‘But what if this is deception, a fold of the fabric mimicking a human face…’
In an effort to maintain his sanity whilst marooned for four years on a remote island, the Federal Express systems engineer Chuck Noland, played by Tom Hanks in Robert Zemecki’s film Cast Away (2000), creates a companion by painting a face on a found volleyball. He names him Wilson, after the ball’s manufacturer, and establishes an intimate relationship of trust, through companionship and conversation. Although the pictorial nature of the ball, bearing a crude, totemic face appears central here, it is its linguistic turn that establishes its power as an image. The relationship between the shipwrecked engineer and Wilson takes place chiefly through language, as the increasingly dependent Noland tells his other stories about himself and listens to the totems imagined responses; the pain of Wilson’s eventual loss, by now deflated and careworn, is demonstrated by Noland’s anguished cries of his name.
The sculptures and installations of Daniel Silver, heads and bodies made from an array of different materials, and placed on often elaborate supports in the shape of plinths, chairs and tables share Wilson’s unassuming appearance; they seem, at first, rudimentary, as if out of focus, shorn of distinctive features; however, this lack of distinguishable detail does not render them alike; the contrary seems to be the case. This absence of detail is, in fact, not a lack, resulting in inertia, but a productive motivation on the subject’s part; in this way, it compels the viewer to question and engage. What we are led to distinguish, are the marks and shadowlines left on the heads by the sculptor who adds, and, oftentimes, subtracts material in search for a form; these shadows provide testimony of the sculptor’s presence and touch in the process of accretion and deletion.
Arguably the most striking detail of the human face is its eyes; we acknowledge them with our first gaze, and our look is returned. Silver’s heads, contrariwise are marked by the absence of eyes, with only empty sockets in their stead. Their blindness would appear to make them impervious to our gaze, since they remain unaware of it and are unable to return it, incapable, in other words, of closing the circle of the scopic that is driven by the accumulation of reflected looks. The art historian James Elkins argues that ‘to see is to be seen, and everything I see is like an eye, collecting my gaze, blinking, staring, focusing and reflecting, sending my look back to me.’ But it is not the eye that perceives, it is the mind, the entire person or entity that sees. Thus, the entity is perceived and perceives in turn, yet it does so with its entire body; each part is rendered a sentient and therefore productive ‘seeing’ organ.
All faces are examples of a single kind of machine, termed, according to the philosophers Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari the “abstract machine of faciality [which] functions like a white wall – black hole system… [guiding] the formation of individual, concrete faces as substances of expression.’ What is proposed here is a blank surface punctured by apertures, forming a system, a machine-like collaboration that produces the effects we think of as faces. Once perceived, it is decoded and then overcoded by this abstract desiring machine. It follows that the face is not a locus of lack, but one of production, of becoming. Accordingly, ‘a face is something that is incomplete: a work in progress that stands in continuous need of being seen or touched or written upon,’ operating as a desiring machine linked to another, perpetually interrupting and connecting.
The paradigm of the machine, coupled with a seemingly contradictory application provides a recurring theme in Modernism, with notable examples in the novels of Franz Kafka and Raymond Roussel. Kafka’s story ‘In the Penal Colony’ focuses on a punishment machine that uses a bank of steel needles to inscribe the name of the crime on the prone body of the inmate; in death, he realizes what he is accused of. In Roussel’s ‘Impressions of Africa’, the author meticulously describes the intricate contrivances of a series of machines that make ‘art’: machines that make paintings, music or tapestries. Its African location refers to the myth of ‘the primitive’ and debunks Western rationalism. A statue of the philosopher Immanuel Kant, set up in an African Village is portrayed as a burlesque thinking machine, whose ‘eyes’ light up in ‘a parody of the blinding onset of reason.’ Hence, Roussel’s machines critique the causal relationship between maker and object, and the philosophical trappings that support it.
Although Silver’s work may appear, at first, to show the hallmarks of a traditional practice in which ‘the content of a mind and the space it projects’ are synonymous, further examination reveals a number of discrepancies. The artist works, at times, with found or rejected classical sculpture (Making something Your Own, 2008), erasing and altering the pieces, whilst in other instances, he seemingly eschews the restrictive boundaries of direct authorship by working with Zimbabwean craftsmen to make stone carvings (Heads, 2007).
In this way, Silver arguably borrows from the world of the bricoleur, situated between serendipity and design, between the made and the unmade, between Bernini and Benetton:
‘The “bricoleur”[‘s]…universe of instruments is closed and the rules of his game are always to make do with “whatever is at hand.”…Further, the “bricoleur” also, and indeed principally, derives his poetry from the fact that he does not confine himself to accomplishment and execution: he “speaks” not only with things,…but also through the medium of things.[…] The “bricoleur” may not ever complete his purpose but he always put something of himself into it.’
The attention to surface in Silver’s work is redolent of key early Modernist sculptures by Medardo Rosso, Amedeo Modigliani and Constantin Brancusi, as indicated by the manner in which they address the relationship between their torsos and heads and the support surface. Rosso’s works meld object and support together in a single fluid gesture, giving the literal appearance of motion and flux. Referring to the plinths buttressing Brancusi’s sculptures, Rosalind Krauss states: ‘The separateness of these forms – facetted, carved wood, cruciform stone, cylindrical marble – declares that even the grounds from which the sculptures rise are detachable, rearrangeable, contingent.’
Similarly, the heterogeneity of Silver’s supports – chairs, tables, boxes and castors – might allow the viewer to deduce that the artist enjoys variety, yet, the burden of evidence points to a more likely reason: that Silver engages with the modality of display per se. His sculptural props have several functions beyond that of buttressing his heads; their stacked form suggests a separation from the floor, a play on the essential condition of gravity affecting all objects in the world. Thus the plinth lifts the sculpture and extends its distance from the ground, giving it a privileged place and bringing it up to eye level, to be subjected to scrutiny. The support may spread out into room, to the point where it becomes the space of the work, sealing it in the hermetic embrace of the installation as in Silver’s ‘House for Sculpture’ (2001). Thus, the artist points towards the condition of display, which does not serve the purpose of visual accessibility; rather, display purports to reveal, to make plain to our eyes, but, instead, it codifies, masking and obscuring the subject. This process may seem reductive, but it serves to establish new boundaries for the insertion of the work, and, by extension, the artist. Perhaps this ‘house’, this ‘gallery’, intended for sculpture, is then a space for the artist to dwell, a place that negotiates his unsettled state, Martin Heidegger’s unhomely (unheimlich) and defines his being-in-the-world.
Being already there ‘needs further examination, and finding what is already there may turn out to be very much a matter of making.’ According to the philosopher Nelson Goodman, the production of ‘pictures’ involves the maker not simply in ‘world mirroring’ but also ‘in ways of world making,’ so, talking to a volleyball may actually save your life.