The self and the other

Ever since the appearance of the first western self-portraits hidden in religious scenes during the Renaissance, artists have more and more prominently featured themselves as witnesses or protagonists in the stories they tell. Through their presence in their own work, artists have made the narratives they present more believable and engaging to us as viewers. Vel·zquezí ìThe surrender of Bredaî is a prime example. An event the artist knew about only second hand is portrayed with poetic choreography, up close and with the artist as a witness. By inserting himself into this history, Vel·zquez has made vivid an otherwise distant event and demonstrated his noble aspirations, socially and artistically. This desire to be both witness and portrayer of a narrative has since manifested itself in the works of artists as divergent as Gustave Courbet, Cindy Sherman, Woody Allen, Jenny Saville and countless others.

In the case of all these artists, though, the role of the artist within the work is ambiguous: are they themselves or are they playing themselves? Or are they merely playing roles they have scripted for themselves? This multi-leveled is particularly evident in contemporary work. Is Woody Allen playing himself in movies that seem to echo his real life? Is Cindy Sherman portraying her desires and fears or is she acting out fantasies of others? The plausability of any of the answers (however contrary) creates a space in which we, as outsiders, engage the work personally and empathetically. It is through the artist as portrayed and portrayer that we empathize with the subject of the work.

"The Other Self" focuses on the idea of the self in the work of art. In all the work here, the artist uses her or himself as both subject and object of the work unlike the classic artistsí self-portrait, such as those of Rembrandt. The psychology of a self-portrait is not absent from any of the work but is apparently secondary to the dramatic and narrative aspect of the individual within the content of the work.

The manifold possibilities of this idea are manifest in the range of work shown. From the racially charged video of Howardena Pindell to the activated and ambiguous sensuality of Michael Kozien's photo and video work, the viewer is pushed both to a point of empathy and to a questioning of their own sense of self. All the work asks and answers, in a personal and open ended way, the question of what it means to be who or what one is, either as subject or object.

The idea that we are not merely a who but equally a what -defined socially through sexuality, race, association, etc.- is central to the desire to appropriate not only from the world in which we find ourselves, but from our own bodies. It is essentially in becoming a what, a something, that we cease to be merely a who. In that transformation we either gain, lose or modify the sense of self that is so essential to a definition of the individual. The question which underlies the work of anyone who uses their body in their work is, Do I benefit from this transformation (from a who to a what), or am I losing something which was my own? Whether defined as "African American" or " Woman," "Queer" or "Father," do these titles reduce us from who we are to what we are? Or are these labels precisely what define us, both as a subject and as an object? Or is it perhaps our desire to be subject and object, portrayer of the world and revealed to the world, which makes us more radically complete individuals.

Whether exploring the nuances of the psyche, the social or the sexual, the central tension of a work in which the maker is to be found lies in its galvanized ambivalence between the poles of subject and object, desire and reality, and finally, the self and the other.

by Keith Miller

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