Thursday, 22 May 2014

Research Point: Self Portrait - Part Four

There are numerous artists today who use their bodies or faces or aspects of their lives either as the subject if their art or as the medium for creating art.

Tracey Emin

Although not known for her self portraits, Tracey has become a sort of celebrity/artist. Everyone knows about her life history, abusive childhood, sexual assault, abortions and so on. In effect her art and her life story are difficult to separate and many of her pieces are autobiographical (such as her tent embroidered with the names of everyone she had ever slept with and her unmade bed). So you could almost say a large portion of her body of work amounts to an extended self portrait.

Cindy Sherman

Cindy Sherman uses her face as a medium to create art. However, her works couldn't be described as self portraits (although they are photographs of her face). In these images she becomes someone else. She is an actress or a chameleon. In the pictures she is difficult to recognise. She portrays various stereotypes and also creates film stills from imaginary movies which seem very familiar. You can read the narrative into them even though there is no narrative only a construct.

Click here for one of her film stills

Ana Mendieta

The work of this artist who died tragically young is interesting. She used her body and face in may ways in performance art and in making silhouettes of her body in the earth. Many of her works address issues such as female beauty and sexuality and male sexual violence. It is a tragic irony that she fell 34 floors to her death leaving an imprint of her body where she fell and that her partner at the time was suspected of pushing her to her death.

Click here to link to an article in the Observer from 2013 about Ana Mendieta also click on the link "In pictures to see several examples of her work"

Dieter Roth

I first encountered the work of Dieter Roth at the Biennale di Venezia in 2013. Roth is well known for producing many self portraits in a variety of media including multiple chocolate busts of himself and self portraits with titles such as "self portrait as a flowerpot' and 'self portrait as a pile of dog dirt". Click here to link to examples of his work on the Tate website. A lot of his work involves self reflection and self questioning as well as questioning of his work as an artist and the value of an art object. 

The work I saw at the biennale was "solo scenes" (1997-98). This consists of 131 TV monitors and VCRs all showing scenes from the artist's everyday life. The camera is fixed and Roth wanders in and out of the frame going about his daily business and doing nothing in particular. He has a shower, eats his dinner and tinkers with work in the studio. If he wanders out of the frame nothing happens. The number of the screens containing activity means that it is difficult to concentrate on one particular screen - your eye is drawn away to check out other screens in case something more interesting is happening. I found this installation quite poignant given the knowledge that Roth is no longer alive and was quite ill when he made this. To it chimes with the thought of our own mortality and the fact that simple everyday activities assume a greater significance when there is a limited time left and the end is near. This was most likely nothing to do with the artist's intention but was my own personal response to the work. I found it quite moving. (despite the continuous very distracting and very annoying hum of Bruce Nauman at the other end of the room - click to link to video Raw Material With Continuous Shift - MMM an artwork which succeeds in its aim  to be a sensory onslaught and a grating encounter).

Back to Dieter Roth though - here is and excerpt from the catalogue of the biennale which goes some way to explaining the scope of the work. " This enormous catalog of moving images shares some of the qualities of a memoir: its surveillance-like archive hints at an impossible interiority , perhaps fictionalising the notion of a private self beneath the realm of surfaces. Presenting the artist's activities all at once , the frenetic display begs to be navigated, making it impossible to rest on any single monitor. Ultimately the work denies both narrative and the intimacy of a self portrait: Roth shows us instead how one can wrest some sense of self from the stuff of one's daily life"

Reference Material used: 
"A Face to the World - On Self Portraits" by Laura Cummings (Harper Press 2010). 

The Oxford History of Art "Portraiture" by Shearer West (Oxford University Press 2004) 

"Il Palazzo Enciclopedico - The Encyclopedic Palace - Short Guide" La Biennale di Venezia 55th Esposizione Internazionale d'Arte ( Marsilio 2013)

"Ana Mendieta: Death of an Artist Foretold in Blood" Sean O'Hagan Observer Sunday 22nd September 2013

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