research trip: manchester art gallery

Just as words are assigned meanings and are made into signifieds, so are people assigned identities. The need to know how and why people build identities for others has always been a part of my questioning of the world and how it works, especially as my identity has always been dictated not by me, but by others for me. People can easily become objects of a wonder cabinet, being asked questions about their identities while the person who’s asking them the questions is simultaneously interpreting or directing the other person’s answers.

Figure 1

It’s interesting to see how people feel as though they can decide who you are for you, but how you too participate in this dictating of your identity. This is something that I want to look into in my dissertation, as it’s a thing that has puzzled me for a long time. Therefore, I decided to make a quick daytrip to Manchester back in May (seeing my friend who lives there was an added bonus) to see the Sonia Boyce exhibition held at Manchester Art Gallery (figure 1). It’s been a long time coming as I promised this blog post for Summer, but oh well. As I’m planning on writing my dissertation on two artists’ portraits with the help of Deleuze and Guattari’s writings on faciality, I was interested in the Boyce show mainly as a way of learning how to critically engage with texts written about the artist and how those things can paint a narrative. Boyce is not someone I’m familiar with at all, so I thought it was perfect.

The exhibition itself didn’t give too much information away about Boyce herself, and overall I at least found the information given on her and about her works quite objective. From what I’ve understood, offering a more objective, sort of scientific in nature, description is a thing that museums are trying to do nowadays. There wasn’t that much to see at the Boyce exhibition, to be quite honest. However, I found some of her works extremely interesting as they too played on the idea of portraiture, masquerade and identity (figure 2).

Figure 2 – The Audition, 1997.

What surprised me was, that when I moved onto see other exhibitions within the museum, there was one that was right up my alley, just waiting for me to discover it! This was the Speech Acts: Reflection – Imagination – Repetition exhibition held at MAG in collaboration with the University of the Arts London (figure 3). Speech Acts is exhibition that was divided into three parts, but the main question the exhibition was asking: why do some artworks become ‘highlights’ while other works are forgotten in someone’s collection or in storage?

I was mainly interested in the Reflection: Performing the Self bit, for obvious reasons. The artists’ rejection of becoming their own biographies is always contrasted with either their own self-portraits or portraits taken or painted by others. The room featured many artists’ portraits, from Gilbert and George to Li Yuan-chia. The piece that fascinated me the most was Conroy/Sanderson’s Not there at all (2005-6) (figure 4). The triptych features three photos of the artists with their faces obscured and hidden away from the gaze of the viewer.

Figure 3

While the piece can be read differently depending on context and how much you know about the setting of the middle image, I want to focus on the two side-profile images for a little bit. The use of plastic moulds around both of the artists faces bring up associations with moulding something out of raw, most likely liquid, material and of protecting the object inside the plastic mould. These simultaneous connotations speak of how identities are formed, and perhaps kept to ourselves. Of course the link could be easily made between physical faces, looks and the plastic moulds, but we’re not here to discuss that.

Identities don’t just come out of nowhere, obviously. An accumulation of things shape and form our ‘selves’ and our psyche. Some parts of ourselves that shape and form us are kept safe from some people. It’s not until you remove the mould around you that someone gets to see you and your personality, but even then no one can truly ever know who you really are and how you feel. No one really knows what is the end product of your formation, though. The moulding process of an identity is one that, I think, is a lifelong practice.

Figure 4 – Conroy/Sanderson, Not There At All, 2005-6.

It can be said that just as Conroy/Sanderson wear plastic moulds around their faces for a photo, we all do the same on a plane of existence that isn’t physical. Identities are formed, shown around and kept safe at the same time. While Conroy/Sanderson’s plastic moulds aren’t completely clear, one could imagine that our plastic moulds are clear since people do see parts of us that are being formed – our identities are not completely kept away from the eyes of the others.

All in all, I guess I could say my trip was successful. Not necessarily on part of research as I don’t think I learned anything new, but I guess it’s good to try to have these thoughts in my head all the time in preparation for my dissertation. I did enjoy my trip A LOT and my friend showing me around all these places she used to frequent as a baby goth raver was a lot of fun for me! I even extended my trip by a couple more hours just because I didn’t want to leave.

 

Written by Katja Vääränen 

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