Man can lie all he wants with his mouth; his face will always tell the truth.
Björn Vedder


Roland Fischer’s collective portrait of Israeli students was taken in Tel Aviv in January 2015. It shows the faces of roughly one thousand students at the local university, positioned in a grid. The individual faces have been set apart and photographed front-on, so the sitters look squarely at the viewer with open eyes. Under each portrait we find the name of the sitter. These are images that say ‘I’ while challenging us to look them straight in the eye and find an answer to the question as to who, in our eyes, this ‘I’ is.

One such reply is offered in these pages by the (German) philosopher Bernhard Waldenfels. He deals with the question how the identity of the individual is connected to his or her name and, most of all, to the identity of another. For it is in this connection that the interplay of gaze, of addressing and responding to each other, repeats itself in our contemplation of a portrait. We are being looked at and we look back; someone addresses us and we respond to him. It is the primal situation of our identity and of community as such: ‘Every singularity is a singularity in the plural’, writes Waldenfels.

The (Israeli) sociologist Moshe Zuckermann gives a different answer. He conceives the heterogeneity of the faces visible in the portrait as a mirror image of the politically tense identity of Israel, tracing its tangled fault-lines. In doing so Zuckermann reveals the extent to which Israeli politics tries to bring about unity by concealing or even suppressing heterogeneity, as well as the role played by Zionist ideology and the closing of ranks in the face of the Palestinian enemy. Against this – and here Zuckermann ties his analysis back to Fischer’s collective portrait – he evokes an understanding of democracy that does not presuppose the demos as either homogenous or coerced into uniformity by an external enemy but instead as being based on democratic representation.

Thus both authors, in their respective responses to the ‘Israeli Collective Portrait’, appeal to a conception of identity according to which identity only derives from a relation to the other, while preserving alienness and pleading for a form of community that integrates without excluding, and connects without separating. The philosopher Jacques Derrida has described such a relationship as friendship.[1] In this sense Fischer’s collective portrait can be read as a marker of (German-Israeli) friendship. However, it is a mark of friendship that the other ceases to be a (total) stranger. By portraying over a thousand young Israelis for the ‘Israeli Collective Portrait’, letting us look at them and asking us to meet their gaze, the portrait contributes to satisfying the presupposition. It was presented to the public for the first time on 10 November 2015, on the occasion of the opening of the new Israeli Consulate General on Munich’s Lenbachplatz, and will be on view at the Eretz Israel Museum in Tel Aviv from March 2016.

A personal token of friendship expressed in this work is given by Assaf Pinkus, who has supervised its production in Tel Aviv with great commitment and has thus made the collective portrait possible at all. A particular debt of gratitude is also owed to Andreas Michaelis, the German ambassador to Israel, who has arranged for some critical contacts, and to Joseph Klafter, President of Tel Aviv University, for his kind support.

Finally, another aspect of German-Israeli relations is reflected in the design of this volume. Philippe Loup has structured it in such a way that it can be read, as in German, from left to right (from front to back) and, as in Hebrew, from right to left (back to front) alike.

Another response to the collective portrait might contextualise it to photographic portraiture. After all, alongside architectural photography, it constitutes the core of Fischer’s work and it is striking how, in both genres, he is interested in façades.

Among his portraits the collective ones have to be differentiated from the so-called Pool-Portraits which Fischer took in Los Angeles, Shanghai and Beijing. Each group emphasises different aspects of the ‘cascade of antinomies’ – which, according to Fischer, is spanned by human beings – such as the polarity of mind and body or, to take up the idea of identity once more, the tension between individuals and a group.

For their part, the collective portraits challenge us to reconsider our usual approach to the ubiquitous presence of facial imagery. Due to the ever more convenient means of reproduction there is now hardly any place in the world without some face in a picture staring back at us.  These ‘I-posters’, as the historian Valentin Groebner calls them, grab our attention and ask us to align our ideas and sensations with the sensations and ideas we surmise behind the faces looking at us. To do this we have to take the face pictured in the portrait to be the face of a living person.[2]

These faces are the heirs of artistic portraiture, even if some cultural critics may deem them illegitimate. Similar to their predecessors they stage the face as the mirror of beings endowed with feelings, emotions and thoughts. We interact with them as empathising viewers, much like someone interpreting an artistic portrait and finding a certain content expressed in it.[3]

When we sense that a portrait is looking at us, and respond to that gaze, we read the face-mask generated in the portrait as a living mirror of the emotions and thoughts of the depicted person. The confident inference from the reproduced face to the invisible properties, ideas and sensations of the sitter is among the most deeply ingrained and reliable practices in our approach to portraiture.

Fischer plays with this habit by asking for our empathic identification with one thousand faces all at once. Aside from the quantitative dimension, two aspects of this arrangement are of crucial importance: to begin with, the sitters are characterised in their social status and by their names. Secondly, Fischer adds a video to the collective portrait showing passers-by on Boulevard Rothschild facing the camera squarely – obviously similar to the sitters – and talking about where they and their families are from, what they feel, whether and to what extent they consider (Israeli) history to be part of their own identity, what they think it means to be Israeli, and what they think of Germany as well as questions about their hopes and expectations for the future.

