Flowers made of salt, very fragile compact masses that emerge from the walls of the warehouses of Punta della Dogana in Venice, centuries-old witnesses of the salt trade that took place here, welcome the visitor to the exhibition of Dancing with Myself. There could be no better identity card to introduce a collective that on the presence/absence of the body of the artist or its substitution is hinged.
The focus of the exhibition is that, if each self-portrait is a representation of self, not all representations of self must necessarily be self-portraits.
The self-portrait, as an individualistic expression of the artist’s self, originates in the European, Italian, French and Dutch Renaissance.
“Man with a red turban” by Jan van Eyck (1433), among the first, the self-portraits of Durer of the sixteenth century, up to the nineteenth century by Elisabeth Vigée-Lebrun, Vincent Van Gogh, Edvard Munch and Frida Kahlo, provide not only a physiognomic representation of themselves, but they are also descriptions of the psychology, the character and the social status to which the artist belonged.
With the advent of photography, canvases and easels disappear and the artist represents himself or a part of it through photographic images in black and white, in colour, in extra-large or miniaturized dimensions.
But there is much more: the “I”, which philosophy had until then considered as autonomous and unified, is being questioned, at the beginning of the twentieth century in particular by Freud with the concept of divided subject and subconscious. Philosophers such as Althusser and Foucault consider the individual subject to the powers of the state, which determine its formation, the ideologies of sex and gender, of race and nation.
Cindy Sherman’s works in the exhibition are an example of these concepts: in the series Bus riders (1976/2000) or in the more recent works Untitled (2016), the artist is always the subject of her photographs, but almost never recognizable, testifying to the impossibility of representing an essential identity, a unitary “self”.
Also in the close-ups of John Coplans’ body (parts of hands and feet), of Bruce Nauman, whose body can be seen but not the head, in the leg of Robert Gober, the artist wants to represent himself making himself unrecognizable.
The Swiss Urs Fischer is depicted as a wax statue that is consumed little by little and at the end of the exhibition his image will have disappeared.
The self-portrait of Alighiero & Boetti (as the artist decided to call himself, fascinated by the theme of double) from 1993 is a bronze sculpture, which represents him while holding a water pipe over his head, with which he gets wet, generating water vapor. It displays the metaphor of the artistic creation, which must be cooled, and also the metaphor of a man diagnosed with a brain tumour (he will die the following year).
Maurizio Cattelan, in the operaWe (2010), represents two “oneselves” in synthetic material of reduced dimensions, which lie on a wooden bed in the classic position of corpses. As is customary in Italy, the two Cattelans are dressed in dark clothing, wearing brand new shoes. What is striking is that they do not have the typical position of the dead, but they look at us with eyes wide open, even if from different angles. They are two equal and different people, as if they had chosen to live in a non-coincidental way. The work is the metaphor of an artist who over the years has changed his person, dying and resurrecting in another body (Cattelan, inhibited by terrible shyness, is recreated by changing the angle of his teeth, posture, muscle mass).
The artists of this beautiful exhibition only “dance alone” apparently: in reality their bodies and images become the tools to address social, racial, gender or sexual issues and problems, to ask questions about the future of artistic creation and about its reasons.
The exhibition, which in some respects may appear disturbing, represents a significant cross-section of the new trends in contemporary art: alienating, able to astonish, reject or marvel. An art, after all, baroque: as Giambattista Marino explained 400 years ago, “e’ del poeta il fin la meraviglia” (the aim of the poet is to astonish).
Liviana Martin, Italian Editor
Volume 33 no 2 November / December 2018 p34
(Punta della Dogana, Pinault Collection, Venice from 8/04/2018 to 16/12/2018).