Exhibition as a syntax af the face

Mieke Bal

Grammar is a set of rules that makes meaning possible, communicable and interactive. At the heart of grammar is syntax: the rules of relationship between elements. In recent exhibition practices, syntax has come to the fore as a structuring principle that helpsmake sense not of the artworks as such, but of their relationship to the viewer. Once the illusory autonomy of art was exposed for what it is--an illusion-all manner of "impurities" came to the fore. For instance, art after modernism developed a synaesthetic mixture ofmedia appealing not just to the eye but to all the senses. Additionally, artistic and philosophical material and aesthetic conditions have become overt elements of art itself. In response to these developments, the curator has come to take on increasing artistic agency. As a result, the thoughts art articulates in its own way become framed and addressed by discourses both surrounding the exhibition and interfering with it.

In this essay, I propose a few ways of thinking about innovative exhibition practices in order to make them easier to grasp, evaluate and enjoy on their own terms. The central term, syntax, indicates rule-bound relations among elements--normally words-set in place so that complex meanings can emerge. I focus in particular on the syntax of exchange, as in theinteraction between participants in a conversation. The central site of this interaction is the face, hence the term "interface." In the Western tradition, the face has been appropriated by oppressive sentimentalist humanism in a threefold way: as the window of the soul, as the key to identity translated into individuality, and as the site of policing. As an alternative to this tradition, exhibitions can deploy the singularity of the face to construct a syntax based on the face's function as a site for interface.

INTERFACES BETWEENTHE AESTHETIC ANDTHE POLITICALThe point of these metaphors is not to invade visual art with language, but to seriously engage with the way art is already discursive as much as it is visual. This interpenetration of disciplines and practices is quite useful; it helps museologists to conceive of their practice artistically and coherently, while providing critics with conceptual tools to illuminate exhibitions as meaningful wholes in relation to their visitors. In my book Double Exposures,I have examined a few famous exhibiton sites in internationally-esteemed museums. The key metaphor in this analysis is narrative, conceived as meaning-producing sequentiality,which emerges from the viewer's walk through an exhibition. Putting one thing next to another, in other words, produces a time-bound relationship, a linear progression between the two elements. Narrative in this sense comes quite close to syntax. What happens to a single sentence in language, or sequence in flm, is bound to rules that make meaning-production possible, and it is plausible to consider an exhibiton's juxtapositions and combinations, lighting and distance as similarly rule-bound in order to be meaningful.I am particularly interested in the relationship between aesthetic and political efficacy in exhibition-making.I examine this through two very different exhibitions: one highly aesthetic,  the other primarily political. The first consisted primarily, but not exclusively, of inert objects like photographs and sculptures, as well as a few videos and installations with moving images. The second was solely composed of moving images, or more specifically, of video works. The former is the award-winning exhibition Partners, curated by Canadian art collector and curator Ydessa Hendeles at the Haus der Kunst in Munich in 2002-2003.3 The latter is the experimental exhibition 2MOVE, which I co-curated with Miguel A. Hernández Navarro in four different European cities in 2007-2008.

Hendeles's exhibition had high aesthetic ambitions, but it was more than that. She stated, "The exhibition draws attention to twentieth century belief systems, embedded in the  delusions and confusions inherent in icons and images with which we align ourselves bychoice or by circumstance, or become aligned with, by accident or againstour will.** As this quotation demonstrates, the exhibition did important political work by both addressing atrans-national world and refraining from endorsing neo-nationalism. It also established long-repressed, albeit ambivalent links, or "partnerships," between Jewish and German peoples and between both sides of the Atlantic. This political force was wrought by means of a profoundly effective aesthetic. In the case of Partners, this aesthetic is intimately bound up with the predominant medium of the exhibition, which is photography. In light of my view that exhibitions, by virtue of the spectator's movement through the space and the sequentiality created by that movement, are always to some extent narrative, the medium of photography in the exhibition tends to take on cinematic effects.

For an understanding of the artistic work the exhibition Partners performed by means of syntax, I thus appeal to the metaphor of film. Specifically, since many of the worksexhibited there are, or are derived from, photography, I understand Partners as, among many other things, a proposal to consider photography as a storyboard or visual scenario for a cinematic vision of art pre sentation. This is where its elements are syntactically linked. Photography's allegedly privileged connection to reality is part of that function. Hence, so is the connection to, or engagement with, transnational conceptions of nationhood and display that informed the show, and that makes it in a limited respect comparable to 2MOVE. It is this inextricable bond between aesthetics and politics that I seek to illuminatethrough the metaphor of syntax.

