If Time is a colony, then nothing is free.
—Olu Oguibe, from ‘In the “Heart of Darkness”’ (1993)
If Time is a colony, then nothing is free.
—Olu Oguibe, from ‘In the “Heart of Darkness”’ (1993)
‘Selfie’ was the Oxford English Dictionary’s word of the year for 2013 and is officially defined as: ‘a photograph that one has taken of oneself, typically one taken with a smartphone or webcam and uploaded to a social media website.’ So far, so facebook. Selfies bred like bacteria in 2013, apparently by 17,000% and yet, every Engling’s faithful friend goes on to add in its handy example, ‘Occasional selfies are acceptable, but posting a new picture of yourself every day isn’t necessary’. Ooof – cuts deep. Criticized as endemic narcissism by Jonathan Freedland, lauded as the ultimate fourth wave feminist act and even explored in an “essay” for the New York Times by everyone’s favourite pseudointellectual, James Franco, it seems the selfie wields enough power to make even the dictionary seethe. Yet, the self is a slippery fish and people have been attempting to pin it down for years; just not everyone had the means to try. Prior to the invention of photography, artists were the only ones with the potential to provide a tangible image of one’s appearance, and with better mirror production techniques developed during the Renaissance, artists increasingly turned to the most convenient subject matter available: themselves.
Several artists chose to return repeatedly to the subject of their own self over the span of their lifetime. The Dutch artist Rembrandt painted dozens of self-portraits over his career, beginning at twenty-two years old and painting his last in 1669, the year he died. It seems that, if these approximately fifty paintings, thirty-two etchings and seven drawings were to be gathered into one room, a sort of seventeenth-century time-lapse would unfold, not just of the ravages of age, but of mindset, wealth, and artistic technique. Van Gogh, one of the most prolific self-portraitists of all time, would paint close to thirty images of himself in just the last three years of his life. Again, these works display a constantly curious talent, experimenting with brush-stroke and palette, but, for some, it is difficult to ignore the pared down quality of the final four, his piercing dark eyes staring out from a pained face tinted green with sadness. One could, of course, read these forays into self-portraiture as merely of the documentary type; a means of mapping the ever-deepening forehead furrows and receding hairlines, or, in the case of a certain Mr van Gogh, number of ears. But, with the most famous examples, it is difficult not to feel a more poignant, searching quality to their chronic self-reflection. This is, of course, a subjective reading but these types of works present us with the key line of questioning when regarding self-portraiture: to what extent can we ever be objective when looking at ourselves, and furthermore, do we really want to be?
This tension between subjectivity and objectivity would become key for a lot of female artists, especially those working within the growing women’s art movement of the 1970s, begun in the United States by Judy Chicago and Miriam Schapiro. The self-portrait had been a common subject matter for female artists for centuries, due simply to the fact that, with restricted working resources, frequently the only available model was themselves. Photography had also become a popular medium for female artists since it had yet to be fully subsumed into a male dominated canon, allowing a sense of greater potential to carve out new ground for themselves. Yet, for some feminist artists, the photographic self-portrait became a politicized weapon. Susan Sontag would publish On Photography in 1977, writing “While a painting or a prose description can never be other than a narrowly selective interpretation, a photograph can be treated as a narrowly selective transparency. But despite the presumption of veracity that gives all photographs authority, interest, seductiveness, the work that photographers do is no generic exception to the usually shady commerce between art and truth.” It was clear to many that, despite it’s aesthetic of documentation, photography was just as susceptible to subjective manipulation as any other art form. In this case, many female artists responded to the bombardment of the selections of the male gaze in advertising imagery by turning the lens on themselves in order to subvert what they saw as a false and reductive sign of Woman. There was a clear conflict for many in the fact that Simone de Beauvoir’s famous words would tell us ‘One is not born, but rather becomes, a woman’, yet Rozsika Parker would reply, “We learn ourselves through women made by men.” Cindy Sherman and Gillian Wearing both would, and continue to, utilize the self-portrait to explore the manner in which women are perpetually sold the concept of re-invention and ready-made identities, reducing them to two-dimensional cartoons, but also encouraging their participation in a game of deceit. By donning disguise, the resulting, highly constructed, images are in someway surreally threatening and highly conscious of the response they would provoke in the viewer.
Other artists, however, would respond to this problem in a quieter, more personal, way. One of my favourite artists, Francesca Woodman, would dedicate her short and troubled life to producing hundreds of black and white photographs of herself. Usually choosing to set her works in crumbling, deserted buildings, and often presenting herself partly, if not fully, nude, her work is intrinsically connected to a study of her gendered body. Frequently using movement, long exposures and hiding or revealing only parts of herself, her oeuvre presents ghostly image after image of Woodman that look occasionally look as though they had been taken by an other, happening upon her by chance. Yet, while her work is imbued with a kind of bittersweet innocence, Woodman is not naïve. It seems reductive to ignore the fact that Woodman was clearly highly aware of the seductive qualities of her body; she curls up next to eels that mirror the curve of her hips and crouches on a dusty floor wearing only a cropped sweater. She looks up at a camera looking down, thrusting upon the viewer a disparaging gaze of control – to me, her work reads as a highly conscious attempt to explore the conflicts she felt within her existence as a young woman.
Either way, the self-portraits produced at this time stand as the result of women taking the control of their image into their own hands. It is this reasoning which has led to many contemporary commentators citing the selfie as a feminist act, one in which young women present the world with an unapologetic and celebratory image of themselves. This seems to make sense when considering selfies whose subjects exist outside of normative standards of beauty – basically, anyone not slim, able and white. But the inter-congratulatory nature of the manner in which the selfie is shared, and their existence within the context of a patriarchal society, breaks down this analysis; the insistence of every tumblr-girl’s tagline #nofilter says it all.
But artists have been taking less constructed self-portrait photographs for years, too. Alexis Hunter’s ‘Self-Portrait’, 1977 or several images from AA Bronson’s Mirror Sequences arguably could have been taken by any one of us armed with a camera and a little know-how. And still, the relationship between self-portraiture and the selfie becomes ever more complicated when we move beyond the boundaries of the “official” art world and look at images presented outside the gallery space. Ai Weiwei, a Chinese artist who has been under constant surveillance by his government since April 2011, has been using Instagram to share smartphone images of himself since it began, and he is by no means the only contemporary artist to do so. Are the images he shares art? They are, frequently, aesthetically pleasing, but require no more technical knowledge to produce than any other amateur smartphone photographer. But again, the image of him seen from the outside is highly restricted by a controlling force; prior to Instagram, his personal blog was shut down multiple times. I would argue that his political context and insistence on visually communicating with the world by any means he can changes our reading of these simple selfies into a highly rebellious act, worthy of our interrogation.
So what conclusive links can be drawn? Regardless of whether we can ever call a standard selfie art, it cannot be coincidence that time and again, human beings choose to turn the focus on themselves. What exactly are we looking for? Art or not, the image of ourselves we choose to present to the world inevitably grounds us in our own temporal context. We seek connection with those who share it and have armed ourselves with more and more efficient ways of doing so. Perhaps, if Descartes is to be believed, the selfie is simply a twenty-first century case of “I instagram, therefore I am”.
"Or, again, watch people at a gay evening. All come determined to be happy, with the kind of grim resolve with which one determines not to make a fuss at the dentist’s. It is held that drink and petting are the gateways to joy, so people get drunk quickly, and try not to notice how much their partners disgust them. After a sufficient amount of drink, men begin to weep, and to lament how unworthy they are, morally, of the devotion of their mothers."
— Bertrand Russell.
Love me a bit of petting. House bunny or micro pig?