Some Thoughts on Peter Dobill’s “Sans Tête” (2009)

I wanted to share some random thoughts and observations about Peter Dobill’s March 20th performance Sans Tête.

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Image of Peter Dobill in the midst of his Sans Tête action performance at Grace Exhibition Space

Like all successful performance art, Sans Tête taps into a rich lexicon of imagery and social meaning. From historical fiction to contemporary reality, his latest work weaves together disparate narratives to communicate something about our culture and its obsession with victimization and heroism–which are not mutually exclusive.

To see my post about the March 20th performance of Sans Tête, visit here.

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George Cruikshank, The Radical’s Arms (1819)

The title translates as “no head.” The use of French reminds me of the French Revolution (1789–1799) and that time period’s most infamous form of public execution, the guillotine. As a heinous form of public performance, it was a powerful symbol of the early Revolution and its ability to overturn and destroy the establishment.

Outside of France (particularly in England) there was a perception that the godless revolutionaries were lawless ugly butchers who threatened not only themselves but all of civilization.

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An infamous image of torture from Abu Ghraib as broadcast on CBS News

Visually, the most obvious allusion in Sans Tête is to the horrific images from the Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq, which in the popular imagination still represents American imperial hubris and a nation no longer a land of freedom.

The hooded figure is the most recognizable Abu Ghraib photo (pictured above) and the man depicted in it was forced to endure countless hours of torture, which included electric shocks, fatigue and the anxiety of unknown danger. While many of the other images that emerged from Abu Ghraib displayed the victims naked while they endured humiliation, here the figure is cloaked in a bizarre black fabric. Dobill combines the two types of imagery and pulls off the cloak to make sure all is revealed.

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Rorschach ”superhero” from the graphic novel, Watchmen

Dobill’s mask suggests Rorschach of the graphic novel Watchmen. Not only is the character of Rorschach the “pure” hero, one who will not compromise his values for any belief in a greater good, but he is an alienated outsider who never seems to fit in. The character sees his mask, comprised of an ever changing Rorschach blot, as his true face. In Dobill’s performance, his blank hood or mask changed throughout the performance as audience members painted and smeared its surface with paint and other materials. The white mask highlighted the alienation which the performer and his audience shared. Without a face, Dobill was abstracted into a contemporary everyman of sorts.

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Left, Marc Chagall, “Samson Destroys the Temple” from the Bible series (1957), Right, Victor Mature in Cecil B. DeMille’s in the 1949 classic Samson and Delilah

Bound between two columns, Dobill evokes the power of the Biblical myth of Samson, who kills himself while trying to kill the Phillistines (an old skool suicide bomber I guess). As a symbol of power, Samson is also remembered for his Achilles heel, his hair. The myth reminds us that all power is tempered by weakness.

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A still from the classic 1933 film King Kong, starring Fay Wray

But at the same time the positioning between two columns also evokes pop cultural images that suggest other interpretations. The helplessness of the heroine in King Kong is the most obvious example. Lashed between two columns, the sacrificatial lamb ends up taming the beast.

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Shah Jahan on the Peacock Throne

Framing is crucial to Sans Tête. At the top of the white gauze-like wall that hangs behind our protagonist is a fringe of yellow grass. On the floor a runway. And a halo of peacock feathers makes him look like some form of vain deity. The layers of careful arrangement make the composition appear extraordinarily delicate and beautiful. Each element has a meaning but none dominate.

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If Sans Tête‘s “performance” was the main event, its relic evoked sacred and secular associations of its own. The most famous is the Holy Shroud of Turin, which for centuries was revered as a holy object that wrapped the body of the Christian messiah, Jesus Christ, during his internment.

The ghostly imprint on Dobill’s patched together cloth doesn’t do much to suggest a human form as much as an apparition.

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Relic of Sans Tête

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The Shroud of Turn held by Catholic Bishops

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A composite image showing Yves Klein painting the body of a woman who would imprint her body on paper or canvas for his renowned performance pieces known as Anthropometries, or visual measurements of the human body.

In the 20th C., Yves Klein used the female body as his brush and created canvases of women’s imprints. Dobill’s work eliminates the mediation of the model. The audience paints the artist. While Klein objectifies the women, Dobill alienates the audience and temporarily objectifies himself.