Exercise: Project 2 Masquerades – Trish Morrissey

Exercise: would you agree to Morrissey’s request if you were enjoying a day on the beach with your family? If not, why not? Morrissey uses self-portraiture in more of her work, namely Seven Years and The Failed Realist. Make notes on these projects in your learning log.

Trish Morrissey’s (1967-) photographs, like Nikki S. Lee, also include elements of performativity and blur boundaries of identity, reality and fiction. “Front” is a series of twelve images of friends and family groups at the English seaside (one was also shot in Melbourne). They seem to have a domestic vernacular, a family album appearance. Yet, when you look closely you notice that there is a face that is common to each of the images, someone who reappears in each of the different groupings but in different guises.

In constructing “Front” Morrissey was interested in identity but also boundaries, the beach being a metaphor for a liminal space between the chaos of nature as represented by the sea and the relative stability of the land behind. She also chose the beach because it is a space where it is common for groups to arrive and delineate their space, marking out a territory with towels, windbreaks, chairs and other objects denoting temporary ownership. The beach is a space where there can be new norms of behaviour and given that most people are partially clothed the beach goers are both voyeurs and exhibitionists at the same time.

These are collaborative photographs where Morrissey approached groups at the seafront and asked if she could stand in for one of the women in the group. She exchanged clothes with them and they took the photograph (Morrissey having set up the shot). In replacing a member of the group Morrissey breaches both a psychological and a physical boundary, stepping into someone else’s shoes physically and metaphorically.

She created the shots in dialogue with the groups and they were told about how the images would be used. Participants were informed the photographs would be part of an exhibition and a book. Like Lee she decided not to use model release forms. There was also a reciprocity built into the process because in exchange for their participation they were given a family or group photograph taken by Morrissey. In order to gain access she wandered the beach researching who she might approach, she also carried clothes with her to change into so she could appear part of the tribe before making her request.

As complicit participants the authorship of the work becomes shared.
Morrissey

It might have been interesting for Morrissey to contrast the photos of the original group with those showing her as the cuckoo in the nest to be able to really explore the changing identities and dynamics in the groups.

Would I have agreed to participating? Initially, I thought probably not. If I had been out for the day I might not have wanted to have been disturbed by this stranger with her camera. But on consideration I would have hoped I would have agreed not least to have been able to explore the differences I mention above – what would my family group have looked like with me replaced by someone else? How is my identity influenced by my social groups and what would have happened in replacing me by someone else in my clothing? Someone who would at the same time look familiar yet be unfamiliar. Would I have a sense of my own demise and departure from the group?

In terms of her other self-portraiture projects “Seven Years” also addresses the notion of the family album and to me continues the phototherapy/re-enactment photography (Spence & Martin, 1985) influences found in Morrissey’s earlier work in her parental home. In her review Flannery referred to it as autofiction:

Morrissey’s work is…extremely self-reflective. Not only is she examining the everyday fruits of her own chosen art medium in the hands of the layperson and the covert significance of these images, but Seven Years and the accompanying two video pieces imitate and deconstruct the parameters of her own family life as she saw it growing up. For this reason ‘autofiction’, a term normally associated with literature, seems appropriate.
Flannery, Circa Art Magazine, 2005

The Failed Realist feels very different in tone and shows Morrissey directly addressing the camera in her own right. The series was created some years after both Seven Years and Front. It is named after a psychological concept in child development coined by Georges-Henri Luquet (1927/2001) and refers to the stage where a child’s desire to represent their world visually is limited by their physical and cognitive capabilities. The series was made with Morrissey’s daughter, who between the ages of four and five enjoyed face painting but preferred painting her Mum over having her own face painted.

Instead of the usual motifs of butterfly, or flower, she would decide to paint something from her immediate experience – a movie she had just watched, a social event, a right of passage, or a vivid dream. Beyond the innocence of the child’s intention, more sinister themes such as clowns, carnival and the grotesque are evoked by these mask like paintings.
Morrissey

The face painting does evoke the sense of a mask with echoes perhaps of Morrissey’s earlier influence of Ralph Eugene Meatyard. As Morrissey states they are unusual motifs for the more familiar playfulness of face painting. Once again boundaries are being tested and shifted between mother and daughter (the latter painting the former rather than vice versa), between subject and camera, between reality and fantasy.

References

Spence, J., & Martin, R. (1985). New portraits for old: the use of the camera in therapy. Feminist Review, 19, 66-92.

http://www.rosymartin.info/performative_body.html
http://www.trishmorrissey.com/works_pages/work-tfr/statement.html

Trish Morrissey, Seven Years, Gallery of Photography, Dublin, 4 March to 3 April 2005

Putting ourselves in the frame: self-portraiture

Title: Project 1 Autobiographical Self Portraiture

Exercise: Reflect on the pieces of work discussed in this project and do some further research of your own.

Reflections:

The moment when a man comes to paint himself – he may do it only two or three times in a lifetime, perhaps never – has in the nature of things a special significance. Lawrence Gowing, 1962

It seems the reasons for creating self-portraits are many and varied, but most have in common a desire to share the human condition. Self-portraits can explore politics, issues of representation, personal trauma, or celebration. Sometimes the images make me uncomfortable, I feel voyeuristic; the act of looking at people I don’t know who seem to be sharing their deepest vulnerabilities sits uneasily. This may in part be influenced by the fact that I am deeply uncomfortable about being on the other side of the viewfinder. Sometimes I connect in a way I could not have imagined, the image speaks to me of myself as much as of someone else.

Narcissism: self-admiration; sensual gratification found in one’s own body, whether as a normal stage of development or a pathological condition. The Chambers Dictionary, 9th Ed.

In the research I have done on various photographers’ self-portraits I don’t think they are narcissistic in the pathological sense (although that may be hard to say without having met them in person), yes they may be regarded as self-absorbed in that they are exploring something of personal importance to the photographer or artist. In many cases their self-absorption is giving the viewer something to reflect on or learn from. One set of images was particularly arresting and Laura Hospes is very articulate about her motives.

At first, I made this complete series for myself, to deal with the difficulties and express my feelings, … After that, I want to inspire people who are or have been in a psychiatric hospital. I want them to see my pictures and recognize themselves in it. I hope they feel taken seriously, less crazy and less alone.  Hospes

I find Hospes images incredibly arresting and troubling. I wonder how a young woman finds herself in such circumstances, and then has the capacity to record her experience. It reminds me of the stories I read when doing assignment one on Brookwood Asylum and contemporary attitudes to issues of mental health. From Hospes’ willingness to share her personal story I am connected to a world of wider stories. I am grateful to her for putting the images in the public domain – I am not sure it is something I could ever do.

In their summer exhibition Turner Contemporary posed an interesting question about self-portraiture, noting in particular the growth of the ‘selfy’ phenonmenon.

In a world where ‘selfies’ have become everyday expressions and ‘Britishness’ is being redefined, what is the role of self-portraiture and how has it shifted through the history of art to the present day? Turner Contemporary: Self, image and identity

Sadly, I didn’t get to see the exhibition but the range of works from Van Dyck to Yinka Shonibare suggests a dynamic genre that shows no sign of abating. The review headline in the Guardian speaks of ‘bagginess’ rather than dynamism and its title suggests a perhaps stark view of the point of self-portraiture but by the end of the piece I think the potential power in the works is acknowledged.

Me me meme: artists’ selfies paint the full spectrum of self-obsession