Meandering through The Sum of Myself

December 2, 2009

Another self-portraiture show? That was the initial response from many when our current exhibition The Sum of Myself: Photographic Self-Portraits from the Audrey and Sydney Irmas Collection first came into being. But, hello to all of you out there blogging, tweeting, tumbling, and facebooking—today’s technology, nearly second nature to so many people, might be perceived as simply another layer of navel gazing (excuse me, self-portraiture), so to me this exhibit seems more relevant than ever. The most current form of internet “self-presentation” is on view in this exhibit by way of a sublime, multiple-video installation by Natalie Bookchin, entitled Testament, which was completed with BCAM’s galleries specifically in mind.

But I’m starting at the end of the story first. Before the internet and the permutations that Natalie wrought, we have an entire history of photography by way of more traditional means. The collection, however, is not displayed chronologically but in thematic groupings, a thoroughly non-linear path ending with Bookchin.

Natalie Bookchin, Testament, 2009 (still detail from video installation), Ralph M. Parsons Fund, © Natalie Bookchin

One of my favorite line-ups includes a wall with a Robert Doisneau (1953) using the classic optic tool, a mirror, which leads to an Anne Collier (2004) disco ball, and on to Anton Stankowski— who?—who cares; it’s a stunning 1937 multiple exposure, pre-photoshop, pre-everything; and ends with a funhouse distortion by Berenice Abbott (1930).

Clockwise from top left: Robert Doisneau, Self Portrait, c. 1953, Anne Collier, Mirror Ball, 2004, Anton Stankowski, Simultaneous Enlargement, 1937, Berenice Abbott, Portrait of the Author as a Young Woman, c. 1930

To be honest, this is the way I typically travel the museum. Much as we try to hand you a very well-considered roadmap as you enter, when I tour friends through the galleries I hopscotch madly over styles and time periods. There are many such wanderings within this exhibit, moving from the more predictable photo tricks with mirrors, reflection, and distortion, to the use of light, shadow, and repetition…

Leonard Nimoy, Self Portrait, 2003

…to more complex photo collage/montage work…

Claude Cahun, I.O.U. (Self Pride), 1929–1930

…and from that, further into abstraction—the one place most people still believe photography isn’t supposed to go.

Lucas Samaras, Photo Transformation 8/19/76, 1976

After this, things become increasingly more theatrical, branching out from conceptual works by Bruce Nauman and Duane Michaels to heightened domestic scenarios by Catherine Opie.

Bruce Nauman, Study for Holograms, 1970, Catherine Opie, Self Portrait, 1993

A final grouping, experienced just before entering the Bookchin piece, is a wall of seven artists whose gaze is so strong and pure they stop you in your tracks—and this after two rooms of repeating selves. Nan Goldin stares unflinchingly at herself in a mirror despite the darkened room; Diane Arbus stands semi-nude and pregnant (a photo sent to her husband to announce her pregnancy); and Robert Mapplethorpe’s face looms dramatically out of a black void, complete with the foreboding skull cane as prop.

Clockwise from top: Nan Goldin, Self Portrait in the Mirror at the Lodge, Belmont, MA, 1998, Diane Arbus, Self Portrait in Mirror, 1945 (detail), Robert Mapplethorpe, Self Portrait, 1988. All images in this post: The Audrey and Sydney Irmas Collection

Ideally, by exhibition’s end you can no longer readily say what defines self-portraiture. If your visit to this show left you with a question mark, not an answer, then something about this meander was done right.

Eve Schillo, Curatorial Assistant, Wallis Annenberg Photography Department


Emily Lacy: Temples of the Mind

December 1, 2009

Throughout December and January, artist-in-residence Emily Lacy will be performing in the Pavilion for Japanese Art. Emily first performed at LACMA in 2008 as part of the Machine Project Field Guide to LACMA—now compiled in a book, launching this week.

Emily’s current project, titled Temples of the Mind, involves electronic and acoustic sound and vocal projections. I sat down with Emily as she was developing the project on-site to talk about her work.

LACMA: Why did you choose the Pavilion for Japanese Art as a site for your performance?

EMILY: It just feels like a very meditative space. It’s a circular, organic space that you can really get lost in. One day I was sitting in there on one of the decks, kind of on the edge of the space, and I felt like I was inside a canyon looking down. I just fell in love with the space. It feels like a place where something’s supposed to happen, but it’s not exactly clear what that is. The building is performing.

LACMA: What is it like working in a museum space like this one?

EMILY: People come here to have an experience. I feel that, as artists, part of our job is to continually question what that experience is and to add to it through our own work. I’m creating an environment; it’s a visual, sonic, social environment. And it’s constantly being transformed.

LACMA: Tell us about your process.

EMILY: It’s very exciting to be able to build a relationship to the space over a series of weeks, spontaneously creating soundscapes and feeling how it works in the space. I use delay pedals, where you’re able to input a signal—whether it’s a voice or an instrument—and it starts to play back and then you can just create layers and layers and layers. By working with a whole series of pedals I can multiply this process of output and degradation of the sound.

This project came out of a residency I did at Machine Project where I played in their gallery window almost every day for six weeks. I had no idea what was going to come of that but I realized that this was a process I wanted to do again and again.

LACMA: For those that aren’t familiar, what is Machine Project and how has it influenced your work?

EMILY: Machine Project is an art gallery in Echo Park that has been around for about five years now. It’s really an incubator for artistic ideas. I would say that Machine Project is like a cabinet of curiosities where any number of things can happen: a lecture, a class, a performance, an installation. It has really helped me to develop my work over the past few years, and especially collaborating with Mark Allen. He has just expanded my view of the parameters of musical performance.

Mark once raffled off an experience, where I would provide musical accompaniment for a dental cleaning that Machine Project paid for. It was an amazing experience, and so strange. The first few moments were incredibly awkward. Then in about the fifth or sixth minute, it’s like the most logical thing in the world. It got me thinking about the parameters for a one-on-one performance.

LACMA: Is that sort of experience the basis for the Hermit’s Cabin, the second component of your residency at LACMA?

EMILY: Yes, that process led directly to the Hermit’s Cabin. The Hermit’s Cabin is a tiny space for people to come in, one to two people at a time, and we’ll just have an experience where I sing for them. I’m interested in providing this kind of mystical experience, almost like I’m a wizard or a fortuneteller.

I think throughout time, there is this recurring image of the cabin or the lodge out in the woods as a place of reckoning.

LACMA: What is it like for you, as an artist, to collaborate with an institution like LACMA?

EMILY: It feels like a very important thing because it’s allowing me to experiment. I’m a musician and I’m making music but I prefer to make it in this context, as opposed to a music club or venue where you expect to hear music. The expectations of people who come into an art gallery or a museum space are just a little bit more open. LACMA is creating a context for this to happen and it’s creating an avenue for me to develop this work and to work it out and see what’s possible.

Emily begins performing this Thursday in the Pavilion for Japanese Art. On Saturday, we’ll also be celebrating the launch of Machine Project Field Guide to the Los Angeles County Museum of Art from 7 to 9 pm, with a performance by Emily from 6 to 7 pm.

Amy Heibel, Manager of Contemporary Public Programs and New Media


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