Needlessly Dehumanizing: The Antagonistic Side of Kessel’s ‘Destroy My Face’ Installation
Erik Kessel’s ‘Destroy My Face’ installation consisted of 60 massive 4 by 4-metre portraits plastered across the Pier 15 skate hall in Breda as part of the BredaPhoto festival in September of 2020. These portraits were algorithmically created on the basis of 800 online pictures showing the faces of men and women who had undergone plastic surgery.
The artistic intent was to critique how our strive towards the unachievable perfection that we see on social media, such as Instagram, can have disastrous consequences when applied to our offline bodies. Plastic surgery is normalized in order to conform to the ideal, non-average bodies we see online, which can lead to complications that -instead of making a body more desirable- make a body monstrous.
People who visited the skatepark were invited to participate in the destroying, defacing and further dehumanizing of the “monstrous” AI-generated portraits through their regular activities of using the skatepark. This was to add to the idea that perfect bodies created through plastic surgery can just as easily be destroyed.
Although this aggression was directed towards ‘fake’ -primarily female- portraits, many felt that the artwork was blatantly misogynistic with its message that those who have undergone plastic surgery are to be treated as sub-human. Kessel’s artwork was experienced as mean-spirited and shallow because it focussed on the result rather than critically engaging with the underlying and varying conditions that lead someone to undergo plastic surgery. It also hid behind algorithmically generated pictures without consulting or addressing the real group of people that the installation dehumanised.
An interesting consequence is that not only the targeted audience but also the targeted group of participants started to rally against ‘Destroy My Face’. The artwork incited a different kind of participation than originally intended. A group of artists, skaters, critics and students under the collective name “We Are Not a Playground” wrote an open letter to the organizer of the event to argue for the removal of the artwork. The community that uses Pier 15 was not consulted in the creation of the work and the only way not to participate in or subscribe to the harmful message of the piece was to stop using the skate hall altogether. Therefore, the artwork was actively keeping community members out of a space that should be freely accessible to all.
Jansen, C. (2020, September 6). A Male Artist’s Invitation to Destroy Women’s Faces Is Unapologetic Misogyny. Elephant.
Van Muiswinkel, F. (n/a). ‘Destroy My Face’- Erik Kessels – gesloten. BredaPhoto.