An Invisible Transaction of Love
By Kit Monkman, artist and creator of People We Love
I find it hard to really get my head around the global allure of the Mona Lisa.
I know that we live in a culture that celebrates icons and fame, and fetishes the relationship between reproductions (which is, after all, how most of us see the Mona Lisa) and their original (viewable through crowds and glass in The Louvre), but I still find it hard to believe that, if I stumbled across the painting for the first time, undiscovered, in some dusty attic, I’d have the acuity to fully understand its power to infiltrate minds around the planet.
All of which is not to say that I wouldn’t be transfixed by that face and it’s almost cinematic ability to realign its features in the blink of an eye. Da Vinci’s genius gives the painting an enigmatic quality, leaving the viewer wondering; Who is she? What is she thinking? Is that twitching smile melancholic or, perhaps, wistfully happy?
The Mona Lisa is unquestionably a painting that raises many questions. And perhaps that’s where it’s extraordinary allure lies. Meeting Mona Lisa’s gaze and wondering… Because that’s what we’re always doing, isn’t it? Every day. Trying to reach out and understand what’s going on behind the eyes of another, to decipher what that twitching smile of a loved one really signifies. Our lifelong desire to bridge the gap between this mind ‘in here’ (taps skull) and the minds of others ‘out there’ is the bedrock of empathy, communion and trust.
Of course, empathy, the ability to understand and share the feelings of another, is necessarily an act of imagination. We will never know with absolute certainty what is going on behind the eyes of another, but we can never stop trying to cross the bridge towards greater certainty. Forever crossing and recrossing the bridge between ‘in here’ and ‘out there’. It’s the most human of journeys.
People We Love is a project that tries to summon up that spirit of questioning and imagining. It starts with one central premise; we know that all of its subjects are looking at someone they love(d), but it never reveals the specifics. We can only guess what joy or tragedy that wistful smile points to. It asks us to imagine. And in the act of imagining the ‘art’ is made. It’s a shared transaction, prompted by the subjects, made by the viewer.
Apparently, the estimated price of the Mona Lisa is now $850 million. Meanwhile, the contemporary art market has become the trading ground for global hedge funds and investment bankers. I say this simply to point out that the art-world relies increasingly on the commodification of the object and the artist.
People We Love has been made with a bold aesthetic, and a strong intention, but it does not aim to be reproducible or saleable. It seeks to provoke an invisible transaction between a subject, one who chooses to sit for the piece, and a viewer who returns their gaze and wonders. If the work works, it is in each one of those private, individual acts of imagination, of day-dreaming, and of empathy, that its beauty and its value lies.