Me, my other self and I: exploring the functions of the alter-ego in contemporary visual arts practice
Here is the Abstract for my recent Masters by Studio Research Project (followed by some anecdotes about Winifred)
The focus of this project is a creative investigation of the significance and function of the alter-ego in contemporary visual art, specifically in relation to sculpture, installation and video.
Artists, including myself, frequently develop characters or different personalities in and through their work in order to present an alternate, idealised or transformed self or as a tactic to investigate a different approach to their practice. These alternative constructed selves can function in diverse ways, often as a strategy for transgression, dispensing with accountability and/or for maintaining the freedoms and possibilities of a mutable identity.
Central to my research has been the development of a series of artefacts that are made through, about or in response to a variety of my own alter-egos. Initially I inhabited three discrete alter-egos that were variations of myself, as an artist, in order to be able to observe and compare how they might operate and form an intra-subjective discourse. These version ‘excursions’, being Winifred, Edith and Sadie, can be more accurately described as semi-alter-egos because although the personalities are not entirely mine they are not different from but rather simply ‘mutilations’ of my personality. They were initially outlined as Edith the struggling, self-effacing but creative loser, Winifred the straight faced, repressed, serious investigator brimming with curiosity and Sadie the successful, relaxed and happy self-enhancer for whom art and life flow.
The alter-egos evolved through changes of my appearance, behaviour and biographical data. Evidence is manifest through the amassing of fragments of images, artworks, video and photo documentation. The conception of Winifred, Edith and Sadie as artists allowed me to ground my activities in the studio around objects and materials through a project that was essentially a process. A critique of the art world is implied through the various strategies and responses of the alter-egos. The process eventually involved killing off these particular personae to more fully engage with questions of ‘becoming’ through a less contrived more unknowing approach to emerging alter-egos.
This project deals with complex philosophical issues without foregrounding a theoretical approach. The emphasis is on the generative potential through studio-based research in the area of visual arts. The artefacts, consisting of video, photographic and sculptural objects, which integrate and refer to one another and to the exegesis, constitute the greater part of my thesis. The artefacts were not conceived as an ‘exhibition’ but are residue of the research process.
The written exegesis elucidates the line of research undertaken within the studio practice with reference to personal perspectives and contemporary conceptions of the self. The exegesis also documents an exploration into the device and use of the alter-ego in recent visual arts practice and analyses how these constructed selves might permit, reveal, conceal or operate as projections of inner states or fulfilments of desire. My studio experiments and construction of artefacts have been informed by critical analysis of these functions and the ways in which they related or diverged from my own motivation and utilisation of the alter-ego. I briefly consider the area which includes abnormal psychological conditions such as the multiple personality and the splitting of the subject.
1. She used to wear those ridiculous, heavy, dark spectacles like Saddam Hussein. I’m not sure if she was just totally time-warped or if she thought she was tremendously groovy and cutting it in the style stakes….. I guess I’ll never know now.
2. She was really into constructing things, geometric things with wiring. I always remember these rigid little structures with wires coming out. I couldn’t see much rigour to her art practice although heaven knows she tried to look like she knew what she was doing.
3. Stiff and starchy is how I would describe her. Miserable. Although twice I caught her smiling to herself which suggested some kind of amusing inner life.
4. I know she went to her studio every day and would always wear a white coat. It seemed to imply some kind of serious, scientific approach but I could almost imagine her behind a perfume counter in a department store. She had the hard, red lips and her hair was always immaculately bobbed.
5. The works I like best are those simple ones where she just stacked things up as if to see just how high she might make them. She should have kept on like that. She didn’t need to be clever.
6. She did these performances where, I think she tried to discover things about matter, sort of like an old-fashioned science show on TV crossed with a not very stylish cooking show. She’d wear this prim, white uniform and you’d sort of be expecting a punch line but then nothing really happened.
7. The intellectual façade really operated to conceal the fact that she was barely able to articulate anything much. She struck me as slightly retarded.
8. She feared idleness and the lack of discipline and rigour inherent in a life without constraints and obligations. Even within her art practice the idea of being free to make objects without function or purpose made her anxious and necessitated the development of some rules.
