New exhibition makes striking statement on identity

Multiple Occupancy: Eleanor Antins Selves

Multiple Occupancy: Eleanor Antin’s “Selves”

On Sept. 4, Elanor Antin’s exhibition, “Selves,” opened at Columbia University’s Wallach Art Gallery. The show features Antin’s multiple identities and forces viewers to question how we formulate our conception of self, and how that conception, once realized, alters our perspective on the world.

Antin, an American photographer, author and artist, works primarily through the mediums of film, video, performance and drawing. She developed several vastly different realizations of herself between 1972 and 1991. One of her “selves,” known as The King of Solana Beach, included a full faux beard pasted to her face.

While the exhibit is interesting in its own right, the questions it raises about identity are far more interesting. From whence does identity arise? How can we ever be sure who we really are, removed from the influences of our peers and colleagues? What informs our preferences, desires and wills?

Perhaps identity is far too intangible a subject to effectively discuss in the 550-word confines of this article. However, to assume such would be to void this entire article, so I’ll give it my best shot.

Identity, as a concept, is fairly straightforward. We grow up; we internalize the beliefs of our parents and society; and we either accept those beliefs as our own or question them and develop our own through observation and/or trial and error. For those of us who choose the latter option, the road may be more tough and/or more fun; but is it really a choice?

I believe that we are all programmed to think a certain way by those individuals who have particularly strong influences in our lives; simple enough. However, is the monumental act of questioning one’s beliefs a genetic predisposition, a social construct, a choice or some complex intersection of all three?

To answer such questions is beyond the scope of this viewpoint. I hope someone is attempting to answer them, and I commend whoever is doing so. Tangential knowledge acquisition voyage aborted.

Getting back to the original questions of identity, I think that we must surely be comprised of both individual experiences and a single inextricably connected web of both exerted and received external influences. As Carl Jung posits, we must all be part of the collective unconscious, the little-understood well from which perhaps all of human expression, emotion and observation flows, and to which it all returns.

In short, to attempt to separate our own preferences, desires and experiences from the influences of others is a futile pursuit. Lovers, friends, coworkers, basement junkies, valet parking attendants, assisted living facility supervisors, Walmart greeters, weathermen, vinyl curators and seapunks, all have such profound influences on our lives as to render such separation meaningless.

Existentialist? Perhaps. Nihilistic? Not in the slightest. While Antin’s beautiful exhibition points out the absurdity of trying to parse our own identity as distinct from the influences of others, it hardly negates the idea that life is purposive. If anything, “Selves” begs us to use life as a vessel to become whatever we want, to keep the influences we like and ditch the rest in various iterations and at different points in our lives until we find a self we like. The question that remains can only be answered by the individual component of ourselves: will we follow the instruction of “Selves” or simply stagnate?