research > drawing > Portraiture
Anthony Auerbach

‘Inhabiting the Duration of a Look: a Letter on Portraiture’ by Anthony Auerbach, in Ines Lechleitner, Puzzle Box, Maastrcht: Jan van Eyck Academie, 2010.

Ines’ Puzzle Box promted me to write a sequel to my letter on portraits and consequently another reflection on the matter at the heart of my own practice of drawing. Ines’s publication takes the form of a box modelled on a puzzle box instaled in the Gorilla enclosure at the Zoo in Munich. The text of this letter is contained in a leaflet inside.

Ines Lechleitner: Puzzle Box

Dear Ines,

You showed me a replica of a box mounted on the wall of the gorilla enclosure in a zoo in Germany. This box, you said, would be the container for something of yours, and the form of a publication. Thus you prompted me to slot something in, to post a letter. Is this green box a toy, or is it a test? It is, in any case, an invitation, an invitation to reply, to reflect, to be exact: to revise, to look again (and so it turned out to be, for you too).

In my first letter (before I saw the green box), I wrote about portraits: your gorilla family, a piece of cinema, a portrait of your father: your experiments.

I made some observations on portraits which, in a clumsy way, I wanted to call anti-social, if only to distinguish them from social portraits. A social portrait, I suggested, is supposed to provide an acceptable likeness of an individual, with the emphasis more on being acceptable than on being like, or indeed, being individual. The qualities of the social portrait are those which, in Oscar Wilde’s story The Picture of Dorian Gray, happen to stick to the man instead of to the painting. While a portrait painting (for instance) is always more like other paintings than it is like a person, in so far as a portrait is supposed to be the likeness of an individual, a social portrait produces the semblance of individuality.

There is another kind of portrait somewhat other than a picture (although sometimes a portrait can be both social and other). This other kind of portrait is an instrument, a pretext, an apparatus of looking: some kind of experiment with difference. This kind of portraiture, I suggested, demands a duration of looking, a duration perhaps justified by a photographic instant, perhaps only camouflaged by that instant. Its procedure places an object under observation, under surveillance, and dissimulates the specificity of your gaze, its voyeuristic intent, in the genera of looking. You carry your hide with you in the discreet form of a camera in which your vigil is interrupted only by photography. Such a portrait stakes out its object, lures its quarry, duration, with a look. A portrait of this kind makes appointments, is there on time, stays until closing, visits and revisits, often.

I want to keep talking about portraits because, although you visit the zoo often, that doesn’t make you a zoologist. Although you live among humans, that doesn’t make you an anthropologist. When you work, you mind your own business. You appear to attend to your equipment. You listen to your microphones. You look into your cameras. You don’t speak. It is as if the paraphernalia of your art were the props for a mime, or rather a family of mimes (of resemblances): portrait, likeness, semblance, indifference. The family of gorillas, minding their own business, being indifferent, seem to suggest a model which you make a criterion, which you imitate and multiply. (I recall how you described the pose of an elder male gorilla, who sat placidly at his work — eating — seemingly unperturbed by the wild gestures of the humans: like a lady, you said.)

Indifference: being not-different, but still, not the same. Clearly, you don’t identify yourself with the gorillas any more than they would identify with you. You only adopt their habit, being not different, and not identical. What mediates, that is to say, what makes possible this non-identical relation(ship), is glass: that thick glass panel which, in the zoo, mutes the relation; isolates the gorilla family from the ape noises of the humans on your side of the partition; makes the gorillas’ gestures into mimes (the mimes you revised — returning to your video recordings — and mapped with a cryptic notation); drains reciprocity from the gaze. There is nothing reciprocal in the young gorilla’s stare you slotted into the box — only you, a human, could call her look uncanny.

Isabelle was indifferent. (She showed you how she could adopt a habit, literally, when she dressed up as a nun.) When she called you her assistant, she declared her own, other, purpose. You told me that when you were assembling a portrait of her in your book, Pièce de cinéma, near the end, you asked her opinion of your composition, but, you told me, Isabelle insisted you should treat her (images) just like the gorilla(’s). In this way — you were surprised, apparently, by the way she put it — in this way, it seemed to me, Isabelle refused to intervene in your work, to approve or authenticate it. It seemed to me there was some kind of trust in that refusal which I could only call intimate, although I couldn’t explain it very well. It seemed to me that her trust in you was other than deference to you, you the normal one, the artist, the expert. Not deference: indifference. The puzzle is, how could Isabelle compare herself with (and thus make her trust analogous to) an animal(’s) she knew was never asked? We would have to ask her what she had in mind, but I imagine Isabelle recognising that in your portrait of the gorilla, you did not anthropomorphise him. That is, you did not attempt to make him resemble a man.

You required indifference of your father for an otherwise impossible portrait of him. A portrait you say is not public in any way, suggesting something unseen, or perhaps your intention not to exhibit this work, but also something intimate, which I respect, and of which I remain ignorant. To be sure, in the glimpse I got of it (in the context, as it happened, of a report to an academy), the photograph did not disclose anything intimate. What impressed me about it was something other than (a) social (portrait). I am convinced this portrait is an important piece, and, in the present context, an important piece in the puzzle posed by your green box: a question of portraiture, a question of photography.

When I saw the photograph, you explained that it was the first time you were able to make a portrait of him that somehow fulfilled your criterion. What made it possible, you said, was that you asked him, and he agreed, to pose as a gorilla.

If I were to imagine the diagram of this portrait, it would be like this: for you, he posed as a gorilla, and so did not pose. He, muted, mimicking indifference and thus only resembling a man; you watching, inhabiting the duration of a look, your side of the glass. In this instance, the glass of the camera alone suffices to silence him, to engender your look. No glass wall like the one that mutes the gorillas’ enclosure is required.

Ines Lechleitener: Between an Image and a Sound

If I were to draw your portrait, it would trace an image from another report to an academy, a video image, already glazed: you not looking, only (silently) listening, recording, devising an experiment; behind you the forest, a camouflage screen that transmits only sound. You made your guide in Sumatra mimic the vocalisations of the (unseen) gibbons in the forest. You solicited his interpretation, but you insisted on your indifferent attention, ears cupped by headphones.

The gibbon who heard your playback into the forest, the orangutan who heard your tape of his forest-kin in the Berlin zoo, the passers-by interpellated by your prompter’s boxes, do not answer the calls. They only turn to look.

Anthony Auerbach
(revised) London, June 2009

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Ines Lechleitner: video still from Puzzle Box

Ines Lechleitner: video still from Between and Image and a Sound