Three Artists and Their Self-images.


[this is the outline for a presentation about self-image and self-portraits at the SPE Conference in Chicago, 2013. The text was reviewed by Edward Hall. I am trying to recover the images, I am confident I will find them.]


My name is Marcia Vaitsman and I am a Japanese Brazilian artist and independent researcher based in Atlanta. I have been a studio artist at the Atlanta Contemporary Art Center for the last 2 years.

I would like to present some of my observations of self-image. Now for SPE, I have prepared 3 examples of self-portraits: a web-based installation, a video and a photography book trilogy made by three different artists. My criterion for this panel was to showcase works made by artists not more than 30 years old — to relate to the average age of grad students.

I started observing self-images produced by students when I was a grad student myself at KHM, Academy of Media Arts, in Germany around 1999. It was obvious that many young artists – including myself – were applying self-images to several different concepts, however many of the works ended up having a very similar output: a face, a backdrop, an action, sometimes no action at all…

During the following 6 years I observed my students using their own images to similar ends. Because at that moment I had moved on, ending up ultimately behind the camera, I decided to encourage them to do the same. In 2013, I work as a full-time artist, curious enough to keep looking at the work of other artists, and mainly reviewing the works of young artists, in a dialogue that seems to be vital to my own practice. One of the examples that I am going to show you is a Walthall Fellowship holder, Andre Keichian, whom I have been mentoring for the last year.

Working beneath a larger umbrella of cultural displacement, using the images of impossible bodies, impossible homes, distant landscapes, viruses, and invented languages etc… I still have the search for the self, in my own history of displacement, as the midpoint of my artistic practice. I encourage students and young artists working in similar situations, however, to try to go beyond the practice of photographing or making video of their own image. Certainly many of us have had phases when we set a camera on a tripod and started photographing ourselves. Looking for what we just see from the inside and it is a fascinating: the author in front of the camera. It is as fascinating as it was when, as babies, we discovered our mouths, or later, when we discovered the mirror. Fortunately most of us could move on from these phases. Photography and video can be used as tools to find out things about ourselves, self-knowledge, to understand the roles we play in the large game of life. What interests me today however is the synthesis of self.

All 3 examples I brought today working a feminist tradition, even if in a larger sense. The first one is my own work as a young student; the two other examples are excellent works of self-portraits.

This work is called Topography, and it was made while I was a student of media art at KHM. It is a nude self-portrait that has been online for the last 12 years. Using a 15-inch to 17-inch monitor, with an 800 by 600 pixel definition, what was common at that time, you can see my body through a peephole at life size. Although this work is online it was meant to be seen in a gallery on a touchscreen monitor. People would have the tactile feeling of the glass against their fingertips, while seeing the image of skin on the monitor. The photo is a collage of many shots made with a middle-format Mamiyaon a vertical track system and edited in Photoshop to correct some parallax errors. The peephole was then made in Macromedia Director and exported as a shockwave — some young folks might not imagine what a challenge it was to upload a shockwave onto the Internet in the year 2000… The Internet 12 years ago was obviously not what it is today, so again the photograph had to be super-compressed for the work to make sense: if I upload it in German, someone somewhere else would be able to see it. This project was working with a possible topography of memory but in the end it is again just a body, a background and not so much action. I decided to include this work to be seen in this panel because I think it is a successfulstudent project and it fits the educational framework of SPE. It can serve as a comparison to the more mature works I will show you now.

As a contradiction to my opening statement: I believe that the two following artists manage to work successfully with self-portraiture in a contemporary context because they were reinventing themselves long before they posed in front of the camera. Of course it follows a feminist tradition, to exchange object for subject, putting the woman behind the camera, but they also do it in an extremely contemporary way, something that involves new methods and thinking paths. You could say that they were done in the last years and not necessary 40 years ago.

I believe they have gone beyond what we generally see in grad schools. They are both younger than 30 and have reached amaturity working with the self-image and that deserves to be commented upon. Both deconstruct the self-image and reinvent it, conceptually and visually.

Andre Keichian is an artist who prefers to be seen as a gender-neutral person and prefers to be called “he.” Based in Atlanta, born to an Argentinian father and an English mother in Texas, he has a degree in art from Agnes Scott College also in Atlanta. For those who don’t know Agnes Scott College, it is traditionally a women’s college. In his work, we will be looking at questions of cultural identity and also gender. In this video called Self-Clothing, made in 2010 (18 min) he chases himself, sometimes a woman, sometimes a man, in a situation where body tricks the mind and mind tricks the body. His works tap into the complex universe behind and between two words such as female / male, North American / South American, European / American — of course, if one is aware of the complexity that can exist between two words or two concepts that seem to be contradictory.

