“Slippage is everywhere, from the formation of our identities, to the architecture of our culture and subcultures.” Mark Rappolt “Doppelgangers,” in Look Up and Stay in Touch, Slater Bradley and Ed Lachman
Globalism, as an international economic and political movement, is made possible through technological advancements in travel and communications, shrinking the world’s geography and minimizing cultural differences. One result is an increased awareness of the randomness of distinct cultural differences—in terms of race, gender, and age—and the social laws governing individual identity. Incessantly projected and perceived onscreen, the self is becoming increasingly fluid and fractured. Photography, experiencing its own shifts in behavior and identity through digital advancements of the past few decades, mirrors and abets globalism’s leveling hand by both documenting specific peoples and places and submitting them to the great charnel house of the internet, where context and image integrity are continually obliterated.
Visions of the natural world reveal landscapes of dislocation: Katrín Elvarsdóttir’s photographs of abandoned, variously striped trailers sit unhitched and unkempt in the woods; the dark, driving current curving around a mountainous landscape in Adam Katseff’s River series is rendered in a near-monochrome palette that erases geographic and temporal identity; John Goto references and manipulates art historical imagery to create the alluring, then alarming, incongruity of a Classical pastoral setting into which human destruction and violence are introduced.
Political strife and economic hardship continue to drive millions of people from their homes towards boundaries both porous and impermeable, where entry, welcome, and exit signs are subject to shifting power structures. Dinh Q. Lê pays homage to the plight of the migrant and the refugee in his series, The Imaginary Country. Inspired by an ancient Chinese saying, “To seek a better life by crossing the four seas,” Lê’s images show a solitary figure seemingly walking on water, and a long line of people, carrying their belongings, wading out into an endless ocean. The artist, who left Vietnam as a young refugee, seeks to honor those who leave “their homeland for economic or political reasons, maybe not be choice but by necessity, in the hope and belief that there is a place that is better,” though that destination remains beyond the frame.
A self-identified itinerant photographer, Pierre Gonnord’s subjects are often nomadic as well. Large-scale, highly detailed, and dramatically lit, with dark, blank backgrounds, Gonnord’s images recall the paintings of Goya, Caravaggio, Velázquez and other old masters. Gonnord’s subjects belong to communities on the margins of conventional society—homeless urban youth, gypsies, tattooed Japanese gang members, miners’ families in rural Spain. Gonnord’s art transforms each into a vision of compelling, unexpected beauty and dignity. Like Gonnord’s sitters, the people Venetia Dearden documents in her Somerset project live largely unseen, off the grid and on the move in rural England. Elena Dorfman’s practice is inspired by the “remarkable beauty in subjects that, on the surface, might be dismissed as aberrant and unseemly. I am fascinated by the interplay between fiction and fact and the thin line that separates the two,” she says. Dorfman’s Fandomania series reveals the world of cosplay—a fan-based phenomenon where costumed participants dress as characters from video games, animated films, and Japanese graphic novels. Dorfman notes that, “cosplay has no boundaries, is unpredictable, open-ended.”
The signifiers of identity—sartorial and otherwise—are increasingly undefined and realigned, due both to shifting global demographics and broader understanding and acceptance of gender fluidity. Discerning which is the bride and which the groom in Drew Tal’s Arranged Marriage is at best difficult, but also potentially irrelevant to envisioning pathways to shared love and happiness. The luminous, sinewy limbs of the couple featured in Nandipha Mntambo’s photographs entwine and twirl, becoming both one and many, their male and female torsos switching places, changing roles. While Erwin Olaf and Mickalene Thomas garb their subjects in traditionally masculine and feminine clothing, their presentation and affect belies convention. Olaf’s Troy leans at the window, waiting, at home; while Thomas’ Portrait of Qusuquzah, presents a glamorous female figure posed with majestic solidity on a domestic throne. When positioned in the unknown of the outside world, the figures featured in works by Viviane Sassen, Youssef Nabil, Ruud van Empel, and others appear unmoored, even dreamlike. Navigating fantastical worlds of heightened or manipulated light and color, distinctions between the real, the imagined, and virtual begin to disappear. Robin Rhode’s 21st-century flâneur asserts his presence in an anonymous city by transforming space through transgressive, albeit temporary art: graffiti. With his back to the camera, Rhodes’ performance transports artist, viewer, and infrastructure into a magical, hybrid realm.
In the digital age, portraiture is projection. Connecting and communicating around the clock, we create and share multiple identities online, and seek affirmation onscreen. Transcending the limitations of location, time, and status, social media allows unprecedented access to the lives of others, nurturing an illusion of intimacy that may impact the perception and experience of individual selfhood. Slater Bradley’s Doppelganger series explores the relationship between celebrity, fan, and the fracturing of identity. Co-produced by Bradley and cinematographer Ed Lachman, Look Up and Stay In Touch reimagines the final film that starred River Phoenix, who is played here by Ben Brock, an actor whose resemblance to Bradley renders him a doppelganger (an uncanny double) for both the artist and the deceased celebrities—Kurt Cobain, Michael Jackson, and River Phoenix—he portrays in Bradley’s films and photos. Bradley’s complex identification with Phoenix as both subject and symbol enacts the fracturing of identity under the influence of the technoculture: At a time when blogs and social media allow us seemingly unlimited access to the personal lives of celebrities, how do we mourn their loss? How do we separate or integrate?
Assembling identity in the global, digital age requires integrating projections and perceptions of self and other across real and virtual platforms. Germán Gómez stitches his self-portraits together with photographs of his own and others’ bodies, layering and collaging faces, torsos, and limbs into amalgamations that reflect the artist’s experience of identity. “I cannot conceive of photography that is not autobiographical,” he says. For Gómez, the eye reveals the self, even when derived from a face not his own: “I focus on the gaze and this is and has been the connection, the string that connects my photography and my life.” Elmgreen & Dragset’s digital collage Ganymede (Jockstrap) combines Classical iconography and popular culture to express romantic obsession. According to Greek mythology, the young shepherd Ganymede became Zeus’s object of desire; to woo him, the god took the form of an eagle. The addition of a jockstrap aligns ancient and contemporary ideals of beauty, acknowledging the persistence of desire—even as love and lust become more fleeting in the age of digital pursuit.
Classical allusion also animates Sebastiaan Bremer’s Little Leda and the Swan, which combines an archival photograph with hand-drawn imagery. Bremer often mines family albums or uses biographical snapshots, which he then transforms into layered, psychologically charged networks of tiny dots, referencing the automatic handwriting of the Surrealists, the gaps inherent in memory, and the pixelated, mathematically derived appearance of some digital media. Paying homage to the ephemeral and ethereal, Bremer creates likenesses that, like memories and mythologies, alter, dissipate, and disappear over time.
Letitia Quesenberry maps memory and desire in peeled, a series of images derived from Polaroids she took daily over the course of a summer long past, a project undertaken in the midst of a romantic breakup. When Kodak terminated the production of Polaroid film, Quesenberry retrieved the photos, pulled them apart and printed the hazy, interior images on aluminum, affixing and aligning memory and media, and revealing the inherent instability of both. The fluid and fractured imagery of contemporary lens-based art illuminates the quest to envision who and where we may find ourselves to be when once-familiar coordinates of geographic, social, and psychological identity are subsumed in a mutable future.