(The immediate context to this picture is not available as memory, but as learned information, put together from reliable and unreliable sources.)
Wed 28 January 2015 (– reflections on early years)
I took down my paintings from the SOIL exhibition yesterday, crammed them into my car, and wondered what I would be painting in 6 months’ time. It’s like that, at this time of year, when the cold and rain/snow/wind force us indoors, away from the natural light.
I want to paint, but the last three paintings tell me that I need now to be more in control of my creative process.
Meanwhile I turn my thoughts to a collaborative project I’ve been invited join.. Self portraiture!
How do sculptors make self-portraits? That is the problem that faces my friend Brook Hobbins. I think about Self itself, and how that is interpreted and expressed in two dimensions. Is painting or photography any easier, for being 2-dimensional? What is ‘self’? What is ‘a likeness’, how do we achieve ‘verisimilitude’? Or perhaps we don’t feel that’s important… When I was in my twenties I painted several self-portraits; the fact that I was painting a mirror-image never gave me pause for thought. Now there is so much more to consider.
So I begin by scanning a handful of faded negatives I’d been given by my mum some long time ago. So little of my childhood memory is available to me that these negatives are very precious clues to a lost life.There I am, aged maybe 12 – 15 months, then four years old, then perhaps seven, and suddenly seventeen. My self as others saw me.
‘The (old, analogue) photograph doesn’t lie’… It doesn’t say much either.
It can’t tell me who took the picture, what time of year it was, where I was, or why I was there. It didn’t tell me that I had no father, because he’d been killed in an accident at work just before I was born. That my mother must have been struggling desperately to come to terms with that, and to keep things together for six of us – I had four brothers and sisters. That’s the learned context that replaces memory and becomes part of Self. As Barthes observed, an old photograph simply tells us ‘that was so’, and we have to do all the rest.
Wednesday 25 February
But, what am I? What is this Self that I think I am? It’s self- delusion, to insist that we still feel young inside – because our outer appearance belies it.
So, again– what is this ‘Self’? Both Freud and Jung considered the Self to be an unconscious component of our psychological ‘make-up’. Terms such as ‘self-concept, ‘self-esteem’, self-perception and ‘self-presentation were developed to explain the psychology of individuals in terms of society. ‘Self-assessment’ , ‘self-tracking’ and ‘self-reports’ are all to do with measuring the experience of Self.
In everyday speech we are ‘self-assured’, ‘self-ish’, ‘self-aggrandizing’ or ‘self-satisfied’.
None of which go anywhere near explaining what it is that we feel, when we most feel ‘our-selves’.
I try to design a questionnaire to ask that very question. I send it to a select sample of ten – none are returned.
I’ve abandoned the visual for a while, and have made a small auto-biographical book ‘Why I never made it as an Artist’. I wrote it quickly; the content had been mixing around and mulled over for some time. Prints I’d made a few days earlier were added, and fell into place nicely, as it happened. When I’d finished it, and printed it out, it occurred to me that there could be many versions of the events I describe, depending on where I wanted to focus. It could have been very much darker. As an honest account it is neatly summed up by Montaigne:
‘My life has been filled with terrible misfortune; most of which never happened’
(Michel de Montaigne, b.1533)
Brook and I meet to talk about our upcoming collaborative event/exhibition, in Margate during April. We plan open days and discussions, a portrait workshop and talks. We’re being ambitious, and hope that artists will drop in and share our journey, and that members of the public will be curious enough to step over the threshold. I’ve constructed a questionnaire about ‘Self’ that is difficult and intimidating. We discuss ways to improve it. What I hope to discover I’m not quite sure.
Brook is keen to explore how her experience of feminism is different from when she was an activist in the late seventies. I’m being much more introspective. Is this a collaboration yet, or a joint venture?
Is it necessary to make a collaborative (shared) work, or can we each pursue our own ends side by side? We have had several conversations which we’ve yet to edit. We want to replay them in the gallery space. The event seems rather vague and amorphous, although we have lots to bring to it.
Not like your usual gallery event.
What is involved in the making of a self-portrait? Are we hoping to make a likeness? Do we want our image to be authentic, to somehow capture our essential nature? Do we want others to acknowledge the depiction as ‘real’? Do we want to portray some aspect of our inner Self, or to see ourselves as others see us?
