This autumn Attenborough Arts Centre presents Laura Swanson, an American artist making her UK debut alongside Claude Cahun, an artist who will remain conspicuous in history rather than her own lifetime.
Cahun is now known as the French photographer of World War II who defied both the Nazi Germans and the gender stereotypes of the time – quite the achievement… In separate photographic series exhibited in galleries side by side, the two artists explore themes of identity. We view them from the stance of a society that is encumbered by the “selfie” and autonomy of imagery that leads to questions of sincerity.
Swanson explains her that it’s “the casual and carefree nature of the selfie” that compels her “to consider both the instability of identity and the implications of appropriating other identities in order to amuse friends on social media.” Cue the doe eyed filter used to make everyone look almost angelic, or the Geisha filter on Snapchat. She continues, “Does the temporality of the selfie enable it to evade ethical questions, more so than a formal portrait could? Does its cultural dominance amplify and promote the reductive and theatrical representation of identity? Or, is it a cultural indicator of the increasing acceptance of the idea that identity is fluid and not fixed?”
Though many dismiss the culture of the “selfie” to the vanity of the millennials and social media obsessed, Swanson maintains that this phenomenon is something certainly to be explored in the context and differing paces of now and the past.
For her new series Beauty, the artist took portraits of friends wearing ready-made facemasks to explore what transpires when selfies are displayed in a formal context. By using the visual language of Baroque portraiture, Beauty elevates and prolongs the ephemeral nature of the selfie to question the ease of borrowing, concealing, and performing identity in a social media obsessed culture.
Drawing a comparison between the “selfie” generation and Cahun, Curation and Experience Director at Jersey Heritage, Louise Downie believes that “she explored herself, her identity and her body in a way so familiar to the Instagram generation.”
But surely there was something more considered behind Cahun’s exploration of self? To give some context, Cahun was born Lucy Schwob in 1984. In 1917 she adopted the pseudonym Claude Cahun to escape the confines of gendered names, such have many women – George Elliot, J K Rowling and the Bronte sisters. However, her photography not only disguised her, but it disfigured the ‘traditional’ female form, years before anyone had done so.
Cahun was a rebel, but most certainly with a cause as now, 100 years since she created her pseudonym, people are freer to explore more fluid forms of gender openly in the mainstream media. “Claude Cahun was a ground-breaking artist ahead of her time. From her precocious teenage writing to her gender-bending self-portraits and politically charged still-lifes, she prefigured the works of artists like Cindy Sherman by 70 years.”
This exhibition presents an extraordinary and, thankfully, now celebrated artist who trail blazed a reflection on the “self” that has allowed society to maneuver it’s way to a more fluid understanding of gender. Whilst contemporary artists, such as Shawson, explore what the autonomous “selfie” culture is doing for the next step of our understanding of “self” – help or hinder, you decide, but certainly make your way to Attenborough Arts Centre this autumn for an unmissable exhibition.
Laura Swanson and Claude Cahun’s exhibition runs from the 9th September to the 10th December. Guided tours run every other Thursday of the month during the exhibition on 14, 28 September, 12, 26 October, 9, 23 November and 7 December. The exhibition opening night takes place on Friday 8th September from 5:30pm – 8:30pm, followed by live music until 10:30pm – Find more information on the opening night Facebook event.