by Michael Sheehan
“It was like / a new knowledge of reality.”
– Wallace Stevens
A few ago I found myself more or less by accident sitting in the cinema-dark of the Byzantine Fresco Chapel of the Menil Collection looking at or meditating on the wall of repeated amateur portraits that is Francis Alys’ Fabiola Project, a massive wall of hundreds of amateur replicas of the same absent original, Jean Jacques Henner’s lost 1885 portrait of Saint Fabiola.
The wall itself is hard to describe, or that is it is perhaps impossible to capture the effect in words. I’ll try to outline the experience. Fabiola is a woman in a red hood, a pale sliver of profile lambent against the dark background. Of the more than 450 variations of the portrait, most face the viewer’s left; there are a few that face right. At the wall’s center are mirrored pairs, the Fabiolas facing each other. The first impression of the collection is the seeming sameness, all the red, the overwhelming repetition of the image. But as you sit and the experience settles and slows you notice some are brighter, some more faded. And eventually you see variation, a wall of sometimes slight, sometimes wild alternation: one is 3D velvet, one looks like Han Solo in carbonite, one is blocky and modernist; in many she does not look real, though in some she does; in at least one she bears a resemblance to Lucille Ball; in one a redhead wears no hood, in one I see my daughter, in one my sister; she is portrayed in velvet, crossstitch, wood, metal, traced, washed in red; one is made of rice and beans, and even manages to preserve the spiral fold of her hood.
The Byzantine Chapel Museum was designed by architect Francois de Menil. He described the “religious building,” as he called it, as a “reliquary box” specifically designed to “restore spiritual significance and function to two thirteenth century Byzantine frescoes, a dome and an apse.” These frescoes, the only intact examples in the western hemisphere, were displayed from the opening of the Chapel until 2014 (there was only one intervening exhibit, between the frescoes and Fabiola, entitled “The Infinity Machine.”). The dome showed Christ Pantokrator, an image staring straight ahead (as opposed to the sinistral stare of Fabiola), only from the bust up (evidently signifying his universality and ubiquity), surrounded by double rings of angels. The space was not a replica of the original chapel that housed the frescoes; as de Menil said of his design,
The materiality of the original chapel is shattered and made ephemeral through the fragmented, freestanding sandblasted laminated glass structure which is an abstracted evocation of the original chapel. The infinite is evoked through the play of darkness and light.
Although the Chapel has been reconfigured to house the Fabiolas, it is still very much a space focused on facing the viewer at a glimpse of the infinite, a transcendent experience of both being present and absent, being in a physical place and in no place at all, of being a body and something else entirely.
That does indeed fit the Fabiolas, which are certainly spiritual paintings; however, the fitness is more the fact that the wall of Fabiolas evokes powerfully the absent idea that connects all of them, the ur portrait. I submit it is not just the totality of them but the glimpse through them to an ideal that becomes the visitor’s first lasting impression.
In an accompanying video, Alys describes the viewer’s initial “shock, [the impact of the] endless repetition of one image,” but emphasizes the effect I described above, how after a moment sitting in the dark of that enormous room, the sameness dissolves to difference, and ultimately he says the exhibit is “all about difference.” Understanding how this difference gives spiritual significance back to the individual, amateur portraits is, I believe, the second (and more important) lasting impression.
I was, in a sense, an amateur portrait artist myself for a time—except I mean amateur only in my lack of mastery; I was paid, and so it was my profession. When I was in high school, I worked for two summers as a caricature artist at Darien Lake, the local theme park. I enjoyed, maybe loved, this job, but experienced through it the great difficulty of capturing the essence of a person. It was easy to draw faces, to replicate practiced shapes, faces, necks, hairlines, eyes, ears, etc.; it was exceedingly easy to capture surface details like facial hair, glasses, jewelry—and often we who were amateurs could get a pass on these things—even the silly ears, the exaggerated nose, because this was supposed to be funny, not accurate. But, despite the inherent silliness and levity of the form, it felt significant when you got it right, when you could see that something of the person was there—not just the face; it’s hard to describe.
Not long after that Houston trip, I had a long conversation with my closest friend from high school, and we both discovered a similar-seeming identity crisis, of sorts. We discussed the experience of reaching 35 and having to reckon with the selves we’d been, or more so the picture of the self we’d had in mind up to that point. My progress to realize the vision of myself as a writer felt uncertain. In some ways, I had rendered that self, had become that portrait; in other ways, I felt I had fallen far short of the image I had held up of myself. Maybe it is a common feature of growing up to find that at best we have become the curators of a lot of amateur takes on what we were striving to be. Either way, the abandonment—or feeling of loss—of that animating original left me (and him) feeling lost, reaching out for meaning, for a means of anchoring our existence.
In an interview, the philosopher Simon Critchley advanced the idea that “identity is a kind of series of episodes”; rather than believing in a unified whole that advances along a coherent narrative, he suggests “a kind of constellation of points.” John Berger says something similar in And Our Faces, My Heart, Brief as Photos, “Those who first invented and then named the constellations were storytellers. Tracing an imaginary line between a cluster of stars gave them an image and an identity. The stars threaded on that line were like events threaded on a narrative.” A line threaded between images of light at a place and in a time, several selves that linked have an identity.
In his famous essay “Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction,” Walter Benjamin described “an all important insight: for the first time in world history, mechanical reproduction emancipates the work of art from its parasitical dependence on ritual.” Throughout the essay, he unpacks the idea of an art work’s “aura,” which is both the mark of its authenticity and the proximity to its making, which he says is “never entirely separated from its ritual function…the unique value of the ‘authentic’ work of art has its basis in ritual.” This idea, ritual, he means as something very like religious practice, the spiritual function the art object served. Early art works were created to serve religious rituals, and this deep, original basis lends subsequent art its power. Until, that is, the era of mass production, when an artwork can be separated from its maker completely and the idea of authenticity—an authentic print of an image—is made nonsensical and the aura is lost.
Alys, in the short video accompanying the Fabiola exhibit, comments on the idea of “reproduction whether mechanical or manual,” suggesting a value to the replicas of either process. I immediately thought of Benjamin’s essay, but rather than seeing the processes of reproduction as equitable, I was troubled by the disconnect: these portraits did not reflect a mass production, a systemic process, a depersonalized and aura-less making.
I felt instead, the manual reproduction, the amateur artists, reconnect the work of art to its aura, its original basis in ritual. For one, these portraits of the saint are being painted for (at least in part) a devotional effort. The artists are either themselves working devotionally or are intending the painting for worship, for those with abusive relationships, troubled marriages, the divorced, et al., who seek solace in the visage of Fabiola. This function fits with the sometimes crude or inexpert rendering of Henner’s portrait. The artworks, in that understanding, highlight their madeness, even their flawedness; they are not perfect, as the devout who prays to Fabiola is not. This is a saint’s venerable profile pointilistically portrayed in dried red beans and rice. This is not a work of art created by a famous hand and kept at a distance, sanctified; each individual amateur portrait is something much closer to my own life, to the lives of those who sold it to Alys at a flea market.
It occurs to me maybe I’ve made metaphysical what was manifest. Maybe my onetime crisis of identity was just that I was unable to see, despite a wall of evidence, that all the portraits of me actually sum to an extant self. It’s not the absent original animating all these amateur portraits but their own gathered force—the aura restored, the hands that made each portrait, the amateur effort each self represents, and maybe that is enough.
Michael Sheehan is an assistant professor of creative writing at SUNY Fredonia. His work has appeared recently in Electric Literature, Agni, Mississippi Review, Conjunctions, Black Warrior Review, and elsewhere.