From December 9 until New Year’s Day, the first thing you’ll see when you enter the Institute of Contemporary Art is a mural of repetitive portraits—all representing the same woman, but each one subtly warped.
This woman is Gillian Wearing, lifetime member of the Royal Academy of Arts in London and the 1997 winner of Britain’s fine arts award, the Turner Prize. She focuses her celebrated photography exhibitions on exploring her sense of self in the public eye.
For the ICA’s site-specific installation, Rock ‘n’ Roll 70, studio portraits of Wearing were digitally altered by age-progression technology. Each photo represents a different possibility of what the artist may look like in two decade’s time, at age 70.
The concept of aging and its effect on physical appearance is often shunned in popular culture and, indeed, in the art world. In many genres of traditional portrait painting, from Rembrandt’s realism to Pablo Picasso’s broken aesthetic, artists would often paint younger and romanticized versions of themselves.
Here, rather than shying away from wrinkles and gray hair, Wearing creates a collage of predictions—a wallpaper acting as a crystal ball—and displays it at the entrance of a world-famous museum. In a world of superficiality, it is a calm and purposeful rebellion.
The desire to present oneself in the best light is not a new phenomenon, but the rise of social media and “selfie culture” seems to have exacerbated the search for a flattering angle.
Selfie culture describes the omnipresence of people taking photos of themselves, often sharing them on social media afterwards. While at first it may have seemed an innocent fad paralleled with the rise of MySpace, destined to burn out like many before it, photos featuring up-close headshots and outstretched arms have only become the new normal.
With the dominance of platforms like Facebook and Instagram, paired with new technology like Photoshop, selfies have become a way to document the best aspects of one’s life and appearance.
“Self-portraits have often tried to present people in the best light,” said Curatorial Assistant Jessica Hong, who helped organize the commissioned Rock ‘n’ Roll 70. “Perhaps due to the technological advances, now it’s become more individualized and more of an independent endeavor. Photoshop allows us to present the best image of ourselves.”
According to Hong, Wearing is interested in working within the context of Dramaturgy, a sociological perspective popularized by sociologist and writer Erving Goffman.
A key aspect of this perspective is front stage versus backstage personalities: what we want others to see versus what we conceal. We perform our desired personalities, how we want to be perceived, while the backstage represents our true selves.
“[Wearing] is interested in bringing this backstage self to the front stage,” Hong said. “Right now, narcissism drives the identity of oneself, which is actually pretty fragile.”
This performativity is arguably present in all self-portraits: whether it is a Snapchat that disappears in 10 seconds or Rembrandt’s Self-Portrait, Age 23 (1629) hanging in the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, they were created for public consumption.
Alastair Sooke writes in the 2014 BBC article “Did Rembrandt invent the selfie?” that our current, image-obsessed culture will someday be known by social historians as the “Age of Narcissism”—but that doesn’t exclude past generations from indulging in the same type of self-study and egotism.
In Rembrandt’s portraits, for example, he compares himself to other great painters and flaunts his superior methods: “His implied boast isn’t as brazen as the self-aggrandizement that we often find in today’s selfies, but it suggests that even great artists aren’t immune from showing off,” writes Sooke.
Currently on display at the MFA is UH-OH, an autobiographical exhibit from artist and writer Frances Stark. It features visual poetry, collages, video installations and—most strangely—a slideshow of Stark’s Instagram photos set to the Velvet Underground’s “What Goes On.”
“A little over two years ago Stark joined Instagram with the username @therealstarkiller. She has posted more than 2,800 images of anything and everything: flowers, her son, herself, her artwork, what she’s reading, what she sees when she’s driving, and more,” reads the piece’s description.
The casual nature of the photos speaks to an intimacy that many great artists hope to achieve. Art has the ability to transcend physical location, time and space and forge unspoken connections with legions of people.
Is “liking” an Instagram post much different?
“I believe the wish to see yourself in a painting, a photograph, a selfie comes all from the same desire of making ourselves seen in order to be reassured of our existence,” said Birthe Piontek, a German-born visual artist living in Vancouver BC, Canada.
“I also think the images on social media of how we look, what we ate, what we wear, where we have been, are an attempt to have our lives validated by others,” Piontek said. “You share it and then you wait for others to like it. And of course it also creates connectivity and the feeling of belonging. All these needs have always existed.”
Social media punctiliously documents our day-to-day lives, from tweeting a transitory shower thought to acknowledging a friend’s birthday with a Facebook wall post. It creates never-ending, evolving scrapbooks of the mundane, exciting and notable aspects of our lives, all wrapped together.
A centerpiece of UH-OH is the selection of “chorus girl” collages from Stark’s series A Torment of Follies (2008). These pieces depict girls’ bodies made from psychedelic patterns, designed to trick the eye into perceiving movement.
The girls are accompanied by scraps of writing, such as “Probably, however, the work was to a certain extent born as a result of co-existence with real persons.”
In fact, Stark utilizes text throughout the exhibit, using emails from friends and online conversations as standalone pieces of art.
These “chorus girl” pieces highlight an underlying theme throughout Stark’s exhibit: the changeability of human nature and its tendencies to shift based on other peoples’ reactions.
In May, Boston’s Flash Forward Festival presented Piontek’s photography exhibit Mimesis. The series represents real people in fictional ways by appropriating and reinterpreting original photographs, which were all found in thrift stores, flea markets or on eBay.
“The thought of projection is very important in the work,” Piontek said. “Every portrait I take is a projection of my narrative onto the other person.”
After acquiring the images, Piontek scans them into her computer for a “trial and error” process of reinterpretation. She then physically alters the originals using materials like fabric, glass, paint, foil and ink.
“I want the viewer to rethink the object-qualities of an image, its materiality and characteristics,” Piontek said. She explores the relationship between the photo itself and the person depicted: “the question if an image is only a copy of the original or if it can be its own original entity.”
The final results—not completely unlike Wearing’s digital alterations—speak to the fleeting nature of the self. In short, appearance doesn’t even begin to scratch the surface, both figuratively and literally. But that doesn’t stop people from making assumptions and trying to look deeper, extrapolating depth from a single snapshot.
“While the image might just show a snippet of the complexity of a person’s existence in this very moment, it is very much part of the person,” Piontek said.
“While I think that images can do a tremendous job in expressing certain emotions and tapping into the complexity of our identity, I don’t think that all the complex layers we’re made of can be accurately shown through images,” Piontek said. “But trying it is what is fascinating and meaningful.”
This article was originally published in the Fall 2016 issue of the Buzz magazine. Art courtesy of Birthe Pointek, page design by Jami Rubin.