Kaari Upson and the tragedy of the self

There is no such thing as outside, Arsenale, Venice Biennale, 2019

“There is no such thing as outside” is an installation by Kaari Upson, an American artist born in 1972 who lives and works in Los Angeles.

An important part of Kaari Upson’s earlier career relates to The Larry Project, a series which includes installations, performances, paintings and films inspired by the personal items owned by a man she decided to call “Larry”, an individual who seemed to have a fascination for Hugh Hefner and the Playboy world, perhaps some local playboy himself, whom she of course never met.  She found these objects, correspondence, and other documents on an abandoned property close to her home, and started reconstructing from these patchy memories and traces a partly fantasized, partly plausible life of this “Larry”, going as far as creating a life-size doll of this man with whom she played different roles, including of daughter and lover, and portrayed herself in doing so. She extrapolated his life from whatever she could guess from existing documents, became perhaps a little obsessed with this “ghost” of a man, and somehow fused her own life with the reconstructed image of a perfect stranger.

Kiss paintings

This makes for an amazing interpenetration of life and fiction turned into an artwork, to the point where she would declare: “the objective reality of the man I construct collapses into the subjective fiction I create, until they merge and I am more him than he is”. In the “Kiss paintings”, she would paint his portrait and her own self-portrait and, with the paint still wet, cover the one by the other to obtain these “mergers”. After engaging into mock sex with the doll, even taking it on a honeymoon trip, she ended up decapitating “him”. It becomes difficult to make the difference between what belongs to the “other”, what reflects the artist’s inner self, what – or who – is being portrayed. Is it the artist’s subconscious mind?

Smoke on panel

In 2009, she exhibited at the Maccarone gallery in New York a remarkable set of works, many of them using a smoke on panel technique, with the intriguing title I am bound to have some anxiety about this so please if I say stop, don’t stop”. Key for our topic is the video showing a woman engaged in the creation of a double of herself, or perhaps herself as already merged with the man, and a video where the character says “No one wants to be around someone who hurts themselves because that means they could hurt  you”.  The gallery’s presentation explains that “as the man and woman have now merged as one, the woman embarks on another relationship – the doubling of her own coupling. The act of love between the created self (the woman) and the merged self (the couple) plays out through the video series”. But this is clearly an uneasy act of love, an admonition of its unreachable realization. She will continue to explore the theme of the double, the impossible conjunction between two beings perhaps, the impossible harmony which a new-found unity would bring. For what is the double, if not a failure of the self, the difficulty to reach internal harmony by loving oneself, and external harmony by loving the other ?

When in 2011, at her solo exhibition at Overduin and Kite in Los Angeles, Kaari Upson sets to destroy, inside a closed (but for a peephole) wooden box, the charcoal and wax cast of the life-size Larry doll which she had made, thus trying to get rid of “Larry”, so to speak. The cast’s remains, and charcoal marks resulting from the slamming and rubbing and abrading of the cast against the walls, can be viewed through the peephole. The artist explains in an excellent interview with Paul Soto: “The cast that is being demolished inside the box is of the doll, which began in 2007 as a substitute of the real thing, embodying as much precise information that I had about Larry. You can follow the project’s development almost entirely through the doll’s transformation… By rubbing the doll onto the wall and transferring it, no matter what I did, it would not be destroyed, moving instead into another medium. Meaning would transfer into drawing and into dust, which would then become another object. These traces of something that never existed does have the feeling of an exorcism, in this idea that it is me alone, possessed by this archive of information about Larry, and having some sort of physical thing happen to me, and out from me, without anybody else being there”. So that it would appear that the archive acts like a demon which you try to get rid of, but that demon takes other shapes and even the charcoal marks on the walls are still the demon which in some mysterious sense controls the artist, or the projection which the artist has created of herself.

In 2018, with In Search Of The Perfect Double shown in Torre Velasca, Milan, Kaari Upson will explore the same general theme via an oddly indirect means, whereby she confronts and compares quasi-identical apartments in social buildings meant to be identical one to the other, and yet…

We read in the brief comment offered at the Arsenale that Kaari Upson “has a quasi-obsessional interest in psychological doubling”, assuming that this refers to what is known as a double personality disorder, reformulated as Dissociative Identity Disorder (DID) in the fifth Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-V) published by the American Psychiatric Association. According to DSM-V, DID is a mental disorder characterized by “the presence of two or more distinct personality states” accompanied by the inability to recall information. At least two of these personality states take alternatively control of the subject’s behaviour. The main dissociative symptoms experienced by DID patients include amnesia, derealization, identity disturbances and depersonalization (the patient feels that his body is unreal, or changing, or dissolving). It should be noted that DID is distinct from schizophrenia, which is characterized by hallucinations (seeing or hearing things which do not exist) and delusion (believing things that are not true).

The origins of the concept of dissociation are to be found in two French psychiatrists, Jacques-Joseph Moreau de Tours, who describes it for the first time in 1845, and above all Pierre Janet (1859 – 1947), for whom there exists below the conscience a level of sub-conscient activity; thought synthetises these two levels, which allows for the unity of the self, the “I”, but fails to do so in some cases, under the impact of trauma, in particular among hysterical subjects: psychic activity is then compartmentalized, or dissociated. This concept inspired Freud and Bleuler, among others. Two main interpretations of dissociation seem to exist. The first is that it blocks the encoding of events in the verbal access memory (VAM); events lived in such a state are only encoded at the level of the sensory access memory (SAM), which makes it impossible to integrate them in the normal “autobiographical” memory of the individual. A second interpretation is that certain psychic processes cease to be accessible to will; the emotional component of personality, which experienced the trauma, will then influence emotions and behaviours without any control.

