These sculptures are made from the bones of dead people. The photographic portraits of these sculptures are made by Arne Svenson. What results is Unspeaking Likeness, a strangely captivating series of death portraits, collected here.
For four years, Svenson sojourned from coroner’s offices to law enforcement agencies allover the country, snapping photographs of facial reconstruction sculptures which were built by forensic artists and molded from unidentifiable victims’ skeletal remains, with the intention of resolving crimes.
The narrative hidden behind each “face” is a mystery, and, as viewers, our own hearts tense with sadness when considering each subject’s lurid last moments of life. It’s almost too much; so, we reject the idea of reconstruction in relation to rejuvenation. It feels psychological, how we need to detach. The “face” in the context of Svenson’s portraits are not representative of an emotional life nor physical body; instead, it’s a mask or doll with a troubling echo, seemingly touched by the hands of Frankenstein.
I don’t think it’s good or bad– how these once living breathing faces, through art and/or science, deconstruct or decompose then are rebuilt into “facial things” for us to use or evaulate. It’s an impulsive reaction that is weirdly human and necessary for us to consider: our uncomfortable societal relationship with death, tragedy, memory, and control.
How do we honor the dead and how do we understand the psychology behind our species’ relationship with terror– What do we let go of? What stays and how do we translate what stays into something productive? These are questions I think Svenson wants us to consider.
Post-mortem photography or death portraiture is a rarity outside of the detective’s office in our current day-to-day lives, but it wasn’t so long ago. In 1839, the daguerreotype invention afforded middle class families the time and money to memorialize a lost loved one. Since family portraits were far from abundant– commissioned paintings a luxury and photography not quite as ubiquitous as it is today, hiring a photographer to document a family member one last time after he/she passed was not out of the ordinary. During Victorian times, such death portraits even proved to be somewhat fashionable: with families posing the deceased in elaborate scenes or settings, sometimes with living participants.
The proliferation of snapshot photography slowly squashed this tradition and today such imagery is a rarity, perhaps even taboo, which is why Svenson’s work feels exceptionally compelling: the photographic portraiture format indicates a memorial akin to the Victorians, but the sculpture’s existence implies a certain calculated scientific practicality, and this is where the two intentions collide to haunt.