guest curator series

Wes Hardin 

on avatars

Photo by Charles Benton of Gleaner Odalisque by Emily Mae Smith. Courtesy of Perrotin / Photo of Tom Ford sequin dress VII (back II) by Bunny Rogers. Courtesy of Société / Illustration by Ana Frías
Not all who would be are Narcissus. Many who lean over the water see only a vague human figure.

Jean-Paul Sartre, introduction to Jean Genet’s 1949 Journal du voleur

In May of 2021, The Brooklyn Rail published an interview between editor Anna Tome and New York-based visual artist Ebecho Muslimova. Their exchange is easy, cerebral, pretty funny at times. (When Tome asks if Muslimova is in psychoanalysis, the artist says, “Yeah. But mine is a lot more casual, my shrink […] we don’t do the whole dream thing”). They reel off the basics of Muslimova’s working practice. She’s Russian-born, a draftswoman from an early age. Her creative process is challenging. Every so often she suffers a cramped and awkward incubation period that eventually proffers a new artwork. Midway through the interview, Tome makes a fairly innocuous remark about Muslimova’s approach. I’ve paraphrased their comments below:

TOME: As an artistic device, Fatebe has been called your alter ego, but she seems to have a lot more latitude or power compared to a lot of famous artists’ alter egos that existed alongside a well-known practice…

MUSLIMOVA: I never really think of her as an alter ego, more like a self-portrait but through another self, if that makes any sense. Like a surrogate.

The “Fatebe'' in question is none other than the kingpin around whom Muslimova’s practice revolves––a sprightly, libertine line-drawn female figure that began in art school as a Sharpie sketch, and who now occupies whole walls of fine canvas and aluminium in prismatic colour. For the regular observer, Fatebe is equal parts outlandish and unsettling. Apart from the adamantine grin that endures even through her most abject, caricaturish predicaments, Fatebe’s defining feature is her nakedness––or, rather, her genitality. Fatebe mediates her environment with her body, at times rearranging and swallowing whole objects (windows, furniture, musical instruments, etc.) through her various orifices. Naturally, this is all according to the laws of cartoon physics. In almost every respect Fatebe eschews the basic sexual and corporeal rules that we believe govern ordinary life, never mind femininity. When Tome says, “it’s interesting to think about [Fatebe] as an interlocutor between your subconscious and your waking life”, Muslimova hardly disagrees.

I don’t blame the two for hedging around a pigeonhole like the “alter ego.” The idea is loaded. Popular examples of alter egos are for one reason or another more accessible in film and literature; Mr. Hyde is Dr. Jekyll’s alter ego in the 1886 Robert Louis Stevenson novella, as is the homicidal “Mother” to an otherwise tepid Norman Bates in Hitchcock’s 1960 blockbuster Psycho. The alter ego’s implicit contest––respectable, daytime self pitted against lurking, libidinal other––is oftentimes a very masculine formula. That is to say, hangups around propriety, deviancy, and even what Freud begins to postulate as ‘the uncanny’ tend to denature, if not dissolve in the double-binds and psychosexual quagmires that emerge when higher matrices of gender become involved (Fatebe herself is evidence of this). What Tome and Muslimova’s comments speak to more broadly (and, in my opinion, more interestingly) are the ways that artists, particularly female artists, use strategies of deferral to occupy and communicate altogether very complicated experiences of virtuality.

The English language has many fair and potentially misleading phrases that gesture toward Muslimova’s “surrogate”: double, mirror, alter, alter ego, proxy, character, avatar. Most of these concepts are not mutually exclusive but complementary, each allowing us to draw out different aspects of the vicariousness that occurs when we identify beyond ourselves. The lattermost tangle, “the avatar,” is unique. Web forum denizens, adolescent gamers, and digital laypeople alike encounter the concept across many internet contexts: think Nintendo’s hilariously configurable “Miis” of the mid-aughts, or even the generic, sometimes absurdist usernames––i.e. “handles”––we use to self-designate on social media platforms like Instagram, Twitter, and Reddit. Tome’s phrase “interlocutor” seems pertinent here. But what exactly is an avatar? And, as a leitmotif, what sorts of opportunities does the avatar open for us online, in person, and in visual art?