Interestingly, DID occurs six to nine times more often in females than males. The number of claimed personalities has also increased during this period from two or three to an amazing average of sixteen. Some cases have been reported with alters that are not even human.

In North America, it would seem that diagnoses are concentrated on a relatively small number of clinicians, which suggests that perhaps DID is partly a “therapist-induced” disorder, and which also tends to reduce the effectiveness of a claim of DID in attempts to use it in insanity defense in the courts.

Persons diagnosed with DID often report sexual or other physical abuse during their childhood. It has also been attributed to societal changes, and indeed the number of cases increased fairly rapidly in the last fifty or sixty years, with the first reported cases at the end of the eighteen century, remaining fairly rare until the early 1970s.

A number of researchers think that DID is an epiphenomenon of Borderline Personality Disorders (BPD), or that anyway the two conditions often co-exist as they share many personality traits. Impulsivity, self-mutilation, unpredictable changes of mood or interpersonal behaviour, are all symptoms of BPD as well as DID. It would seem anyway that dissociative disorders are related to a trauma history, such as extreme stress or disorganized attachment, as well as to neural mechanisms which may be triggered by these traumatic experiences.

The definitions of dissociation, personality or identity are not clear nor generally accepted, so that the eye of the clinician does have a role in the naming and shaping of the disorder. Psychiatry does pose the question of whether, or to what extent, a disorder exists independently of its definition, and, if a disorder is clearly manifest, to what extent it can be enclosed in a stable category by the tools of language. Can we act upon a reality which we cannot define?  

These questions are not confined to the field of psychiatry. They are relevant to the triangular relationship between the artist, his work, and the viewer. In a sense, the artist and his work are involved in a complex “creator – creature” relationship where the work takes a life of its own, from which the artist cannot really distance himself from, as the work is inevitably a part of himself. This relationship can actually get into reverse, where the “creature” starts dominating its creator as it evolves in scope, quantity, and autonomy, the latter being progressively established by the viewer who becomes the inevitable rival of the artist. In a conversation held in 2008, Luc Tuymans stated that “The paintings are only shadows – they are like puppet images”, and one would assume that the master of the puppets, in that view, is the artist. But perhaps this relationship is less univocal than it appears, and some discomfort starts creeping in where the artist finds it difficult to escape from its creature, while the latter is, ultimately, both eternal and free.

One can hardly fail to be reminded of Stevenson’s novel, where the cruel Edward Hyde remains ever present within the personality of the otherwise good Dr Jekyll; a fight not only between the repressed evil and the good which coexist within each person, but also between the public and the intimate, the person which your parents – or your faith, or your ideology – want you to be, and the one you end up being…  In Dr Jekyll’s confession, we read: “I saw that, of the two natures that contended in the field of my consciousness, even if I could rightly be said to be either, it was only because I was radically both…”. Kaari Upson does not confront us with a good versus evil split, but rather perhaps with a master and slave one built inside our own self.

With this in mind, we can turn to the “installation cum performance” which Kaari Upson is presenting in Venice.

Discovering that a dollhouse made by a friend’s mother – presumably in her youth – the artist notices that it resembles their own house, and that the same occurs with another dollhouse made by her mother. The two dollhouses are here merged in an installation which contains enlarged replicas of their contents; a performance filmed in the same space is shown on several screens, where the artist is joined by another woman. Their faces are painted so as to mimic each other’s, though in the semblance of puppets with large blue eyes painted on their closed eyelids. These eyes which never blink, wide open, seem to tell of a person who never goes away, who haunts the internal scene. Occasionally a violent episode occurs, some bloody beating up without any obvious cause or resolution; the toppled chairs in the dollhouse are evidence of these fights.

A puppet having no life of its own, dreaming of puppets is usually considered as a reflection of one’s own subconscious mind, or expressing a feeling of powerlessness in the hands of other forces, often of the child who is either abandoned, or subject to the vagaries of his or her mother. A person who was not heard.

The installation rapidly instils an eerie atmosphere which resembles that one would imagine to feel on a crime scene in which some ghastly event has occurred, though it is not clear which one.

“There is no such thing as outside” could mean that you cannot escape from your own self, that you must live in that dollhouse together with that subconscious, perhaps even with your other self, or selves. And that life can be a pretty nasty affair, at times.  Are we witnessing the torment of the self seeking a home, perhaps, as the screens are all set outside of the dollhouse in which the performance was filmed, so that in some manner the memories of what occurred inside – the self, the house – are what makes it impossible to re-enter a home ? 

Next to the dollhouse, on the opposite side of the performance video, another video is projected where we can see a black-haired woman, the same blue eyes painted on her closed eyelids, wearing exaggerated red lipstick and with blackened eyebrows, grinning in a manner which is half-way between savagery and hallucination. At some point, we understand that someone – her double? – hanged herself.    

Rarely have the nature of the self be questioned, and the torments be exposed, in such an intriguing and disturbing manner. Everything here is on moving grounds: is the dissociative identity for real, or is it all theatrics, with the dollhouse as a scene? Is this a dreamworld where puppets represent human beings, or archetypes, or the exhibition of an actual human drama? Is the artist addressing her own anxieties, and attempting to cure actual disorders by the means of art, or is this a laboratory experiment of which the viewer is the unsuspecting guinea pig? Are we witnessing the enactment of a catharsis, not knowing if it will be effective, will all its dangers, or the mere staging of a catharsis? Who precisely is the black-haired character in the second video, and how does she relate to the more familiar blonde actress-and-puppet? Are we in the realm of allegory, therapy, or tragedy? None of this is very clear, many readings remain open. The life-size dimensions of the dollhouse and of the furniture tend to drag the viewer into the scene, to make him part of the drama. One is left with questions about what exactly we have seen, and a sense of discomfort which does not emanate from either disgust or vulgarity, and therefore signals that we have met with something powerful.

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