Exhibition: ‘Present Tense: An Imagined Grammar of Portraiture in the New Media Age’ at the National Portrait Gallery, Canberra

Exhibition dates: 22nd May – 22nd August 2010


Many thankx to David Edghill and the National Portrait Gallery for allowing me to publish the photographs in the posting. Please click on the photographs for a larger version of the image.



Karen Sander. 'Herve Blechy' 1:5 2008


Karen Sander (German, b. 1957)
Herve Blechy 1:5
3D Bodyscans of the living person (3D coordinates and colour texture), MPT (Miniaturised Projection Technology), rapid prototyping, 3D Inkjet printer, plaster material, pigment
Courtesy of the artist, Berlin, and Galerie Nachst St. Stephan, Vienna, and Galerie Helga de Alvear, Madrid


Karen Sander (German, b. 1957) 'Herve Blechy' 1:5 2008


Karen Sander (German, b. 1957)
Herve Blechy 1:5
3D Bodyscans of the living person (3D coordinates and colour texture), MPT (Miniaturised Projection Technology), rapid prototyping, 3D Inkjet printer, plaster material, pigment
Courtesy of the artist, Berlin, and Galerie Nachst St. Stephan, Vienna, and Galerie Helga de Alvear, Madrid.



A good way of looking at the show as a whole is that it is about the interaction of new technologies with the traditional methods of portraiture – painting, sculpture and photography – which already have their own pre-established ‘grammars’… This show foregrounds the fundamental image-making actions which have now become proper to contemporary portraiture. No longer just the snap the of camera’s shutter or the incremental description of the painter’s brush, but now also the trundling progress of the flatbed scanner and the circular pan of the 3D scanner…

In the end this is a humanist show, about ghosts more than shells. It argues that despite all of the cold digital technology in the world portraits are still about the promise of finding the warm interior of a person via their exterior. The show’s inclusion of some three-dimensional ultrasound images of foetuses in the womb could have easily been over-the-top and obvious in its point about our intimate adoption of new imaging technologies. Until we see one intrauterine image of twins in which one foetus is caught sticking its toe into the eye of its sibling. A rivalry which, we think to ourselves, will no doubt continue for the rest of their lives.

Martyn Jolly. “Review of Present Tense: An Imagined Grammar of Portraiture in the New Media Age, on the Martyn Jolly website October 3, 2013 [Online] Cited 10/07/2022


Osang Gwon. 'Metabo' 2009


Osang Gwon (Korean, b. 1974)
C-prints, mixed media
130.0 x 80.0 x 105.0cm
Courtesy of the artist and Arario Gallery, Seoul


Rineke Dijkstra (Dutch, b. 1959) 'Julie, Den Hagg, The Netherlands, February 29, 1994' 1994


Rineke Dijkstra (Dutch, b. 1959)
Julie, Den Hagg, The Netherlands, February 29, 1994
Courtesy of Marian Goodman Gallery and the artist



The masterful Dutch photographer Rineke Dijkstra provides the emotional centre of gravity for the show. Her simple nude photographs of startled young mothers clutching their newborn babies like bags of shopping about to burst remind us again of the power of the straight photo. But her stunning two-gun video installation, The Buzzclub, LiverpoolUK / Mysteryworld, Zaandam NL, also from the mid-nineties, confirms the pre-eminence of the video portrait. Dijkstra has, presumably, momentarily pulled young off-their-faces clubbers straight from the dance floors of the two clubs and put them in front of her video camera in a bare white space off to the side. But the laser lightshows and the duff duff are obviously still going on inside their skulls. As they continue to work their jaws and jig robotically we get full voyeuristic access to them and, even though their interior individualities have temporarily gone AWOL, we nonetheless feel an extraordinary tenderness welling up for them.

