If the eyes are the windows to the soul, what is the opaque, impenetrable surface of the face?

Dr. Fabian Goppelsröder
Chair of philosophy at the Freie Universität Berlin and the Institute for Theory at the Zurich Hochschule der Künste (ZHdK)

The human façade is the face. Its opacity protects an interior and represents it externally at the same time. It denies transparency and is yet also, in its visibility, the expression of that which is concealed. The face functions as a kind of border guard between the spheres of private and public. Only that which he lets through joins the mosaic of the visible person. Per-sonare. The resonating through the mask of the actor manifests the individual as a special human being. That which is held back by her impedes its dissipation in a world built through the grouping of similarities. The face is the human mask. In it, a person escapes the exposure that threatens her privacy and is first accessible to the Other by means of this camouflage. Opacity is not intransparency. If the eyes are the windows to the soul, the face is the place where the fragility of the individual psyche is tuned to the demands of its surroundings. The face is a model. Insofar as it appears in aspects of similarity, it has something generic to it. Only because we recognize family resemblences in diversity, can we perceive the unique face of the individual. As the façade of a house arrives in its surrounding in order to stand out from it, so does the façade of each individual human. Just as the mask engraved with typical features is the surface of the actor which negates individuality, the face likewise makes a human being into a type. He inserts himself in a mass of his own resemblance. And sticks out. Ambivalence remains. Every face is the face of Janus. The face is the atlas of our life. It records, in its features, the story of a human. It is the location where that which has been experienced consolidates into a mark. Time presses itself upon the face. The past mingles with the present. An archive that only obtains its archivistic worth in the now. Because the face is not simply a passive registry of events. It has lived and continues to live, it records and it blurs. Only in the oscillation between that which has been and that which is now does the presence of a person take form. Thus, because the face obstructs an easy glance into the depths of a human, it is also the place where all aspects of humanity unite in an endless exchange. The private, the public, the generic, the individual, the past, the present. The opacity of a face renders it an abyss.

This opaque inscrutability becomes the point of fascination in Chansook Choi’s work. “Folgen der Spur” shows transience as a dimension of the beauty of the human countenance. The gradual blurring of previously sharp features in an ink portrait of a friend laid in water is neither intended to be a philosophical critique of the cogito nor a symbol of vanity. The melancholy of the scene does not accompany grief over the loss of identity. Instead it points to the process of erosion necessary to let new and different things come into being. A transformation more than a mere vanishing. Even when that which is different, new doesn’t fit into the register of our visibilities, the intensity of melancholic beauty of decay doesn’t mean an end, but instead a transition. The transition in a presence that remains perceptible, even when it escapes our eyes. Chansook Choi explicitly grapples with the relationship between the visible and the invisible, between living and dead, in the piece “1218”. In the optically overlaid projections of filmed performances of two dancers, it arises: the habitual system of perception dissolving impression of a permanent blurring and mutual permeation of both worlds. Bodies are hiding in the darkness of the scene, allowing only feet, hands, faces to show up and disappear again. The unchoreographed conversation of the bodies unfolds as action and re-action in and within the movements. But the center of gravity holding together these undirected events is the maskedly disciplined face of the dancers. Death is not a segment outside of the world we live in. The abyss is present in every moment as a part of each human. Everyday routine conceals this. One has to look the other in the face, in order to allow for the opening through which the invisible thrusts itself into the realm of the visible. With “Private Collection”, Chansook Choi goes yet a step further in her exploration of the unfathomability of the human countenance. Registrations of experience in the face of a human tell individual stories and are simultaneously a manifestation of the unseen, slipping from perception in its fugacity. Oversized likenesses are projected on huge plastic sacks blown up with air and seem to breathe as they inflate and deflate, creating features and then erasing them. There isn’t any text or language to put what is depicted here adequately into words. Choi makes the body of a dancer communicate with the installation. In place of deciphering or decoding a message, the perpetuation of the perceived in the form of inscriptions into the body means understanding. Wittgenstein once referred to the appropriate gesture as the most reliable criterion for the understanding of a musical phrase. In this sense, “Private Collection” is also an example of a practice, a rehearsal in the intercourse with what’s evading and yet present in the human face. However, the most thorough and comprehensive analysis of the face Chansook Choi has taken on to date takes place in the “We Remember Me” project. The autobiographically motivated investigation is an artistic inquiry into the history and reality of the so-called “Hoyukai” Japanese women living in Korea, as well as Koreans living in forced prostitution in Japanese army bordellos during the Second World War, euphemistically referred to as “comfort mistresses”.
The women in both groups exist between poles of individual memory and distinct group identity, between concealing and displaying their personal histories, between remaining foreign and fitting within a hostile situation. Their story is an untold story, a story that has never become explicit. It resides actually and only with the women, with what they tell and what they are: its witnesses. A fragile narrative comes out of the conversations with them, from which we receive important information about what has happened. Beyond the words, their physical presence assures truth, the truthfulness of their speech. It is the duplicity of the witness, who describes what she percieved, and validates this description through her presence in the here and now, in the inherent aura of her having been there.
The women are the ones who were present, they are witnesses and so the inquiry is not exhausted in the report of what is said. Its relevance and quality are derived, not least of all because they, the women, show themselves and thus show the reality of their story.
The questioning of the Hoyukai and comfort mistresses has a fundamentally aesthetic quality. We have to see them in order to understand their words, we must see their faces, the human façade, the atlas where one’s personal path in life is traced through historical events. And we must recognize the complex heterogeneousness of the face as a place of reluctant yet synergetically connecting dynamics. A prerequisite for artistic fertilization in telling the story of a face entails domesticating the individual movement within daily routines, prying open the limit of the unfathomability of the human countenance through behavioral or viewing habits.

Wherever the fixed facial expression shown through the camera and interview confirms the expected without opposing its own cliché, opaque unfathomability turns into trivial surface. Such a witness is no good.
Against this, Chansook Choi’s artistic inquiry into the history and reality of the Hoyukai and comfort mistresses is the systematically provoked resensitization of the discourse. Squeamishly she enforces the possibility of breaking beyond the gravity of comfortable speech, of parroting and mechanical repetitions, of the desired political aims of different groups. And it works out. The faces filmed in the interviews and projected in the installation are not transparent, nor do they allow for a presumed basis of the person. And yet, only through the incompleteness and the inner break of their facial expression the opaque unfathomability of the human countenance gives the particular power to their saying. Not the studied expression, but rather the undisguised face tells the truth of its story.

Dr. Fabian Goppelsröder
Studied philosophy and history in Berlin and Paris, 2011. Ph.D. in comparative literature at Stanford University (CA) Currently associate professor, chair of philosophy at the Freie Universität Berlin and the Institute for Theory at the Zurich Hochschule der Künste (ZHdK)