Michaela Melián : »Mobile«, 1999
Mobile by Michaela Melián consists of 59 oval panes of plexiglass printed with sections of faces or items relating to them - beards, eyes, eye-brows, noses, hair-pieces, but also accessories such as spectacles. The plexiglass panes are suspended from the ceiling at eye height so that the viewer can interact with the transparent panes and complete the incomplete faces with his own or superimpose the existing fragments over his own face. Depending on the position of the observer, constantly new portraits arise.
The physiognomic details of Mobile are taken from the Identikit program run by the State Criminal Bureau [SCB] in Munich, where, in line with witnesses' descriptions, faces of criminals or assassins are drawn for "wanted" posters. Melián has been cooperating with the SCB for years now. In her series Tomboy, for example, she constructed such wanted portraits of famous-infamous women, that were produced by SCB staff in line with her descriptions of the persons. One initial difficulty was the fact that the criminologists' computer database only contained male facial traits, whereas physiognomic patterns for female criminals did not exist. The Identikit pictures of Tamara Bunke, who came from the GDR a was trained as a guerrilla in Cuba or of Charlotte Moormann, the performance artist, were »reconstructed« by Melián using male facial traits.
The SCB's Identikit database has since been expanded and improved, and is now used throughout Europe by other signatories of the Schengen Treaty for a fee. A CD promoting the program provides an overview of the facial sections available, which can of course be subjected to subsequent treatment by any PC user - it represents only a small selection of the wealth of material available in the database. Melián chose 59 specimens from this CD for her work. The individual facial sections no longer jell to form a consistent whole, but point instead to the fragmentation of the human face into stereotypical and interchangeable items. Gender attributes are no longer possible and have become unimportant.
»Wanted« photos try to elaborate the key features of a face, the stereotype. The aesthetics of such portraits points up the fact that those depicted have resisted the state, for such portraits are usually only made in order to hunt down criminals or enemies of the state. Strategies have been developed with ultra-modern technology, such as those provided by computers, to analyze and interpret behavioral patterns. These systems rely on the principle of identifying patterns on the basis of as broad a database a possible. Today, we are already subjected to new agencies of control which we accept voluntarily in order to remain part of a privileged consumer society. For example, the number code on a bankcard will soon be replaced by an iris scanner, whereby the eye's retina serves to identify the person. Genetic »fingerprints« render the body legible and enable it to be reproduced. Our subjectivity is questioned and indeed massively under threat from genetic engineering, whereby all our biological data are made available for use.
Mobiles are games consisting of objects hanging from thin threads which you set in motion with a slight push and which then start to dance in the air. The »heads« in Melián's installation invite us to interact with them. If you stand direct behind one of the intimated faces it becomes a mask with which you can playfully change your identity. Changes of identity are no longer so frequently a necessity out of a position as political outsider and are more part of the everyday game of adjusting to the norms of modern society. Normative physiognomies define our lives. We are confronted by stereotypes every day of the week by the media, showing us what we should look like, how we should dress, how we should keep fit. The fun of fancy dress becomes the tortuous decision on what we should wear.
[Translated from German by Jeremy Gaines]