As he watched their live performance in 2013, the Scottish artist, Paul Holmes, decided that mapping the facial expressions of the four jazz musicians with an intimate, unrelenting video camera would be a worthwhile pursuit. It led to the work, Out of the Box. And with it he joined a formidable tradition that goes back some centuries.
Those old enough to remember the 1970s and 80s will know how The Naked Ape and Manwatching turned the zoologist, Desmond Morris, into a rage. Meanwhile, Paul Ekman referenced Darwin to enter the neighbouring territory of reading facial expressions as universal emotional signs, which Margaret Mead's contention of culture-specificity opposed. And there was Edward Twitchell Hall who scrutinized the subtle grammar of interpersonal space - proxemics - to take forward the science of non-verbal communication. By trying to decode the emotional and cultural roots of behaviour in terms of bodily expression, these anthropological and psychological researches helped popularize a specialized term: body language. But then body language had long been probed in the arts: by artists, dancers, actors, theatre directors, film makers.
And, loosely speaking, it is body language - the fluid topography of faces in motion, isolated gestures and poses of the body - that Holmes explores in different ways in three of the four videos being shown at Studio 21 till July 3. But the deeper concern that threads through the works seems to be an enquiry into how the brain perceives and processes fragmented, even fleeting, messages - whether visual or textual - that aren't anchored to clearly-defined social and cultural contexts.
In Out of the Box, for example, he focuses on the creative intensity of the jazz musicians - belonging, we are told, to Haftor Medbøe's band -as they rehearse for a performance. The TV screen catches each of the faces separately while the rest of the body and the action of playing instruments and even the sound are eliminated. This device - of eliminating sound and taking the faces as independent entities - works as a kind of distancing strategy. Because, excerpting facial contortions from emotional logic and replacing sequence with edited heads in their rhythmic movement lead to pure facial drama not yoked to social and cultural contexts and accepted meanings. Hence, the viewer is not drawn into the scene and remains an outsider, subjecting to his cold appraisal faces that appear amusing, comical, agonized, blissful.
In Time Machine, the contortions of one face mimic, we learn, exercises that battle ageing -Time, that is - to preserve a youthful look. Hence, the name. The close-up here is so extreme as to blur the identity of the person photographed, who may be the artist himself. Not only are his features lost in a continuous heave of textured skin marked with magnified pores, hair and follicles, camera angles turn the face into a grotesque and unrecognizable organism at times, not quite human, with bellowing, collapsing, shifting planes and a hungry orifice. And at others, it appears like a landscape in flux. These works are in monochrome which, in the second case, aids the illusion of a captivating strangeness.
The third video doesn't really evoke what it promises to: the stress positions that interrogation methods have fine-tuned. A photo booth can indeed figure as a notional torture chamber, not only because the confined space allows the human body no comfort but also because, as the exhibition note reminds viewers, such cubicles are where "our likeness is so routinely scanned and captured in the name of our own security and freedom" in an age of intrusive surveillance. Although the artist goes through a montage of staccato shots that freeze abbreviated poses of captivity - hands crossed, as though handcuffed, head down, as though shoved to the chest, face yanked up as though towards an invisible minder - what comes across isn't the pain and indignity of duress but its subversive parody, set to the rhythm of airport scanners. But, uh oh. The projection on the gallery wall is reflected on a huge mirror opposite so that the viewer is viewed as well. How's that for a taste of surveillance? The title, outrageously enough, is These Measures are for your Protection.
Holmes shifts gears in the last of the videos where it's a teasing engagement with text. Words flash on and off at frustrating speed. Yet it's the Persistence of Vision that allows sentences to be grasped the way individual frames become movies. Well, the spirit of a puzzle does hold the viewer who's seduced to connect the words into a spare screenplay. That's okay. But then what?