Martyn Jolly. “Review of Present Tense: An Imagined Grammar of Portraiture in the New Media Age, on the Martyn Jolly website October 3, 2013 [Online] Cited 10/07/2022


Rineke Dijkstra (Dutch, b. 1959) 'Tecla, Amsterdam, Netherlands, May 16 1994' 1994


Rineke Dijkstra (Dutch, b. 1959)
Tecla, Amsterdam, Netherlands, May 16 1994
C-print on paper, mounted on aluminium



Dijkstra decided to make these portraits after witnessing the birth of a friend’s baby. She photographed three women, one hour (Julie), one day (Tecla) and one week (Saskia) after giving birth. The raw immediacy of these images captures something of the contradictions inherent in this common and yet most singular of human experiences. The women appear at once vulnerable and invincible, traumatised and self-composed.

Tate Gallery label, May 2010


Tecla, Amsterdam, Netherlands, May 16, 1994 (1994, above) Julie, Den Haag, Netherlands, February 29 1994 (1994, above) and Saskia, Harderwijk, Netherlands, March 16 1994 (Tate P78099) are three portraits of women made shortly after they had given birth. All the women were known to the artist – one was a personal friend and the other two were friends of friends. Dijkstra photographed the women in their homes because in Holland it is more common for women to give birth at home than in a hospital. While bearing signs of their recent ordeal – the medical pants and sanitary towel which Julie wears, a trickle of blood down the inside of Tecla’s left leg, the caesarean scar on Saskia’s belly – the women appear proud and happy. They hold their new babies turned away from the camera, protectively pressed against their bodies. Dijkstra has developed a way of combining natural light with flash which results in particular quality of soft, clear light. Julie’s left hand covers her baby’s eyes to protect them from the flash.

Dijkstra was inspired to make these portraits after watching the birth of a friend’s baby. She is interested in photographing people at a time when they do not have everything under control. She uses the device of the formally posed, full-length portrait to try to reveal something of what people carry inside them – the emotional intensity concealed behind the mask of the face and the body’s pose. The photographic portrait, titled with the date and place, records a specific moment in time in which the subject was undergoing a particular experience. Dijkstra has commented:

As a photographer you enlarge or emphasise a certain moment, making it another reality. For instance the portraits I made of women after giving birth: the reality of this experience is about the whole atmosphere, which is very emotional. In the photograph, you can scrutinise all the details, which makes it a bit harsh: you can see things you normally would not pay so much attention to. (Quoted in Douglas, p. 79.)

In the same year that Dijkstra photographed the new mothers, she photographed matadors in Portugal, just after they had come out of the ring. Like the new mothers, the bull-fighters had been in emotionally charged, potentially life-threatening situations. Both mothers and matadors are captured in a state of physical and emotional catharsis which contributes to the intensity of their engagement with the camera. Dijikstra uses 4 x 5 inch film to make her portraits, demanding time and concentration on the part of both artist and subject. She is sensitive to the vulnerability which her subjects give her access to and is careful not to abuse their trust. She has explained of the new mothers:

‘It’s amazing how they trust me, and I think that afterwards they understand that these photos are about something universal and that it’s not particularly about them …the first show I had in Amsterdam with these photos a lot of women came to me and said, you know it’s really great that you make these photographs because it’s really the way it is but nobody ever shows it, and I can recognise myself in it. And the men were all like, you can’t show a woman like that.’
(Quoted in unpublished interview with Tate Modern Curator Jane Burton, on the occasion of the exhibition Cruel and Tender, in 2003.)

Elizabeth Manchester
July 2005

Elizabeth Manchester. “Tecla, Amsterdam, Netherlands, May 16 1994,” on the Tate Gallery website Nd [Online] Cited 10/07/2022


The portrait is an art of surface predicated on a paradox – that the rendering of someone’s features will somehow ultimately reveal more than just their outward appearance. It reminds me of the twist at the core of Tarkovsky’s film Solaris, (one of the greatest films about identity and representation) where the sceptical psychologist is finally forced to conclude, despite his rationalism, that ‘we need secrets to preserve simple human truths’. But how can the secretive preserve the truthful? It’s a question that Dijkstra, in her portraits, attempts to answer, albeit enigmatically and allusively. A withholding of information and obsession with surface makes her portraits feel recognisably human. They’re so riddled with secrets they practically breathe.

