Søren Dahlgaard’s Dough Portraits fuse together established genre traditions and portraiture as performance. Each portrait is an active exchange between the artist and model, with the artist playing the dual roles of director and documentarist. A lump of dough is placed on the model’s head and slowly oozed downwards. The dough trickles down each model’s face in a slightly different way, providing each with a one-of-a-kind, highly sculptural new ‘face’. The artist then photographs frontal portraits of these dough-shrouded figures.
Dahlgaard’s portraits amusingly destabilize the conventions of the return gaze, blocking us from seeing what is conventionally regarded as the core element of any portrait: the eyes and face. The gaze is traditionally regarded as articulating the subject’s inner essence, as encapsulated in the old saying “the eyes are the mirror of the soul”. The absence of these familiar coordinates foregrounds the meaningfulness of other elements in the Dough Portraits. Our attention is drawn to other cultural markers such as clothing, body language and the positions of the arms and legs, while our focus remains squarely on the anonymous, living mask.
Dahlgaard subverts the traditional elements of the portrait genre – figurativeness and recognisability – by concealing the face, as if denying us access to the model’s inner being. In doing so he creates a new performative and sculptural genre of portraiture, a reinterpretation of identity – one that is funny, ironic and serious all at once.
Yet the dough portraits are much more than just portraits. They are documented performances that register emotions, actions, moments and corporeality. Under their dough hoods, the models become Other to themselves – a sculptural performance in dough, as if to suggest that selfhood and its representation is an ever-shifting process. The Dough Portraits are representations of postmodern identity.
Edit of Pirkko Siitari’s essay in the Dough Portrait book published 2015 by Art / Books. Pirkko Siitari was director of KIASMA Museum of Contemporary Art Helsinki.