Page Tsou’s (鄒駿昇) series of peculiar portraits in The And, Never End — (在視而不見的背後，本質，就在那裡), which is currently on display at the recently opened Agora Art Project x Space (藝譔堂), reverses the traditional form of portraiture by depicting the back of the subjects’ heads.
The face lends portraiture much of its power and demands that the viewer (often superficially) interpret the emotional and physical nuances of the visage he or she is looking at. Depicting the back of the head shifts the emphasis from the subject, freeing it from the constraints of the portrait form. This makes Tsou’s work exceptional.
The articulate, assured winner of several awards and accolades (he has drawn for the popular Swiss author Alain de Botton and the respected artist Quentin Blake, under whom Tsou studied at London’s Royal College of Art), explains the circuitous route that led to the works on display: “At first, I sketched from memory. After a thousand faces, though, I realized that memory has limitations. I couldn’t imagine anymore. At that point I sketched from real life. After 3,000 faces, it suddenly struck me: I’ve been drawing for 20 years and never bothered to focus on the back of the head,” said the artist.
Tsou’s series is as much about a different way of looking at portraits as it is about how they are presented to viewers. Portraiture typically focuses the eye on one frame — an individual (or small group). The vertical and horizontal arrangement of the 120 medium-sized photos in 120 People in London, hung closely together, prompts a constant shifting of focus. Once accustomed to viewing the overall surface of the photos, however, it becomes apparent that Tsou’s work is about patterns, forms and textures.
What: The And, Never End (在視而不見的背後，本質，就在那裡)
When: Until Sept. 4. Open Tuesdays to Saturdays from 11am to 7pm
Where: Agora Art Project x Space (藝譔堂), 104, Ln 155, Dunhua N Rd, Taipei City (台北市敦化北路155巷104號), tel: (02) 8712-0178
Tsou’s pictures could be viewed like a picture of a mountain range — with its peaks and gullies, shadows and light — free from the kinds of psychological interpretations that we might apply to them because that’s what the portrait medium typically demands. These portraits are purely aesthetic.
Tsou emphasizes the landscape of the human head in a number of ways. He blanks out the background with a large white canvas (drawing the viewer’s attention to the head only). The viewer is incapable of determining where the photos were taken, or when. (The black-and-white pictures are reminiscent of daguerreotype photography of the 19th century.)
We can speculate — using the subjects’ tattoos, ear piercings and hairstyles, as well as their ethnicity and the title of the piece — that this is multicultural East London. But it could also be Johannesburg. Or Los Angeles. Regardless, this is not the point. Tsou’s pictures are not some psychological, sociological, political or trendsetting portrait of a person or place. They are random assemblages of human forms. Applying an underlying meaning to them is futile.
The above holds true for The And, a series of 27 images shot in a barbershop. Here, photography is partially erased and then replaced by illustration. Tsou says that the medium isn’t important. He’s created portraits using photography, illustration and video and says that it is how we look at the pictures and what they reveal about our own ways of seeing that matters.
Tsou’s images remind us that there is more to portraiture than the psychological disposition of its subjects. With this in mind, when we return to more traditional examples of portraiture, we are better equipped to appreciate their aesthetic beauty.