By Haisi Hu
In today’s image and camera culture, our faces become essential parts of our identity. Yet, few ever look at the back of their own heads. It is not only a blind spot but an embarrassment, as our hair might thin out or turn grey. The installation invites or even coerces the viewers to stare at the back of their heads. This strange uncomfortable experience aims to expose the one-sidedness of the presentation of our identity. The project is not only a mockery of our beauty obsession culture—TikTok glamor filters and Instagram look, but also raises questions about how we identify ourselves in today’s society. Meanwhile, AI facial recognition surveillance becoming ever more integrated into our lives and posting as a potential threat to our democracy. (think China’s surveillance state). Since when our face becomes our main identity and how it is so tied up with our self-worth and even become the rallying cry for freedom (think Iran hijabs protest movement)? The project seeks to tackle all these uncomfortable and deep-rooted problems by turning them upside-down, or rather front-to-back. By inviting the viewers to look at the back of their heads, we rewire our acceptance of the fixed and formulaic representation of our three-dimensional body through a limited two-dimensional representation by cameras and other photo imaging technology. We come to see how these representations of the self are as fictitious or foreign and exciting as the back of our heads.
The installation consists of two computer screens facing each other. The viewer is invited to sit down in the middle of the two computers on a swivel chair. On one screen, the user can apply filters of different hairstyles over the back of their head, and on the other, hats. Using a face tracking algorithm, the filters, be it a wig or a hat, will follow the viewer’s movement within the screen.
As I was researching different hairstyles, the research turned out to be an enriching and surprising journey. For example, the “cinnamon buns” style popularized by Princess Leia was first and traditionally worn by the Native American Hopi tribe in Arizona. In pre-colonial West Africa Hairstyles were worn with spiritual meanings. A hairstyle could indicate such things as a person’s age; marital status; religion; ethnic identity; wealth, social status, and much more.
On the other screen, I selected six countries’ traditional hats, from Afghan to Korean. Throughout Asia, before modern times, both military and civil servants wore distinctive hats to indicate their job titles and ranks. Their hats were their uniforms. Even for the common man in premodern Korea, a hat was a must for outings. Balinese wears large headdress adorned with gemstones and gold for wedding and religious ceremonies today, keeping alive their age-old tradition.
I have come full circle to discover the back of our heads has even greater cultural and traditional significance in one’s identity than our faces. Hairstyles and hair accessories had been not only the source of national pride for many indigenous people but also a symbol of resistance against colonial oppression. When we endow a daily ritual such as doing our hair with historical understanding, we can transcend personal vanity and transform the egocentric transient nature of social media into something with broader aesthetic importance.
Haisi Hu has been making and expanding traditional animations such as Claymation and hand-drawn animation. Hu was born in China and immigrated to the US as a teenager. She has been living in Brooklyn since 1990. Her claymation films are shown worldwide and locally, including Animation Nights New York and Brooklyn Film Festival. She is the recipient of the NYFA Fellowship, Jerome Foundation Film Production Grant, NYSCA Film/Media grants. She teaches animation to high-school students and works at Cooper Union School of Art, and from the same school, she also obtained her BFA degree.