In the case of Partners, the relationship between art and the politics of nationhood is brought in according to a particular aesthetic vision that binds the contemplation of art to arepositioning of the subject in relation to the world. This works as follows: The cinematic vision of this exhibition establishes, or at least encourages, an affective relationship, not only between the art and the viewer-a pragmatic relationship - but also  between the artworks themselves – a syntactic relationship. These relationships between the artworks constitute Partners' syntax, which is affective in nature. Photography, the key elementin Partners, is a medium for which affect presents the possibility of translating heterogeneous emotions into each other. That translation, not the specific emotions, is affect-based. The common foundation on which such translation can work is the notion thatthrough art, it is possible to identify with other people's pasts as they lived them; in other words, to "have" other people's memories. And, in such cases, where memories travel as much across the Atlantic as through time, the affective syntax works in terms of worldmemories. This term, then, suggests how to move from neo-nationalism to post-national thinking.

No situation today lends itself better to a post-national perspective, of course, than migratory culture, the focus of 2MOVE. The exhibition, which was primarily political limited to video art, took place in four different countries - Spain, the Netherlands, Norway and the two Irelands - during 2007 and 2008.° In exploring what makes art political and what constitutes the political in art, we explored where art's political efficacy can be located-howit performs, how it achieves agency, and the ramifications of art's political agency in the larger domain of culture.

Like Partners, 2MOVE targeted a transnational world. Yet in another respect, the two exhibitions are starkly in contrast. In 2MOVE, movement – what  I call "film" or "the cinematic" in Partners-is the starting point, whereas the cinematic qualities of Partners aregenerated after the fact by the experience of viewing the exhibition. On the other hand, whereas installation is Partners' primary feature, it is secondary for 2MOVE. Some of the works in 2MOVE, installations themselves, foreground the intention behind juxtaposing works of such diverse backgrounds, aesthetic qualities and genres in one exhibition: this diversity characterizes the exhibition and defines its political thrust. In addition to the attempt to articulate intricate relationships between video as a medium of movement with time, and migration as a social phenomenon of movement through time, 2MOVE was also a collective installation, a work as a whole that brings together artworks which had never before been installed together. The same is the case in Partners.


Partners occupied fourteen exhibition rooms in the Haus der Kunst in Munich, thirteen of which are medium to small, around one large central space. The different rooms were devoted to objects ranging from early photographs to contemporary sculpture. Neither strictly sequential nor circular, the exhibition had a single entrance, leading into a display of three very different objects, none of which belong to an art historical canon. After this smallentrance room, the exhibition offered several possible itineraries. In light of this organization, the exhibition suggests the relevance of the metaphor of theater as a frame ofreference for the show's construction. Exhibiting a number of artworks under the best possible viewing conditions, curators need to develop a scenography. They arrange objects in a space that, by virtue of those objects' status as art, becomes more or less fictional. The gallery suspends everyday concerns and isolates the viewer with the art.

But the gallery space also isolates the viewer from the art. This turns the gallery space into a stage separated from the spectator. To make a convincing exhibition, the curator arranges the objects like still personages, as in a tableau vivant. This entails a distancing that constitutes the limit of the usefulness of the metaphor of theater, as I explain below. While Partners deploys this metaphor, it does not restrict itself to it. To be sure, an exhibition is necessarily the result of a mise-en-scène, and Partners is no exception. In theater, mise-en-scène is the materialization of text (word and score) in a form accessible to the public; it is a mediation between a play and the many individuals in the public, an artistic organization of the space in which the play is set, and an arrangement of a limited and delimited section of real time and space. As a result of all this arrangement, a differently delimited section of fictional time and space accommodates the fictional activities of the actors, who performtheir roles in order to build a plot. In the case of exhibitions, the role of actor is not limited to the objects on display; both the visitors and the objects are the actors, and it is the interaction between them that constitutes the play.

