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One of my favorite quotes on art comes from filmmaker and sometimes visual artist John Waters, who declares in one of his photographic pieces, “Contemporary art hates you,” which may be the perfect description of Brooklyn-based performance artist Narcissister’s first solo exhibition Narcissister Is You at Envoy Enterprises.
Like Waters’s quote, Narcissister’s work renders the role of the viewer almost meaningless through an emphasis on the power of, unsurprising given her name, narcissism and self-love.
Recalling the shock stylistics of legendary queer performer Leigh Bowery, Narcissister always wears a plastic mask that resembles both a mannequin and a sex doll. Dealing with issues of race as well as gender and sexuality, Narcissister uses masks of varying races, playing with her own mixed race identity.
Trained at the Alvin Ailey Dance Theater, Narcissister is best known for her performances that mix performance art, dance and burlesque. She even performed on primetime television on America’s Got Talent in 2011, toning down the sexual aspects of her performance and twisting her body to reveal four Narcissister faces.
Pushing the questioning of constructed ideals of femininity and female sexuality by artists like Cindy Sherman to its absolute limit, Narcissister Is You at Envoy Enterprises contains photographic portraits of Narcissister, mirrored sculptures and a three-screened video compilation of video clips of other people playing the role of Narcissister using her mask.
Even though I tend to avoid the often tired discussion on the role of the gaze and objectification in art, Narcissister’s subversion of the viewer’s dominant gaze and her creation of a narcissitic turn inward makes her work both significant and radical. Through each of the varing mediums, Narcissister defines a strategy of self-love that seems to have no regard for the viewer unless the viewer becomes a participant in her narcissism.
The exhibition features eight photographic portraits of Narcissister in various clothing and props from plaid and checkered blouses to suit jackets in front of an American flag to awkwardly positioned and dirty fake breasts.
In photographs such as “Untitled (blue suit)” (2012) and “Untitled (cigarette blonde)” (2012), Narcissister takes what would normally be extremely sexual self-portraits with cleavage pouring out of the suit jacket or exposed breasts and disrupts it with her trashy, lopsided props. Resembling a broken doll, Narcissister preempts the objectification she expects from the viewer by making herself an off-putting object through the masks, props, and costuming.
Often broken or held together by duck-tape, Narcissister’s mask also restricts her own gaze out of the photograph, turning it inward and making her photographs less about the desire of the viewer and more about Narcissister’s own self-involved performance.
Her radical narcissism is complicated by two sculptures connecting a Narcissister mask with a mirror, through which Narcissister invites viewers to become her by trying on the Narcissister mask. Alone in the Narcissister mask, the sculpture isolates a singular viewer so that they are the only person who can see themselves in the mirror.
Recalling Lacan’s idea of the mirror stage, my reflection peering through Narcissister’s mask was startling, particularly since the mask is such a constant symbol throughout the exhibition. Suddenly, Narcissister implicated me, as the viewer, who has largely been alienated and disturbed by the photographs.
In contrast to the self-obsession prevalent in our digital culture from Instagram to Facebook, which focuses on an individual’s identity, Narcissister forces the viewer to become a part of a collective idea of Narcissister’s self-love.
In the exhibition’s press release, NYU Performance Studies professor Barbara Browning asks,
“Is it possible for narcissism to be a collective strategy? Even a political act?”
Descending a dark staircase into the basement space of Envoy Enterprises, this question is answered with the presentation of Narcissister’s three-screened video installation. The video is a collection of self-made clips from various participants, both male and female, inhabiting the role of Narcissister through the use of her mask.
Asked by Narcissister to do anything that feels radically narcissistic, the participants drive, primp, put on fashion shows for the camera, and even lie in bed. However, most of the clips feature participants staring at themselves in mirrors, touching themselves, and grinding their bodies into a mirror or the camera.
A certainly unnerving visual, Narcissister’s video project presents what a narcissistic collective would look like. As an unmasked viewer, I felt alienated from the narcissistic spectacle on the screen and yet, it was clear in the video that the participants found a type of strength in their own narcissism, playing the role of Narcissister.
While I felt Narcissiter’s exhibition raised fascinating issues about the potential power of self-love and the total disregard of the viewer, I did question whether the exhibition would be as effective for those who have not witnessed Narcissister’s live performance. Having previously seen Narcissister perform, I approached the exhibit remembering the eerie unease I felt watching her.
Returning to John Waters’s statement on contemporary art, Narcissister’s work clearly shows disdain, disregard and even, hate for the viewer. And maybe, that’s exactly how contemporary art should be. As viewers, we should be confronted, terrified, questioned, ignored, and maybe, we should even try being Narcissister.