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Does my head look big in this? Dough sitters rise to the challenge

Artist Soren Dahlgaard asks a lot of his subjects. So far, they've all survived.

Soren Dahlgaard's subjects are usually a bit nervous  as the moist blob of dough slides over their heads. Will it stick to their hair and skin? Will they be able to breathe? Or will they be stricken with claustrophobia and want to claw it off?

Mostly, people have enormous fun as they wait for the dough to drape and stretch over their faces like some sort of Dr Seuss-style gloop. It goes its own way, has its own personality and we can't help but see facial features in the weird portrait the dough forms. 

While participants find they can breathe easily and their hair is protected by a plastic shower-cap, sometimes they can't hear. And often they are surprised by the coolness and the weight of the dough – seven to 10 kilos. Depending on the weather and the dough-maker's recipe, the mix can be a bit sticky or even wet. Sometimes Dahlgaard makes the dough, sometimes a local baker, depending on where he is.

For more than seven years, Dahlgaard has been making his Dough Portraits – now released under that title as a book. The Danish-born artist, who now lives in Melbourne, has made about 2000 of these curious images in places as disparate as South Korea, Canada, the Maldives, Brazil, Israel, Kosovo, China, Australia and his homeland, where it all started at the National Gallery in Copenhagen.  

Mostly, he says, people enjoy this curious experience that, in effect, is an equalising measure: we lose much of our sense of individuality when our faces disappear. But, as he says, the portraits bring together two things almost all of us are familiar with – the portrait and dough.

The directors of any of the world's big portrait galleries – Washington, London or Canberra – will tell you how crucial portraiture is in charting human history and character. There is within the tradition, too,  an element of subversion and one aspect of that is to replace the face of a sitter with something else. Giuseppe Arcimboldo (1527-93) famously did it by using  vegetables, flowers, fruits and even books for faces in his paintings. More recently, Australian artists such as Simryn Gill (with tropical fruits like durian) and Christian Bambarra Thompson (with clusters of red eucalyptus blossoms) have done similar experiments.

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Danish writer Barbara Laessoe Stephensen writes in Dough Portraits that Dahlgaard's work reminds us of the difficulty of really seeing someone for who they are, of loving them for who they are on the "inside". 

"Standing before these bizarre faceless figures covered in dough, we are confronted with the immediate difficulty of lacking the facial gestures we normally look for when we try to read another person," she says. "At once, we notice ourselves searching for other features that will tell us who we are facing." Clothes, body language and the setting of the portraits give us clues – but we find ourselves imagining much, too.

Dahlgaard chose dough partly because he wanted to use a material that had very little to do with the history of art – and the humour it brings during the process is also crucial. "My starting point was thinking how can I make something that doesn't look like something that's been made 1000 times before?" he says. In 1997, he did his first sculptural experiments with dough but when he was at the Slade Art School in London, where he studied some years later, he quickly saw all the classic materials used for sculpture (marble, bronze, clay, plaster, wood, metal) had a lot of historical weight hanging over them. 

"Dough is different," he says. "It comes from the land and the fields and it connects to the body. It is alive with the yeast, like we are alive. It has connections with religion and it is symbolic. But, really, all those are afterthoughts: dough is fun and it is silly and it's so accessible and familiar."

Behind this is the idea of transformation, which runs through all Dahlgaard's work. With the dough portraits, it is about getting people to participate in the art-making process, which he says is far more where the "art" is in his work: the final product, he says, is not the point. "On the wall it dies and collects dust and becomes static. I like meeting and getting reactions; then, it is alive."

Dahlgaard's artwork merges photography, sculpture, performance, participatory art and collaboration into a playful hybrid and while he says that he initiates and directs every event himself, the collaborative encounter is fundamental. He and the sitter create the portrait together, with the help of assistants. Dahlgaard explains and arranges the set-up and frames the shot, but the subject chooses their own lump of dough and kneads and shapes it however they like. Each lump of dough, he says, ends up with a different shape and expression.

The telltale  settings show how far-reaching the project is. Here is a man on the beach in the Maldives (where Dahlgaard's wife was born), with his dough-head looking a bit sun-bleached. And there, on another page, is a quartet of artily dressed folk in the snow. Another series shows individuals in front of bright neon Chinese script. Or  a family seated in front of Andy Warhol's Campbells soup cans painting. 

Dahlgaard upturns portraiture by taking away that crucial indicator of race, age, gender and, more subtly, character and culture: the face. There, in that inimitable organisation of eyes, mouth and nose, in the flesh, the folds and the creases, in the texture, expression and – vitally – the gaze, we pick up multiple clues as to who a person is. 

The sitters themselves cannot help but be engaged – from small children on a school excursion to village elders swapping head-dresses for dough, Dahlgaard hears about how their senses are activated.

"You smell the dough, you feel the weight of it on your body, on your face and neck," he says. "People remember that really well. It is a bodily memory."

Will the Dough Portraits continue, now they have been collected in a book? Dahlgaard is unsure but is keen to revive one arm of the project that was derailed in 2008 thanks to the global financial crisis. That plan, in concert with a well-connected Santa Monica gallery, was to take dough portraits of celebrities. Imagine, says Dahlgaard, a portrait of Brad Pitt under a thick veil of dough, with the title Brad? Or Meryl or Arnold or Britney. 

"We are all the same," he says.

Dough Portraits by Soren Dahlgaard (Art/Books, $55).