Perhaps it’s to do with the scale of the images, which are large and impossible to overlook, and her palette, which is almost as subtle and perfect as her 17th- and 18th-century precursors. If the Dutch and Flemish portrait painters looked at the world with eyes that anticipated photography, it could be said that Dijkstra continues the cycle by looking at photography through the lens of historical painting. …

Dijkstra’s portraits of three young mothers (Julia, Saskia and Tecla, all 1994) holding their new born babies to their chests with absolute, exhausted tenderness, exemplifies the restraint and deceptive simplicity of her approach towards representing people whose lives have been touched by commonplace but monumental change. Replace the sand with a floor and the sky with a hospital wall and the only thing that separates these images from the beach series is the nature of the transition that these people are experiencing. Our culture’s puritanical fear of the body, so beautifully reflected for hundreds of years in scores of paintings of bloodless, saintly motherhood, is countered in these truthful, unflinching images. One mother stands in her underwear, her sanitary pad bulgingly visible. The other two women stand naked, swollen, scarred and bloody. They all, as well they might, look faintly triumphant.

I can’t remember a show where the audience stood for so long in front of a series of images of ordinary people. The same can be said of Dijkstra’s video in which she isolated teenagers against a white background in two night-clubs (The Buzz Club in Liverpool, England and Mystery World in Zaandam, Netherlands) and videoed them dancing, mainly alone, to the camera. Each of them, of course, responded differently to the absence of those clubbing staples, dim lights and crowds – they danced self-consciously and smoked defiantly. Some flirted with the camera, others looked almost annoyed. Most of them, despite trying very hard not to be, looked very young, rather forlorn, sweet even. The audience watched, riveted. The film was long and repetitive, but mysteriously and compulsively viewable.

Jennifer Higgie. “Rineke Dijkstra – Young Mothers,” on the Sihyun Art website, February 2012 [Online] Cited 07/07/2022




Video of Rineke Dijkstra “The Buzzclub, Liverpool, UK / Mysteryworld, Zaandam, NL”, 1996-1997. Presented in exhibition at Mücsarnok, Budapest, “Coolhunters. Youth cultures between media and the market”, 23 March 2006 – 28 May 2006.

The video was recorded pulling people out of the dance floor of a nightclub and inserting it in a white cube. The behaviour on the dance floor as part of the group, here so isolated as a rare person, an indigenous moved to the museum space.


Robert Lazzarin. 'Skull' 2000


Robert Lazzarini (American, b. 1965)
Resin, bone, pigment
35.0 x 8.0 x 20.0cm
Courtesy of the artist and Deitch Projects



Present Tense: An Imagined Grammar of Portraiture in the New Media Age is the principal exhibition in the National Portrait Gallery’s 2010 exhibition calendar. It will be displayed from 22 May to 22 August 2010. We are entering an exceptional time for portraiture and visual culture in general as the art world embraces the digital age. Traditional portraiture is responding to the application of new technologies and this imaging process is reshaping our interpretation and reading of the face.

Present Tense considers the alliance between portraiture and technology, showing how different ways of imaging in this contemporary, digital world reflect the way an individual is perceived and the various mechanisms of imaging that are used to manipulate that perception. The exhibition is comprised of works by Australian and international artists’ and includes examples of the informal and immediate images made on mobile phones, images recorded with sonograms that reveal faces that cannot be seen by the unaided eye, 2D and 3D portraits generated exclusively from binary code, as well as the more expected streaming digital works and manipulated photographs.

‘Some of the images in Present Tense are confronting and some are positively endearing’, said exhibition Curator Michael Desmond. ‘The exhibition surveys the possibilities of portraiture today, with the premise that the inhabitants’ of our digital society are pictured in a technological mirror’.