Contemporary artist and painter Emily Mae Smith is an interesting example. She’s perhaps best known for her broom figures, which draw from characters in Disney’s The Sorcerer’s Apprentice, a 1936 short film based on a Goethe poem and scored to Paul Dukas’ arrangement of the same title (contemporary viewers are likely more familiar with the short’s 1999 reedition in the film Fantasia 2000). In her work, Smith transposes this broom across centuries of art history: reclining on the velveteen settees of Ingres’ mythic odalisques; pondering memento mori in St. Jerome’s study à la the Flemish Joos van Cleve; cast in titanic, Warholian silhouettes. The opportunities for counterposition are seemingly endless.

Smith’s broomstick exemplifies what I think is the essential, unifying conceit of the avatar: the dislocation of its occupant. At a basic level, the avatar acts as a conduit, allowing access and participation in spaces or times that are otherwise wholly inaccessible. This is pretty easy to observe online. In usernames, emoticons, or ‘playable’ characters, we choose surrogates through whom our movements are parlayed digitally. In fact, we have no other option; the internet is physically uninhabitable, and quite literally forces us to hire a representative. In Smith’s case, the broomstick opens a whole sort of teleopoesis––bridging her wry, critical perspective with a universe of art historical milieus as boundless as she’s willing to portray on canvas. Even for Muslimova, self-deferral onto an avatar like Fatebe, and by extension onto Fatebe’s comic world, allows the artist to broach a psychosexual workspace that is foreclosed otherwise. “[Fatebe’s] letting me kind of work out some sort of subconscious something.”

Of course, Smith and Muslimova could just paint self-portraits. They could act out Fatebe’s antics, or pose for grand masters each as their respective likeness, and potentially realize the same dislocation. They don’t, however. And yet something about the artist’s person is still quite tangibly at stake in their avatar––as Muslimova says, “like a self-portrait but through another self, if that makes any sense.” I find this second quotient about an artist’s ‘inhabitation’ of their avatar very interesting. Sparing a longer conversation on semiotics, I’d argue that representing just about anything, whether in literature or visual media, is in and of itself a sort of hushed verbal endorsement, a kind of silent inhabitation. (Think Camus’ deus ex machina absolution of the racist Merseault in 1942’s L’Étranger. Setting aside existential quandaries, the author has some questions to answer about his vivid imagination). At the same time, a character in a story seems to have palpably lower stakes for the artist than, say, a self-portrait. The portrait is probably at the closest end of our scale of self-reference. It quite literally implicates the artist as an actor in their work. On occasion, self-portraits pull the wool over our eyes to the a priori virtualness of the canvas, photograph, what have you. Mostly, they’re a ready kind of autofiction (artists like Cindy Sherman, Cahun, even Kahlo come to mind). Towards the farther end of the gradient is our character in a story, whose author we often grant some reprieve from the complicities of his actors. Meanwhile, the avatar seems to be somewhere in the middle. On one hand, it dislocates and ambiguates its author, or at least in part. And on the other, it clearly designates them in a virtual space. There’s an obvious self-referentiality to internet avatars, in which we break the fourth wall, recapture our disbelief and simply imagine the live person typing furiously behind their onscreen persona. For Muslimova, too, the self-referential component of her “surrogate” seems pretty intuitive. For Smith, the conversation is a little longer.

In The Sorcerer’s Apprentice, the broom is first vivified through a spell that transforms it into a silent labourer for the titular sorcerer. His magic ultimately backfires, causing the broom-golems to multiply exponentially until they’ve overtaken him. The broom is also a gendered symbol; its alignments to domestic labour and gendered space are gleaned by no stretch of the imagination. Smith’s repeated substitution of art historical subjects––especially sexualized, orientalized, and otherwise objectified depictions of women––furnishes all sorts of recodified feminist throughlines and symbolic conceits that dislodge the gazes responsible for engineering the original images. (Swapping Ingres’ nude concubine from 1814’s Grande Odalisque with a reposing broomstick is, in my opinion, an especial subversion). In this capacity, the broom is much more than a recurring part in Smith’s larger parable. It’s the artist’s political stakeholder, through whom she negotiates extant iconography and, in many cases, other people’s artwork. The investiture Smith accomplishes as or through the broom captures an alternate side to the ‘inhabitation’ question. I’d argue there’s a very real identification, a sort of metonymy in the shared stakeholding between person and avatar that circumvents personal gestures toward the artist. The broom is not a picture of Smith, nor is it self-referential in the way that a caricature is. But it bears her stakes, answers to her compositional discretion, and therefore signifies her in some way.

