How do you perceive a face when that face isn’t speaking the language you know, isn’t enveloped with the same thought constructs, a face whose movements aren’t punctuated by familiar units of language? I’m asking this of myself as I walk, practicing facial movements to remind my face of its own architectural tenets.
When we were planning this project last year, a model for social appearance began to develop, helping to focus work here in France. The model is an architecture based in punctuation, the colonnade, a social space configured to alternately conceal and reveal.
The traveller’s instinct is to naturalize what’s around him. Leading to conclusions, like wellworn curtains drawn on the very situations being viewed. Before arriving I saw the colonnade as a stable
internalized environment. Culturally learned gestures are framed within the arch, the shadowed space, a consistent punctuation.
But writing this I’m remembering a less stable Protean theory of natural behaviour which suggests that an animal like a rabbit with natural predators, has a hardwired landscape of rocks, trees and undulations in its brain. When chased it switches to this simulated landscape – weaving across real fields but dodging imaginary obstacles.
I can choose to look at a person walking towards me or not, and if I do look, I might recognize something about them, or not. If I’m in a crowded space these potential points of recognition flow faster and a shorthand is needed to deal with the accumulation.
The social space of the moment is keyed by what you wear and how, what you look at and why, how the awareness of being seen makes you feel and how attending to the presence of others is participatory in some way.
I’m walking on a street with a panorama of the city below me. The city of Lyon stands up like one of Pissaro’s densely worked surfaces of chimneys and smoke. A woman with her daughter walks on the other side, and as we draw level she looks across my path to the view with a warm smile. It’s an ambient look, as opposed to the quick glance I make in her direction. I’m left with images of this face, it’s symmetries and plays of light, its attitude projected into space both aware and disinterested.
First important point to note is the face, the whole figure, the person in a social context is a kind of abstraction. It’s form softened, washed and polished in its culture.
Second, people are not abstractions and the responses one has to others are as real in origin as anything can be.
I’m waiting to buy some vegetables at a crowded market stall, a woman who I’d avoided previously appears beside me with her hand opened, and pointing with the other to the stall saying repeatedly in bracketed french …to eat. She looks me in the eye and physically presses above the market clamour. I eventually attend to her appeal and she punctuates the situation with a kind of post-performance bow. The whole thing takes place in the foregrounded space of a still life, I’m left with body image fragments, the lined palm of a hand, a taut mouth, the hard border of a face edged with tightly pulled hair. Objects, or strange castings settling among the flora of the stall.
Memories are like sculptured castings, the remains of old statuary once the momentary wave of the situation has washed away. But within the social space an arm placed with a gesture upon the knee is visible while the rest of the figure slips into reflected space, there and not there in the punctuated separations of one thing from another.