The use of digital technologies by artists is increasing, providing affordable alternatives to traditional media and offering a new tool set and the possibility of a new aesthetic. This is not to suggest that older media has been abandoned, or is associated only with conservative practice, rather that artists’ have greater choice in the materials that they use and the style that they wish to engage with. Chuck Close is one of artists’ in the exhibition who ignores the rising tide of digital imaging processes to favour old technology, creating powerful images with the archaic daguerreotype technique. Other artists’ in Present Tense include: Loretta Lux, Patrick Pound, Stelarc, Jonathon Nichols, Petrina Hicks, Ghostpatrol, Patricia Piccinini and more.

‘At one time, oil on canvas or bronze was the medium for portraits. The medium now is technology. In an inversion of one of Modernism’s classic aphorisms, digital technology allows function to follow form; the function of the portrait – to illustrate an individual’s character and physiognomy – is established by the stamp of the technology that created it’, said Michael Desmond.

Press release from the National Portrait Gallery website [Online] Cited 06/08/2010


Chuck Close. 'Self portrait daguerreotype' 2000


Chuck Close (American, 1940-2021)
Self portrait daguerreotype
16.5 x 21.6 cm each
Courtesy of Pace/MacGill Gallery, New York


Patricia Piccinini. 'Psychogeography' 1996


Patricia Piccinini (Australian, b. 1965)
From the series Psycho
Type C colour photograph
120.0 x 247.0cm
Courtesy of the Parliament House Art Collection, Department of Parliamentary Services, Canberra


Stelarc. 'Stretched skin' 2009


Stelarc (Australian born Cyprus, b. 1946)
Stretched skin
type C photograph
120.0 x 180.0cm
Courtesy of the artist and Scott Livesey Galleries


Jonathan Nichols (Australian, b. 1956) 'Lucy' 2001


Jonathan Nichols (Australian, b. 1956)
Courtesy of James and Jacqui Erskine, Sydney


Petrina Hicks (Australian, b. 1972) 'Ghost in the Shell' 2008


Petrina Hicks (Australian, b. 1972)
Ghost in the Shell
From the series The Descendents
Courtesy of the artist and Stills Gallery, Sydney



There can be no doubt that we are entering an exceptional time for portraiture as the art world embraces the digital age. Traditional portraiture is responding to the application of new technologies and this imaging process is reshaping our interpretation and reading of the face.

The use of the computer and the internet at the most basic level to source or digitalise images is pervasive. Artists are using digital technologies as alternatives to traditional media and offering the possibility of a new aesthetic. The ease of manipulating an image is a prime aspect of portraiture in the digital age and equally important is the ease of distribution. Artists seek out images on the internet and send out or ‘post’ their own, setting up their own virtual galleries using social media such as Flickr, Facebook, YouTube, Twitter and Tumblr.

The National Portrait Gallery exhibition Present Tense: An imagined grammar of portraiture in the digital age considers the alliance between portraiture and technology and investigates how different ways of imaging reflect how the individual is perceived as well as how the various mechanisms of imaging that are used to manipulate that perception.

Present Tense includes examples of the informal and immediate digital snapshots made with mobile phones; images recorded with sonograms that reveal faces that cannot be seen by the unaided eye; 2d and 3d portraits generated exclusively from binary code; and the more expected videos and manipulated photographs. A number of artists in the exhibition ignore the rising tide of digital imaging processes to favour old technology and create powerful images with the archaic daguerreotype technique or cruder still, old-fashioned stencil.

