Sarah Ball 'Bertillon'

Aug 7, 2017 11:00AM

A new exhibition of portraits by Sarah Ball. Open 4 August - 2 September

Sarah Ball in her Newlyn Studio

Do you judge a book by its cover? It is human nature to do so after all? Within a fraction of a second our subconscious decides if a person is good, bad, dangerous or trustworthy. The subject of ‘physiognomy’ is the primary concern of Sarah Ball in her exhibition of miniature and larger than life intimate and confrontational portrait oil paintings.  The title exhibition takes its name from Alphonse Bertillon (24 April 1853 – 13 February 1914), a Parisian police officer and bio-metrics researcher who aimed to develop an identification system based on physical measurement and characteristics of the suspects face. This supposedly outdated practice, whereby people have their character or moral compass decided by the geometries of their face, was a common 19th century method, which dictated that an individual’s appearance was connected to their ethics and character. Perhaps these judgements have never gone away?  This innately human trait to judge ‘others' is especially aroused by today’s broiling climate of racial profiling, the refugee / migrant crisis, Brexit determination, Grenfell Tower catastrophe and Donald Trump’s muslim travel ban and promise of a ‘wall’ on the Mexican border; the media is awash with images and stories describing conflicting views, injustices and inconvenient ‘truths’. We are prodded with images of ‘suspicious people’ flooding our shores and stealing our jobs; fleeing refugees falling from stricken boats, inconveniently convening and 'making a mess' of scenic holiday spots - ruining the family trip to Kos; Mexican immigrants dying in the back of a lorry parked outside a Walmart in the baking heat, a stones throw from the border. These and an ever increasing multitude of incidents generate an increasingly mixed response from us, the public. The human stories of these casualties are often overlooked, perhaps partly because they are now so common place. How do we process this threat of ‘others’. For some there is fear and anger by association, for others there are attempts at compassion and empathy.   ‘Bertillon’ is a continuation of Ball’s quest to reveal the human truth of her anonymous protagonists. In this new collection of paintings, which vary in scale from small studies to larger-than-life portraits, Ball asserts but also tests the notion that we all somehow ‘fit' together, bound by a kindred connection that makes us human. In this case, the viewer is required to consider this problematic idea more closely as Ball has shifted the goal posts, reaching further towards the suspicion of ‘good’ and ‘bad’ and how prejudice leads to assumption about people, through assessing appearance.  Ball has researched and worked from a number of archival sources to build a diverse picture of human behaviour. From concentration camp guards taken from The Imperial War Museum archive, forced laborours from The Reichsbahn Ausbesserungswerk Freimann at The Deutsch-Russisches Museum Berlin-Karlshorst archive, an immigrant from The Sherman archives, subjects from 'The Alphonse Bertillon’ archive and accused subjects from a number of police mugshot archives. In the exhibition Ball hasn’t titled them with names or specifics, just a code, so we are left wondering who these people were and what they may have done.   Ball’s intimate, up-close paintings render these monochrome historical archives as absorbing, richly coloured, impactful portraits. The observed faces look intently back at the viewer, solemnly and sternly inviting new perceptions about their personal history. We are left with the heavy responsibility of making our own assumptions, aware that some of these faces are responsible for horrendous crimes, whilst others are the innocent victims of one of histories most terrible chapters. It emotionally requires us to consider responsibility, empathy, humanity and perception.  

Sarah Ball, AC10, oil on gesso panel, 18 x 13 cm

Sarah Ball, AC14, oil on gesso panel, 90 x 90 cm

“We carry the genes and the culture of our ancestors, and what we think about them shapes what we think of ourselves, and how we make sense of our time and place. Are these good times, bad times, interesting times? We rely on history to tell us. History and science too, help us put our lives in context. But if we want to meet the dead looking alive, we turn to art… in imagination we chase the dead, shouting, “Come back!”... we sense that the dead have a vital force still – they have something to tell us... I don’t claim we can hear the past or see it. But we can listen and look.This is how we live in the world: romancing... For many years we have been concerned with de-centering the grand narrative. We have become romantic about the rootless, the broken, those without a voice and sceptical about great men, dismissive of heroes. That’s how our enquiry into human drama has evolved: first the gods go, and then the heroes, and then we are left with our grubby, compromised selves.” 1  Hilary Mantel  

I am an introvert. At least, I am according to the American journalist who interviewed me prior to a recent solo exhibition in Dallas. Confronted by a deadline and under pressure to deliver insightful column inches for an audience, she opted to write a portrait of a recognisable and well-understood type – a quiet and solitary English female artist. The word introvert is derived from the Latin ‘introvertere’ (intro ‘to the inside’ and vertere ‘to turn’) and in the article I am portrayed as a driven loner, who walks the ancient landscapes of West Penwith, eats soups in winter, salads in summer: the solitary artist in her Cornish studio. As with all clichés – it holds some truth. I understand this need to catergorise, because it underscores the inquiry that has been driving my work for the last few years: the grouping of people and the naming and identification of types.  Archival documentary photography, police mug shots and official identity cards are the source imagery for paintings of people caught in a fraction of a second on silver nitrate or glass for official and governmental purposes.

