Self - The Ultimate Design Artefact

‘The Self’ becomes the unattainable product of a perpetual design process. Rather than being a finite result of a quest for knowledge, the perceived ‘self’ (the consciousness of your own identity) is a continuing mutation formed by the battle between self/other. Self and other are always intertwined, as they bring each other into being. Recognition of ‘other’ produces the ‘self’ – and only through destruction of this ‘other’ can we truly affirm our understanding as being the one, true ‘self’. But this is a process that has no end, as it continues to encounter and recognise ‘others’ throughout. So, rather than being able to fully justify the statement “this is me” – all this means is that this is you at a specific moment in time; a snapshot in which you give the title ‘me/I/myself’ to an unfinished product.

So the self, as a conscious awareness of your own identity, becomes the ultimate piece of design. A product that is constructed and informed via research, analysis and development, until it answers the brief; which, in this case, is the question ‘Who am I?’ But as outlined above, the product is never attainable, as you can never really state that your ‘self’ if complete, because it never will be.

“Self consciousness must repeatedly destroy itself in order to know itself”
Hegel, cited by Salih, 2004

The theory of self/other is one outlined in the work of Hegel. Analysing the adventures of male protagonists within ancient myth, Hegel came to the conclusion that stories of these ‘unhappy heroes’ on their quests, were in fact, charting the metaphysical journey as much as the literal journey; documenting the heroes’ movement from ignorance to experience. Whilst these heroes conquered monsters and beasts (the ‘other’) they were actually doing the same within there own perceived identity. Only through the destruction of the ‘other’ can it be satisfied, reaffirmed in its position as the one true, self.

But despite the negative connotations attached to the word, when destruction is used within this discourse – it doesn’t equate to a termination. This is not a death of something. This is no longer a finite term that limits the lifespan of ‘the other’– it could be a synonym for change, adaptation, even mutation. Destroyed objects can be reconstituted/reconfigured into new objects.

And it is these new objects that will be discussed here. How is the struggle between self/other represented visually? Whilst it is an interior issue, that is, contained within the individual, how can it manifest through creative output?

In Douglas Gordon’s ‘Between Darkness and Light after William Blake’ (1997), we see the relationship between ‘self’ and ‘other’ come to life. The piece consists of two films, ‘The Song of Bernadette’ and ‘The Exorcist’ being played simultaneously, on opposing walls. While one film documents the miracles of a godly presence on Earth, the other is a story of a demon possession, both using young women as their conduits. The artwork takes place in an underpass; representing a purgatory, the non-place positioned between heaven and hell. This conflict between light/dark, good/evil is the key theme in the work. – What Gordon brings attention to is the paradox that both films can exist in the same place, at the same time. Whilst the stories may be competing in their alliances to heaven or hell, competing for our attention – in this artwork, they coexist together. They have come to a natural cohesion; a balance between good and evil. And this balance is what represents the conflict between self/other. While these labels do not have a relation to what is good or bad, they do signify opposing ‘subjects’.

This interplay between opposing subjects is apparent in many of Gordon’s artworks. Another piece where it manifests is 'Self-Portrait as Kurt Cobain, as Andy Warhol, as Myra Hindley, as Marilyn Monroe', 1996. Infused with humour, the photograph features the artist with a blond wig. Simplistic in its approach, it is only when given its full title that the piece comes to life. Gordon becomes four people – each wildly different in their impact on contemporary culture; but contained within one wig; in turn contained within one man. Opposing forces coming to balance with one blonde wig.

But something so seemingly insignificant as a wig can be come to represent this relationship between self/other; it is no more apparent than in the work of Cindy Sherman. Sherman uses props, makeup and wigs to produce identities via photography. The identities range wildly – rarely depending upon stereotypes, and sometimes embracing androgyny, abjection and ‘unprettiness’. And it is this that seems to make Sherman’s work really unique. The breadth of these characters – and the fact they are all projected onto one individual; a much more expansive version of Gordon’s blonde wig. In Sherman’s work, she picks up and disposes of these identities in front of a camera, taking a snapshot of their existence – the moment they come to life on a human body. But do not mistake ‘human body’ as being alive. These identities are most definitely dead – they are the ‘others’ that have been lost on Sherman’s conquest to find her one true ‘self’. But, the speeds at which Sherman becomes and discards these characters seem to disrupt the understanding that there is a person beneath them. Sherman becomes a mannequin – removed from any sense of who she ‘really is’ (if there is anything ‘real’ to begin with). Who is the real Cindy Sherman? Who is to say that one of her costumes isn’t the ‘real’ woman? It is impossible to decipher as to what is real or not in a world full of costumes. So I put forward this argument. The world does consist of costumes – personas that we create, take upon our selves, then discard/adapt. Sherman’s work is simply a visualisation of the everyday occurrences of costumes we wear. These costumes can be mistaken for ‘natural’ (i.e. an essential truth bound to a physical body), but there really is nothing there that we were born with. There is no real.

The conflict between self/other means that nothing is ever stable within the self conscious, at least not for long. We are constantly adapting by judging our relationship to the ‘other’, picking and choosing what will or won’t configure into our own identity – an identity that is constantly under construction. So what was there to begin with? If we are always under construction – weren’t we just a blank slate at our birth? The misconception is that we all contain an essence – a natural state. Naturally good, naturally evil, these are labels constructed by our understanding of others. To be good, we must understand evil (and vice-versa). You are not born with one self. The self only comes into being through a relationship to others.

