Disturbis 7
personal identity in contemporary art
mille   kalsmose

It is my thesis that there is coherence between postmodern society and the perception of ourselves, and the experimentation with fluent identities in contemporary art. This extract is an example of how three contemporary visual artists, Tracey Emin, Nikki S. Lee and Mille Kalsmose suggest new models to deal with the traumatised and fragmented self.

By using their bodies in their art, transforming and exposing themselves within new identities, Tracey Emin, Nikki S. Lee and Mille Kalsmose find ways to deal with the mediated and complex conditions of our time.

The quality of artists investing themselves and their personal identity in contemporary art in postmodern conditions.

The artists today are not afraid of the dissolution in our times. They go out and attack reality, as it is in order to contribute to its extension instead of sitting back and mourn over it’s ending. The postmodern man in general is capable of relating to a higher level of daily complexity and is more or less used to ”zapping” between different realities. The mediated reality and the decoding of it has become a normal way of viewing the world and the way of absorbing and sorting information.

It looks as if identity through the private and the traumatic are repeated themes in some of the art in the beginning of this millennium and it seems that the limits between art and reality are negotiable. The aesthetic discourse is removed from the object to the human subject to be able to express bodily condition in a cultural and psychological context. This undermines the deconstruction of the artist as the auteur.

Different Lives, (changing lives project and becoming a mother), video / 2:30 min, Mille Kalsmose

By focusing on the interactive relationship with the audience, the artist takes back the role of the auratic agent and re-establishes her work authenticity through the dialogue between her, the audience and their technological selves. This return of the auratic and authentic auteur connected to the biographical body of the artist is the auratic and traumatic real experience that can be seen in the work of the three contemporary artists, Tracey Emin, Nikki S. Lee and Mille Kalsmose.

So the actual fact that the three artists are using them selves and there personal identity, which previous has been looked upon from both philosophers and artist as too private to posses any relevance for man, should now be understood as a quality, since it is that fact that bring back the artist as auteur and a “Traumatic Real” experience about being human in this postmodern time.

”My Bed”, 1998, 79 x 211 x 243 cm, Tracey Emin

The Real, traumatised Tracey Emin

The three artists work with the real behind and in front of the screen but when talking about Hal Foster’s real, where he argues for the crisis of the subject as a split subject and how it is connected to the body, Tracey Emin is a very good case, as we can’t root out the suffering body.

Her use of indexical and abjectal traces within the art pieces like bloodstains and personal intimate items as in “My Bed”. “My Bed” which is Emin´s most famous work and maybe not just because of it’s obvious and simple presentation of a readymade or the references to intimate themes like sex, birth and death but also because of the fact that it was nominated for a Turner Prize, sold to Saatchi for 150.000 pounds and shown on Tate Gallery in 1999


Nikki S. Lee - the relational auteur

Where Emin incorporates the traumatic real, Lee acts on this condition and proves herself to be a good example of the relational and performative self-portrait.

Her photographic work is indeed an artistic arrangement of the subjectivity as a cultural, social and mass medial affair. The photographs present the artist herself in various roles that refer to mass medial stereotypes from popular cultures.

“Projects”, c-print, 1997- 2001

Projects consist of a series of photographs with various motives of people from different cultures or social groups. They appear to be amateur pictures, snapshots taken with an ordinary digital camera – you can tell from the digital dates in the corners and the red eyes from the flash. We don’t know who took them. It couldn’t be Lee as she is in every photo herself. The photographs are grouped in projects and named after the subculture represented. Lee appears 100% assimilated to the culture or group photographed – not only in her way of dressing, her makeup and style but also through her behaviour and gesture that seems very natural and accepted by the group.


The Hispanic Project, Nikki S. Lee                         

The Skaters Project, Nikki S. Lee                         

They are not real self-portraits but by being present without revealing her intimate sphere,

Lee demonstrates the identity as a construction within a recognizable matrix and thereby confirms the fluid and performative definition of identity by Butler:

In the eyes of Judith Butler the constructed gender takes form through a set of repeated actions within a regulated frame that over time becomes solid and creates the idea of substance, of a natural form of being. Identity becomes a regulated process over time, potentially changeable instead of given.

