Eye Magazine, Toronto

Facing the big questions...
WE ARE NOT WHO WE WERE
Video installation by Rachelle Viader Knowles.
Rating ****

Red Head Gallery, 96 Spadina Ave., 8th fl.
To July 24 1999

BY R.M. VAUGHAN
An actor pal of mine has a tiny problem -- she can't stand to watch her face in close-ups. I don't get it. She's gorgeous, her face is a pool of radiant light. But when your mug gets projected 20 feet high, what was once familiar becomes both "self" and, menacingly, "other." I suggest wild bursts of applause during each close-up -- love the one you're with -- but she prefers to Pink Panther crouch low and growl.
Judging from her latest exhibit, artist Rachelle Viader Knowles has no such problem with blowing her visage up, say, to the size of a small car. Or, maybe more accurately, the problems she has are the point. Knowles' provocative video installation, 'We are not who we were', is a beautiful, unnerving demonstration of the dissociative power of film technology. Using herself and a male actor as models, Knowles projects two unflinching, intensely close video portraits of their two young faces onto the bare walls of the Red Head Gallery. Her camera's gaze is relentless, and the discomfort of being so closely watched quickly becomes palpable. Like a clinical, ghostly MRI, the videos are shot in pearly but dehumanizing grays and blues that mask the models' skin pigment and blemishes (or emotive blushes). Knowles then projects the videos through ovular frames, cropping each face inside a tight circle that distorts all but the essentials: eyes, nose and mouth. The faces in motion are reduced to systems of muscles and reflexes. Yet, from such an intentionally limited scope, Knowles retrieves a wealth of information. Watching the faces blink, yawn, twitch, stare and otherwise perform all the mundane ticks you'd expect of any unaware countenance, it dawns on you, of course, that these faces actually are aware and that the models knew they were being filmed. As a result, each seemingly accidental action must also be read as a conscious choice made by an actor. This act of double watching, of recording a performative banality, raises intriguing questions. Do our faces ever really relax, ever stop being our calling cards? And are our various expressions largely instinctual or are they learned, and thus enacted, types of behaviour? After language, our faces are our best conveyors of emotion, yet we are frequently unaware of and unable to control the messages they send. At one point in the video, the male face performs a simple reflex action of stretching his bottom lip over his top. Watched in the studious light of the blown up video, the casual gesture is (literally) magnified into meaning. In this rarefied context, any chance reaction reads as a signal or a nod. Was it lust, aggression, mirth? Reading the intent in facial expressions is an unreliable art -- faces make for wobbly texts.Knowles creates a happy puzzle by asking the viewer to interpret the
stories in her close-ups at the same time as she invites us to project our own narrativesonto her blanksubjects.'We are not who we were' is a semiotician's dream exhibit. Playing with ideas of autobiography, identity and objectification, while employing a multiplicity of gazes, it offers the initiated a seething nest of tail-eating paradoxes. But don't let that scare you -- anybody can enjoy a good romance. Knowles has filmed her performers in a lovingly soft focus, and at times the two faces appear to synch. A shared breath, a caught wink or a sudden opening of the lips is loaded with import, not to mention sexual tension. After all, both actors are filmed from the lover's intimate, cheek-to-cheek viewpoint. My one tiny criticism of the exhibit is that an otherwise helpful brochure gives a definitive, explanatory reading of the actors' mysterious expressions. Where's the fun in that?

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