9. Brutal is the only word I can think of to describe the environment that she lived in. Her townhouse was a modern city box with no windows on three sides. The outlook from the front was directly onto the walls of another row of houses. There was a dark chasm between. That’s where her body was found.
10. It is said that formerly she had a professional career as an architect but it came to an abrupt end due to some unexplained behaviours and a mysterious incident.
11. She did seem to have some kind of obsession with buildings and constructing models of dwellings. She’d like to have been Callum Morton before he became a pedagogue really!
12. I remember seeing a live performance in Switzerland where she primly appeared in her tight, white lab coat and horn-rimmed spectacles. All of a sudden she ripped open the front exposing her chest with a gaping wound over her heart. She plugged it with polyfilla then smoothed foundation over the surface rendering it invisible. It was astonishing!
13. She confessed to me once that she had to navigate her way around the supermarket with utmost care avoiding particular products…..because if she caught sight of chocolate biscuits and chocolate cakes she would begin to salivate. This reflex was unrelated to hunger….just the visual stimulation would make liquid stream into her mouth…..too much to swallow sometimes….she’d have to rush into the street and spit!
14. For a while there seemed to be a theme developing in her performance oevre around ingestion and regurgitation.
15. Chocolate cake was often involved in her performative behaviours. She obviously really liked it but would try to go too far and eat too much. This never seemed to dampen her enthusiasm for using it as a material.
16. I reckon she had an eating disorder.
17. One video performance piece involved her pulling sponge bricks from her mouth and building a house…..it evoked a sense of fullness.
18. Often her artistic activities became quite obsessive. For several months she attempted to build endless columns with newspaper balls. It was something to do with Brancusi and recycling, a kind of fucked up monu-mentalism.
19. If one observed her closely it was possible to detect some disturbance in her peripheral vision. She’d twitch and blanch but try and remain cool. I think she saw threatening figures to the side.
20. Once I met a man who revealed to me that he had snuck up on her when she was alone in the studio one night and he surreptitiously observed her swigging Grand Marnier and shaking her booty to Snoop Doggy Dogg and Warren G!
21. Her aspirations involved being reductive. I think she wanted to make minimal, clean, clear looking things but she couldn’t control herself and had too many random thoughts and ideas.
22. There was this obsession with rules. She would make them and break them over and over. Secretly.
23. I don’t want to sound negative so I have to mention that she made some compelling performance videos…however…one really has to wonder what she thought she was doing.
24. There’s no doubt she was a dedicated and intense woman but the overall impression one got was that she was utterly daft.
25. She was upright and formidable. She scared the shit out of me.
26. I really felt that beneath the controlled façade lurked a woman with deep psychological problems.
27. She never mentioned her childhood although I know she attended a highly regarded grammar school and had academic potential. Perhaps the constant irrepressible desire to eat chocolate cake ultimately thwarted her.
28. In her art she attempted to reject subjective practices and erect new objective methodologies in their place.
29. She started making those funny little houses or hutches in about 1975. Back then I think she would merely set herself the task of taking some found materials to build a dwelling……the crucial bit seemed to be to make it strong.
30. She had a habit of reinforcing all her little buildings with putty and clay and plaster and papier-mache. There was this constant need to make shonky structures stable, to make flexible joints rigid. No matter how flimsy they looked or how impoverished the materials……the strengthening was always evident.
31. The attempt to make these dwellings invincible was pathetic really. I think she imposed a similarly impossible expectation of invulnerability on herself. The cool demeanour, crisp, white coat, the black framed, big-arsed glasses and hard red lips……
32. What a bitch!
33. Eventually the need to shore up these structures became paramount but at the same time somehow things teetered on the edge of being beyond her control…. She began the process of developing systems and rules within which to operate in an absolute and logical manner to direct the design and the creation of the three dimensional object.
34. Her flesh was so smooth. She always kept it covered up. It’s rumoured she had a lover who broke her heart just before she died. He must have been a real fuck-head!
Compiled by Sarah crowEST, 2006 (after Christian Boltanski)