The portrait has long been an emblem in the west of selfhood and, particularly, of the Cartesian concept of fixed, autonomous identity. Even while portraits participate substantially in the fabrication of identity, they are, according to the scholar Richard Brilliant, always denotative: they point to the existence of real individuals, who seem somehow to leave a trace of themselves within that visual rendering of their appearance. The photograph—with its assumed indexicality or status as an ostensibly unmediated form of representation—accentuates this characteristic of portraiture; camera-made portraits offer the viewer the semblance of a direct encounter with the sitter or subject of the portrait, who appear fixed in time. For these reasons, a number of influential artists—including Cindy Sherman, Claude Cahun, and Thomas Struth—have exploited the form of the photographic portrait to posit identity as a performance and to explore the dynamics of interpersonal encounters and memory. Ross Birdwise’s Videoportraits engages with this problematization of the portrait. This series draws on the distinctive cultural power of portraiture to explore the performance of identity while using innovative techniques to highlight the representational strategies underscoring that performance. In Videoportraits, the viewer meets a series of unidentified men and women, who gaze directly, at times unflinchingly, back at us. This installation comprises four large-scale (approximately 3.75’ x 5’) projections of individuals with the viewer situated in intimate proximity to them. The projections cycle through the same series of eight dvd recordings played out of phase, each of which, at first, appear to reproduce the conventions of a photographic snapshot. Posed frontally and pictured from the shoulders up, the sitters (all friends of the artist) were asked by Birdwise to try to remain immobile, holding a neutral or bored expression. They are seen before the backdrop of familiar settings: a busy street, a sidewalk, a line of trees, a studio, a computer lab, and an apartment. In most of Videoportraits, posing and composition establish three parallel and distinct planes, drawing our attention to the sitter in the foreground and isolating her or him from the surrounding environment. Yet, while these works mimic the format of a snapshot, they are, of course, not still images. With the dvd recordings ranging from thirty seconds to just over two minutes in duration, motion is apparent: pedestrians rush to the corner, snow falls, images on computer screens change, cars and buses drive by, and, inevitably, the sitters lose their composure. Birdwise accentuates these temporal disjunctures through edits, creating loops that in effect repeat and then reverse time. The loops focus our attention on the sitters’ mannerisms by replaying their small, unintended movements and sounds over and over again. A sigh, the beginning of a smile or a deep breath is transformed from a barely perceptible and seemingly spontaneous gesture into routine, mechanized action. This is echoed in the recordings’ sound, which, during loops, becomes defamiliarized, rhythmic auditory fragments. Birdwise was interested in these small breakdowns in composure because for him they represented “a state of becoming” before or just after the camera shutter is released or a rupture in the social mask. They highlight the ways that the sitters, in attempting to act as still images in real time, are performing portraiture and, in Birdwise’s words, “performing themselves.” Text by Carol Payne, Professor, School for Studies in Art and Culture: Art History, Carleton University, Ottawa Gallery 101 gratefully acknowledges the support of Artengine.
Thursday, June 29, 2006 to Saturday, July 29, 2006Opening
- Thursday, June 29, 2006