The Decapitation Of Meaning

“Upon the face of this old queen of the French cathedrals, beside each wrinkle we find a scar.” Victor Hugo


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Before, in what seemed romantically an “objet d’antiquité”, now seemed kind of creepy. I was unexpectedly struck by the multitude of unattached heads displayed in the rooms. Photographs used for educational and non-commercial purposes only.

For me, PRESERVATION is a strongly political act. It doesn’t have to be, but usually, it is a result of a political process, collective funding, and committee-derived narrative. What this means is that preservation must validate a much larger and complex political landscape. Constructed historic interpretation can never really be unbiased or authentic, the facts are always pressed through the meat-grinder of a cultural perspective; harshly joining discrete elements into  a “chicken mcnugget” of history.

This idea came to me last time I was at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City. I normally just walk around and see where my interests take me. In this childishly un-disciplined (but fun) manner, I found myself seated in the Greek and Roman Galleries enjoying the sun afforded the large atrium skylight. Scanning the expansive room, among the many tourists trying to take selfies without including other tourists taking selfies, I started to comprehend something that I had never really considered. There were a lot of headless torsos and disembodied heads. Before, in what seemed romantically an”objet d’antiquité”, now seemed kind of creepy. I took note of my feelings and slowly ebbed through the galleries and finally ending up in the Medieval Hall. Again, I was unexpectedly struck by the multitude of unattached heads displayed in the rooms.

Why did these things freak me out so much? I struggled to ascertain what these disembodied heads and destroyed faces were saying something to me. I wondered if all of this destruction of  artifacts was intentional or from natural decay? And if intentional, why some things contained such meaning, that they would become objects of ridicule, hatred, and to some, angry destructive religious outrage. Why would a piece of carved stone be seen as so dangerous that it needed to be destroyed?

As I was sitting there, I kept being reminded of a news story from earlier in the day. The story and photographs illustrate the condition of Palmyra, an official World Heritage Site, after ISIS had been forced out of the area. One of the images showed a large sculpture, The Lion of Al-Lat statue, which stood at the entrance of the City Museum. The sculpture, in an attempt by ISIS to destroy the artifact, had been pushed to the ground and the face of the lion was violently battered. In many ways, this image looked like a forensic photograph of a homicide. In trying to compare before & after photographs of the lion, it took a while before I began to see small shadows of what it had been. For me, it wasn’t until I recognized the antlers at the base of the piece that I began to grasp the level of destruction. The head of the lion had been mutilated beyond recognition.

Most recently, the city has been under occupation by ISIS and the old city archeological remains have unfortunately been systematically attacked and destroyed because they were seen as degenerate.

I began to wonder – why had the head of the Lion been so vigorously attacked and not the other parts? ? Is it just because the head of a statue is the most detailed or the weakest because of the neck being a stress point in the actual form of the sculpture? It seemed more than that to me So much of this damage seemed conscious and the destruction felt all the more powerful because it was concentrated on the head and face.

De-contextualizing meaning

The head and face is an identifier – it individualizes and contextualizes a generic body – it places it in within time and place. It provides a sense of ownership. The removal of a face or, in many cases, the entire head, separates specificity & identity from meaning & concept.   In severing the intellectual concept from the physical form, a break in reality is achieved. There is a long history of mythology and religious tradition that illustrate the significance of the head and face. In these stories, decapitation becomes the ultimate act of de-contextualizing power and meaning from the form.

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(left) Perseus with the Head of Medusa, Canova, 1804-06; (right) David (with the Head of Goliath), Donatello, 1430’s, Photographs used for educational and non-commercial purposes only.

In many ways, it is similar to the separation of intimate “love” from carnal “sex”. This can so easily be seen in contemporary smartphone match-making sites like GRINDER or TINDER. Although there is a slow evolution toward societal acceptance of these forms of matchmaking (and thus full face profile pictures), there still is plenty of headless torsos as profile pictures. In “severing” a head, all specificity and individuality are removed. What are left are simply a de-contextualized stereotype of an idea and a shadow of meaning: This is not a person, this is “sex” – this is not the titan God Apollo, but merely a man’s torso. Removal of the face and head allows for an objectification such that emotion and caring are removed.

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(left) Anonymous headless torso of a youth, Greek & Roman Galleries, Metropolitan Museum of Art, NYC; (right) Anonymous headless torso of a “Grinder” profile. Photographs used for educational and non-commercial purposes only.

The Jewish Museum in New York City got into legal battles when they exhibited a show by Marc Aldman that pictured profile shots from these “hook up” sites that were all taken in the Berlin Holocaust memorial. The problem was contrary to the need of anonymity, many of the exhibition images showed the faces of the profile members. The Jewish Museum was forced into removing the exhibition. In this case, showing the faces provided specificity to, what most saw, as anonymous sexual bodies. The generalized stereotype (anonymous) was acceptable, but a specific identity became troublesome on many levels.

The intentional, destructive removal of the head from cultural artifacts is an ultimate gesture of a new dominance structure.  Conversely, to chose anonymity ,as in hook-up sites, is to retain power. In either case, the head is the seat of power. The entire situation becomes multiplied, when, as in images of John the Baptist, the sculpture depicts the act of decapitation. At the MET, the decapitated heads (due to the destruction of cathedrals during the French Revolution) of sculptures of saints once located on Notre Dame Cathedral are displayed next to a sculpture of Saint Firmin holding his own head. Is this a curatorial joke?

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(left & right)  Removed heads of sculpture from Notre-Dame Cathedral, damage occurred during the French Revolution; (middle) St. Firmin holding his head, 1225-75, Amiens, France. All Metropolitan Museum of Art. Photographs used for educational and non-commercial purposes only.

In these acts of destruction (either real or mythological), the collective mind of one culture is being removed and a new power structure is filling the void.   Whoever currently “owns” an object, decides how it is interpreted, used, and ultimately if at all maintained. This always seems to run back to the very basic notions of “preservation”. The objects and artifacts are simply the materialities used to express one’s interpretive power. The objects are the raw material in political, social and religious debates. Their use and physical condition are regulated by outside conditional forces. The ebb and flow of these social conditions become marks, fractures and, much like the guillotines of the French Revolution or the hammers of the Protestant Reformation, they result in disembodied parts of sculptures representing a catastrophic shift in cultural perspective.

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Much like the reality of the guillotine, in its desire to erase all traces of feudalism, The French Revolution systematically and seriously damaged the decor of the cathedral of Notre Dame of Paris.  In 1793, the twenty-eight statues of the kings of Judah on the main facade were taken down and then sold to a building as scrap material. Photographs used for educational and non-commercial purposes only.

As I sat in the MET and look at all of these headless sculptures I couldn’t help but think of the real destructive acts that have brought the sculptures to this point.

I see the fragmented physicality of these sculptures as a metaphor for the slow processing of cultural re-framing. It is as if the physical shape of these sculptures are literally being re-formed through erosion, attacks, and cultural appropriation, such that the attempt, either intentional or not, is to hammer away prior ownership. All of these artifacts were ‘amputated”, through destruction, from their contextual meaning of origin and appropriated by another power. Through removal of the head and face – cultural identity was erased.

Arriving home, I began to take note of all of the headless and damaged artifacts that I had collected over the years. I have kept hold of these things because they seemed to tell a story that was outside of the accepted narrative. These now flawed artifacts, broken shards and “missing” faces are the witness to an erasure of meaning – a narrative of fabricated incompleteness.

Photographs used for educational and non-commercial purposes only.

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