Melita Dahl, happy (0.96), 2019, Pigment Ink Print on Archival Paper

Photography / “Portrait” by Melita Dahl, exhibited with “Canberra Re-seen” by various photographers and “Surrounded Beauty” by Sarah Rhodes. Huw Davies Gallery, Manuka Arts Centre, until July 10. Reviewed by CON BOEKEL

“PORTRAIT,” by Melita Dahl, shown with two other exhibitions hosted by  PhotoAccess, is an exhibition that strikes home.

There is a long-standing tension between reductionist attempts at divining inner feelings or character from faces on the one hand, and artistic expression trying to achieve something similar on the other.

Phrenology was based on using skull shapes to predict character. Physiognomy was thought by some to reveal inner truths of character. Both became handmaidens of racism. The latest element of the reductionist approach, Facial Expression Recognition, FER, seeks to measure emotions by measuring the face.

The world is headed towards a billion security cameras. We can’t shop or travel without being captured. Big Data ensures that others know more about the patterns of many of our behaviours than we do ourselves.

Melita Dahl, Deadpan 9.980549278246, 2021, Pigment Ink Print on Archival Paper

“i manipulation” is increasingly disaggregated to the individual level. The warmth of our welcome home from overseas through an Australia airport is determined by facial recognition, FR. Stand on the line. Face the camera. Do not move. Do not smile. We wander lonely in the cloud

FER is a sophisticated subset of FR. Artificial intelligence analyses faces in order to reduce our emotions to statistical emojis. Can they know what a feeling? The outputs could potentially be used or abused for anything from marketing manipulation to herding voters. Has the window to the soul become a portal to 1984?

Through adept judo moves, Dahl uses portrait photographic techniques to examine physiognomy and FER.

In “Melita Dahl, Perspective Machine 01 2020”, an overlay of computer graphics dissects a face into the components required to measure emotion. “Melita Dahl, Deadpan, 9.980549278246, 2021” subverts FER through deadpan. FER scores of 0.0 for various emotions are integrated with the image. There is no scope here for collecting abusable data. Traditionally a comedy technique, deadpan here is seriously subversive.

Melita Dahl, Action Unit [outer brow raiser], 2019, Pigment Ink Print on Archival Paper
In a series of photos teenage girls – sometimes in groups and sometimes as individuals – subvert FER by physically pushing faces around in order to deceive. In “Melita Dahl, Action Unit [outer brow raiser]” a group of girls help a friend to deny FER a clear run. The teenage girl in “Melita Dahl, happy (0.96), 2019,” uses her hand to force her mouth into a "smile" shape.

Teenage girls as active subverters remind us that FR and FER are part and parcel of an economic and political management that delivers lower incomes for the same work to their mothers. The questions pile up. Is deception to become a political grace rather than a political evil? Will FER create a paradox in which bottling up everything from happiness to anger becomes the necessary first step to political action? Where now for Mona Lisa?

The subtle use of colour against background blacks is just wonderful. The compositions are rigorous. The photos are superbly printed using pigment ink on archival paper. Given that FER is agnostic to art, the sensuous beauty of Dahl’s work is also subversive.

Can there be a neutral setting for "portrait" from any perspective? On the one hand, Dahl deploys deadpan, deception, art, and artifice to examine ways of subverting FER machine outputs. On the other hand, the portraits are acutely constructed works of art that draw questing personal responses from the viewer. By creating tension in this space Dahl delivers a significant contemporary chapter to the history of portraiture.

Also showing at the Huw Davies Gallery, “Canberra Re-seen” resonates emotionally.

A PhotoAccess workshop group of photographers share a fresh look at Canberra’s people and places. To appreciate it fully, a paired visit to “Seeing Canberra” at CMAG is recommended. The photography in this set is highly skilled.

And “Surrounded Beauty” by Sarah Rhodes combines text, photographs, and voice over in a way that is stimulating and challenging.

I highly recommend a live visit but images from all three exhibitions may also be viewed here.

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Ian Meikle, editor