Nikki s. Lee acknowledges the limitations too ”playing with the construction of identity”. The manipulation is not unlimited – without recognition from the other, no cultural acceptance and no effect.

And although the same nexus isn’t established between Lee’s private life and her work to conclude on her traumatised self, and although her art is not autobiographical or introspective like Emin's and Kalsmose's, she is highly involved with her body in the project during the whole process as well as in the final work. Being detached from the work subject herself, it would seem irrelevant to discuss the authenticity of the work.  However, the fact that she has us all convinced that it is actually her – not so much the viewers but more importantly her relations in the projects– makes her images more complex constructions than first assumed and gives the whole discussion about author and work-subject new life.

Mille Kalsmose the authentic author of her self

Like Emin and Lee, Kalsmose also acts on the basis of the traumatic conditions posed by Foster and has turned herself into the object for her artwork.

Kalsmose shows her feeling of dissolution by displaying her identity by name in five identities. The symbolic representation of a new identity is at the same time a way of controlling the situation, a construction of herself.

Foucault who wrote the famous article about ”la mort del auteur” acknowledges later on the return of the same.  He also talks about the signature of the auteur like Rune Gade and even gives birth to a phenomenon that he calls "Arts of existence" that allows the postmodern man to become self-determining agents who are able to challenge and resist power structures. The power structures discussed by poststructuralist thinkers including Lacan and his ”object gaze”.

Especially Mille Kalsmose produces this "Arts of existence" that Foucault talks about in his later writings. When she puts her name-changes on display in the formation of a fortress, she is really authoring her life.

All my suicides is an installation consisting of five man high plexi-glass columns of 2 meters with print. The columns measure 90 cm in circumference. Photographs of birth- and name certificates enlarged at an imprinter are strapped around the columns but they are only 160 centimeters high which leaves a 40 centimeters transparent part in the bottom. The five collums are placed in the formation of a pentagon.

“All my Suicides” 2009, man-high plexi-glass   columns with print, Mille Kalsmose

All my Suicides documents a part of a life project (10 years).  The print at the columns are from Mille Kalsmose five birth-and name certificates .  Since 1999 where “Henriette Olesen” changed her given name and added “Kalsmose” from her grandmother; already in 2002 while moving to Barcelona she changed “Henriette” to “Mille”; later in 2005, she removes her family name “Olesen” and in 2008 she married and joined her name with the one of her husband and became “Mille Kalsmose-Hjelmborg”.

Her new name is part of an imaginary identity where she uses this image to melt with reality in the process of becoming this new person.

While authoring a piece of work she is authoring her life – AND vice versa. She uses the fact that she knows that she is a product of and a producer of culture to explore the power of conscious image creation to deal with the traumatic condition of modern life                                     In that way her authenticity seems to be of a traditional kind because she claims to actually be the piece of art and in that sense puts herself on display. So her intimacy is not an effect of her aesthetic strategy, but is for real – “it is all about me”, she could say while using her aesthetic strategy with official documentation of the Danish State (name certificates, drivers license, visa, pass port ect.) to prove it every time she changed her name. 

The name changing in it self is a way of crafting and authoring a new identity – knowing that what she creates will create her back. Her new name is part of an imaginary identity where she uses this image to melt with reality in the process of becoming this new person. But in order to make it real, she demands the acknowledgement and recognition from her surroundings that is needed for the final social and cultural construction of her identity. She is the object.

Kalsmose uses what Hal Foster sees as a crisis of the subject to explore the potentials of the divided self.  By inviting others to look at her and tell her what they see (Tell me) or making a movie that explores herself in a new role, she can look at herself through their eyes as well and tell a new story about herself.  It may be fiction but at the same time real as she merges her life with it. A reality fiction. She is aware that the gaze of the other is co-creating her life – aware of the powers of the technological image and its cultural codes that Foster, Lacan and Amelia Jones talked about.

Different Lives, (changing lives project and becoming a mother )video/2.30 min. Mille Kalsmose

It is not that the three artists should be perceived as the traditional suffering artists, traumatised, isolated and outstanding individuals trying to repair themselves using their art as therapy. What they are really showing us – backed by Hal Foster and Amelia Jones – is that the traumatised body and dissolved subject is a general condition in our times. Each of them suggests a strategy to deal with this situation either in order to investigate the possibilities in this new postmodern situation, like Lee does, or to feel real through the expressing of the situation like Emin does or like Kalsmose to take advantage of the powers of visual story telling and imaging technologies’ ability to build new identity and gain control over it.

