facepack : Sue Moss
Hobart - 15th August 2008
In spite of the claims
that the media has made on The Face and especially the efforts of the advertising world to
commodify it, most faces elude commercialisation. As we all know, faces are what we
interact with/ draw inference from all day long, at home, at work, in the street, in the
media. Our own faces are mostly what the outside world looks to in attempting to perceive
who we are at least initially. Our faces are our point of communication and hence
the importance the media places on them.
In facepack, Sue Moss
leads us through her thesis on the Face as a single abstract entity and as a constantly
changing, infinitely varying and elusive notion. In the preface (or PreFace) she says:
The paradox of the face
remains in its simultaneous presence and absence its actual and illusory quality,
apprehended and desired as object and anatomical form. The face receives the
spectators projected imaginings and dreams
faces resist representation
they both attract and appal.
They also reveal and disguise. The
face, the index of the feeling mind
thats the poet George Crabbe. Theres
no art to find the minds construction in the face and thats Duncan in
Macbeth saying just the opposite, that its impossible to look into a persons
face and tell what they are thinking.
Facepack is full of
opposites. It is a collection of cards containing images, poems and a whole range of
responses to the face through time. These are collected not in a book but in a sort of
make-up purse. You can remove one from the rest for contemplation, or to give to
someone else. Ive known Sue and her work long enough not to be surprised when she
takes creative risks and flies in the face of convention.
Most of the works in facepack
are poems. Many of these are direct responses to images of faces through history
beginning, in the poem called Ochre. with one of the earliest representations found
on rock art in a cave near Angouleme in SW France dated at 27,000 years. In facepack there
are images of faces based on religious iconography; artworks; passport photos; snapshots;
mugshots; images of performers at work; political figures; images from mythology and from
medical and psychological history. Facepack tells stories. Two stand out in my
memory. The first is a monologue by a woman represented in a French painting from 1887.
Youve probably seen it, a print is included in the pack. It shows a professor
discussing a swooning woman, supposedly mad, before his attentive male audience at the
Salpetrier Institut, probably one of the earliest centres for studying mental illness. In
Sue Moss monologue: The Saltpetriere Suite, the woman is shamming madness,
thereby putting herself in complete control of the situation and nicely subverting the
probable reality of the original scene. The second story is of an unknown woman who
drowned in the Seine in the 19th century and whose beautiful young death mask
became the face of the life-saving mannequin used subsequently in resuscitation practice. That
poem is called Breath.
There are other poems in facepack
which examine the face in history more obliquely. There is a poem about one of Elizabeth
Ardens classic lipsticks: Montezuma Red. (Have you all been reading the articles in
the press about the levels of lead in red lipsticks!?)
The role of the veil is
considered, in marriage, religion, in the hangmans hood; in another poem there is
reference to the architecture of the panoptican designed by Jeremy Bentham. In the
panoptican, the observer at the centre can see everyone at all times. In Benthams
own words, it is a building
in which persons of any
description can be kept under inspection in public, penitentiary houses, prisons, work
houses, poor houses, hospitals, mad houses and schools.
facepack is not all poems.
It is images and archival material too. In the 20th century the face has been commodified
to a degree probably unequalled in history. There are written and visual cards in facepack
which deconstruct the representation of the Face by the media, the role of the cosmetics
industry and plastic surgery and the constantly revised current formula for beauty
and ideals. I like the inclusion of the found poem on one of the cards from a 1960s
ad: Saving Face. Quote. It brings to mind Oscar Wildes precept: A mans face
is his autobiography. A womans face is her work of fiction. (!)
The poem Interview
with Sigmund Freud shows how (to quote from the preface) womens facial
heresies become objects of theorization and [alarmingly] pointers to scientific
practice. I like the term facial heresy. In recent Australian history, it has had
legal ramifications. Think of Lindy Chamberlain and the English hitchhiker whose boyfriend
was murdered in the NT, both of whom were put on trial by the press for, in Les
Murrays words in his poem titled Deployment of Fashion:
"a defect in
weeping". The cards in facepack are designed. I think, to prompt this sort
of discourse and reflection.
Im going to list
some of my favourite poems in facepack starting with the touching Papua New Guinean
pidgin response to a representation of Mary in a Michelangelo sculpture. Its called face
bilong meri or Translating the face of Mary. I like the stark simplicity, the
plainness of the language in the English version but it is wonderfully touching and
powerful and evocative in the pidgin. (When did Sue learn PNG pidgin?) Sue is going to
I also like the monologue
spoken from the point of view of one present at the sacrifice of the Bog Man, one of those
preserved people who were discovered in bog in Denmark, some of whom are ten thousand
years old. Sue is deft at inhabiting the consciousness of her subjects, particularly
voices from history and art.
In the poem Glamour the
aural qualities of the voice of Christ speaking out of Drysdales painting The
Crucifixion are as affecting as the visual image.
Gazing onto Mao the
return is another of my favourites. This poem describes the procession of Chinese
people queuing to see Mao Tse Tung after his death. It reflects on the impact of one face
on a continent of hundreds of millions of people.
I also like ID in which
(I think) the image of the changing face in photos and mirrors is speaking back to the
wearer. This is a prose poem. I like the way it devolves from the grammatical into an
impressionistic, increasingly skeletal staccato. It starts: My face slips and slides
and finishes: Interpret you cannot
You beauty blind.
Nameless I can wait forever. You stamp on each image. Know only constrain. You spy in the
sky, You database. You identikit. You long lens shot. You lose face. You lost.
In facepack there are
images, advertisements, documents. There is a taxonomy of a criminals face taken
from Cesare Lombroso 1876 called Stigmata related to an atavistic criminal which
lists 14 characteristic features of a criminals face eg asymmetry, unusual ears, eye
peculiarities, fleshy lips, noses upturned in thieves, aqualine in murderers, abnormal
dentition (and that was before Hollywood established the ubiquity of the orthodentic
smile) This list and the related poem Mugshot made me think of all the faces of
criminals we see in the press and how (returning to Macbeth) they bring to my mind the
words one of the merceneries called in to murder Duncan. He says I am one
the vile blows and buffets of the world have so incensed, that I am reckless what I do to
spite the world. Mugshot also makes me think of George Orwells remark At
fifty, everyone has the face they deserve.
As you can see, this is a
diverse and provocative collection both in its subject matter and in its presentation. Facepack
offers imaginative insight, dialogue, analysis across different contexts and time frames.
These cards are designed to be shared, passed around, placed in contexts outside the
bookshelf. Take a facepack home, it will give you plenty to think about.