This installation or performance work puts my own earlier film of the Mona Lisa (1973) through another stage of transformation – my own irretrievable self of some 34 years ago is now also part of the subject I first saw the ‘actual’ ‘Mona Lisa’ when I was about thirteen. Of course I had seen dozens of reproductions in books and postcards by then and the popular mythology of the enigmatic smile was already well engrained in my mind. My strongest impression, as I recall, was how small and unsurprising it was – a heavily protected cultural icon – no longer really a picture – and I was much more excited by the painting of the distant landscape than by the face. My own ‘version’ of ‘la Giaconda’ was never an homage, nor like Marcel Duchamp’s ‘L.H.O.O.Q’, an attack on its cultural power. Instead it came from a fascination with change and transformation – maybe also with arbitrary appropriation.
The black and white close-up reproduction of the centre of the face that I had torn froma magazine years ago as a student, showed not the mystery of the smile but the strong signs of deterioration – the cracking paint – and then more closely the printing dots of the half-tone screen. Later, after some years of my careless handling, it had developed the cracks of the glossy paper surface itself. I saw the cracks and tears as material ‘symbols’ of the passage of time but also the change of meaning in culture.
When I made my first film version of ‘After Leonardo’ in 1973. it was the additional layers of transformation and deterioration that I saw as the subject. The ‘Mona Lisa’ icon acted as a trace of the paradox between cultural permanence and the transience of the moment. Filming the picture then re-filming and re-filming the re-filming degraded the image but added a new dimension of motion and time – the motion of the observing camera and the duration of the performance. Freud’s monograph on Leonardo helped place my own abduction of the image into a context of cultural excavation. Changing meaning by digging below the surface, much as paintings are X-rayed. For me this was not a search for a new historical truth about Leonardo or the ‘Mona Lisa’ but the exploration of a continuing puzzle about the passage of time – the inadequacy of the arbitrary passing moment and the impossibility of permanence.