I have struggled with getting going with the reading and exercises on this module. The assignment photographs were fairly straightforward once I had a decision, and I suppose the autobiographical interpretation of the first two assignments made A3 something of a natural progression. I have done a fair bit of reading, including Susan Bright’s Auto Focus, and Masquerade (ed Newton & Rolph), but unusally for me I’ve struggled with the actual sitting down and writing bit. I will therefore use the prompts for this work.
How do these images make you feel?
Sometimes uncomfortable but more often engaged and curious. The images often offer up a level of intimacy that may be out of context or outside our social comfort zones. I think this is particularly the case for Elina Brotherus’ Annunciation series, where she tackles one of the remaining social taboos – infertility and fertility treatment – head on. These images can also stimulate recognition and empathy, thus helping people to feel less alone.
Do you think there’s an element of narcissism or self-indulgence in focusing on your own identity in this way?
No, I don’t think so, and if there is I don’t think it matters. It’s interesting to look at the swathes of judgement levelled at selfie-takers. A current exhibition by Elina Brotherus is titled “It’s not me, it’s a photograph” and I think this puts self portraits into context.
What’s the significance of Brotherus’ nakedness?
I think there are a multiple significances. From my experience, trying, and failing to become pregnant and then failing to sustain my first pregnancy left me feeling utterly exposed. I had this body that was all set up to do the reproduction thing, but it just wasn’t working and I wound up feeling a bit of a failure as a woman. Also, there are so many photographs and paintings of pregnant women, all happy curves and fecundity, but Elina counters this with her slender, unpregnant, heartbroken form. Most pregnancy tests are done in the bathroom and the nakedness fits with this too. Her nakedness correlates with the emotional vulnerability of telling her story.
Can such images ‘work’ for an outsider without accompanying text?
I think yes, they can if they carry enough of the narrative within themselves.
Do you think any of these artists are also addressing wider issues beyond the purely personal?
Yes, I actually think it’s quite hard to make this kind of work without reflecting wider issues. Even if we don’t intend it to be read that way someone somewhere will re-frame it in a wider context. Elina Brotherus’ work responds to an issue that’s increasingly common yet is rarely discussed. Gillian Wearing looks at where we sit within our families. Our siblings – who we are genetically close to, yet we can still feel so very different to and separate from. What would it feel like to wake up one day and be one of my sisters? If I start off by questioning my role in my family, do I then move on to questioning my role in society? Who else is under my skin? Who else has me under their skin?
When I look at the various sections in the text for this part I struggle a bit with separating them, I think the various flavours of self-portrait are less distinct in real life. For example, Nikki S Lee is mentioned under Masquerades. I think of her Layers Series (Bright, 210-211) where she combines portraits of herself made on translucent paper by street artists in different cities. When the images are layered by location we start to get an idea of how perceptions of identity morph slightly according to location. Who and how I think I am is not the same as others’ perceptions of me. Similarly, Sophie Calle, who is so tightly enmeshed with her work that I wouldn’t know where to start with separating out all the different strands of her from her various works. Her work, in so far as we can define it at all, comes under the categories of autobiography, masquerades, self-absented…. she is as casually intimate with others’ lives as she is with her own, and it’s so hard to see where the boundaries lie between herself and the wider world. I find it very hard to look at her work without wondering about my life and my boundaries.