Like many other artists working with self-portraiture, Andre is performing in front of the camera and works mainly with video. Despite his excellent knowledge of the photographic craft, he chooses black and white for the simplicity of its color code. I add another layer to it, which is the historical reference of black and white in the moving pictures, from which I cannot free myself. This forces me to see Andre’s work in an atemporal way — again a displacement: but this one in time. In this video fragment you see a door and a chair. The door is part of a rear projection on a screen, the chair is real. The naked body is projected, feminine, running. The clothed body is in front of the camera, chasing, almost hunting.

In many of Andre’s works you find parallel situations such as the projected image and the present body reading the same newspaper at the same time. There is in most of his worksthe attempt to connect or reconnect, construct and reconstruct, invent and reinvent. Andre runs in front and behind the screen, touches the projected image. Suddenly there is a merging of characters while the projected image dresses and the present body undresses. The projected Andre dresses in boy’s clothes and the feminine features of the present Andre are revealed as an outlined drawing. Using these modes (for instance the feminine and masculine) in the spectrums that we use to define ourselves, Andre creates a space, which is vast, going from the man to the woman, passing through everything else that exists between these two definitions. This space is much larger than one could imagine exists between two words only, but yet so small that it can fit inside all of us.

Mexican-born Adriana Medina lives and works in México City. She has a degree in Communication and spent the last decade researching artistic photography. She has studied at prestigious schools such as AAVI in Mexico and visited summer schools at SAIC and SVA in the USA.

For this project, she photographed herself consistently for four years. The oddness comes from seeing the image she had of herself unfolding into new images that led her to the point of not recognizing anymore the person on the photos. By the end of the process a totally new way of looking at herself seems to have emerged, the idea of identity gradually moved closer to what she is calling her essence.

Interesting that each of her 3 books carries the question outside, which is the name of the project, “Who is This?” (published in Mexico in 2012). You will also find an answer inside, which is “I am not”. The words themselves open up room for fragmentation and recombination: “who, I?” or “is not” or “this is” (I recombined the words in Spanish and translated into English to make more sense because the order of the words in a phrase is different in these languages).

(translation) Inside/
Book 1 (black) Quien Who Yo I
Book 2 (red) Es Is No not
Book 3 (black) Essa This Soy am (is)


In the first book Adriana is photographing the skin, the body, trying to find some definition for the self in the matter. She thinks: ‘You are not your body – You are not your sensations’.

In the second book, she is looking for images that represent the thoughts she has of herself. Again seeking these thoughts in order to deny them. She repeats: ‘You are not your mind – You are not your thoughts’.

In the third book, the images are fragmented and then put together again. At this moment the photos are taken from the screen of a computer, which is a light source, there is the mediation of a machine. Adriana introduces color. There is an answer in her mind: ‘You are the Self’ – which is actually the very first conceptual ground question: “what is the self?”. Adriana’s work is very much influenced by Yoga meditation methods, which are far from what is known as Yoga in the western world.

The phrase ‘I am not’ is mentally repeated in during meditation: an exercise to dissolve the ego, which is believed to obscure the self – or better, the real self. We tend to believe we are the smile on the photograph or the image on the mirror, our title or our paycheck. When one denies all of that, can one see himself or herself from outside? This is the exercise Adriana practiced during four years and her books are a visual, but mere documentation of this long search.

Although the answer to her question: “who is this?” is simply: “I am not”, she, like Andre, stretches open the space for definitions: if you are not this, you may be infinite minus what you are not. It means you can probably be anything. It can be pretty scary and the same time powerful and liberating.

One very particular characteristic of all three examples is that they lack self-fascination, vanity, egotism, and narcissism; yet they are still self-portraits. There is a lot of space for new and genuine works of self-portraiture, they need to come however from more complex situations, from beyond the rehearsed smile, the surface of the mirror, the fictional role and the traditionally male narcissistic photographic practice. In an educational framework, such as SPE, we should also be thinking about how to reinvent what we have learned – I believe Andre and Adriana gave us clues of how this reinvention is possible.

I thank you for listening.