Silly selfies, or notby ANTÓNIO CERVEIRA PINTO
Invitation to art in returning times of plagues and misery
Thirty-two adulterated Western art portraits and the explosive phenomenon of ‘selfies’ come together in black-and-white digital photo-montages by Joao Vilhena. Three of them are repeated in full color. As we write, photos shared every week on social media outnumber the world population. Time to resume some important topics of the late 19th and 20th centuries aesthetic discussions, notably those introduced by Rimbaud (“Je est un autre”), Walter Benjamin (“The camera introduces us to unconscious optics as does the psychoanalysis to unconscious impulses”), and Roland Barthes (“ça a été”).
Young Portuguese artist Joao Vilhena (Lisboa, 1983) learned sculpture and painting at ARCO art school in Lisbon. Vilhena’s artwork is about cinema, literature and visual arts, playing with great variety of media: painting, sculpture, photography and video. In 2005, he has published an unauthorized biography where his supposed death and fictional narrative evolve from private to public issues. Joao Vilhena has been doing self-portraits since 2003. By 2013 he began using his iPhone to play with Instagram selfies and impersonate several characters of known paintings, using for this purpose the Meisner technique of self-expression, learned from theatre director and friend John Frey.
To take selfies, as well as ‘silly selfies’, and publish them on social networks is common practice by Joao Vilhena and many other artists today. The critical point here is the translation of these selfies to something else when the artist moves them from his smart phone to an art gallery.
Using photo reproductions of painted portraits, depicted from European and American art, as background for superimposed self-portraits has good chance to reignite the discussion about portraits, self-portraits and photography, as an anthropological testimony of what in Freudian vocabulary we should call narcissism.
As Christopher Lasch so well put it:
More than anything else, it is this coexistence of hyper-rationality and a widespread revolt against rationality that justifies the characterization of our twentieth-century way of life as a culture of narcissism. These contradictory sensibilities have a common source. Both take root in the feelings of homelessness and displacement that afflict so many men and women today, in their heightened vulnerability to pain and deprivation, and in the contradiction between the promise that they “have it all” and the reality of their limitations. (1)Narcissism is an opponent force to rogue selves. To put it blatantly, this psychological powerhouse works against the danger of developing an everlasting immature personality and, on the opposite side, alienation. Narcissism is a necessary condition of art and a necessary drive to power, but not enough. Subjectivity, to become art, or power, needs an appropriate pool of genes, apprenticeship, peer revue, work, coherence, strategy, luck, sagesse, feeling, zeitgeist, visibility and resilience.
Real world, and cultural environments, that oppose to us an external strength —as space, time based events, and collective memory— are unavoidable ingredients of the social personality that impregnates ideas, actions and representations. Thinking, symbolic language, and images can make the fabric of society if in the presence of inter-subjectivity and social dynamics. The I and the Other are necessary agonistic elements of human life. Because of the huge continent of repression imposed upon us by the laws of physics and nature, but also by education and institutional consensus, we need some degree of freedom and anarchy in our intellectual and creative activities as a necessary counterpart to those systemic and massive external impositions.
The creative process of art is beyond mind-boggling selfishness and beyond herd flocking. Because of narcissistic half-nature of art, creativity do not allow alienation and reification to force artworks to become irredeemable shadows in dark caves. Moving back and forth is the narcissistic performance that keeps individuals and groups in equilibrium, enabling them to develop curiosity for knowledge and enjoy art, given the appropriate linguistic tools. From the repressed I to Others, as moving through lost paradise, oneness, and flesh, our face reflected by the lake is always alert.
As long as we are able to discuss taboos and dig the deep reservoir of irrationality using both science and art, the philosophical road is pleasurable.
Why does Joao Vilhena self-portraits almost everyday? As I measure the profusion of Instagram selfies around the planet, I guess these derivative displays work as pop-up backgrounds for more elaborate gestalts. Reality is greater and deeper than images, but do we see anything but pictures? Is any pure and abstract mental image different from a, let us say, sensual image of a lover breast?
