Tuesday, December 22, 2009
The Man identity
(It sounds weird that Human is writing something about Man. Well, yeah...)
The Jewish Museum organized a Man Ray retrospective with more than 200 works from the significant modernist's 60-year career. Born Emmanuel Radnitzky, son of Russian Jewish immigrants in Philadelphia, and then being the only American in the Paris art circle, Man Ray consistently tried to avoid his roots. With the contradictionary need to obscure and declare himself, his desire was to "become a tree en espalier," a tree trained to grow on trellis that form a single plane pattern other than growing in its natural mass. This is a plant that has a strong presence yet its origins disguised. It is both "notoriety" and "oblivion" at the same time - a famous nobody.
Man Ray's mediums span from paintings, collages, objects, to photographs, films, and poems. Dadaism provided him with a good vehicle to subvert traditional authority and cut loose the previously specific relationship between name and self. But of all the tools he explored, photography reflects most powerfully his double-sided intention of revealing and concealing identity.
When photography was first invented, it was admired as the perfect tool of factual documentation. But Man Ray used it as an instrument to blur authenticity and identity. He described himself as one who “so deforms the subject as almost to hide the identity of the original, and creates a new form,” Through various manipulative techniques, he demonstrated how transformable any subject could be. In his photograph of Kiki de Montparnasse titled Le violon d’Ingres, you see the back of a beautiful woman, yet with one tweak: two violin f-holes were inscribed. Suddenly the identity of the female body is blended with the identity of a music instrument. The lover acts as muse across different forms of art, and the artist acts as the alchemist.
The signature series of "Rayographs" is another example. By exposing objects directly on photographic paper, cameraless shades were created. The objects are blurry, translucent and overlapping. They are usually recognizable and yet stripped off their original identities. The defamiliarizing composition transforms the known into the unknown, and opens the possibilities to a whole new alternative reality.
Perhaps nothing is more telling than self-portraits in terms of how someone sees his own identity. Man Ray's earliest self-portrait (1916) is a multi-media collage. There's a handprint in the center conveying the idea of "self," but its location - where the mouth would roughly be - also implies silence. A door belt is fixed at the bottom. But if you ring, there's no sound, as if saying "I am not telling you." Man Ray once said, "People keep asking me where I was born... You know what? That's too long ago and I already forgot." Later self-portraits include many blurry and distorted images, and my favorite is a frame with just a carnival mirror inside.
What's Man's attitude? His epitaph puts it the best: "unconcerned, but not indifferent."