Wednesday, May 21, 2008
jessie mann interview, part 3
part three of Seven Questions for Jessie Mann. photos above: The Damaged Child (1984) by Sally Mann and Untitled Plate 88 (2005) by Len Prince.
Subjectify: Many people have been famous for being subjects or muses. Some have brought vulnerability, allure, oddity, tragedy, etc. to the role. But you are one of relatively few people who have taken the reins of your subjecthood, and really approached it critically and consciously, again and again. Why do you think that is? (Even in pictures of you as a very small child, you project a very feisty sense of autonomy. Are those qualities part of what makes you poke at the classic role of the subject?)
Jessie Mann: I would like to break this question down into two parts—why I have approached my subjecthood critically and self consciously and why said self consciousness and autonomy has been a consistent part of my projected self even since childhood. I think the answers to these questions lie in my intellectual passion for the position I have found myself in and in my intrinsic character, which does seem to have a ‘feisty autonomy’; in short it breaks down into nurture and nature. Once I started working with Len and embraced this action as art, I began to think more deeply about the role of the subject in art and the nature of the self created therein. I began to think about my subjecthood, not just in terms of the issues of exploitation and the other facets of the social response to the subject—which had gotten me to the subject matter in the first place, but also in terms of the ontological nature of the abstracted character or subject. I began to research these ideas and as I honed in on writings about the anima in modern art I found myself returning to Jung. In his writings on the anima and the collective unconscious I found a scientific(!) inquiry into the spirit which moves through art—a discussion of the ways in which the unconscious informs us of our true nature through abstraction and creation. In my studies I went from Jung to Beuys, to Heidegger’s metaphysics, to Steiner, and Kandinsky. From there to Ken Wilber, Tarkovsky and quantum theory and back to Jung again— I was looking for some proof, I guess, that there was more to this action of giving to the camera than just the theoretical rebuke I was trying to make, or even the pleasure I derived from the action. I wanted to isolate that moment of spiritual exposure in art, and dissect it. It was this intellectual fascination with the quasi scientific function of the photograph on consciousness, self and identity which brought me to look so closely at the nature of the abstracted character. As such what I want the viewer to see in my expression is not someone looking into a lens but someone looking deeply past themselves.
When I read in Jung “there are present in every psyche forms which are unconscious but nonetheless active—living dispositions, ideas in the Platonic sense, that perform and continually influence our thoughts and feelings and actions” I understood it as the definition of that spirit which I knew could be exposed when I let myself function as a symbol itself. This is what is behind that anima, so often referenced, but so rarely explicated or specifically considered, in modern art. Rather than a negation of the self in art, or the assertion of self, I attempt to make the self, through abstraction, ubiquitous, in order to expose that selfless current which flows behind all artistic expression. As my research continued I studied the artists who also used themselves as a medium to create this effect, I studied those artists who, to again quote Barthes, used art and the abstract character to dissociate consciousness from identity. I would bring these folders of notes to shoots with Len, I was seriously like a Jehovah’s witness during this period. He would just roll his eyes at my youthful artistic zealotry and he would put aside the folder, and insist that we just make art for a little while (Being older and wiser he knew that being an artist is making art, not just understanding it). You know how college kids are. Nevertheless, this intellectual examination of subjecthood was played out in the photographs as my relationship with the camera deepened and my connection with the part I was playing became more informed. I think my quest to understand what it is I did and who I was, in its many stages and varying levels of abstraction, allowed me to bring self awareness and thereby self possession to the characters I manifested, not to mention passion.
But onto the second part of the question—even before I had heard the word postmodern I interacted with the camera self-awarely. When I began to examine who I am and what I do—personally in addition to theoretically, as we all must, I had to consider this strange feeling of connection which I have with the camera, which I have felt for as long as I can remember. I think it is this deep connection, built from years and years of consideration and practice, which has led me on such an intense pursuit of knowledge regarding the process of being in art and engaging the mythic. This connection itself is not intellectual—it seems to be rooted in some child like belief in the magic of make believe which makes this work and my discussions of it anything but dispassionately ironic. In the end I don’t know (I am not in a position to determine it) whether I developed an intense relationship with art and the camera because of my exposure to them. For the sake of total honesty I should admit that I did graduate preschool with an honorary degree in dress up. Whatever it is, all I know is that when I am working in front of the camera I feel like I am closest to truth; like I am looking past myself to the abstract (and potentially creatively generative) idea that I will become. As a child I think I knew, what I briefly forgot during my rebellion, that to spark the imagination is to make the world more rich with possibility.