Double Androgyny

Firstly, a ‘thanks’ to Peter, CS tutor, who pointed me in the direction of the work of Roni Horn.  It wasn’t a name familiar to me but she is a fascinating artist who works in a variety of media, including sculpture, drawing and photography.  There isn’t a convenient link that shows off her work – hardly surprising, given its variety – but, on Peter’s recommendation, I got hold of a copy of the catalogue of “Roni Horn aka Roni Horn” her Tate Modern retrospective of 2009 – link to exhibition site – from the library.  It’s some catalogue!  Two sizeable hardback books, one with images of the works and the second, called ‘Subject Index’, with a series of alphabetically indexed writings that include short quotes from her, short essays on her work by a variety of people, interesting references that she has chosen to share, the occasional poem, more illustrations, and a whiff of tongue-in-cheek humour along the way.  Her work has taken a bit of fathoming, but I understand why Peter suggested I look at it because there is a lot about identity, which links well with my ‘self-portrait’ work.  I’ll come back to that later.

I’m actually going to start with some photographs that appear in both books and were used at the introduction to the exhibition.  They’re not taken by her, however; they are photographs of her, taken at various stages in her life, and presented in pairs in this context.  That idea of pairs, and the consequent questions of comparison/difference, is a theme throughout her work – including the drawing and sculpture.  I can’t find all the portrait pairs on the internet, so I’ve been a little cheeky and photographed the book.  here is one example.

Roni Horn aka-1

From – ‘Roni Horn aka Roni Horn: Subject Index” – Whitney Museum of American Art 2009

The mono portrait of the little blonde girl in her frilly dress and cardigan alongside the blurry image of (probably) a teenager, peering from behind a rock and almost obscured by a mass of red hair; we know it’s the same person but, interestingly, the child holds us with a kind of winning, knowing combination of gaze and wry smile whilst the teenager recedes and hides, shyly, behind her protective rock.  Turn over the page, and we get this pair.

Roni Horn aka-2

From – ‘Roni Horn aka Roni Horn: Subject Index” – Whitney Museum of American Art 2009

The order switches round – older then younger.  On the left is a ‘cool’, ‘sharp’, androgynous individual in shades, with close-cropped hair, smooth skin, and turned-up collar, glancing at us, slightly open-mouthed but expressionless, as she/he is photographed in a city street.  Whilst on the right, a younger version of the ‘teenager’ smiles willingly but a little falsely, eyes narrowed and barely visible under a tangle of hair – all soft, uncertain edges and with no clearly discernable profile.  (And, are those dark, troubled patches under the eyes?)  Then, at the back of the book (these images are used as untitled end-marks), is this wistful pairing.

Roni Horn aka-3

From – ‘Roni Horn aka Roni Horn: Subject Index” – Whitney Museum of American Art 2009

A slightly older version of the little girl sits, arm tucked over the back of a chair, giving us the quietly confident, knowing stare again, besides an older version of the androgynous she/he.  Without the shades now, the portrait on the right fixes us with that same knowing look, but with a hint of weariness, the head lolling against a wall.  Knowing, as we do, that all these photographs are of the same person, we go searching for signs of similarity, difference, development, change.  Interesting, then, to see what Roni Horn has to say about ‘identity’.  The word gets more than one entry in ‘Subject Index’, and in one of them she says “The mutable version of identity is not an aberration … the fixed version is the aberration”.  Later, she speaks of “… the impossibility of pure identity … you will always be a form of me”.  In an interview (here), she talks about life as a ‘labyrinth’, which may have a way in and a way out but also has lots of routes that don’t lead to either.  She says “… that is your life: you don’t arrive anywhere”.

I suspect that, potentially, much of her work, of whatever form, involves questions about identity – even the sculptures and drawings – and the pairings appear everywhere e.g. ‘Things that happen again’; but another photographic project that is of particular interest to me is ‘Portrait of an Image (with Isabelle Huppert)’.  Horn invited actress Isabelle Huppert (as far as I can tell, they didn’t particularly know each other before) to be photographed  ‘impersonating’ herself in film roles that she had performed over the 30 years of her career.  In the same interview linked above, Horn says there was “something about the absurdity of impersonating yourself, which I think is actually real because self is not a singular thing – it never is” and “… the idea that you could impersonate yourself isn’t an absurdity, but a real active way of being present in the world”.  So, Huppert was being asked to reflect back, in performances for Horn’s camera, to find expressions, attitudes, feelings, gazes that belonged to those roles.

There is an article about Horn’s work on the Tate website, by art critic Elizabeth Lebovici – ‘Faces that speak volumes’ – in which she makes a comparison with another artist who ‘performed’ for the photographic apparatus – and one who defined herself in a ‘third gender’ – Claude Cahun.  By one of those quirky coincidences, two weeks ago and before I had been introduced to Horn’s work, I saw an exhibition of Claude Cahun’s images at Leeds Art Gallery (and had first encountered her in the ‘Angels of Anarchy: Women Artists and Surrealism’ exhibition at Manchester Art Gallery some years ago).

Cahun - Leeds

As Leborici points out, Cahun’s photographs, particularly those of herself in a variety of roles/identities, are actually the outcome of collaborations with her life-long partner, Marcel Moore. She was usually, it seems, the person behind the camera.  These works provoke some questions that are also running through my own mind in relation to my ‘self-portraits’.  (The now frequent use of inverted commas is no coincidence!)  Is her art performance art?  Given that she is in roles other than her own, can they be self-portraits?  (And that question can be extended, particularly, if we acknowledge that she didn’t look through the camera and press the shutter.)  But, given that Cahun was born Lucy Schwabb yet spent most of her life being Claude Cahun, does that alter the notions of performance and self?  What was her own identity?  Which leads us back to Roni Horn’s view that identity is impossible to pin down in any pure sense.

At present, in so far as it matters, I am inclined to think that my own work involves the use of photographic processes, together with my own body and some ‘props’, to create portraits which evoke the sense of ‘real’, recognisable (through all sorts of signification) identities.  These are not portraits of any version of ‘Stan’ that has ever existed, or ever will exist.  They are fictitious ‘real’ identities.  That could lead me to the view that I should refer to them as ‘portraits’.  Of course, it would be possible to take the view that these are portraits of me performing in the roles (back to the Horn/Huppert collaboration) and, since I have organised the whole set-up and, in all cases so far, pressed the shutter, they might be ‘self-portraits’.  However, I tend to feel that the question of ‘intent’ comes into play here.  And I do not intend them to be representations of any identity that is directly connected to a ‘Stan’ that I ‘perform’ or ‘have performed’ or ‘intend to perform’ – other than in this creative process.  Once my ‘authorship’ is complete, some viewers will no doubt read some element of ‘truth’ into the images; that is the nature of photography (and art).  But that is outside my control.  (And – if they don’t read at least some degree of ‘truth’, my process will not have succeeded in its objective!)

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2 thoughts on “Double Androgyny

  1. Catherine

    Very thought provoking. thank you for pointing me here Stan. It’s surprising how interested I’m getting into this whole concept of identity; I certainly never started out that way. It was just a case of me wanting to find my way in to taking some photographs of myself. Just shows what happens when people give encouraging feedback?

    Reply

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