Such well-known 20th-century faces as Hitler, Picasso and Brad Pitt appear as actors. The characters who perform in Theys’ videos differ widely but all have a similar sense of theatricality. They communicate to a worldwide audience by means of a perfectly coordinated choreography. One thing all his characters have in common is that they are identified with an image, are cut off from their underlying personality and reduced to an icon. They are figures who created their own characters, using facial expressions or movements, on the basis of their opportunistic awareness of the possibilities of 20th-century visual technology. The image most associated with Picasso is that of the balding artist concentrating on his painting. This image has become an accepted convention. In an absurd way, Koen Theys exposes the theatricality on which this convention is founded. By means of the digital technique called morphing, Theys adds movements to his actors’ theatrical poses. Morphing is a process whereby one still image gradually metamorphoses into the next. By means of this digital transition, the computer generates a movement which never ‘really’ took place. The ‘abuse’ of technical means to add one’s own style and meaning is an approach with which the artist has been experimenting for some time. But it is mainly in the projects concerning Hitler and Picasso that this method formulates a criticism of the theatre of movement found in major political or artistic figures. Because it is precisely by means of this artificial movement that Theys cuts the last link between the actual person of Adolf Hitler or Pablo Picasso and the icon they created around themselves.
At this point the videos become an exploration of a contemporary version of classic religious iconography. Just as the prophets, evangelists and saints derived their significance from the familiar fixed objects/emotions with which they were depicted, Theys’ figures derived their significance from a canonised movement. And, in the same way as the classic saints, their lives are reduced to these few elements whereby they are registered as a convention in history. The theme of a contemporary iconography is also at the heart of his most recent video. Four faces of Hollywood stars stare straight ahead. These faces display an exceptionally intense expression (rage, fear, suspicion, etc.). At first sight the faces appear static, but then it turns out that they are slowly getting bigger and appear to come closer. In addition, the face, for example that of Christopher Walken, gradually dissolves into that of another actor, with another expression. This transition takes place so slowly that one usually sees a composite, distorted, half-human face. If one of the faces becomes too large, it gradually fades into the black background and a new face appears somewhere else. In this way they endlessly appear out of the dark background and merge into one another. Just as in Theys’ other videos, the leading players are presented as icons rather than as individuals. This time the basis is not one of movements, but of facial expressions. In this case it is the characters’ facial expressions that degenerate into recognisable and reproducible icons. So that this video is not a satire on the Hollywood stars who appear, but rather a study of the relationship between stylised icons and expression. Whereas the appeal of a gesticulating Hitler or of Picasso was still directed at a virtual audience, these images are directed towards everyone who looks at them. The video has a robust persuasive power, reinforced by the empty – digitally created – emotions that creep over these faces.More about Koen Theys