Triangulating identity.

It seems to me that both the artist and the person viewing the artist’s work have responsibilities when it comes to the image of identity. Both parties have to claim the ground they stand on, what they bring to the viewing process. To judge an artist’s work as somehow tied to identity, we need an affirmative statement from the artist to this extent. Otherwise, how are we to differentiate between identity-centric work and other person-focussed imagery in modes such as metaphoric portraiture (e.g. Sarah Jones), anonymous figure studies of people in public (Beat Streuli), or complex politico-historical self-imaging that relies more on stereotype than identity (Yinka Shonibare, MBE). You can probably suggest your own favorite counter-identity examples and modes; it seems a simpler matter to find work that is not about identity, that seems to veer away from it, than it is to assign the label with confidence.

Subjectivity has an enormous amount to do with a work’s “Identity Quotient.” How can it not?

I see three points that may help diagram this notion. The artist, A, and the audience, B. A and B exist on a line. The distance between A and B is never clearly delineated. The artist’s work in question—call it C—is a third point. C can be very close to A, very close to B (on a direct line between them, in fact), or far away from both artist and audience. But these three points will always, as geometry tells us, signify a two-dimensional plane. I think the plane reflects the commonality of being human, and the fact that identity must derive from what we perceive as distinctive about other humans on the spectrum. We are not being asked to recognize the identity of a frog, for instance, or an extraterrestrial. For the moment, though, I am more interested in the triangle. The proximity of C to either A or B indicates knowledge, insight, comfort, familiarity, or likeness extant in the work of identity. Point B in this identity configuration is highly mobile. The artist and the work, A and C, have a fairly fixed relationship to each other; the former typically has a grasp on the piece’s IQ, and knows whether that IQ derives from his or her personal sense of identity, or from a more distanced, yet still tangible mission of identity.

But when B sees C, funny things may happen to what A saw and put in C. Unless the artist knows exactly who will be seeing the work, the IQ may wander all over the place as B situates him- or herself with relation to what they read in the work. The net effect may be that the viewer identifies with the crafted identity, is repulsed by it, or remains entirely nonplussed.

I’m running short on time. It’s early on February 28 here in the Eastern time zone of the United States, but the month is in its last twelve hours in Ostfildern and Berlin. There are artists who have successfully fashioned images that describe identity without much in the way of supporting words. I think of Nikki Lee as someone who has consistently defined the challenge of identity. Wing Young Huie, a friend of mine from Minnesota, uses the notion of ethnocentrism freely in his photographic projects, and that focus allows a very clear stream of identity to flow through his images. In some circumstances Wing has utilized the hand-held chalkboard message device, which I first saw in images by Martin Weber. Weber asked his participants to write a dream on the slate, while Wing has requested other comments, drawing out succinct capsules of identity. Following the participant hand-written line, Jim Goldberg’s seminal Rich and Poor project offers tantalizing windows into the identities of people regarding themselves in Goldberg’s portraits.

And, somewhat parallel to Lee’s identity-transference project but more personal, Eufália C Paz creates a body of work in which she inhabits a floating, spectral version of her father, exploring spaces that he inhabited without her. Points A and C are overlaid in this work.

And so many more. Always more.


Nikki S. Lee

Wing Young Huie

Jim Goldberg

Martin Weber

Eufália C Paz