut the umbilical chord with the real world - although painters and sculptors proceed along somewhat different roads that their technologically more advanced successors , the photographers . In that sense ‘Sans têtes’ is a reflection on the technology of making images as such. And also - if need still be - a manifesto: precisely the technology that is commonly supposed to merely reflect the given, becomes in ‘Sans tête(s)’ the very instrument of the utter negation of the given in all respects.

Stefan Beyst, April 2006.