SELF OBSESSION OR SELF EXPRESSION?

Antonia Osgood, April 2017

There comes a time when you look into the mirror and you realise that what you see is all that you will ever be. And then you accept it. Or you kill yourself. Or you stop looking in mirrors.

-Tennessee Williams

We are living in a selfie epidemic. Over one million are taken each day.

People have more control over their appearances than ever before; we can digitally paint and surgically sculpt ourselves to our liking. It is as if we have become a generation trained in the art of self-portraiture.

 

The world’s first exhibition dedicated to the history of the selfie opened at the Saatchi Gallery on 31st March 2017. From Selfie to Self-Expression explored the creative potential of the smartphone from the 16th century to the present day. Sponsored by Huawei, a leading smartphone provider, it made me wonder whether the device in my back pocket is a valid artistic medium.

George Harrison Taj Mahal Self-Portrait

1966

© Harrison Family

The show opened with imposing monitors displaying famous self-portraits throughout the ages. Rembrandt, Van Gogh, Picasso and Kahlo were among the victims of digital reincarnation. Viewers exchanged perplexed expressions, “Why would I want to see digital images of original masterpieces?”

The room seemed to suggest that both selfies and traditional notions of self-portraiture stem from the same principle of creative manipulation. That the canvas and camera are similar platforms through which we can filter and manipulate aspects of ourselves.

 

“In the 16th century, it was only the artists who had the skills, materials and tools to create self-portraits,” remarked Nigel Hurst, Saatchi’s chief executive who proposed the idea for the show. “The selfie is by far the most expansionist form of visual self-expression, whether you like it or not … the art world cannot really afford to ignore it.”

 

Before I had the opportunity to examine The Wounded Dear in detail, a new painting swept onto the screen as part of a slideshow. I was only allowed a few moments with Kahlo. She was the celebrity, and I was the mere fan who ‘liked’ her face. I couldn’t help feeling as though self-portraiture was being devalued, reduced to the status of a snapshot, with the modern selfie giving everyone a creative licence.

Dominating the back wall, the grand vision of Velazquez’s Las Meninas had a hypnotic power. Velazques depicts his own portrait whilst seemingly painting our presence and the royal subjects beside him. This painting had never appeared so contemporary - the viewer was both the observer and the observed, unable to evade a world of ceaseless gazes.

 

In other rooms, famous self-portraits by contemporary artists explored a variety of mediums and socio-political themes. Cindy Sherman, Tracy Emin, Chuck Close and Andy Warhol were presented photographically and digitally. Close’s large hyperreal Big Self-Portrait, originally acrylic on canvas, looked exactly like a photograph on a gigantic monitor, paradoxically exacerbating yet concealing his brilliant painterly skill. His candid mug-shot-like portrait toys with the distinction between painting and photography, foreshadowing the contemporary conundrum of understanding the difference between selfie and self-portraiture.  

Frida Kahlo

Self-Portrait With Thorn Necklace and Hummingbird, 1940. Oil on canvas on Masonite 47 x 61 cm

Courtesy Banco de México Diego Rivera Frida Kahlo Museums Trust, Mexico, D.F. / DACS / Harry Ransom Center, The University of Texas at Austin

Smartphones were mounted to the right of each large monitor. I participated in the Instagram roleplay, expressing my appreciation for Frida Kahlo’s The Wounded Deer by tapping a heart icon to increase its number of likes. Kahlo’s inauthentic presence seemed to thank me for my support, and I was quietly enthused by the ability to leave a trace of my liking upon such sacred paintings, albeit reproductions. My small physical offering defied the normal limits of the gallery where touching the work is strictly forbidden.

Chuck Close

Big Self-Portrait

1967-1968

Acrylic on canvas

107 ½ x 83 ½ inches

© Chuck Close, courtesy Pace Gallery

Tracey Emin

I’ve Got It All, 1940

C-Print. 124 x 109 cm

Tracey Emin. All rights reserved, DACS 2016.

Image courtesy of the White Cube

In my view, there is an important distinction to make between depth and introspection and superficiality and outer expression. If one were to set fire to a self-portrait, it would feel as if a piece of the artist's inner expression, or their soul, had gone up in flames.  On the other hand, deleting someone's selfie is not a punishable crime (yet). The selfie-taker values their creative output less seriously; with the ability to instantaneously re-take, delete, edit and post images online, this form of self-portraiture is whimsical, almost throwaway.

 

A collection of celebrity selfies with their adoring fans made me question modern society's obsession with fame. And a film of tourists taking selfies in the snowy mountains of Switzerland emphasised our need to somehow evidence our existence in the world. It is not enough merely to see things in the flesh, we desire photographs as proof that we were there, that something happened.

 

A room full of extreme selfies attested that there is no circumstance in which a selfie cannot be taken: in outer space, during a bullfight and deep-sea-diving with sharks. I smiled at a photograph of a monkey with a cheeky grin, until I realised that the monkey had taken the selfie itself. I was struck with the unnerving thought of all animals evolving into capable selfie-takers. 

Actor Benedict Cumberbatch jumps behind

U2 at the 86th Academy Awards in Hollywood, California

Courtesy Mike Blake / Reuters

Undoubtedly, the face is the locus of physical identity. Eye-to eye we converse. To obtain a passport we must surrender to having our portrait taken. Cameras capture our presence both voluntarily and involuntarily through almost constant surveillance.

But however important our looks may be, they do not constitute the whole self, nor are they the most essential part of the self. Our bodies are simply the canvas on which we project aspects of being. Our inner being is invisible, a series of complex conscious states that are difficult to value in an era that glorifies the physical and physical perfection.

 

It seems we cannot take our eyes off ourselves.

© 2019 by Assemblage Magazine.

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