The question of identity boomed at the moment in history when stories needed to change, and when the language was no longer considered as given. The Postmodernism philosophy, in particular, dominates around the topic of identity and identity art. The question of the “I”, and issues around representation, self-representation, and the staging of the “I”, influenced artists of different movements and periods in Art history. From the Renaissance period, artists investigated the self through portraits, or through the representation of the unreachable body of the angels. With the development of the painting medium and the birth of the photography, creators moved inward and approached the painted surface as the record, as the documentation of the marks that the artist’s” I” leaves behind. With the birth of photography, and the development of technology, not to mention the civilization as a whole, the questions around the presentation of the “I”, and the construction of the self, became a dominating topic for artists, as well as theoreticians and philosophers.
In the contemporary society, the shared view around the topic of identity and the identity artworks seems to be the one that suggests that the identity is fluid and under constant construction. The search for the understanding of the world around us demands also for the subject to understand the place it holds and the different roles that need to be acted out. The idea that the identity is not fixed creates the sensation that this term is often linked to the search and the position of vulnerability, not to mention the rejection of the dominant roles that certain groups were placed in. This rejection of the principal roles was more than investigated before with female artists that helped with the development of feminism thoughts and ideas. Possibly the pioneer figure that played around the female identity was Cindy Sherman. In her long-lasting artistic career, spanning over 30 years, Sherman presented a sustained, eloquent, and provocative exploration of the construction of contemporary identity and the nature of representation. Drawing from the unlimited supply of images from movies, TV, magazines, the Internet, and art history, Sherman captured herself in a range of appearances and personas. To create her photographs, the artist took on different roles of photographer, model, makeup artist, hairdresser, stylist, and wardrobe mistress, and created an intriguing world of different characters that rejected the stereotypical female roles. Exploring the roles and identities given to women, Sherman questioned the real, the artifice and fiction that label and restrict the freedom and the expression, and with her creations investigates the presentation of the self and the role-play that is often needed.
Is it possible to truly be ‘real’ and not to fake or try to be the best version of oneself? It seems to me, that this question echoes in the works of the most influential Pop artist, Andy Warhol. Known for imposing life as a dominating factor in his art, the artist created a certain superstar persona around himself and his Factory. The original self, the copy of oneself, or where does the “I” reside, was investigated or challenged when the artist placed a camera in front of different celebrities and left the room. The Screen Tests, or Warhol’s underground movies, showcase the investigation of the identity. With these screen tests, Warhol challenged the sitter to face himself to the gaze of the camera. We notice the shift of the mood and also the breaking of the stiff stance. The longest to hold his persona personality apparently was the famous painter Salvador Dali. It was with these films that we become aware of the fact that the identity is a construction and we realize the shift and the change of the setting that the “I” is projected into. The modernization of the world around us, and the birth of the capitalism influenced the fluid and shape-shifting identity. The need to be real and to be presented is challenged in Warhol’s films and through such over-representation we become aware of the vulnerability and the loss of the real in most of us.
It is with the feeling of loss or the feeling of the restriction that the search for the identity began. The presentation of the ego and the body itself was of interest to many artists that looked and investigated the self and the performance of the self. This concern was possibly most evident in the rise of performance and body art movements. With performance art, the role of the artist and the body itself became the subject of the work of art. By investigating the limits of the body, and the ephemeral quality of the performance itself, artists Marina Abramovic and Ulay pushed themselves to the breaking points from which the new knowledge of the self, and the dominating female and male roles could be challenged. Seeing the performance art as the movement that investigates the space, the time and the subject, this art category was viewed as the aesthetic discourse, which investigates what it means "to be", and it emphasizes each gesture or movement of the artist as the symbol for the understanding of the “I”.
One of the most interesting artists investigating the question surrounding the topic of identity is Martha Wilson. Her focus lies in the investigation of the dominant female roles and also on the social perception and the self-reflection through other people. Her photography, similar to the photography of Cindy Sherman, in her early work challenge the roles and predominated demands placed on women. For all of her work, the starting point is the vulnerability and her recent works, investigate the invisibility of the older, nor so attractive woman. Confronting herself to the gaze of the camera and later through her performance work, to the gaze of the audience, Wilson touches upon the impossibility of the perfect image and the constant demand of such an image.
It is very difficult to speak about the true identity or to investigate the different approaches to the presentation of the self that many artists engaged themselves and their work in. The variety of starting points and mechanisms used to investigate the identity in this article is only lightly touched upon. From the early Renaissance art to the Contemporary art of today, the artists investigated the self through painting, drawing, photography and performance art. The alter ego’s, the influence of the different dominating and restricted roles, were challenged by the artists today and also of the artists in the past. The existential questions will always shape and push the artist’s spirit forward. Always asking for freedom and self-expression, many different artists to follow will for sure engage in the research of identity art, and will focus on the search for the self within the contemporary and fragmented world.
Editors’ Tip: Body Art: The Body as Language
The Body and Performance art is often considered the most important form of art that explores the identity question. Focusing on the moment and the body of the artist, it also involves the body of the audience as well. This book is a direct testimony of the birth and the development of the art movement that appeared in 1974. Featuring documentation, original films and photographs, videotapes, happenings, the book analysis through texts by the artists themselves, the evolution of this art phenomenon.
Featured image in slider: Cindy Sherman - Untitled Film Still # 21, 1978. Image via photoblog.nbcnews.com. All images used for illustrative purposes only.