The titles of the works I make were often the labels given to the photographic image by the official in authority – a policeman, civil servant or immigration officer who needed to label individuals into neat, recognisable and convenient types based on their crime, nationality, ethnicity or religion.  Despite representing a form of reality, photographic images are not necessarily objective statements of fact. They are subjective representations of truth interpreted by a camera and then the viewer. Through translation in my work, these images are further interpreted by me, the painter. I seek to visually liberate the person from their official monochrome documentation and speculate on their true nature or humanity. I am interested in this act of translation; from the apparent certainty of this photographic record and official labeling to the malleable quality of paint, my work calls into question history, memory and story but also perception.  This latest exhibition at Anima-Mundi is called ‘Bertillon’ and seeks to further explore the relationship between the label, type and image but also provokes persipience in a deliberately more open ended way.  

The exhibition takes its title from Alphonse Bertillon, who was a French police officer and biometrics researcher who applied the anthropological technique of anthropometry to law enforcement in the late 1800’s, using  photography to create an identification system based on physical measurements. Used to evidence the pathology of crime and criminals, photography was thought to connect outward physical appearance and inner  character traits. In essence it was believed good people ‘looked good’ and morally suspect people ‘looked bad or ugly’. They searched for; “The harmony of moral beauty and physical beauty… the science of discovering the relation between the exterior and interior – between the visible surface and the invisible spirit it covers…” 2  The source material for this show is wider ranging than in previous exhibitions, pulling together photographs of forced laborours from The Deutsch-Russisches Museum Berlin-Karlshorst (CL1 – 6), Camp guards from The Imperial War Museum archive (CG 1 – 9), an immigrant from The Sherman archives (IM1), Subjects from the Alphonse Bertillon exhibition at MOMA New York (BR1 – BR9) and police archived mug-shots from various archives (AC 1 – AC14).  My uncertainty concerning human capability was peaked when I read the following passage from a transcribed interview with Australian author Richard Miller Flanagan; “Some Japanese women had come to my father’s house to say sorry to him some years before. They were part of a network in Japan that had campaigned hard to try to get the history curriculum in the schools changed to accurately reflect the reality of Japanese militarism. One of them was a journalist who had done very brave and extraordinary work exposing the horrors of Unit 731, I think it is, the Japanese small army in Manchuria, that did the most horrific biological experiments on Chinese civilians and prisoners. Through these quite extraordinary and brave women I was able to find these guards and make contact with them and go and meet them. I met one who had been the sort of Ivan the Terrible of my father’s camp, who the Australians knew as “the Lizard”. I hadn’t known until five minutes before I arrived at this taxi company in an outer suburb of Tokyo that this man I was meeting was actually the Lizard, and that rather undid me, I must say. He was hated by the Australians for his violence; he was sentenced to death for war crimes after the war; he had his sentenced commuted to life imprisonment, and he then was released in an amnesty in 1956. The man I met though was this courteous, kindly and generous old man. Bizarrely, an earthquake hit Tokyo as I was sitting in the room with him, and the whole room pitched around like a bobbling dinghy in a most wild sea, and I saw him frightened. I realised whatever evil is, it wasn’t in that room with us.” 3  American writer Ursula Le Guin believed that “If you cannot or will not imagine the results of your actions, there’s no way you can act morally or responsibly. Little kids can’t do it; babies are morally monsters – completely greedy. Their imagination has to be trained into foresight and empathy”.4

Empathy is at the root of all my work. But of course, empathy can sometimes prove challenging when presented with extremes. Although the research material comes from very different sources it still deals with the issues of how we ‘fit’ together; how we judge, make assumptions and form prejudices and in turn act upon those prejudices. Philosopher, Alain De Botton once wrote “Images are important partly because they can generate compassion… to recognize ourselves in the experience of strangers and can make their pain matter to us as much as our own.” 5  

Bertillon’s investigations put simply were about whether or not we are able to judge a book by its cover. I hope that through translation of these chosen images I posset a deep rooted question in the mind of the viewer as to how possible this task really is, but furthermore on the far reaching implications of doing so. Every day I test myself stringently on this, it is a test that I hope is represented through this collection of paintings. In terms of my work, I would apply the following from a journal entry from John Steinbeck when contemplating his own creative output; “In every honest bit of writing in the world…. there is a base theme. Try to understand men, if you understand each other you will be kind to each other. Knowing a man well never leads to hate and nearly always leads to love. There are shorter means, many of them.  There is writing promoting social change, writing punishing injustice, writing in celebration of heroism, but always that base theme. Try to understand each other”. 6  

Sarah Ball, 2017    

1 Extract from ‘The Dead Have Something To Tell Us’, Hilary Mantel’s Reith Lectures, 2017

2 Johann Kasper Lavater ‘Essays on Physiognomy: Designed to Promote the Knowledge and Love of Mankind. Vol 1’, 1789  

3 From a conversation between Ramona Koval and Richard Miller Flanagan  

4 “The Magician’, Guardian Interview, December, 2005  

5 Alain De Botton, ‘Religion for Atheists’, Penguin, 2012  

6 Journal entry by John Steinbeck, 1938 from the Introduction to ‘Of Mice and Men’, Penguin, 1994