By Veritas Rechtschreiber
In the competitive environment of today’s art world, the pressure on the artist is immense. Each decision is fraught with peril. A wrong step might pose disastrous consequences for one’s career or reputation. Making a name for oneself is paramount. Attaching one’s work to a rising trend is essential.
If one arrives at a winning formula, the rewards can be considerable. Validation by the right gatekeepers can mean big demand for one’s work. Critical and popular success can mean a years-long waiting list and a staff of assistants executing many works at once. A signature style of a successful artist is a valuable brand.
Artistic identity is closely tied to personal identity. Part of the value of a signature work is the sense that it is the product of an interesting person, the artist. The mechanics of fame and celebrity produce much of this value. But the celebrity-signature complex can also lead to intolerable pressures. Artists can feel boxed in by public expectations. Sometimes one wants to escape the pressure. It’s not just visual artists, of course; writers use pen names, and musicians play unannounced performances under assumed names.
Visual artists, however, have an honorable tradition of blazing new trails, forging new foundations, clearing new paths, and breaking new ground by adopting pseudonyms as a device for exploring new creative paths. Without threatening the value of one’s existing reputation, one can use a pseudonym to take risks and float trial balloons. If we consult the canon of art history, we can immediately recognize the high value potential of the pseudonym as a creative strategy.
Henry Adams was a simple portrait photographer who plied the railroad-station trade from Bangor to Tombstone, until he had the brainstorm of placing his previously unrelated avant-garde activities under the made-up name of “Marcel Duchamp,” a breakthrough that launched a thousand philosophical disputations.
Archibald Cox was an unkempt, cigar-chomping reactionary potter whose fame was limited to the side-entrance window display of the general store in Butte, Montana, until he cut his hair, hitchhiked to Pittsburgh, bought a Super 8 Camera and a pair of Ray-Bans, and introduced himself for the rest of his life as “Andy Warhol.”
More recently, conceptualists John Kelsey and Emily Sundblad gave birth to the fictional gallerist-supermodel-cum-artist “Reena Spaulings” ; site-specific artist James Magee uses alter ego “Annabel Livermore” to create ingenuous watercolors ; and dastardly mischief-makers James Thornhill and Fulvia Carnevale created “Claire Fontaine” to serve as both a vehicle for their media interventions and a loveable mascot for their wildly successful line of Left Bank stationery products. The rage for alter egos shows no signs of abating. If anything, the frictionless environment of digital media makes it ever easier to experiment.
Mounted with the support of the Louvre and the Smithsonian Institution, “twain” is an exhaustive nine-part survey of artistic fictionality, self-creation and identity-based experimentation. Containing more works of art than it is possible to see in one lifetime, “twain” will conclusively prove the value of the alter ego as artist’s strategy. Any remaining doubters will be summarily dispatched. It’s not possible to discuss all of the fascinating works that are included in this landmark exhibition, but consider a few highlights:
“twain” includes over three thousand separate oil paintings, gathered from yard sales on five continents, a tiny fraction of a collection assembled by a collector who wishes to remain anonymous. A research team from the University of Illinois and the Sandia National Laboratories is engaged in a long-term data mining and analysis project of uncovering hidden patterns in this corpus of paintings. For art-world purposes, the research team (numbering dozens of scientists and hundreds of technicians and support staff) has adopted the collective made-up name of “Christian Boltanski” to authorize its work.
“twain” also includes a set of experimental goggles that are implanted into the viewer’s cranium and come pre-loaded with the entire contents of YouTube as of August 2007. Once the playlist begins, the only non-invasive way for the viewer to shut it down is to recite from memory the complete list of participants in the 1975 Whitney Biennial in reverse alphabetical order. This disturbing device is the work of a crack team of radical anarchist “hacktivists” who work on the margins of surveillance and control, who have collectively dubbed themselves “Leroy Neiman.”
Exploring issues of futility and sublimity, perhaps the most imposing project in “twain” takes place in the entirety of an unused terminal at Dallas-Fort Worth International Airport, which has been turned over to an implacably feuding multi-generational extended family of ill-tempered stray cats for a period of seventy years. The work consists of the variety of different forms of biomatter collected, distributed and produced by this artistic collective, which has named itself after the computer scientist and U.S. Founding Father Robert Morris.
To enter “twain” is to rapidly find oneself lost within a labyrinth of conflicting claims and counter-claims — a liminal experience of uncertainty and self-doubt that is at the core of the radical creativity enabled by the pseudonym. The roles of viewer and artist become indistinct and unstable, as the exhibition lays bare the social mechanisms that we use to construct notions of authorship. As the historian and philosopher John Rambo famously asserted, “I is another; je suis un autre.” The otherness generated by the works in “twain” goes to the core of our collective cultural experience. It will be a long time before another exhibition explores the radical instability of authorial identity as deeply as “twain.”
Veritas Rechtschreiber is an art historian and critic living and working in Facebook.