To myself the first and relevant approach to an author’s work begins by judging his off-springs with no clue whatsoever about the artist’s ideology, preferences or intentions. I know this is a (post-Greenberg) Kantian methodology. I agree that it overrides context and language games in the first place, and that it dismisses cultural studies with a bang. I call on my defense though the heuristic argument stretching that this is a first instinctive step before the rational discourse that ought to be called in to defend my judgement. Instinct is a diversified and interconnected pile of layers though, not a virginal vibration of senses. It is because of the inherent subjectivity of art that she cannot be completely subsumed under a reasoning process, and this is also the circumstance that authorizes instinct to prevail as a necessary preliminary act of a fair aesthetic judgement.
In the Spring of 2013 I saw “American Psycho, 04” by Joao Vilhena, a large photograph depicting a man with a man in his arms, suggesting to my mind an homoerotic parody of Michelangelo’s Pietà.
There’s nothing to laugh about in this elegant and almost minimalist staged portrait. I see drama in it, but not the S&M inferno staged at the “Way of the Cross”. At first glance it seems a stage photography from some fashionable Opera performance. It is a cool picture. A few months later, Instagram ‘selfies’ by Joao Vilhena came to my Facebook News Feed almost on a daily basis. A different tale is now being told, nine years after the first photograph by Joao Vilhena that called to my attention.
The epistemological value of Smart photography
Never before has photography expanded in such a massive fashion as today. Smart photography is covering the entire planet not as an aftereffect of digital replication of all possible worlds only, but rather as a new skin. Understanding this all-over _-scopic_ drive is a huge task for many years to come. Radical transformations in the entire _technosphere_ as well as in arts and entertainment are in fast-forward mode to unknown territory. Never before subjectivity, cultural intercourse and science-technology were that close to each other, even if we should underline that this new proximity is still inconscient, and many of the actor-networks (ANTs) of the growing galaxy are still reluctant to properly discuss new collaboration protocols.
The following transcription of Walter Benjamin’s famous writing (2) is a clear anticipation of today’s Photography and should feed many discussions to come.
Evidently a different nature opens itself to the camera than opens to the naked eye – if only because an unconsciously penetrated space is substituted for a space consciously explored by man. Even if one has a general knowledge of the way people walk, one knows nothing of a person’s posture during the fractional second of a stride. The act of reaching for a lighter or a spoon is familiar routine, yet we hardly know what really goes on between hand and metal, not to mention how this fluctuates with our moods. Here the camera intervenes with the resources of its lowerings and liftings, its interruptions and isolations, it extensions and accelerations, its enlargements and reductions. The camera introduces us to unconscious optics as does psychoanalysis to unconscious impulses. (2)In the era of Photoshop, not to mention Staline’s removal of Trotsky from photos during the Russian Revolution, we should ask how far does photography tells you the truth. Technology can make both fake and true images of reality. Who’s to decide? A photograph of a familiar person or house is accepted as a testimony of existence and resemblance of that person and house, independently of the formal quality of the picture. A bad mobile snapshot, or a out-of-focus _snapmovie_ of my already gone dog, as well as an old carefully retouched photo of my mother done by a dedicated Oporto professional ninety-one years ago, show me beyond any doubt, scientific or other, that these beloved once living creatures existed, were as I see them today, thanks to photography, and that nothing changes this as I’m alive and keep this invaluable treasuries with me. The power of photography comes from the fact that it is an objective image recorded by a physical or computational algorithm, stronger than any human eye-hand capture. But it also derives from the narcissistic inner power of any portrait that in itself generates a special aura around representation. Roland Barthes captured the secret of photography with three words: “ça a été”, “this-has-been”.