Mise-en-scène indicates the overall artistic activity whose results shelter and foster the performance of the concrete realization of the art. In its mobility, and in the change over time that it entails, mise-en-scène fits nicely as a metaphor for the experience of anexhibition because it creates an affective relationship with the spectators on the basis of, among other things, spatial arrangements. It is also a metaphor that theater shares with film. Mise-en-scène is syntax in three dimensions. A paradoxical exemplary work from2MOVE can substantiate this claim-paradoxical because, of all the works in this show, it is the "stillest." Dalice (2005), by Brazilian artist Clio Braga, is a portrait of a middle-aged woman, a close-up against a white background that leaves no opportunity for distraction - just a face. There are two of these portraits, two identical videos positioned opposite each other, manoeuvring the viewer to stand between them. Manoeuvring points to rule-bound behavior necessary to make sense; hence, in all its simplicity, this is figuratively a case of syntax. Stand, do not sit. The two videos are screened at eye-level from monitors placed on dark grey pedestals. One wonders why this video is presented as an installation,rather than as a simple single-screen film Syntax can clarify this.

Thanks to the syntax that orders them as opposites, Braga's work exemplifies the syntax of installation as such and, in particular, the syntax of the face. The face is the site of interfacing: it is where the "first person" and the "second person" change roles. When I look at you, you become an "I" looking at a "you." Who says "I" must be willing to be alsoaddressed as "you." This syntax binds subjects together. In Dalice, the structure of the I/you interaction is doubled by a "third person," the one who is seen and talked about but does not herself participate in the interaction. In the exhibition as a whole, the installed videos produce a qualified and, in a sense, disenchanted intimacy that enables an ethical engagement with the migratory otherness within contemporary culture. This argument moves through three theoretical motives that converge in the face: the architecture, or setting, of the installations and by extension, the exhibition as a whole; the inevitable mirroring that insinuates itself when one moves through a space with multiple video screens; and the specific sense of space that emerges from the combination of these motifs.  

With a hand-held camera, Célio Braga has filmed his mother's face in her own home. He filmed her during the long minutes he observed her inward-turned grief while engrossed in the task of absorbing the horror of her daughter's death. This moment of mourning was, as Gadamer would say, the "occasion." The installation of the work emblematizes the syntax of the face in its double nature as described above: first-person/second-person on one screen, and inevitably a third-person in the other scene whom we know to be behind us but whom we cannot see. This double syntax of the face also works in the filming itself. The son witnesses his mother's grief, is grieving himself, we can assume, and yet all he can do is film that silent face while he himself remains invisible, potentially turning the direct relationship of mother and son into a third-person discourse. The hand holding the camera, however, checks that risk, for it is visually holding his mother. While facing someone, that is, lookingsomeone in the face, is centering, the  movement in this video is visible only at the edges of the face.

The installation of Dalice raises many questions pertaining to the syntax of the face, such as the portrait, the medium, the face and the possibility of empathy or intimacy. It raisesthese questions through the syntax of personal interaction, and with some urgency, because the bare facts alone would easily bring up an unease associated with voyeurism. This, in turn, is connected to the issue of "documentarism." The portrait made by a camera isundeniably "occasioned" (as Gadamer), but how important for this work is that sense of documentary implied by this concept? The reality of the occasion could barely be more convincing or dramatic: a mother grieving, one week after the death of her child. Butstrangely, there seems to be a tension between these two reality factors. The portrait is less a portrait of this  woman, Dalice, than of the emotion weighing her down. And this is where the specificity of video comes in, as a  paradigmatic instance of syntax. The near-stillness of the image asks what  a video portrait is, as distinct from a photograph. The slight movementof the face (eyes blinking or turning upwards), which seems to be the only difference between these two mediums of portraiture, has a correlate in the slight movement of the image caused by the movement of the hand that holds the camera.

That hand, reduced to its bare essentials through the medium, "caresses" the face-as-image. When the face moves on its own, the image presenting the face moves. Small, barely visible, secondary movements are the inevitable consequence of hand-held shooting. This produces this double movement and through it, powerfully states the grammar of video in intimacy. It asks if it is possible to read the face, to see grief. It asks if it is possible to empathize with an unknown woman across the gap, first, of her aloneness, second, of her son's absence due to his emigration, and third, our belatedness, our incapacity to make contact. Can we see that this face is one of mourning, or do we need to have the intimate knowledge of the daughter's death?Facing someone, taken at face value, is in itself subject to syntax. The act of facing produces meaning according to the rule of directly facing positions. Thanks to this positioning, facing is three things, or acts, at once. Literally, facing is the act of looking someone else in the face. It is also coming to terms with something that is difficult to live down, by looking it in the face, instead of denying or repressing it. Thirdly, it is making contact, placing the emphasis on the addressee, and acknowledging the need of that contactin order, quite simply, to sustain social human existence.

