Photographer and artist Erik Kessels has apologized after having been accused of misogyny by the art community after a new exhibition of his work was launched on Wednesday. Entitled “Destroy My Face,” the work invites skateboarders to destroy the faces of women who have undergone plastic surgery.
An open letter penned by fifteen artists and arts organizations garnered support on social media following the launch of Kessels’ exhibition. The work, commissioned by BredaPhoto festival, is currently being hosted at a skatepark in Breda, Netherlands and features computer-generated images of what appear to be women who have undergone plastic surgery printed onto the floor. Skaters were then invited to skate on the faces and slowly destroy them.
The description on the Breda Photo website explains:
Plastic surgery has become something pretty normal in today’s society. However, when taken overboard, these surgeries can result in deformation and transforms mankind into monsters.
Commentators on Twitter and those responding to posts on Instagram have asked Kessels, the festival organizers, and the skatepark why his work seems to promote violence against women while also bullying those who have undergone surgery. A group of artists and arts organizations penned an open letter to BredaPhoto and Skatepark Pier 15 where the exhibition is taking place.
Skatepark Pier 15 has since deleted an Instagram video that showed a man hyperventilating into a paper bag while other men skated on the photographs of women's faces to the soundtrack of "I'm Too Sexy" by Right Said Fred.
Though it was not made clear in the text on the BredaPhoto website that describes the exhibition, the photographs were generated by an algorithm that created 60 faces based on 800 images found online. This included some male faces, but the resulting images all appear to present as female, probably as most of the source images were overwhelmingly female. Kessels initially argued in Instagram comments that the work was “democratic” because the faces were generated by an algorithm, a claim that was then challenged in the open letter.
Just because Kessels used an algorithm to create this work does not mean that he as an artist and designer does not have the responsibility to look at the outcome critically and think about the message that he is putting out into the world. Even though he says that the renderings were done on both male and female-presenting individuals, he completely disregards any of the social, cultural and/or patriarchal implications of why more female-presenting people decide to have plastic surgery.
The letter then explains that, as a prominent artist, Kessels should understand how to analyze images. It argues that instead of challenging the biases caused by algorithms, Kessels chose to reproduce and perpetuate them.
The letter also leveled criticisms at the board members of the photography festival. “There are more than enough ways to create meaningful and empathic discourse around controversial topics that don’t include the continued marginalizing and discriminating of other human beings,” the letter reads. “As an art institution and your specific recurring role within Breda’s [the city’s] cultural field, we find that you need to take responsibility rather than see yourselves as something that is ‘outside of society.’”
Commentators on Instagram were less restrained. “Like skateparks aren’t misogynistic enough,” wrote one. “So entitled and so harmful for you to reinforce the idea that you have some say over what women do with their bodies,” wrote another. A third added: "Cool look at all the Jonny big balls getting to destroy women's faces."
Kessels has since issued an apology:
Plastic surgery has become something pretty normal in today’s society. However, when taken overboard, these surgeries can result in deformations. The representation of oneself and what is real seem to blur more and more. The same can be said for how we present the image of ourselves online. Being insta-perfect can become the norm instead of the exception and we can manipulate our image in several seconds. The deformation that once started with plastic surgery will continue in this installation while skaters create another uncontrolled reality. Machine learning, as another artificial intervention, was used to generate the selection after entering all, male and female, available online plastic surgery portraits.
The intention of this work is ironic and intends to evoke a dialogue about self-acceptance. Of course it doesn’t mean to encourage violence against women. With this work I never wanted to offend anyone, but when reading recent comments online, I understand I’ve done so and I apologise for that. In my opinion the function of art in society is to start dialogues and I continue to believe in that.
BredaPhoto festival issued a statement that included Kessels' apology, adding:
BredaPhoto presents visual stories and visions from photographers that inspire, move, confront and raise questions. This has again become apparent in recent days. There is not one answer to the question of what is "the best of times" or what is "the worst of times"? Everyone answers such a question in their own way. As an individual, to what extent can you influence those bad times so they will become good times? To put it differently: to what extent can we create life itself? Erik Kessels also asked himself that question. Fascinated by the urge of people to undergo plastic surgery, he shows the work “Destroy my face” in Skate hall Pier 15 during “the best of times, the worst of times” [a reference to the festival's theme] provoking diverse reactions.
BredaPhoto Foundation was established in 2003 and has set aims to show contemporary photography that addresses social issues. Thanks to this year's theme, the 9th edition has become a multi-vocal presentation including many points of view, as BredaPhoto once envisioned and still does.
When asked specifically if it would respond to accusations that the festival is misogynistic and promotes violence against women, BredaPhoto offered no further comment.