Video is still the dominant filmic medium. It is a difficult medium for portraiture as the narrative is the signifying factor of this temporal medium. Artist Petrina Hicks tackles this directly in her video portraits. In Ghost in the shell 2008 there are no props to convey identity in a conventional sense; the video is a slow pan of objectivity across the visage of a girl, unimpeded by good manners or fear. The camera records every detail, as her head pivots though 360 degrees and we are able to study and scrutinise the face and enjoy the sheer beauty of youth. The scanning view and the model’s perfect features conjure up the notion of a computer-aided design program that displays the object created by a 3d graphic application. Exhaled smoke emerges from the girl’s mouth in Art Nouveau curls and undulating arabesques. The combination of stilled, unemotional beauty makes the mobile, insubstantial smoke a metaphor for the soul. This is the ghost of the title but also a portrait of the inner self that inhabits all of us. Hicks makes a poetic contrast between the mapped surface and the unseen interior.

Zombies, vampires and plagues that decimate humankind to a few survivors haunt the movie and television screens of this decade. They represent the uncomfortable intimacy and connectedness of contemporary society – the six degrees of separation. While Jonathan Nichols’ portraits Lucy 2001, Nina 2002, and Smiling 2003 are hardly ghoulish the aura of uneasiness that surrounds them derives from the sense of being connected. Using social networks we can connect with fame and celebrity and we are also able to broadcast ourselves. The biggest and most varied galleries of portraits today are websites such as Facebook. These portrait galleries are more likely to display the girl next door rather than the glamorous magazine cover girls. Exhibitionism and voyeurism are implicit in posting portraits online. The aesthetic is bland and gives away little. They are image of self that are safe to broadcast. Nichols uses images taken from the internet to test the ‘look’ of such portraits. There is the hint of smiles to break the passport photo impassiveness, neutrality with a touch of erotic potential, enough personality to separate these anonymous faces from the crowd, and perhaps the comfort of looking at a face and knowing we all are connected.

Ghostpatrol & Miso are street artists who work together creating an extended portrait of a place, the inner Melbourne suburb of Fitzroy. Their portrait layers the views and experiences of inner city living as a sensual rather than documentary composite. Fitzroy 2010 is an homage to the streets of Fitzroy that Ghostpatrol & Miso have explored, stencilled, pasted and postered. Fitzroy is their platform for communication and the multiple images in this work are a response to the streets and the urban network of windows, houses and streets. Fitzroy is a self portrait, illustrating the artists’ perspective and their story in the city.

James Dodd, like Ghostpatrol & Miso, makes the streets his gallery. His posters from Occupied territory 2003 return to an established way of broadcasting and connecting, not by phone or internet, but by placing his portrait posters in the natural nodes and pathways where people travel and congregate. His faces in the streets – George W Bush, Saddam Hussein, Elizabeth II, Osama Bin Laden, John Howard – are powerful individuals who literally occupy the territory as they do the media. Advertisement, wanted poster or propaganda, Dodd employs the hand-made look of stencil to equalise differences between world leaders and as a means to counter the ubiquitous urbane and subjective portraits presented by mainstream new media with a fresh alternative.

The idea of creating accurate three dimensional portraits has always fascinated humanity. Here are portraits that are inseparable from the technology that created it. Robert Lazzarini sculpts forms with the computer. In making Skull 2000 he had little or no contact with traditional art materials. Lazzarini uses materials as close as possible to the original – in this case the skull is bone, though reconstituted with a resin binder. Anamorphic forms like this are measured against an ideal or archetype. The distorted form plays on our ability to recognise common forms such as a face or death’s head and reconstruct them in the mind.

So, having considered Lazzarini’s computer created sculpture, is it Karin Sander or the machine that created Hervé Blechy 1:5 2008? The artist herself didn’t touch any art materials or intervene in the process which involves the subject being photographed from all angles by multiple cameras; the images sent to a computer application that creates 3d models from photos and the resultant model is then sent to a rapid prototyping machine which generates the model in white plastic. This, in turn, is painted by an assistant. In 1967 Sol LeWitt declared that ‘The idea becomes a machine that makes the art.’ Sander’s mini-monuments, which she refers to as ‘assisted self portraits’ are classic examples of conceptual art, but with the neat twist that if an idea is as ephemeral as data, then here, data takes on materiality.