Looking someone in the face, the first aspect, can be seen as a thematic undertow of both 2MOVE and Partners. This is an aspect that hovers between ontology and epistemology. Can we see faces, can we look someone in the face and what do we learn when we do so? Braga's installation questions this. The second aspect, coming to terms, harbors a socio-political agenda in migratory culture: it makes us aware of how often we fail to face what people go through when emigrating, to confront their losses and sacrifices. This question is of a political and ethical order. Its counterpart and supplement is the veiled face that refuses to be seen, and which considers the act of facing always inappropriate and misfired. The third aspect, making contact, contains the artistic agenda of the exhibition:  the simple "let's face it" transforms into a challenge: can we really face it/her, make that contact that is so badly needed? This is the question of aesthetics as the experience of binding. This is where, for Dalice, the installation syntax specifically comes in. The viewer is forced to stand between the two monitors, which stand on two, body-size pedestals. Only then can oneface Dalice in the first sense, and witness how she faces her loss. But while those who wish to see this work must face the woman, thus engaging in a first-person/second-person exchange, they must also turn their back on her. It is impossible to face her without theuncomfortable realization that she is behind you, looking at your back turned to her, as if sending you away from the intimacy of her home. The syntax of the "third-person." whichexcludes the object of representation from the interaction, is at play at the same time. This double position is doubly moving, then, in the emotional sense of the term. The viewer-visitor is both admitted as a guest and not asked to stay. Dalice invites you in and sendsyou away; she invites the intimacy of the encounter and stipulates the ineluctable strangeness that remains. Due to this installation-as distinct from a single-screen showing-the woman figure is empowered, the face given agency and the viewer's voyeurism held at bay. 

Cinematic conventions, introduced in the art of the twentieth century-the century of this exhibition-are specifically relevant here. Cinema is the art of the masses. Thus there was a lot of importance placed on its potential to become an effective tool for political activism both in the Soviet politics of Sergei Eisenstein, who used a montage of dialectical contrast as his primary tool, and in the early Hollywood tradition of D.W. Griffith, whose organicist montage of oppositions produced its own mass politics. Cinema is not simply a continuation of photography, but rather a medium which responds to photography, critically and ambivalently. This response concerns not only movement and time but also, more subtly, the insistence on the limits of visibility inherent in time, which cinema inscribes in the black intervals between frames. Temporality enforces syntax.

Thus photography serves as cinema's scenario or storyboard, and cinema is photography's commentary: a meta-photography. This is emphatically the case in Partners. With photography as its storyboard, this exhibition animates the visual scenario by meansof cinematic strategies. If we see the photographs and other singular works as "words," they become cinematic thanks to syntax. These cinematic strategies include the obvious ones,such as the construction of a space that is proper to the exhibition and that offers connections to the outside world without coinciding with it; the tension between movement and time, each possessed by its own rhythm; and the deployment of stylistic figures that thicken the narrative and change its pace, such as those of montage (e.g. dissolves) and framing (e.g. close-ups). The cinematic conventions that, I contend, are the soul of the exhibition Partners come to operate most powerfully at a few key junctures. There, wemeet the syntax of the face.

One such moment or juncture that superbly demonstrates the syntactic nature of the exhibition's power is the transition between an artwork that the curator-collector has herself contributed, called Partners The Teddy Bear Project), to the artwork followingit. Hendeles made an installation of thousands of framed and matted photographs, mainly simple, small snapshots acquired through the internet auction site eBay. The installation occupies two floors, with iron staircases and balustrades that allow one to see both floorsat all times. In the middle of the space are display cases reminiscent of natural history museums, in which more photos and some old teddy bears are arrayed. All photographs have one element in common whose importance has been created by Hendeles through the act of collecting: in each photograph, a teddy bear is visible. Between this large installation and the next room there is a transition that binds and severs at the same time, and it is one of facing.

