The Artist as Hero
It its my intention with this paper to use myth and fantasy to explore the representation of identity through images. Roland Barthes’ own attempt to find his mother within images has led me to believe that other methods may exist with which to locate someone within images.
The Artist As Hero makes connections from the images of fictional characters, personal imagination, and identity through the examination of photography’s manipulations of reality. By disrupting preexisting mythologies surrounding heroes within fiction, I reveal the exaggeration and impossibilities of those myths through my own average identity. This project enters into the fictions that are examined, as well as acknowledge the limitations of a reality that we exist within. My self-consciousness in undertaking this project acknowledges my own investment towards the fictions as well as knowing the audience has their own fantasy as well. The results of this project acknowledge the futility in searching for a clear identity, as well as for an image that might represent myself.
Identity, Fiction, and the Fictional Identity
The Artist as Hero portrait project draws from lowbrow fiction, self-portraiture, and fantasy. Through fulfilling fictional roles in self-portraits from lowbrow sources such as novels, movies, and video games, I am examining what portraits reveal to us about individuals. I want these portraits to be a representation of inner desires and create images that may come closer then any portrait has to revealing something about myself. This is the significance of the portrait, whether painting or photography, operating as an index of an individual without giving more information than an expression and humor form. The Artist as Hero exploits these perceptions of reality through manipulation of my own persona within a series of portraits. Through a series of fictional male heroic figures that I portray, the contradiction between photo as document and fantasy is investigated. Self-effacing humor, and combined with the cultural phenomena of cosplaying, are used to open dialogue about photography’s potential for misrepresentation, as well as our collective aspirations.
In an interview with Arielle Pelenc, photographer Jeff Wall disputes the relation photography has to the world around him,
The ‘adequacy’ is what is presumed in any imputed legitimating of what you’re referring to as Representation. A critique of Representation claims that Representation happens when someone believes that a depiction is adequate to its referent, but is deceived in that belief, or deceives others about it, or both. Representation occurs in that process of self-deception, and so it becomes the object of a deconstruction. I don’t think depictions, or images, can be judged that way, and I don’t think they’re made in those terms, or at least not primarily.
Similarly to how Wall is referring to representation, my portraits use preexisting fiction and photography to dismantle the truth within a photograph. First, the images operate as a method to disassemble the familiarity we have with myths surrounding characters from popular fictions, films, and video games. Second, these images of myself depicted as fictional characters reveals the complexities of reading a photograph as a representation of an individual. This project was developed to uncover my own admiration for fiction and how I see myself in relation to the identities of those I have chosen. Wall refers to this particular style of photographs as being self-contained and having no “outside.” The narratives I take from do not exist within reality, however because of the work I have created, they have been contained within a frame and have some reality to them. My own fantasy of entering these roles and escaping reality comes from being aware of the futility of such an act. These characters, which consist of all male figures, can be characterized as heroes and play significant roles within the fictions they inhabit. It is an implied expectation that they fulfill their duties to their societies. After appreciating multiple storylines, I began to see that the expectation extends out towards the audience.
This portrait project exploits my embarrassment of pursing costuming and my own fantasies in order to genuinely pursue this idea of identity. My humorous attempts to fulfill a fantasy speak to a cultural desire for myth. In a way, I am reusing material that already exists as images. This relates to what Susan Sontag wrote in her essay, “Photographic Evangels:” “Nothing is more acceptable today than the photographic recycling of reality, acceptable as an everyday activity and as a branch of high art.” The heroes in this project are tools to express the disconnection between persona and reality within portraiture. My appreciation for them however is authentic, and my use of the characters it is both sincere and aware of the humor involved in my personal ambition of becoming them.
Fantasy and myth operate differently in this project. Myths can extend through generations worth of oral transmissions; they rely on speech and communication, rather than on physical objects or concepts. In Roland Barthes’ Mythologies, he articulates the true purpose of the myth: “Myth hides nothing: its function is to distort, not to make disappear.” Barthes defines the purpose of the myth as a tool to highlight history, characters, and objects to a degree that describes them beyond their previous understanding. Through this interpretation, the characters I have chosen to exploit each belong to myth that extends beyond their written roles. By pursuing them in a way that subverts the mythology surrounding them, I in turn make them pseudo-realities, rather than myths.
This project reveals personal shortcomings and the appeal to the outsider in fiction. The use of fantasy needs to be deconstructed away from the subjective experience. My interest is not the genre of fantasy, which can commonly associated with magic, monsters, and imaginary worlds, but in the broader term of fantasy as an outlet for imagination. The expectation of fantasy is explained by writer Laurence Yep when he explains the purpose of integrating fantasy away from the genre: “By transforming the familiar into the unfamiliar, writers can also change the ordinary into the extraordinary.” This takes fantasy into an area that allows for any type of imagination or fictional thoughts, rather than concentrating it within the simplified genre.