A complete transcription of their answers can be found at the back of this volume (pp. 184–187), while some excerpts appear alongside the portraits. The result is an interaction between faces, emotions or ideas mimicking the empathetic interpretation, while also making clear how randomly façades and content are connected. For we know very well that reading faces is a culturally acquired practice that allows us to see and assume things that may or may not be there. We do this by way of context-specific accessories (such as jewellery or clothes), coded modes of expression (such as a certain kind of gaze or posture) and above all our own expectations. After all, faces in and of themselves do not mean anything. Yet we forget this over and over again because the truth of a face is among those of our prejudices to which we cling most stubbornly.[4]

By recalling this very fact, Fischer’s collective portraits exhibit an elective affinity to the works of two other eminent contemporary artists. Cindy Sherman has always the same face – namely her own – express countless personae and emotions by changing costume and context, makeup and hairstyle, gaze and posture. And Thomas Ruff, whose works have been shown repeatedly alongside Fischer’s, time and again presents the face as a façade behind which we cannot peek because the elements usually giving rise to meaning have been largely erased. Such de-contextualisation is also a recurring feature in Fischer’s portraits and it connects them to a series of façade images.

Finally, the dissolution of the face as a cipher is also aided and abetted by the principles of large numbers and that of the series. Georg Christoph Lichtenberg famously noted that we have never seen such ugly landscapes as in the human face. This presupposes, however, that we get close enough and see it magnified to such a degree that it is no longer recognisable as a face but is transformed into a terrain of mountains and valleys, craters and other tellurian salience. The opposite optical transformation distances us from the face, and hence scales it down. Fischer’s collective portraits are an excellent example of how this latter process lets us look at a large number of faces at once and how, when we do, the faces are no longer faces. They dissolve into a colourful tapestry. If we choose to focus on one of those faces, then we will lose the others from view. They become blurred or get cropped. For the first presentation of the ‘Isreali Collective Protrait’ Fischer displayed a detail on the back of the tableau. The detail was enlarged many times over and showed a portrait at the centre surrounded by eight others, sometimes severely cropped, illustrating precisely that point (p.179). For us to recognise something as a face we have to see it from a certain range and with a certain sharpness or blurring. We also have to want to recognise it as a face – and it needs only a small modification in our optics for it to change, in our eyes, into a crater landscape or a blot among blots.

If we focus on just one of the one thousand portraits Fischer unites into a portrait of Israeli students, then this face represents the whole. Yet in doing so it competes against the 999 other faces trying to do the same. However, if one is as good as any other, then the representation associated with each individual face is arbitrary. What it means, we interpret into it.

This provides but a small sample of the responses provoked by Fischer’s collective portrait. They are not nearly representative, let alone exhaustive. They could not be, not only because, as Fischer says, art is incommensurable and can never be caught (or hermeneutically exhausted) by language, but also because each response (only) represents the specific reaction of a particular interviewee. For although the face is probably not a reliable mirror of emotions and thoughts entertained by the person facing us, our response nevertheless mirrors what we feel and think. The view of someone else is also always a view of ourselves.

[1] Jacques Derrida, Politics of Friendship, trans. George Collins, London – New York 1997.

[2] Valentin Groebner, Ich-Plakate. Eine Geschichte des Gesichts als Aufmerksamkeitsmaschine, Frankfurt/Main 2015.

[3] Hans Belting, Faces. Eine Geschichte des Gesichts, Munich 2013, p. 10.

[4] This prejudice is widespread despite our better judgement. Evidence for this is the common complaint, held not least among experts, that rampant dissemination of portraits has led to a flattening of their expressiveness. To this corresponds a desire to find an ‘epitome of humanity’ in portraits. The art historian Hans Belting talks of a ‘facial society’ (contrary to his own diagnosis of a cultural coding of the face) – hence a society in which ‘the face, the content of every portrait, has been subject to inflation in the mass media and therefore become cheap’. Equally, a reviewer for Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung welcomed the 2011 exhibition at Bode-Museum of Faces of the Renaissance as an opportunity ‘to read in the faces what it means to be human’ and have ‘a strong identity as an individual’. By contrast Hegel already wanted to measure the progress of portraiture in the implementation of a ‘vivid human expression’, ‘characteristic individuality’ or every possible content of the ‘subjective particularity’ and ‘colourful exterior’ in its representations: ‘This search for a vivid human expression, a characteristic individuality, this implementation of any content into the subjective particularity and its colourful exterior constitutes the progress of painting by which it achieves its peculiar standpoint in the first place.’ And what the painter (or photographer) puts into the picture the viewer (according to an established agreement) reads out of it. Quoted after Belting, Faces, p. 118, 10. Anonym., ‘Glücksmomente in Krisenzeiten’, Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, 30.12.2011. Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel: Vorlesungen über die Ästhetik. III, Werke in 20 Bänden, Vol. XV, ed. Eva Moldenhauer et al., Frankfurt/Main 1986, p. 87 (translation V.E.).
Björn Vedder was born in Brakel, Germany, in 1976, lives as a writer and curator in Munich. His focus lies on contemporary art and literature.
Björn Vedder, Introduction
in: Roland Fischer “Tel Aviv – Israeli Collective Portrait”, published by Hirmer, Munich 2016