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<span class="alinea"></span> Cindy Sherman’s forty-year production of photographs (as well as some videos and films) is paradigmatic of the evacuation of the self in self-representation.
<br><br><span class="alinea"></span>Insofar as she is almost always “present” in her photographs, their very heterogeneity, and often her unrecognizability, expose the fictions of selfhood and the impossibility of representing a core or “essential” identity. On the other hand, it equally demonstrates the immense critical potential and artistic inventiveness that is the fruit of this recognition. But far more profoundly, because her central thematic is the simulacrum that is femininity and its fetishistic underpinning, her emphasis often falls on gender as performance. Her corpus, in its entirety, is a major testament to the power of feminism (and feminist thought) to alter the playing field of contemporary art.
<span class="alinea"></span> Nevertheless, in a recent interview with the <i>New York Times,</i> Cindy Sherman stated that yes, the work made during career founded on the inseparability of artist and model could now be understood as more or less “autobiographical.” In addition to her preoccupation with her own aging (prompting her most recent work depicting aging movie stars), she here acknowledged that indeed, aspects of her work might be linked to her childhood, psychology, and subjectivity. <sup>1</sup> In earlier statements she had indicated, on the contrary, that her work was in no way about <i>her,</i> stating for example: “I use myself the way I would use a mannequin. They’re not autobiographical. They’re not fantasies of mine. I like to work completely alone, so instead of using models I use myself.” <sup>2</sup> Consequently, this new affirmation of a personal or autobiographic element is somewhat surprising, although it should be noted that for decades, art critics of all stripes have interpreted Sherman’s work as a form of self-portraiture. In contrast, others—like myself—have long maintained that one of the most significant, indeed critical aspects of Sherman’s work was its subversion of the premises of self-portraiture. And certainly from a feminist perspective, her works reveal the absence of any bedrock of selfhood especially in her exposure of the codes of gender and its performative aspects. <sup>3</sup> In other words, and with respect to gender ideologies, she has explored how femininity <i>and</i> masculinity in their normative and/or idealizing incarnations are more or less a matter of masquerade. This rejection of the belief that gender is biologically grounded is especially telling (and witty) in her pastiches of Old Master paintings, where the semiotics of gender are variously inscribed on both male and female subjects. These codes have long governed the historical conventions of portraiture with respect to pose, gesture, and expression, as well as clothing hairstyle and accessories. The “work” of these reprises of fifteenth-to nineteenth-century portraits is to make the codes visible, thus effectively denaturalizing them.
<span class="alinea"></span> Covering her entire career, “Dancing with Myself” includes Sherman’s 16 mm film <i>Doll Clothes</i> (1975), the series of “Bus Riders” (1976) and “Murder Mystery People” (1979), a number of her black-and-white film stills (1977–79), and the heroically scaled, digitally manipulated series of 2010–11.<sup>4</sup> Given the diversity of these series, and her presence in almost all of them, one might think this spectacle of “selves” would be sufficient to vanquish the idea that the “real” Cindy Sherman could be located anywhere among them. <sup>5</sup> Even in the earliest sustained criticism of her work, it seemed obvious to many that there could be no authentic person behind the representation, insofar as the personae on display were constituted entirely by wardrobe, makeup, lighting, pose, and <i>mise-en-scène.</i> Each of her photographic incarnations was more closely allied to the roles assumed by a model or actress than to authorial presence of any kind. Moreover, since the film stills were clearly based on a repertoire of mass-media imagery—mostly, but not exclusively, cinematic depictions of feminine types and stereotypes—it also seemed evident that a major preoccupation in Sherman’s work turned on the notion of woman as sign, not as signified. <sup>6</sup> In this reading, and with respect to the politics of representation <i>à la féminine,</i> Sherman’s work implied an intuitive understanding that the feminist issue at stake had less to do with the images of woman (true or false, good or bad) than with the far more intractable problem of woman-as-image.<sup>7</sup> Accordingly, it was precisely the absence of anything that could be identified as an autobiographical self in Sherman’s pictures that aligned her work with feminist, poststructuralist, and even psychoanalytic arguments. Furthermore, it was within feminist theory—drawing upon certain aspects of psychoanalytic thought—that “Woman,” like “the Feminine,” was conceptualized as an effect of representation, that is, femininity as a form of masquerade. <sup>8</sup> This element in her work was already evident in Sherman’s very youthful video <i>Doll Clothes,</i> in which a paper, cutout doll—Sherman in her underwear—is variously garbed, before being returned to (and enclosed) in her dollhouse box.