For example, when reading a graphic novel, such as The Goon, there is an assumption by writer Eric Powell that the reader is aware of real-life gangs plaguing inner cities. The city in which Goon resides quickly turns into a paranormal slant in which he must defend himself against many supernatural, inner-city villains such as vampires and zombies. While many aspects of Powell’s story are grounded in reality, the reader must suspend their disbelief since the author has based the story partly in the everyday.
While The Goon is an example of contemporary American fiction, I have taken from sources outside of Western sources. My image, The Artist as Tuxedo Mask, uses the character Tuxedo Mask from the Japanese anime Sailor Moon. While the development of this character occurred primarily in Japan, his persona and appearance has clear indications of a Western influence. My interests, although influenced from Western literature and movies, is about the relation the audience develops with the fiction. Fiction extends outwardly towards an audience and does not need to be a project of a specific culture. Referring to this cultural exchange, film scholar Susan Pointon writes,
It is impossible to ignore the constant cross-pollination and popular cultural borrowing that complicate and enrich anime texts. The creators for the most part are young Japanese artists in their twenties and thirties who have been exposed since birth to Western influences. Despite their Japanese overlay, many of these videos pay generous and excessively scrupulous homage to sources as diverse as American television cop shows of the seventies.
Pointon uses the term cross-pollination in order to discuss the dissemination of subjects between cultures. When Sailor Moon was originally released in Japan, there was no plan for it to be released into the United States. After a redubbing of audio and altering of culturally specific subject matter, the writers believed that a Western audience might be able to understand the content. Further evidence of this transfer of fiction can be found in cosplaying, or costume play. This subculture, which has been adapted from Japan in the United States, occurs at conventions centers and events held to exhibit comics, movies, and gaming, where individuals come dressed in costumes as their favorite characters from these sources. Where cosplaying continues to have a presence, however, is in portraits of those individuals photographed.
Part of the aesthetic found in The Artist as Hero is derived from the collection of images found online from conventions that take places throughout the world. While there are professional cosplayers such as Yaya Han, my own interest is in the development of a subculture that is forming its own fiction. Yaya Han creates her own costumes and takes them around the world to exhibit her works along developed persona. Much of her work resides in video and photography as she manipulates her own identity to become characters she wishes. There are moments in her images that the difference between her and the fictional roles become uncanny. Her work glorifies and reaffirms the importance of fantasy and fiction within culture throughout the world.
Photographer Elena Dorfman took on a project at Yaoi-Con in California in 2005 to photograph individuals who attended the convention wearing their costumes. Dorfman writes, “The theater of cosplay has no boundaries, is unpredictable, open-ended. It includes both the fantastic and the mundane, the sexually aberrant and innocent, female characters who become samurai warriors and brainy scientists, and male characters who magically change their sex.”
Figure 1. Elena Dorfman, “Chi” from Chobits, 2005.
These images, found in her book, Fandomania: Characters and Cosplays, exhibit a misunderstanding of the perception of what this type of performative act is concerned with. They neither uncover the individual, nor the significance of cosplaying, nor the unique cultural shift towards fantasy.
While the culture of cosplay is new within Western culture, the influence of it upon my work is an indication of its impact. Like those who participate with this culture, my appropriation of these narratives through costuming alters perceptions of my personality through photography. Thus my identity can exist within multiple personas at once. However my intention is not to recreate myself as these heroes, but instead to acknowledge my inability of becoming them, and to emphasize of photography’s failure to reveal identity. This creates a paradox when I enter into a role: becoming my inner desires, and also recognizing that my audience cannot see which persona might be my own. Through creating photographs of myself in this way, I am potentially showing more of myself than a conventional portrait could ever reveal.
 Jeff Wall, Jeff Wall: Selected Essays and Interviews (New York: Museum of Modern Art, 2007), 14.
 Ibid., 9.
 Sontag, Susan. “Photographic Evangels.” In On Photography (New York: Picador, 1977), 115.
 Roland Barthes, Mythologies, trans. by Annette Lavers (New York: Hill and Wang, 1972), 121.
 Laurence Yep, The Outsider in Fiction and Fantasy (National Council of Teachers of English, 2005), 54.
 Eric Powell, The Goon (Dark Horse Comics, 2006), 5.
 Susan J. Napier, Anime: From Akira to Princess Mononoke (New York: Palgrave, 2001), 22.
 Elena Dorfman, Fandomania: Characters and Cosplays (New York: Aperture, 2007), 3.