Well over a billion photos are shared on social media every day. This huge quantity of portraits, self-portraits and other photo images raises new questions about the future of photography itself. How should museums and art museums in particular deal with this demographic explosion? What percentage of this population fit in an art category? Who’s to decide? Should we keep art bureaucrats and speculators in place? Do future museums have any other choice than becoming virtual? Take Joao Vilhena’s mutations, from selfies to _art as photography_. Where should we put these hybrids in a museum, or in a archive? How should we adapt our curatorial activity to this new stuff? Is this another issue for _cultural studies_ to dissect? What experts have to say about this?
When we do selfies by such great numbers what are the implications from a Rimbaud-Benjamin-Barthes point of vue? Are we simply tele-transporting ourselves to a digital planet? Are we extending reality into a new realm and preparing some preliminary stage of a future synthetic humanity? And if so, is it possible to extend otherness to pure mathematics and radical abstraction and recombine this stuff as a new bios in a not so distant future? Is there a secret plan underway that we know nothing about? Could it be done without artists knowing about it? I have my doubts.
Je est un autre
Maintenant, je m’encrapule le plus possible. Pourquoi? Je veux être poète, et je travaille à me rendre _Voyant_ : vous ne comprendrez pas du tout, et je ne saurais presque vous expliquer. Il s’agit d’arriver à l’inconnu par le dérèglement de _tous les sens_. Les souffrances sont énormes, mais il faut être fort, être né poète, et je me suis reconnu poète. Ce n’est pas du tout ma faute. C’est faux de dire : Je pense : on devrait dire : On me pense. - Pardon du jeu de mots.[I/O]
- Je est un autre. Tant pis pour le bois qui se trouve violon, et nargue aux inconscients, qui ergotent sur ce qu’ils ignorent tout à fait!
Now I am going in for debauch. Why? I want to be a poet, and I am working to make myself a clairvoyant: you won’t possibly understand, and I hardly know how to explain it to you. The point is to arrive at the unknown by the dissoluteness of _all the senses_. The sufferings are tremendous, but must be strong, to be born a poet, and I have recognized myself as poet. It is in no way my fault. It is wrong to say: I think. It should be said: I am thought. Pardon the pun.[E/O]
I is someone else. Much the worse for the wood that discovers it’s a violin, and to hell with the heedless who cavil about something that know nothing about! (3)
Agora vou debochar o mais possível. Porquê? Quero ser poeta, e trabalho para me tornar vidente: jamais compreenderá, e eu seria incapaz capaz lhe explicar. Trata-se de chegar ao desconhecido através do desregramento de todos os sentidos. Os sofrimentos são enormes, mas é preciso ser forte, nascer poeta, e eu reconheci-me como poeta. A culpa não é de todo minha. É errado dizer: Eu penso. Deveria dizer-se: Pensam-me. Desculpe o trocadilho.
— Eu é outro. Tanto pior para a madeira que se descobre violino, e que se lixem os inconscientes, que sofismam do que nada sabem! (3)
If anything, this famous letter by Rimbaud to his teacher, written at the age of sixteen, shows the inner drama of the Narcissus that lives in each of us, and frequently drive artists to great pains.
THIS TEXT WAS ORIGINALLY WRITTEN FOR
JOAO VILHENA — I/O
Galeria Luís Serpa Projectos, Lisboa
13 March > 30 April 2014
Opening 13 March 2014 [Thursday], 6pm > 8pm
Thru: April 30
Also on this exhibition and correlated talk:
Exhibition catalogue @ Puerta Cerrada
1. Lash, Christopher. _The Culture of Narcissism - American Life in An Age of Diminishing Expectations_. W. W. Norton & Company, Inc., New York, 1979. Quote in: “Afterword: The Culture of Narcissism Revisited” p.248 (1990).
2. Benjamin, Walter. _The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction_(1936).
3. Rimbaud, Arthur. _Lettres d’Arthur Rimbaud dites “du Voyant” / A Georges Izambard Charleville, 13 mai 1871_.
4. Rimbaud, Arthur. _Letters known as “of the Visionary” (Seer) / To Georges Izambard Charleville, 13th May 1871_.