After two crowded galleries, a near-empty third one beckons. A sculpture of a young adolescent boy kneeling in a pose of prayer is all there is. His back is turned to those who entering from the photo galleries. Slowed down by the time-consuming, and indeed, time-stopping Teddy Bear Project installation. one is not too rushed to see the boy's face. Eventually, though, this moment becomes inevitable. An instant of total  shock occurs when discovers that the boy's face is Hitler's. The sculpture is Him by Maurizio Cattelan, from 2001.

The contrast between the intimate installation of the photo archive, which invites us to linger in this installation-within-the-installation, and the lone figure seen from the back in anotherwise empty gallery, produces the estranging sense of a sharp cut between one episode and the next, set in a completely different location. The contrast here is one between multitude and singularity, between overwhelming and meditative, between welcoming warmth and cold loneliness.  

This contrast sets up an expectation of contrast on the level of content as well. Indeed, a sometimes convincing, sometimes deceptive sense of comfort and safety is created by means of an old-fashioned, homey living room, illuminated by domestic lamps and over-written by the even more old-fashioned aesthetic of a nineteenth century museum of natural history, with its odd classificatory drive and crowded showcases. This cozy ambiance contrasts with the danger to which this child-size kneeling doll seems to be exposed. But, symmetrical to Dalice behind our backs, the doll turns its back to us. This has the effectof pulling us closer, compelling us to approach, to walk to the other side, to see its face, bend over in the typical physical condescension with which we approach children, people in wheelchairs and small people. Perhaps we seek to keep the doll company.

The movement performed by the viewer is the kinetic equivalent of a zoom, from a long shot to a close-up. And, after we turn around and zoom in, the face we finally come to see-against the backdrop of the teddy bear galleries--destroys any lingering sense of safety, warmth or comfort.

Through the syntax of the face, the tension between expecting a face we do not recognize and seeing one we do creates a sense of fear, if only for a split second. This face, so low that we have to mentally or even physically crouch down to look it in the eyes, is the close-up, isolated and abstracted from Hendeles's photo installation Partners (The Teddy Bear Project), where it was visually absent but constantly if implicitly evoked. The close-up in cinema becomes photography once again: it stops time, undermining the continuity that the cinematic had just instated. At the edge of syntax, it imposes a qualitative leap indifferent to linear time. And, since time and space become intricate in the same move, close-ups undermine spatial continuity as well. They are abstractions, isolating the object from the time-space coordinates in which we were moving as if "naturally." Close-ups immediately cancelthe sense of wholeness that precedes them, throwing us out of linear time, and leaving us alone with a relationship to the image that is pure affect.


Through its syntactic centripetal force, the face gathers close the relational quality of exhibitions. In Dalice, the slight movement of the image itself, accompanying the moving face as if with empathy, signals the intimate relationship between the artist and theportrayed individual.

As it functions as a cinematic close-up, Cattelan's sculpture Him, while technically not a photograph, does three things to the relationship between photography and cinema and to the relationship between the exhibition space and the outside world. First, it instills in us the sense that, incredibly, thisexcessively realistic sculpture is more photographic than all of the thousands of photographs in the gallery we just exited: it is more precise, more readable, because it is larger in scale. At the same time, the object of the photo-realistic representation is shocking enough to stop us in our tracks. Here, physical and psychic arrests coincide, exaggerating each other's effect. Finally, like Diane Arbus's tiny self-portrait, which opens the show, the eyes can be looked into, but they don't look back. If Arbus's miniature is a model for thekind of photographic gaze that this show mobilizes, then Hitler's glassy eyes are mercifully out of reach. Instead, his large eyes--looking, but not at us--must be looking into a mirror,the mirror of history that we have just left.

This sculpture can be said to be "mirroring evil."Since close-ups are cinematic images that counter the linearity of time, the deployment of this form here to (re) present a figure who orchestrated the greatest catastrophe ever is a way of protesting a certain conception of nationhood, history and time. By virtue of being exhibited after Partners (The Teddy Bear Project), this sculpture militates, in a way it might not given a different exhibition syntax, against the historical conception that construestime as inevitably linear and unstoppable, a conception that puts the past at a distance. Producing a close-up of Hitler is a way of bringing him, and everything he stands for, into the present tense. This is what syntax can do.

Manifsta Journal 7 - 2009