<span class="alinea"></span> By the time Sherman constructed the 2010–11 wall-sized digital images with “sublime” landscapes as background, her personae had morphed into figures of such stunningly over-the-top weirdness as to resist any stereotypical identification whatsoever. <sup>9</sup> Nevertheless, the persistent desire to identify the “real” Cindy Sherman in her pictures speaks of still-powerful investments in the notion of authorial presence—investments that are simultaneously ideological, psychological, and, needless to say, economic. In this sense, there is good reason to counterpoint Sherman’s practice, with those of other artists, Marina Abramović included, who affirm a “truth” of the subject, as a still-valid enterprise in figurative or performance-based representation.
<span class="alinea"></span> None of this should be read as a categorical denial of artistic subjectivity as one of the constituents of the work, manifested in the choice of materials, media, themes, preoccupations, motifs, formal devices, and so forth. But even if Sherman remarks that her recent work on women’s aging has been inspired by her own, this still begs the question of the relation of self to self-image as it is played out in image-making. If an artist is <i>in</i> her work—as is here literally the case—she is in it in ways that do not abolish the boundaries between subject and object, unconscious and conscious meaning, identity and its complex cultural mediations through language and representation. That these distinctions are anything but simple is further indicated by changing concepts of what is thought to constitute something we call a self, and, by extension, its mediations and its forms of visual representation.
<i>Excerpt from the catalogue of the exhibition “Dancing with Myself” (Marsilio, Padua, 2018).</i><br><br>
1 — Blake Gopnik, “Cindy Sherman Takes On Aging (Her Own),” in: <i>The New York Times</i>, 21.04.2016.<br>
2 — <i>Ibid.</i><br>
3 — I refer, of course, to Judith Butler’s foundational work on gender as performativity. See Judith Butler, <i>Gender Trouble</i> (London: Routledge, 1990) and <i>Bodies that Matter: On the Discursive Limits of “Sex,”</i>(London: Routledge, 1993)<br>
4 — Photographs from the series 2010-11 were presented only in the Essen exhibition, while the ones from “Murder Mystery People” are shown only in Venice.<br>
5 — An important exception to Sherman’s use of herself is the black-and-white series of 1999 employing small male and female dolls, a kind of grotesque theater of cruelty pivoting around sexual difference (not gender), often with reference to the pathologies linked to the problem of sexual difference in its unconscious manifestations.<br>
6 — One of the major essays to have made this argument is Elizabeth Cowie’s “Woman as Sign” in: <i>M/F: The Woman in Question,</i> Parveen Adams and Elizabeth Cowie (Cambridge: The MIT Press, 1990). A number of essays emphasizing Sherman’s subversion of essentialist concepts of “woman,” and/or her subversion of the genre of self-portraiture—for example, by Joanna Burton, Laura Mulvey, Craig Owens, Abigail Solomon-Godeau, and Judith Williamson—can be found in the anthology <i>Cindy Sherman,</i> ed. Joanna Burton, (Cambridge: October Books, 2006).<br>
7 — See the now-classic essay by Griselda Pollock, “What’s Wrong with ’Images of Women’?” in: <i>Screen Education,</i> No. 24 (1977): 25–33. <br>
8 — The classic essays on this subject, beginning with Joan Riviere’s foundational “Womanliness as Masquerade,” (1927) are found in <i>Weiblichkeit als Maskerade,</i> ed. Liliane Weisberg (Frankfurt, Fisher Taschenbuch Verlag, 1994).<br>
9 — In these pictures, it is the setting, rather than the figure, that plays with the stereotype—that is, the sublime Romantic landscapes of the late eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.