v2.15 / Behind the Mask of Etienne Ketelslegers

Scholars still debate the purpose of neolithic mortuary masks. Did they honor the dead or summon the dead to life again? Did they extol the gods or ward off evil spirits?
 And what of those extraordinary skulls, plastered in Jericho some 10,000 years ago—whose artists, obeying their inner Thomas, put their fingers on the bone.

That neolithic impulse endures in the work of artists like Etienne Ketelslegers who reimagines his craft for the twenty-first century. Ketelslegers uses MRI scans to see between the world of the living and the world of the dead. But this series says nothing about dignity in life or death. The images destroy clichés. Ketelslegers creates a picture of humanity fit for Greek mythology: both comical and grim, alien and familiar, serious and lighthearted, amiable and irreverent—rife with contradiction and so very human.

Etienne Ketelslegers: On the Art of Disembodiment

After drawing and painting, portrait photography became the best way to accurately reproduce the subject. These days, medical imaging uncovers another aspect of the face whose resemblance to the subject is even more deeply, more intimately, perceived. Medical imaging displays the fragile carnal envelope. What initially seems so familiar becomes outlandish and even unrecognizable for the individual to whom it belongs.

During the infinitely short timeframe of my portrait snapshot, I am neither a subject nor an object; it seems rather that I am a subject becoming an object—a “micro-experience” of death, the making of a disembodied spirit. I have no idea what the viewer will think or understand or imagine (there are so many ways these faces can be interpreted). But the viewer-as-Other, as Stranger, aids in that transformation.

The faces exhibited in the series “Behind the Mask” may be those of the artist or of any other person: they are “no-identities.” And yet, they all show expressivity in gaze or mouth shape. It is remarkable how alike we all are once the face’s mask is removed. Randomly selected and put together, these masks share an aesthetic quality that supersedes distinctions of race, gender or even age.

For many cultures, masks wield power over natural forces and the invisible world—a power only apparent to insiders. Similarly, medical imaging transmits secrets understandable only to those educated in its technical process. But there are aesthetic messages too, universally available and just as powerful.

Photography can be foolish or wise. It is wise if its realism changes with the times, adapting to the aesthetic customs of the present. Photography is foolish if it resists change and stops evoking questions. These portraits face the reality of Time. Though the MRI is typically used for diagnostic purposes, it becomes, for me, a “photographic art” as soon as it generates contemplation, questions, attraction or even aversion.

To see more from this series, be sure to check out Etienne Ketelslegers on Facebook, and visit his website for a look at Ketelslegers’ previous work on Iceland.