The Stand in Conversation with
Throughout art history the head has held symbolic significance; from antiquity it has signified intellect and power as well as being considered the site of the soul. In the following interview curator of THE HEAD, Francesca Gavin sits down with The Stand Director, Beth Greenacre to discuss how contemporary artists in the auction depict the head today and respond to ideas of power, the fragmented body, celebrity, the uncanny and idealised beauty.
Beth: The head has an interesting and complex place in art history, why is it of interest to you today?
Francesca: I think it comes from an extended interest in our feelings of fragmentation in our own bodies. I also think this is really about the wake of technology and its effects on the human body. I’m very conscious that we see ourselves as disembodied. We can think of the body, in a Lacanian sense, as fragmented in parts. Desire is very much intertwined with the idea of the body in parts. However, the head in particular is such an incredible and incredibly ancient symbol of thought, philosophy, intelligence and the mind as a whole. I find this fascinating, and I think that’s why it’s resonating now.
I also think, in a wider sense, contemporary art is at its best when it plays into the heritage of art history, hence why I’ve referenced the incredible bronze Head of a Philosopher which was discovered in the Straits of Massina. The idea of the human head is universal and something that we can all relate to in some way. Throughout art history, and particularly sculptural history and in painting, we’ve seen the bust as a continued idea of power and of symbolic meaning. This is also present in the same way, for example, on coins; you’ve always had the head of a queen or king. There’s so much meaning that goes into the depiction of a head. Both a damaged head, and undamaged head, equally question what beauty looks like. I think there’s just so much to unpack, and I’m really fascinated by how contemporary artists are doing it.
Beth: Can we talk a little more about fragmented bodies? The sale got me thinking about visiting museums and experiencing busts removed from their original contexts. How did they get that there? They could be seen to symbolize a history of violence and iconoclasm; do you think that is relevant to artists working today; thinking about the bust and its relationship to fragmentation and acts of aggression?
Francesca: Well, I think that’s also intertwined with ideas of power – if we’re thinking about whose heads were being represented throughout let’s say Hellenistic history, the Renaissance, or ancient Egypt… It’s very much reflective of the history of portraiture. The idea of who was powerful or god-like; the artist’s depiction of the ultimate deified head. I totally agree with you that the fragmented head has that in-built sense of historical violence.
Beth: The bust is as you say enough to present the presence and position of the subject but when did it get put on a pedestal; I find the act quite abstract.
Francesca: You definitely see a hell of a lot of Roman busts and there’s some amazing ancient Egyptian examples, but again, I think they are more fragments. I think the reason why we’re so focused on the bust now is because of Renaissance portraiture and the idea that the best representation is through the head and shoulders – think of the Mona Lisa, for example. That’s where ideas of meaning, of personality and the inner soul are – in the head rather than the heart. I think there’s something really interesting about the idea of how human beings try to depict the mind in a physical form. The head is also very much intertwined with ideals of beauty, as much as power and the nature of us. The idealisation of the head is really fascinating. When you look at the 20th century and the avant-garde, they were attacking portraiture and presenting these fragmented deconstructed heads.
The head seems to be one of the essential means of unpicking what art is. It is such a classic trope and I find it interesting that something as simple as a portrait has had periods of not being fashionable. The idea of the human body was kind of abhorrent because the mind was more of an abstract thing. There’s some works in the sale, which actually are very much an abstract take on the subject. I’m thinking about Luke Rudolf who used to do more figurative heads, which have become increasingly abstracted. Yet, you are still looking for the head within the work.
I think somehow depicting the human body or the human mind is intertwined with ideas of conceptualism. I think it’s fascinating that even still 110 years after Cubism, people are drawn to some of the same subjects as a way to look at ideas around style and human relationships to their environments, their contexts, but also increasingly psychology, philosophy and thinking.
Beth: There are a number of paintings in the sale. When we think about painting we think about its relationship to representation. A number of artists in the sale embrace paintings’ failure to fully represent, whereas we more readily – rightly or wrongly – accept photography’s relationship to representation. Can you talk about this and perhaps the lend-based work in the sale?
Francesca: I interviewed Jake and Dinos Chapman once and I think it was Jake who said that art is a conversation and it always stuck with me that it really is. None of these heads exist without the heads they were referencing and without the collective unconscious of certain compositions. How we see different things from Paolozzi to Raphael. The contemporary head in painting because painting is such a strange thing. With painting in particular you have the weight of history upon you. I think with a lot of other mediums you get to resist some of that history. Whereas painting can’t escape what’s been done before. There’s no way you can avoid thousands of years of pigment – dirt put on a canvas or a piece of wood. But I think in a way that’s why it becomes even more interesting and why it makes sense that there are a lot of paintings in this sale.
I think we absorb photographic imagery in a very different way now. But even when it’s a painting to me they sometimes feel more sculptural at the same time. Aleksandra Domanovic for example is represented with a photographic work of a sculptural piece that she made. You feel the three dimensionality of the head, even when it’s in a 2D form.
Beth: There are inevitably references to celebrity and idealised beauty…
Francesca: There are a lot of artists in the sale – Matthias Bitzer, Michael Fullerton, Frances Ruyter – that I feel really touch on the history of the idealized painted female head; Matthias Bitzer integrates a lot of abstract elements into what he does; Michael Fullerton has these kinds of idealized characters that are often female within his paintings and Francis Ruyter takes photographic sources and then reworks them to explore how you represent the head or the body in a different way. These artists along with David Noonan are very much looking at the embedded information in found imagery. I think that’s quite fascinating. How do you create new faces or imagined faces?
Beth: Can you talk about some of the sculptural work of Mike Bouchet and Steven Claydon.
Francesca: Steve Claydon is probably one of the first artists I thought of for the sale. He has been making incredible sculptural work that takes the plinth/bust format in classical sculpture and completely turns it upside down. He reworks, modernises, and hangs strange materials and things off his heads. I’ve always thought he had one of the smartest takes on the historical bust. Mike Bouchet’s work – there’s such humor and variety in what he does. This is the head of Nicole Kidman. I love how that plays into his wider take on pop cultural references. He has done a lot of paintings of hamburgers and most notoriously the sculpture during Manifesta 11, Zurich Load, which was a day’s worth of sewage dried and treated and presented in a gallery space. This is a much more fragrant alternative. He comes from California and has been living in Germany for a long time. I think his work really plays on who are our icons now, who are our gods. Are they celebrities? And what does it mean to try to represent people like that? It’s almost like going to Madame Tussauds, but the sculptural take on that.