What is identity?
The question might seem silly, but the topic of identity is one that many artists frequent, often in multiple examinations and different angles. We already know identity to be mutable, but how in control are we of the way we feel and present ourselves? How does our personality construct our identity, or how much does culture construct our identity? Now before you go off and start quoting Fight Club, know that I am not necessarily referencing the idea of harboring multiple personalities-- that is a different beast entirely. Rather, I am insinuating that identity can be as meaningful or meaningless as you make it, but confounding all the same. Our relationship with our own identity, as well as the identities of others, is heavily dependent on our personal philosophies about the state of being.
Now that I’m done being metaphysical, on to the art:
Cindy Sherman is one of the most beloved American photographers of the 20th century. She is often considered a feminist icon (though she doesn’t fully embrace the stereotypical feminist rhetoric nor does she overtly label herself a feminist). Regardless of her personal classification, her art has aligned itself with inherent feminist questions about gender, identity, and media. In her work, Sherman transforms herself by way of costume, make-up, lighting, and atmosphere. She sometimes designs elaborate sets, or she transports herself to a place that convenes well with her ensemble. Her self portraiture, especially her series, "Untitled Film Stills," are a capricious and disorienting glimpse into the persona of different female characters, especially in close association with American media in the 50’s and 60’s.
The reason I describe the experience as disorienting is because, while obviously emulating archetypes, there is something altogether too convincing about her portrayals. You begin to see where one persona transforms into another because there are so many in rotation that they begin to blend.
Cindy Sherman, Still #54, 1980
Image credit: Viola Renate on Flickr
After viewing Sherman’s works, I began to closely evaluate myself and the behavior of others. Think closely about how you choose to dress, how you act, what you say and even how you choose to speak. Think about your posture, facial expressions, and body language. Do you change these elements of yourself depending on who you are speaking to or what type of occasion it is? Perhaps you alter your identity just as much as Cindy Sherman, but in a more subdued manner. Perhaps you yourself are a chameleon. Ask yourself: what is identity, and is it relative?
You can view some of my favorite pieces from her "Untitled Film Stills" collection here: