In response to the other
By Cecilie Skeide
Lillehammer kunstmuseum (2013)
Charlotte Thiis-Evensen's Untitled (2013) shows us three girls of African origin on three different screens. Each girl has her face turned towards the viewer's space. All three of them are filmed in exactly the same way: from the front, starting at the waist and gradually moving upwards while the girls cover and uncover their heads. The movements are stripped of superfluous information; all attention is concentrated on the slow movements and the girls' serious, absorbed faces.
The fact that the film runs as an endless loop produces the impression that the action of covering and uncovering will go on for ever. We are shown the girls at different stages in the process. Two of the films follow a natural dramatic sequence, while the third is reversed, so that it begins at the point where one of the other girls has already covered her head. The loop effect creates a strange drive in the monotonous series of movements, in which the completion of the acts of covering and of uncovering, when taken in isolation, form natural endings. In terms of content the patterns of movement have elements of time, but the way the action is structurally presented challenges the normal classification into beginnings and endings.
The girls' transformation from covered to uncovered, through their slow, poetic movements, holds a special fascination. The girls' simple actions are gradually felt to be part of a profoundly meaningful ritual. The films show an intense, immediate state – despite the lack of sound, we can sense the girls' breathing and their presence. We feel we are witnessing a private, intimate moment. Perhaps we are not really supposed to be watching? What begins as our innocent attraction to the films' visual aesthetic qualities in the form of the graceful flow of the textiles around the three beautiful girls is gradually replaced by a sensation of impinging on their privacy. And we experience a growing desire to understand what we are seeing.
Suddenly something happens. One of the girls stops moving and looks straight at you. The effect is immediate: suddenly you are no longer a secret peeper with an uncomfortable feeling of coming a little too close to the girls' private space, but a viewer who is being brutally confronted. You are abruptly put up against a wall and forced to take the other into your life. Suddenly she has noticed you. Have you crossed a private boundary that you should have respected? Was the act of observation in itself a lack of respect? The questions arise naturally, although the gaze of the girl herself provides no clear answer to her feelings. Her wordless, face-to-face contact provokes moral selfreflection and raises questions about values. What do we really think about what is happening in the films, and what do we feel about our own role as viewer?
According to the philosopher Emmanuel Lévinas, ethics is founded on the premise that in the face-to-face encounter we are called by the face of the other. The call provokes a response, and in this lies our sense of responsibility and fraternity. The face of the other is defenceless, vulnerable, threatened, and precedes all classification and conceptualisation. It is the source of our moral integrity and conscience. Lévinas goes so far as to claim that our encounter with the face of the other elicits an unconditional and infinite sense of responsibility for the other, which continues to exist even if we choose to look away or take the wrong action. For Lévinas it is the awareness we immediately experience in the face-to-face encounter that is decisive, not the actions we choose to take afterwards. Whatever we do derives from the encounter with the other. The feeling of responsibility to help is prompted by the gaze of the other, the inter-subjective experience. We cannot evade this responsibility. That would be to take leave of our humanity.
In Untitled we are confronted with precisely this overwhelming experience of the face of the other in the form of the three girls. Their slow, drawn-out movements allow us time to take in the other: an ordinary girl in a hooded sweatshirt slowly becomes transformed into a different being – a girl with a hijab – only to return to the point of departure as a bare-headed girl.
The circular pattern of no beginning and no end gives the viewer the opportunity to reflect on the causes and effects of the girls' very genuine dilemma: whether or not to wear the hijab. The form of presentation effectively provides no clear answer about the choices open to them. But at the point when the individual girl looks directly at us, and draws us into sharing the same moment, she is wearing the veil. In this moment the girl becomes the other – to us, because she is of course still the same girl.
The direct confrontation sets in motion a reflective process that directs our attention both to the cultural norms framing the individual and to our own particular values and attitudes towards the other. We are forced into a new awareness of the issue that is different from our usual response to the media's presentation of girls wearing hijabs. What started as mere observation develops into a self-searching process in which we direct our gaze inwards and train it on ourselves and our own role as observer. In Untitled Thiis-Evensen conveys a double meaning: while the slow movements are underlining the doubts of the three girls and the significance for them of this question, the focus is gradually moving towards the watching observer.