“We are what we pretend to be,” Kurt Vonnegut bluntly states in the introduction to his novel Mother Night. Cindy Sherman, in a retrospective at MOMA that runs until June 11th, has taken Vonnegut to the extreme. Photographing herself adopting a multiplicity of personas that run the gamut from an aging fashion icon to a terrifying clown to a stereotyped damsel-in-distress film character, Sherman turns the portrait on its head.
Indeed, she mocks the concept of a singular identity. Nearly every photograph contains a literal Cindy Sherman but none of them are of Cindy Sherman, at least not in the documentary sense most would be satisfied with. “I wonder what Cindy Sherman really looks like?” my friend wondered aloud as we walked through the exhibit. I had the same thought. But the question is ultimately rendered unimportant. In Sherman’s work, everything is character, and the judgments of the images (such as assigning an emotion or state of mind Sherman’s characters, what the “plot” of the picture is) stem solely from the assumptions of the viewer as they gaze at the image.
Sherman takes her work to the extreme, and the composed but exaggerated portraits oscillate between hilarious and horrifying. Sherman as seemingly drunken clowns with grotesque makeup and smiles defiantly glaring at the camera are the clearest example of this. Still, she raises some unpleasant personal questions: do the traits of her sometimes hideous characters ultimately rest within us? Are we also personas, wearing clothes to define ourselves rather than being defined and simply wearing clothes? A striking video work has Sherman as a cut-out doll trying on different clothes before a human hand stops the process, if only temporarily. It is a strikingly honest work, maybe the best of the show.
Sherman originally preceded the age of the Facebook profile picture, though she now operates in it (her Facebook page has over 21,000 likes at press time). The questions of tailored identity, of a “truth” in existence, were around long before the electronic gloss of the digital age but with the Internet comes new issues. As Facebook threatens us with a “timeline” of our existence, our identities are being rendered in a way similar to Sherman’s rendering of her characters. Mainly, as thoroughly and intentionally curated to the point of dark comedy. A Facebook “timeline” won’t plot out a life, it will plot out the existence of a character operating under the same name as the Facebook user.
“We are what we pretend to be, so we must be very careful about what we pretend to be” saith Vonnegut’s full quote. He operates on a similar level as Sherman, almost assuming that the factual state of “to be” is always preceded by “pretend” and lending a great deal of agency to that word. The difference is that Sherman pretends to be so many things. In her work Sherman is no one and she is everyone; her characters are real but they are pretend. When faced with her portraits, one feels the sureness and the “truth” of their own identity put beneath the spotlight until it sizzles in the heat.