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Launch - 'facepack', by 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 spectator’s 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… that’s the poet George Crabbe. There’s no art to find the mind’s construction in the face and that’s Duncan in Macbeth saying just the opposite, that it’s impossible to look into a person’s 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. I’ve 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 calledOchre. 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. You’ve 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 Arden’s 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 hangman’s hood; in another poem there is reference to the architecture of the panoptican designed by Jeremy BenthamIn the panoptican, the observer at the centre can see everyone at all times. In Bentham’s 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 1960’s ad: Saving Face. Quote. It brings to mind Oscar Wilde’s precept: A man’s face is his autobiography. A woman’s face is her work of fiction. (!)

The poem Interview with Sigmund Freud shows how (to quote from the preface) women’s 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 Murray’s 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.

I’m 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. It’s 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 read it.

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 Drysdale’s 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 defy permanence… 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 criminal’s face taken from Cesare Lombroso 1876 called Stigmata related to an atavistic criminal which lists 14 characteristic features of a criminal’s 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… whom the vile blows and buffets of the world have so incensed, that I am reckless what I do to spite the worldMugshot also makes me think of George Orwell’s 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.