These stone masks are the latest in a line of expressive heads and faces that Ugo Rondinone (b. 1964, Switzerland) has made over the last two decades. The approximation of human recognition they achieve is stunning for its formal economy and existential scope. Masks have long served all over the world in many different cultural contexts as symbolic metaphors for the human condition. Because stone examples are hard to fashion and can seem comparatively less expressive, variations of “face of stone” became a metaphor for the absence of emotion, and by extension humanity. Rondinone turns this notion on its head by coaxing not just faces from these rocks—all about the size of a human head—but ones with personality and individuality.
Fragile, timorous, and wry these are characters not signs, covering a more nuanced range of emotions than that suggested by the faces of tragedy and comedy for example used as the calling card of classical Greek theater. That this the comparison is intentional is clear from the absurdist, pseudo-antipodal titles Rondinone has given his masks: the false + the true, the love + the hate, the here + the there, the stand + the sit. In Rondinone’s stony version of Manicheism (dualistic thinking), the “+” is both a sign of addition and a conjunction. So rather than offer stark oppositions, Rondinone’s pairs create spectrums of gray.
Essentially assisted readymades (found sculpture given a boost by its finder), the most important act of artistry in the making of the masks—the thing that makes them sculpture—was Rondinone’s realization that if he selected the right rocks, it would take almost nothing to turn them into faces. The introduction of two drill holes for eyes is all that was required to activate them: to link stone and flesh, the timelessness of our spirits with the fleetingness of our bodies. (Close scrutiny does reveal some subtle chisel work around the eyes, for added pathos.)
Whatever humanity may become: genetically altered, part machine, long-lived, incorporeal, we will always have been a Stone Age people. Staring into the masks’ eyes—looking for the souls inside—we find ourselves getting to know the rocks. Their faces: scarred, stained, asymmetric and unique, are as full of lived experience as our own.