This tells us that all three artists and their work can be characterized as part of the relational aesthetic.  All three use different kinds of intersubjectivity and include the spectator as an agent to an extent where the spectator and the artist subject become interdependent in the realisation of the potential effect of the work. The work is nothing without the spectator but nor without the artist as a subject.

The art of the beginning of this millennium – or at least this particular field of art production during this era -points at a time where we retell selves in order to produce a new and coherent self, because we have become dissolved. The micro narratives give us coherence – not the big narratives that gave us answers and the truth about the world - but the small intimate narratives from the private sphere where we can search for answers about ourselves. The micro narratives and the constructed images of man-made reality become important to our perception of the world. The natural world has turned into a series of parallel, artificial and fluid dimensions in which the artists investigate the new images of reality.

Conceptions as ready-mades

Mette gamst and Amelia Jones agrees that we live in a culture of stereotypes as ready-mades through film and TV like the classical narration and myth about for instance the family. Because of the mass culture and the publicly communicated micro narratives everything is narrated and constructed for us all the way down to the images and ideals of our everyday life. And it is those publicly mediated fictions that our artists scan, deconstruct and reconstruct images of. Because the master narratives have fallen apart and split into micro narratives the artists now have the opportunity to deconstruct and work with these narratives from everyday life. Like Kalsmose and Lee’s stereotypes.

As opposed to the pop art of 80ies´ work on ready-mades Lee and Kalsmose use the cultural created narratives as ready-mades and include them in their work so it becomes an elaboration on the concept itself. A good example is the culturally produced image of a happy family that we all seem to have bought as the true concept because someone chose to present the family in a certain way through edited narratives in the mass media. By using this image as a readymade Kalsmose points at it as a readymade just as if it had been Emin´s bed. That is what we discover when Lee exposes our illusion of her as a Latino or a yuppie – we’ve bought the image of how different cultural identities look or behave because we’ve all co-created that image through the fusion of images, narratives and cultural fields in our mass culture.

In this multi-identity universe the artists is in a middle-position between reality and the signs but lay themselves open to visualize and decode these structures that she lives in or is a part of.  She enters the new situation and becomes a part of it, a sign of it – just like Warhol became a machine, she becomes a transformer of identity.

The use of new imaging technologies and intimate themes combined with performative narration in the three artist’s aesthetic strategies creates micro narratives that take the spectator behind the screen. Emin does it with her intimacy producing effects as we enter in dialogue with her real life experiences and thereby letting us into what can be perceived as something behind her constructed self, a true auteur behind the work. Kalsmose does it by never leaving her work- and artist-body but documenting that it is really her own life behind the screen. As opposed to the others Nikki S. Lee is the one that draws our attention to the existence of that screen and how it works by showing us that what we perceive as real is only constructions.

The most important thing about the art of all three artists in this project is not what we find in the depth of each single art piece. Their work becomes truly interesting and authentic when we recognize their personal identity behind the work and connects us to the self biographical aspects of the narratives they build in their intersubjectivity - the narrative they produce about themselves as representatives of other selves in our times.

As proposed during this project, and backed by relevant theoreticians, it seems that the postmodern situation has us all occupied with understanding ourselves in relation to others and our surroundings.

Tracey Emin, Nikki S. Lee and Mille Kalsmose are demonstrating and visualising the complexity of the time we live in and propose possible universes for action like the mapping of our past, our experiences, events and relations as strategies for the split subject. While Emin's only explicit answer to her feeling of dissolution is to express herself, Nikki S. Lee and Mille Kalsmose suggest more action-oriented ways and investigate the nature, possibilities and potential that a fluid concept of identity offers. To explore the opportunities of the postmodern and mediated world of multiply identities, imply consciousness and the ability to communicate. These are qualities that at least these three artists hold and from their unique position in society they are able to work with personal identity within a complex reality from another angle and not only make visible the features of our time, but also offer new models of possible universes. This seems highly relevant.

© Disturbis. Todos los derechos reservados. 2010