The assignment to create a ‘performance portrait’ designed to interact with the viewer on several layers has led to some interesting research. My principle written source has been ‘Auto Focus’ by Susan Bright which looks at a number of self portraits by a variety of artists but in particular chapters 3 and 5 which cover an over view of Masquerade and Performance, the theme for our self portrait.
Supporting research has been in the form of several exhibitions, the ‘Stranger than Fiction’ show by Joan Fontcuberta at the science museum, ‘Hermitos Children’ by Marvin Gaye Chetwynd at Studio Voltaire and ‘Priority Innfield’ by Lizzie Fitch and Ryan Trecartin at the Zabludowicz collection, all of which could be classed as either Masquerade or Performance or contain elements of both.
The Stranger than Fiction show is pure masquerade in that Fontcuberta has created a fantastic story of a lost collection found in a basement containing exhibits of strange animals that don’t match Darwin’s evolution theory.
The masquerade is reinforced by not only stuffed animals (none of which could ever have possibly lived) but pages of hand written manuscripts, drawings and maps all designed to make you believe the creatures on display are in fact real. To add to the fun Fontcuberta has even created an audio recording so you can listen to the impossible creatures whilst looking at the weird and wonderful sculpture created from several different animal parts made more real by their zoological display settings.
Not just content with that, Fontcuberta also created and exhibition of strange plants, fake mountain ranges, computer generated starry skies and a series of photographs of a priest performing impossible miracles.
The most audacious show though for me was his Sirens photographs. In this Fontcuberta created ‘mermaid’ skeletons and incorporated them into rock faces in wild places near to water. In the same way you would view a dinosaur skeleton fossilised in the rock Fontcuberta has created the illusion that the ‘mermaids’ were once real creatures.
‘Hermitos Children’ took a different approach in that the video shown at the exhibition was an experimental television crime drama where fictional detective Joan Shipman solves sex crimes. This wasn’t as engaging for a number of reasons. Personally I found it took much longer to work out the narrative which meant many elements were miss interpreted leading to a confused idea of what was going on and whilst it was most definitely performance, the supporting sexual images only served to distract from the ‘plot’ rather than enhance it.
To make sense of the imagery I found ‘switching off’ and letting the visuals ‘wash over me’ a more effective strategy than trying to figure out what Marvin Gaye Chetwynd was actually trying to achieve.
Much the same could be said of Lizzie Fitch and Ryan Trecartin’s work Priority Innfield. This is both masquerade and performance but this time the ‘stage’ is a form of wild teenage party where the participants are ‘hamming it up’ for the cameras. The ecliptic editing offers the viewer a cascade of images with the force of Niagra falls, accompanied by a full volume sound track and elaborately contrived showing arenas, resulting in the bombarding of the senses in all directions, guaranteed to hold the attention of even the most sceptical of viewer. Trecartin stars in the movies on show and frequently takes centre stage ordering the participation of his guests into strange quasi ritualistic performances reminiscent of the cheaper Tv programmes we all love to hate. The show is almost a pastiche of the worst on television today with tenuous links to everything from X Factor to Jeremy Kyle.
In an effort to focus down on my performance self portrait I needed to widen my field of research still further.
Charlotte Cotton’s book The Photograph as Contemporary Art offers in its most basic support a list of suggestions. The chapters are entitled, If this is Art, Once upon a time, Deadpan, Something and Nothing, Intimate Life, Moments in History, Revived and Remade, Physical and Material.
Each chapter is almost a suggestion of a theme for my portrait but which one?
Additionally Susan Bright’s book ‘Auto Focus’ offers some insight into the self portrait with chapters on both Performance and Masquerade in line with our brief.
To change direction whilst my head made sense of the information I was pouring in it, I accepted an invitation to take part in a real Ghost Investigation at Priory House in Dunstable, (another angle on performance and perhaps masquerade). I have had some experience of these events in the past and actually starred in 9 broadcast Tv programmes back in 2000 – 2003 as a TV Ghost Detective! Its been a while but as I also created and ran my own Ghost club for 3 years after the series and have such explored probably close to 50 ‘haunted’ locations I felt reasonably confident.
For this latest investigation I was the invited special guest, there to not only offer my experience and knowledge of the field of the paranormal and photography but also to help the ‘guests’ to communicate with the ‘ghosts’ that might be present in the building. It was 31st October after all – Halloween.
The evening became one of performance to the extent of me sitting in a circle of people attempting to draw in spirits (at midnight) in a dark and spooky room. In such situations the senses are at full strength with every sound and feeling exentuated searching for anything extraordinary from strange sounds, cold shivers or images in the mind. The building did not disappoint as several of the guests experienced weird feelings and sensory overload which they put down to ghosts interacting with them.
Medium Andy Matthews communicating with ghosts and spirits using dowsing rods
My reflections afterward made me think of using this same experience as a self portrait theme, the search for the truth about ghosts. In the same way that Fontcuberta created his own imaginary animals I wondered if the same style of masquerade and performance could be achieved with ghosts. After all if Gemma Marmalade can create a humorous fish story believed by many, could I create the illusion of a super medium with the power to manifest real ghosts….?
Time to talk to my tutor!
The medium style portrait got the go ahead and my research intensified. A search of the internet revealed some obviously fake photographs of medium’s calling in ghosts. The most famous is of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle pretending to receive spirit communication.
To add real research into the mix I read Professor Richard Wiseman’s book on the subject – ‘Paranormality, why we believe the impossible’ – Pan ISBN 978-1-4472-0816-7.
The book offers a number of insights into the world of the paranormal in particular a study made by an academic called James Houran. In his study he revealed only 1% of ghostly encounters result in a person actually seeing something, the rest are sounds, quick flashes of light, odd whisps of smoke or dark moving shadows, ( P192-3).
I also read TV Ghost Hunter Andy Matthews book ‘Greatest Haunts’ – Foulsham – ISBN 978-0-572-03543-3, William H King – Haunted Bedfordshire, The Book Castle – ISBN 1-903747 – 63 – 5, and Ruth Stratton and Nicholas Connell’s Haunted Hertfordshire, The Book Castle – ISBN 1-903747-71-6, all of which seem to confirm that the only ghost stories that appear to be kept in folk lore are the 1% where something resembling a ghostly figure or animal is seen.
The opinion of the Medium was the final bit of research I undertook. I worked alongside TV Medium Marion Goodfellow on a number of investigations and I recorded an interview with her several years ago where I asked her a number of questions in relation to her spiritual beliefs. Marion insists that she ‘sees’ dead people which appear to her as real as living people. She further insists that crowds of spirits gather around her during a séance all waiting for the opportunity to speak to her. I paid her long overdue visit and discussed the film with her and whether her views had changed. She confirmed her views remained the same and gave her permission for me to use the film as part of my research.
The visit helped me form a visual image of how I wanted the photograph to look. A medium in a trance surrounded by flying ghosts.