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Aleksandra Saška Gruden: The Seekers of Memgenesis

21 December 2016 > 13 January 2017 Kindly invited to the opening of the "The Seekers of Memgenesis" exhibition by Aleksandra Saška Gruden, on Wednesday, 21st December, at 8 pm, at the Alkatraz Gallery, ACC Metelkova.

Aleksandra Saška Gruden is presenting herself to the public by an exhibition, bearing an enigmatic title. A meme is a »cultural unit«, therefore an idea, a belief, a behavioural pattern, ... The term was coined by an English ethnologist and evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins in his book The Selfish Gene from 1976. He denoted it as a basic unit of cultural information. Memes, in the sphere of human culture are supposed to be analogous to the gene in biology. Memes, too, can change, and only the most successful survive – just like the genes. Memes can be a singular word, a good joke, a proverb, a pop track, a melody, a political or scientific theory, ... He used them as an example showing that genes are not the only thing that can double themselves, and that they are impacted by evolution. A particular meme is found successful when it contributes to the efficiency of its carrier.

The title can be understood as the investigation into how the mentioned memes came about. However, the point of the exhibition is deliberately elusive in its identification to the exhibition’s visitor. In her work, the artist touches and explores the physiognomy originating from the Ancient Greece and looks for its meaning and implication in our contemporary society. The physiognomy is an evaluation of the qualities and character of an individual, based on their facial features. It was most popularized in the 18th century by the Swiss poet Johann Lavater. Only after it had been linked to phrenology, a detailed study of the form and size of the head as a probable indication of an individual’s character and mental faculties, it was written off in the 19th century as pseudoscience. However, in the recent years it has been experiencing a kind of revival. Physiognomy is problematic – amongst other things – also because the positive qualities, supposedly tied to the shape of the face, are linked to the features of the Europeans from the western part of the continent, while the negative ones, however, are linked to the characteristics of the facial features of all the rest. Nevertheless, it has been proven that we judge an unknown face in a tenth of a second and upon this judgement we make conclusions about the unknown person’s character.1 Once the quick judgement about one’s attractiveness, trust-worthiness, capability and aggressiveness has been formed, it is changed with great difficulty. A psychologist Alexander Todorov of Princeton says that even though very varied people come to exceptionally similar conclusions regarding certain face that does not mean correspondence between the face and the person’s personality exists. Leslie Zebrowitz, a social sociologist of the Brandeis University from Massachusetts says that in a number of cases quick judgements are not correct. Our readiness to judge a book by its cover represents a far too often exaggerated generalization of a more fundamental response.2 In Todorov’s opinion quick judgements are based on an inflated generalization of the evolutionary developed need to read facial expressions as a sign of danger.3

In the project, composed of photographs of female and male faces, video projections of the backs of various people and sound recordings of the text from Hans Belting’s book Faces, Eine Geschichte des Gesichts / A History of the Face, the artist puts in the forefront the appearance and the meanings of facial features. She is interested in persons, coming from diverse environments and social systems. She has chosen some people who had recently moved to Slovenia and brought their cultural characteristics with them. She is questioning whether these characteristics are really reflecting on their faces and whether we can also identify their character traits from their facial features. Would they change if we were to take a photo of the same person a few years later, when they will have lived in Slovenia permanently? The author tackled this issue through physiognomy and its system of classification. Amongst other things, she has put together only the left and only the right halves of the faces, thus forming a new image. The faces of most people are slightly asymmetrical and from one face we hence get two different appearances. Here she refers to yet another delusion of physiognomy, stating that our left side of the face is linked to our feminine part, and the right one to our masculine part. These qualities are, of course, typically gendered; the left side is supposed to express emotions and our relation towards the mother, while the right side apparently expresses our relation toward the father, money, work, and the world of business. Beside other things physiognomy therefore advocates also stereotype view on gender role.

Opposite the revealed photographs of the faces the artist places the backs of different people, all born in Slovenia. Along with the deeply rooted and unconscious practice of quick judgements Gruden turns the backs toward us. On the reflex, non-conscious level those are far less informative and far from the ability to represent any intentions of the people or their characters. In this case – to balance the situation – the artist seeks an answer to a reverse question: how different are we really? At the same time she questions physiognomy and all other practices deriving from it and that are still today frequently used or misused for the purposes like personal profiling. Sadly, it is unconscious quick judgements that determine our actions; politicians of both sexes who look more competent have a higher possibility to be elected, CEOs who look more aggressive have greater possibilities to head profitable companies, those of a more compassionate face are usually mostly found in jobs associated with care and adults with a baby-face are perceived as naïve. As a consequence, it is not the most competent people who are chosen for particular jobs, but those who appear most competent. The question arising is whether the author is coming to a conclusion that facial identifications of one’s character have actually become memes? Memes, that do not serve any other purpose, but to divide us and confirm the actual power relations instead of to encourage us to changes for the better.

Aleksandra Saška Gruden, active since 2006 as an independent /a free-lanced author in the field of sculpture, spatial installation, video and performance. Her primary interest in her works lies in the field of their content, drawing from social phenomena such as social margin, migration processes, women’s identity, consumer society, working class, personal body. Since 1999 she has presented her works at numerous solo and group exhibitions at home and abroad, also in collaboration with various authors like: (performance: Nataša Skušek, sculpture installations: Saba Skaberne) and groups (Public Readings, (Javna branja), DLUL, Gulag). In the period between 2010 and 2014 she participated at the execution of the International Computer Festival (Mednarodni računalniški festival (MFRU)) as the art director. She also led the Video Dinners (Video večerje) at the MKC Maribor.

1 Psychological Science, vol 17, p 592, na

2 Social and Personality Psychology Compass, vol 2, p 1497, on

3 Roger Highfield, Richard Wiseman, Rob Jenkins, How your looks betray your personality, on:

photography: Branimir Ritonja
photo simulation: Darja Malarič
video editor: Miha Vipotnik
recording and sound: Radio Slovenija, the text from the book: Hans Belting: Faces / Eine Geschichte des Gesichts), Koda book collection

Thanks to: Danijela and Borut Grahek.

Photos from the opening: Sunčan Stone.