By now I think it’s fair to conclude that our collective understanding of the avatar is, for better or worse, blindingly informed by the internet. That’s not to say that 20th-century writers and female artists especially haven’t pondered related concepts before. Gertrude Abercrombie’s surrealist portraits of mid-century domestic life’s psychic underside seem apropos. Likewise, plenty of philosophical conversations about virtuality and simulation predate the advent of MySpace or AOL Instant Messenger. Still, as a concept shaped extraordinarily by digital life, the avatar is a very useful tool for contemplating said life. American contemporary artist Bunny Rogers offers much insight here. Her work deals directly with media, the internet, and the roles they’ve played, sometimes continue to play in her identity formation. Her references draw from formative media exposures: TV shows like My Little Pony; the role-playing video game Minecraft; 1999’s Columbine shooting, and the nonstop coverage that remains a touchstone for Rogers.

Many of Rogers’ works are admitted self-portraits. One such series, Self Portrait as clone of Jeanne D’Arc, is felicitous; the “as” in Rogers’ title literalizes many ideas already discussed: dislocation and inhabitation, Muslimova’s “through another self,” and how Smith’s work shows that avatars seem to obligatorily locate us within the value matrix of our virtual setting. These points have yet another dimension in Rogers’ case. When we create internet avatars––for example, when we set our profile picture to an image of a dog, a family photo, or a meme, we opt into specific alignments. We mean to be received as gregarious and fun-loving spirits, fulfilled parents, or confrères in an haut-contrarian syndicate. Sometimes, when we wish not to opt at all, we choose a generic portrait. This is, of course, a feint; insofar as it relates to us, the avatar is always a shareholding party. We thus align ourselves with something like “authenticity,” already a unique currency in digital space. The self-reflection inherent to formulating an avatar is for many, especially women and girls on the internet, not just an empty detail but an opportunity: the avatar creates space to practice, occupy postures, and reckon with symbols not readily apparent or accessible in daily life. Rogers’ portraits exemplify this ‘self-fashioning’ aspect. The “clone” reference comes from an early 2000’s television series called Clone High, where important historical figures are reimagined as 20th-century teenagers. In the show, adolescent Joan of Arc is reserved, pensive––qualities Rogers identifies in herself and appropriates in her avatar. The gendered martyrdom associated with the original figure also interests Rogers, and interrelates her avatar with various other issues explored in her work––adolescence, sexualization, belonging. Fundación MEDIANOCHE0 houses a collection of works from Rogers’ earlier iteration of the “clone of Jeanne D'arc”-style figure, entitled Tom Ford sequin dress (2020). Forgoing her angst-ridden teenage subject for a spare, faceless silhouette clad in the titular frock, Rogers’ avatar here taps another addled web of sign and symbol: celebrity.

Whether or not Muslimova, Smith, or Rogers’ work ultimately accommodates the characterization I’ve laid out is a matter that, frankly, hangs in the air. At various points in their conversation, Tome and Muslimova veer toward still other rubrics for the device Fatebe encompasses: shadow, caricature, übermensch. I’d say that in general, questions of one-or-another in art are more gratifying to pose than to attempt unified solutions to. Still, there’s fertile ground in discussions about signification. They offer us glimpses of the artist as architect, parabolist, or implement in their own work, and draw our attention to involvements beyond the four sides of the canvas.

Wes Hardin is a writer and occasional designer based in New York City. After studying at UCLA, he joined François Ghebaly as a gallerist at their Lower East Side outpost. He’s written for Massimo De Carlo, Mendes Wood DM, Goodman Gallery, Nina Johnson, 303 Gallery, 11.11 eleven/eleven, and MR PORTER. His interests include craft, costume, and contemporary art. He’s on Instagram at @wesley_h_