Portraiture with its strict focus on the recognisable image of the individual face is resistant to change despite the many movements and styles in the twentieth century and adoption of new digital technologies in the last decade. And although more choices of media available to the artist who is now able to make portraits using digital photography, digital video or installation the effect of the digital age is probably less on form and more on society. The use of digital media is near ubiquitous in part of the portrait process today. Photography, once considered an objective record of a sitter, as digital photography has gained the persuasive power of painting to subtly alter features and flatter beyond candid or objective description. There is greater spread and distribution with the increasing emphasis on the photographic but this may be only temporary as other forms and hybrids come online with 2d and 3d computer applications.

There is an increasing separation from old materials that slop, mess, spill in favour of keyboards and mice and the artist’s studio is starting to look like an executive’s work space. Research is done online and sketches are made on the camera rather than drawn from life and art is accordingly mediated from the start. Medium is less important than media, and in fact the term ‘medium’ is already starting to be an art historical term. Today, technology is not merely the means of transmission, it is the medium of so much contemporary art. While technology changes, the human face is a constant, mediated by fashion, politics and technological change. It is rewarding to look at portraits in terms of the technology that made it.

Michael Desmond. “Technical Terminology,” on the National Portrait Gallery website, 1 June 2010 [Online] Cited 10/07/2022



Present Tense: An imagined grammar of portraiture in the digital age

Senior Curator Michael Desmond talks about the exhibition Present Tense held at the National Portrait Gallery, Canberra from 22 May – 22 August 2010.


James Dodd (Australian, b. 1977) Posters from 'Occupied Territory' 2010 (installation view)


James Dodd (Australian, b. 1977)
Posters from Occupied Territory (installation view)
Courtesy of the artist, Adelaide


GhostPatrol & Miso (David Booth and Stanislava Pinchuck) (Australian) 'Fitzroy' 2010


GhostPatrol & Miso (David Booth and Stanislava Pinchuck) (Australian)
Courtesy of the artists, Melbourne


Aaron Seeto. 'Oblivion' 2006


Aaron Seeto
From the series Oblivion



Aaron Seeto makes alternate historical positions and experiences visible through an exploration of archives, family photo albums and photographic records. In recent bodies of work Fortress and Oblivion, Seeto has utilised the daguerreotype, one of the earliest and most primitive photographic techniques, to highlight the malleability of narratives within archive records. Not only is the chemical process itself highly toxic and temperamental but the daguerreotype’s mirrored surface means the image appears as both positive and negative, depending on the angle of view. For Seeto, this mutability captures the essence of our experience of history and memory, reflecting how images degrade, how stories are formed and privileged, how knowledge and history are written. …

For his ongoing series Oblivion Seeto sourced details from images of the Cronulla riots – beachside riots around race and territory – of 2005 found on the internet. In reproducing these as daguerrotypes he seeks less to represent the incident than to look at how it was reported, understood and remembered. The instability of the virtual information found online is echoed in the photographic process.

Text from the Stills Gallery website [Online] Cited 14/02/2019



National Portrait Gallery
King Edward Terrace
Parkes, Canberra

Opening hours:
Daily 10am – 5pm

National Portrait Gallery website


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1 Response to “Exhibition: ‘Present Tense: An Imagined Grammar of Portraiture in the New Media Age’ at the National Portrait Gallery, Canberra”

  1. August 8, 2010 at 11:19 am

    Heading up to Canberra week after next – so good to know this is on. I love that Stellarc work, so creepy and wonderfully different

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Dr Marcus Bunyan

Dr Marcus Bunyan is an Australian artist and writer. His art work explores the boundaries of identity and place. He writes Art Blart, an art and cultural memory archive, which posts mainly photography exhibitions from around the world. He holds a Doctor of Philosophy from RMIT University, Melbourne, a Master of Arts (Fine Art Photography) from RMIT University, and a Master of Art Curatorship from the University of Melbourne.

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