When we talk of likeness, are we talking of the quality of resemblance, or of outward appearance – or indeed of a representation? Is likeness something we should consider at all, if we are interested in deeper aspects of the Self?
Does authenticity assume that there is a ‘real’ to refer to – something fixed about a person; features, manners, a certain look that is agreed by others as being definitely Us. Not being able to look into each others’ minds, how could we agree that we each see the same person in the same way? Or does ‘authenticity’ imply that the artist has integrity; that she will record herself honestly and without flinching?
Clearly we become mired down in language, and even more so when we consider concepts such as ‘reality’, or ‘essence’. It may be safer to make a self-portrait simply as an exercise, a challenge to oneself, a way of working on our skills, something to keep to ourselves.
The truth is, I’m really interested in this idea that there is a Self to make a portrait of. I turn to the mirror. There I am, looking very familiar: I recognize the way my hair falls, the lines around my eyes and mouth, that habitual frown, the pale ring around the otherwise dark brown iris of my eye. This is the Me I’ve always known, that goes with the seething mass of contradictions that I experience as my conscious, felt, Self.
There is a problem with the mirror. The image before me is reversed. The image that I recognize and record, others may have difficulty with. They would know it’s me, but there would seem to be something wrong. To make a successful self-portrait, must I correct this mirror-image? Should I use two mirrors, or work from photographs?
I hardly ever see myself as others see me, except through the medium of photography, when I’m usually caught unawares in mid-word, or mid-blink. I’m not accomplished at posing.
The Pose! This is something that we automatically do for the camera, when we arrange ourselves for a photograph. How to present our Self? We are forced to choose
‘Once I feel myself observed by the lens, everything changes: I constitute myself in the process of ‘posing’….I transform myself in advance, into an image’.
Posing, for Roland Barthes was clearly ‘an existential drama’. (It is the same for me)
‘In front of the lens I am, at the same time: the one I think I am, the one I want others to think I am, the one the photographer thinks I am…..and the one he makes use of to exhibit his art. I do not stop imitating myself, and because of this, I invariably suffer from a sensation of inauthenticity.’ (Camera Lucida, Ch5. 1982)
When I decide to make my self-portrait, I am suddenly very conscious of the importance of the Pose. Posing requires stillness, and composure, but I’ll be continually moving in order to make marks. So – do I use a mirror? Or try to arrange two mirrors? Or shall I work from photographs, those treacherous split-second records of a face we sometimes hardly recognize? Suddenly the whole business is artificial, contrived, and far from authentic, and there’s a danger that the self that emerges from my self-portrait will not be the self that I thought I would portray. At the end of an hour spent concentrating on a drawing, I saw my sister’s face carefully sketched in on my paper – no trace of the face I’d been scrutinizing in the mirror!
I decided to begin by making ‘Selfies’. Each day, every day for a month,
a photograph on my mobile phone. (Not a selfie in the strictest sense, as one that is instantly uploaded to social media – but a ‘selfie’ just the same. After all, the final intention, to share with strangers, is the same.
What would Barthes have made of the Selfie? He would certainly have recognized the mythic impulse that drives it. Jerry Saltz (Art at Arm’s Length: a History of the Selfie, New York Magazine Feb 2014) celebrates the Selfie as an entirely new visual genre, an ironic form of folk art that far from stimulating melancholic reflection, is most often simple, celebratory, self-promotion, signalling the ‘shift of the photograph from memorial function to a communication device’. (Geoffrey Batchen)
Saltz believes that ‘with only small changes in technology and other platforms, we will one day see amazing masters of the form’. Hmmm.
In the little time I have been taking selfies, I’ve found it a chastening experience, and because the lens on my i-phone distorts my already uneven features, I see these as sometimes awful parodies of what I feel myself to be. My month of selfies, printed out and laid down in a grid (how else?) bemuses me. I don’t know what to do with them. I put them into a slideshow, and watch as they dissolve gently one into the next, to an accidental accompaniment of Mozart’s Reqiuem. Annoyed that I actually like that combination, I turn off the sound. I abandon the slideshow. I want to paint over the grid of faces, but I know I’ll end by obliterating them, and don’t want to do that just yet. Something may come up.