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The mannequin watching us

Some reflections by philosopher and professor of Aesthetics Andrea Pinotti, contained in Guido Scarabottolo’s book: «I ragazzi del bazar di Kashan». The volume collects a series of thirty-eight photographs, taken during a trip to discover Iran. The subjects are a series of mannequins found in the abandoned bazaar of Kashan. In addition to commenting on the shots, Pinotti takes the opportunity to historically situate the debate on portraiture as a form of expression and to reflect on the contemporary “civilization of images“.

The civilization of images

It is said in many occasions that we live in the civilization of images: we are surrounded by images, immersed in images: an iconic tide that we ourselves help to feed, producing an infinity of them with our smartphones at the simple touch of a touch screen; and with an equally simple touch we feed them into the global circuit in which countless other prosumers (producers and together consumers) will be able to enjoy them,
modify them at will, and further disseminate them.

Thanks to developments in recent technologies, which are bringing to market increasingly lightweight, inexpensive, portable virtual reality viewers, we are about to experience a profound transformation of our very way of perceiving images: no longer objects
isolated from actual reality by means of an outline (be it the frame of a painting or the pedestal of a statue, a movie screen or a computer screen), but real environments in which the user installs himself to ‘inhabit’ them.

A new ‘iconosphere’

At first glance, our position would seem privileged: in constant contact with the images we receive and fabricate, we should well know what they are about. But on closer inspection, the perspective of those immersed in a situation may not prove to be the most favorable one for understanding its nature, possibilities and limitations: that is, for understanding that situation critically.

Therefore, beginning in the 1990s (the same years when cell phones and personal computers, Internet access, editing programs such as Photoshop, and compression formats such as Jpeg were beginning to spread) scholars from disciplines as diverse as art history, literary theory, psychology, philosophy the social sciences, anthropology and even neuroscience, have felt the need to develop interpretive tools that would be up to the challenges posed by the new ‘iconosphere’.

An iconic turn

This need took the name of “pictorial” “iconic turn” a turn toward the visual that was expressed first and foremost in the need to recognize an autonomous status for the image, emancipating it from submission to the pan-linguistic paradigm: that paradigm whereby it was taken for granted that the style or mode of representation of a painter, photographer or filmmaker was traceable to a language.

The iconic turn, on the other hand, aims to identify a no-linguistic logic of images, that is, to consider them in their possibilities and limitations, which are not those proper to words. Subject to this requirement, however, it would be misleading to set out in search of a chimerical ‘purovisibilistic purity’ of the iconic: in fact, studies of visual culture remind us that we always encounter images in hybrid contexts, in which they are now found to collaborate now to conflict with other forms of expression.

The question of portraiture in the civilization of images.

First of all, with those words even though they are so different in their nature and operation (for example, in advertising, or in illustrated texts), with sounds (in the context of audiovisuals), or with various multisensory stimuli that are gradually being integrated by the new technologies in 4D and 5D. Even a visit to an art gallery or photography exhibition is a constant back-and-forth between the image, the caption the title of the exhibition, the review
the guidebook, the comments elicited by the figures….

In the context of visual culture studies, special attention has been paid to the issue of the portrait face. Undoubtedly, the rampant phenomenon of selfies — oscillating between narcissistic self-representation and personal identity editing — is powerfully
contributing to renewing THE interest in the facial image. The complexity of the portrait is rooted in the very word that defines it: indeed in the two Latin words – the verbs retraho and protraho – that underlie the former of the Italian “ritratto” and the Spanish “retrato,” the second of the English and French “portait” and the German “porträt.”

Type and Individual

Holding back and letting out: between these two poles plays out the magic of the portrait, which can lean now on the side of enigmatic secrecy filled with inaccessible secrets, now on the side of eloquent transparency expressive of personality and character traits. This polarity is intertwined with a further antithesis that runs through the history of portraiture, that between type and individual: there are portraits that aim to identify the typological characteristics of a class of people, and portraits that strive to capture this individual in his or her irreducible singularity; indeed, that go so far as to reveal it even moreủ clearly and distinctly than the vision of that face in the flesh could.

The history of physiognomy (that discipline that investigates the intimate connection between inside and outside, between spirit and body) is well acquainted with both of these forms of portraiture: a clarifying example of the former case is offered to us by the series of criminological portraits à la Cesare Lombroso, who aspired to establish a veritable taxonomy of types of delinquents (the rapist, the forger, the murderer, the thief…) on the basis of recurring facial features common to several individuals; for the second case, Rembrandt’s portraits and self-portraits constitute a supreme test of art’s confrontation with the mystery of singularity resistant to any form of classification.

The Aesthetics of the Mannequin.

Guido Scarabottolo intercepts and at the same time routs these categories. His portraits of mannequins, taken with a cell phone in the bazaar of the city of Kashan, offer us – should offer us, precisely as portraits of mannequins – anonymous and typical faces. As anonymous and typical should be their bodies and the postures they adopt, which we can only guess at (these portraits being shots of the face only). But looking at them we cannot escape the impression of an undeniable personality radiating from these faces.

A personality that owes much to the interventions of their owners, those merchants who ‘personalized’ them, adding distinctive marks: those that used to be listed in identity cards, before being replaced by the biometric data filed in electronic chips. Kleist, Hoffman, Poe, Baudelaire, Bergson, Rilke, Benjamin, Klee, Worringer: these are just some of the names one should keep in mind for an aesthetic of the mannequin and puppet: theorists who have emphasized the peculiar expressiveness that these inorganic alter-egoes of ours give off, an uncanny vitality of the nonviable.

A ‘look into the camera’

Observing them, their paradoxical dead life reminds us of other series of images: the funerary portraits of the Fayumm, the enigmatic painted wooden panels that accompanied Egyptian mummies of the Roman era; and the portraits of martyrs of the so-called war imposed with Tiraq that carpet the streets and public buildings in Iran. Absences of the dead that painting and photography maintain in a disturbing presence. One and the other are portrayed face to face. Just like Guido Scarabottolo’s mannequins.

Guido Scarabottolo has not photographed these faces in profile, but frontally: if the face and body in profile suggest to us third-person relationships that take place within the space of the image, the face portrayed in front is a first person, a self that questions our you, that looks at us as we look at it, that concerns us in all senses of the term. It is a ‘look into the camera’ that establishes a bridge between the world of the image and the real world, challenging the threshold that habitually separates these two spheres.

Guido Scarabottolo is a celebrated Italian illustrator and painter. Here his Bio.

Andrea Pinotti is a philosopher and professor of Aesthetics at the University of Milan. He works on the theory and civilization of images and visual culture, the question of collective memory and the monumentality of theories of empathy. Here his curriculum vitae.

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