media artist

HOMO UNIVERSALIS, Welcome to Museum Biedermann!

Museum Biedermann is celebrating its fifth anniversary in the autumn of 2014 by devoting a complex, processual exhibition in the ´Reading Room´  to a very special work: the collective portrait of Museum Biedermann
During the opening of the exhibition Lichtspiele im Museum Biedermann (16 March - 2 November 2014) and on a number of other days and events over the course of its run visitors were invited to become part of a large-scale performative photo project entitled Homo universalis – Welcome to Museum Biedermann! by the social media artist Wolf Nkole Helzle.

A total of 1273 people followed the invitation and became part of a multifaceted and multi-faced work of art that now adorns our museum walls. The traditional relationship between art and viewer is reversed: visitors and viewer become part of a work of art, part of that which is viewed, and together they form the multi-layered, collective portrait of Museum Biedermann. Born in 1950, Wolf Nkole Helzle studied painting in Stuttgart and Kassel and spent twenty years working in the software and hardware industry before returning to art in the mid-1990s and turning his creative energy to the investigation that has been central to his work ever since, namely the relationship between the individual and the collective, between the singular and the many. Or, in his own words ‘How can I understand the relationship between myself as an individual and humanity at large, these more than seven billion people?’
To get a picture – in the truest sense of the word – of these relationships, the artist has spent the last twenty years pursuing an expansive performative project that has taken him all over the world. He has collected faces of people who were willing to sit for a brief portrait shoot, posed frontally against a plain black backdrop.
The artist focuses on the face alone, producing a simple headshot bereft of all contextual information, so that nothing distracts from the individual physiognomy. Although Helzle takes great care to decontextualise the image, he rejects the notion of using faces found on the Internet or produced in a photo booth. Instead he stresses the importance of the personal contact with the sitter. ‘I want to involve people, bring them closer to art. (…)
Ultimately, man is the greatest work of art,’ he explains. Thus far more than 40,000 portraits from many different countries in Europe, Asia and Africa have found their way into his database, and there is no end in sight! Photographing and collecting faces is the artist’s way of paying homage to the infinite diversity of humanity. At the same time he is aware that this diversity is premised on certain underlying principles and characterised by the endless variation of the same. Contrary to a number of current and mutually exclusive concepts of society, the artist conceives of the collective as unthinkable without the individual and of the individual as unthinkable without the collective.
This central idea is at the heart of the multiple portraits – or collective portraits – of the HOMO UNIVERSALIS series. The artist uses a special computer program to layer the transparent individual portraits into a ‘new’, shared face. The computer technology allows for an ‘equal rights layering’ – or merging – process, since neither the layering sequence nor
the distinctiveness of any one individual trait generates a specious spike of attention in the digital data room. What is fascinating is that although the layering blurs the specific facial features and softens the transitions, the key features such as eyes, nose and mouth are concentrated, giving rise to a new, unique face of singularly painterly quality.
Its usually friendly appearance and gaze that seems fixed on us regardless of where we are in the room convey a sense of animation. At the same time, its age and gender are very hard to pin down. The closer we look, the more it evades classification. It comes across as both accessible and remote, familiar and strange. And it is for this reason that it
captivates the eye and radiates a sense of timeless, ubiquitous presence.
Just as innovative and unique as the artist’s work is its presentation at Museum Biedermann. The exhibition presents not only a single collective portrait juxtaposed with the many individual faces. In addition to the collective portrait of Museum Biedermann, it shows twelve intermediary collective portraits of different groups of visitors who attended special events and of select groups of friends of the Museum, collaborators and cooperation partners.

Simone Jung, art historian

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