The understanding there is no one true ‘self’ is also an understanding that there is no definitive ‘I’. I can say what I think, but I cannot define what I am. ‘I’ is always in the process of becoming something else, of congealing into the definitive ‘I’ – to something that will stand alone, away from the context of others. Of course, this is foolish. I can never be removed from my position within ‘context’ i.e. the world. I will always have something to compare myself against, to contrast myself against, to hate, to love. ‘I’ am bound to myself, who in turn, is bound to context.

In Mark Wallinger’s ‘Self – Times New Roman’ (2010), the artist draws attention to the absurdity of creating a definitive ‘self portrait’. Something that captures everything it is that defines you, instead of everybody else. Wallinger is making a mockery of the letterform/word itself. How can you be represented via ‘I’? It is a word with no relationship to anything except those who say it. When standing alone, it is simply one of 26. But when ‘I’ produce my self-portrait, when ‘I’ am placed onto a pedestal, ‘I’ become important – despite being completely generic. There is no essential truth to my character; I have nothing I was born with that truly represents what I am. I just have to use this single letterform to express myself. Wallinger’s self portrait becomes a self-portrait for everybody – anybody who has ever muttered the word ‘I’. The infinite I.

No other artist brings to life this concept of the infinite self better than Orlan. Constantly adapting her outward appearance on an everyday basis (as opposed to Sherman’s photographic moments) – Orlan is constantly ‘painting’ her own self-portrait, using her own body as the material for representation. The physical body becomes a signifier for the interior struggle between self/other, where the fragmented aspects of identity manifest themselves.

Orlan positions her ‘self’ as the opposing force or being to her ‘others’ – which range from Greek goddesses to B-Movie monsters. But rather than using this opposing stance as a definitive split, Orlan embraces the physicality of her others, choosing to take elements and attach them to her self-portrait. Take, for example, the horns that she had surgically implanted into her forehead, or the failed attempt for an extreme nose job (a procedure no surgeon will undertake). Her body is matter that is reshaped at will, a constantly evolving piece of artwork. But can this construction be considered a piece of art? What lies underneath the changes of Orlan’s body is the ‘illusion of creation’, a impression that something new is coming into being, when in fact, all Orlan is doing is mixing images that have come before her. She simply takes the role of a conductor in a world of visual identities. Whereas Sherman clearly wears a ‘costume’ that is not her own (appearances she is borrowing from others), Orlan rejects the costume. She folds the costume into her own ‘identity’, labelling it under her own name. So while Sherman’s portraits have a definitive beginning and end (since they exist in one single photo) – Orlan portrait continues to evolve.

But diverging from this point, the word ‘costume’ must really be criticised. I use it in the most obvious way, that of ‘masquerade’ – where attire disrupts the normal appearance of an individual. But, the idea that identity can be constructed from costumes isn’t entirely true. The costume gives the impression that there is a definitive ‘self’ beneath the masquerade, which I disagree with. When I use the word costume, I really refer to the remains of the ‘other’, once defeated by the ‘self’.

I touched on this point earlier, when referring to Cindy Sherman’s costumes or identities being ‘dead’. Even when she breathes life into them as she wears them, the characters are still dead pieces of unconstituted ‘others’. They are the leftovers from Sherman’s struggle between self/other and because they are dead, they are vulnerable. They are easy to pick up, easy to appropriate and wear. Consider Greek mythology – where Hercules literally wears his dead other (the Nemean Lion) or where Perseus appropriates his other, Medusa, into his own battle shield. Self sees the ruins of the destroyed other and uses the vulnerability as an extension for its self – taking, adapting and using.

When this happens, self and other continue their coexistence. Self uses other as ‘a costume’ and other haunts self; two performances aware of each other’s existence. But as self asserts dominance (which it must do, by definition) – it parades the failures of the other; Hercules did this, Cindy Sherman does this. The death other becomes an aesthetic product of the self.

But how do we define ‘the other’. What is it that makes something/somebody/some other become ‘the other’ to our self. It must be labelled, or marked on aspects that you do not see as your perceived self. It is words that breed the split between self/other; I am man, you are woman. ‘The other’ is simply language, definitions on what is not you. When these words are reflected back onto our human product (yourself) – it infects. It causes a ripple effect where the word acts as a virus, destroying what we understand to be you. Irreparable damage of ‘self’ results in the reconstituted self, created using the remnants of the original. Original self and other reconvene into a new balance. Words = Virus.

Communicable viruses are a vital part of Mark Titchner’s work. By using highly theoretical statements – Titchner makes his audience come face to face with their own understanding of ‘structure’. These structures are never explicitly stated. They could be political, sexual or even psychological – but they regularly refer to existing ‘normative’ structures (aka, the self). The work allows the viewer to question what they think, or believe – lighting a spark on an internal debate. ‘Blowing your mind’, for lack of a more suitable term. Titchner’s words infect the human mind, causing irreparable damage. The original understanding is lost.

So what, you may ask, am I writing this for? It is quite simple. As you read this – you are infected. The communicable virus discussed earlier has already spread – and is now planted in your subconscious. It will exist there as a parasite, until, before long, your ‘self’ will confront my ‘other’. The two will do the dance of death until they annihilate each other; fragmenting to become part of a reconstituted version of your ‘self’ – completing their quest to reach a mutual understanding. I, writing this, become your other – the one you base your understanding of ‘self’ on. These words aim to reconfigure the balance of your self/other, of your perceived and desired self. Of course, this would have happened anyway – some other way. This re-configurement happens ‘naturally’ as we go through day-to-day life; it’s a process of learning. I am simply drawing your attention to it. So this essay is another step in a design process. It becomes another form of research, of analysis and development in the construction of your ‘product’, despite the fact, I’m sorry to say – this product will never be complete.