Warping and shifting, the future of human identity is one of the great uncertainties of our modern world. Pablo Picasso considered its fragmentation through his twisting, evocative Cubism; Gerhard Richter conveyed its intangibility through his blurred photorealism; Frida Kahlo explored her own identity through introspective self-portraiture. Despite such brilliantly diverse outputs, all of them, it can be argued, chime in agreement with the idea that identity is not innate or even organic, but rather constructed in the society we live in.
It is the emergent social contexts of a digitized and globalizing world that a new exhibition at London’s Institute of Contemporary Arts, “Looks,” centers on. Identity never has been fixed or distinct, the show suggests, before considering the implications of today’s increasingly fluid and disparate existence. The issue, however, is that through exploring and channeling further into these concepts, radical output on the subject is often fragmented and testing in itself.
The exhibition’s title stems from Los Angeles-based filmmaker Wu Tsang’s A day in the life of bliss (2014), a 360-degree film installation in the ICA’s Upper Gallery. “The LOOKS,” the film’s subject, is the name of an intelligence system, a thinly veiled reference to the Snowden revelations, which acts as a panopticon-like machine, monitoring every inch of public place through its social media platform “PRSM.” Via dual-screen projections, flanked by a set of mirrors, a young, genderless pop star called BLIS—played by the artist boychild—proceeds through an intense existence, constantly flanked by overwhelming fans, retiring to the underground during darkness. It is a mesmerizing yet unsettling experience, and one that speaks of oppressive surveillance.
Continuing with video work, a medium that is well-represented at the ICA, Andrea Crespo appraises the role of the cyborg—how this blend of human and machine can liberate us from patriarchal gender systems as well as risk reinforce them. The Miami-born, New York-based artist, who began making drawings in MS Paint around the age of four, has an ethereal film in Parabiosis: Neurolibidinal Induction Complex (2015). It’s about Sis, a digital system that makes an attempt to redefine what a human is; to question the idea that we are subjective individuals. “You are floating, you are sinking, softly drifting,” it states silently in type, before hashtagged words roll by on the screen alongside ephemeral bands of light, in what Jack Kahn in DIS Magazine calls a “chimeric composition of data and flesh that flows between the sensual and the machinic.”
More immediate is Berlin-based artist Juliette Bonneviot’s subtly political series of monochrome paintings, which are made with xenoestrogens, hormones that imitate estrogen and which are known to cause birth defects and cancerous growth. The seven works are an unhappy spectrum of various sheens and softness, glimmering and garish. Their minimalistic appearance is juxtaposed with the complex and varied nature of their material matter—Bonneviot has used Oestradiol from contraceptive pills, the artificial estrogen Bisphenol A, first produced in the 1930s, and even mushrooms and soybeans, which produce a chemical compound similar to estrogen.
In the Lower Gallery, Scottish artist Morag Keil is paired with New Yorker Stewart Uoo. Though well-known for her satirical critiques of consumer culture, Keil here takes a low-key approach to identity in the post-internet age. Leg1 (2015) depicts a busty Amy Winehouse tattoo on an anonymous limb; another piece, Untitled (2015), peers into a banal and cliched Instagram feed—Skyscraper shots, restaurants, domestic scenes. It’s the perfect complement to the archetypal metropolitan women that Uoo’s sculptures subvert (part of a larger series called “No Sex, No City”). This a post-apocalyptic interpretation of the cyborg, riffing on Crespo’s nearby work: these mannequin figures are a mix of organic and mechanical, and overtly a critique of modern ethical decay. One is adorned with a hippy peace necklace, another with a heart tattoo on the hip. But most pleasing of all is Uoo’s carpet, mimicking a Cosmo Girl magazine cover from 2008, which parodies its clichéd vacuity, including inane headlines such as “Mary G, 12, from Rohnert Park California made a fake Facebook to stalk an Ex’s new girl.”
“Looks” is a playful and powerful consideration of mass digital culture and how it impacts the ways in which new strands of identity are negotiated. It’s a provocative compendium of work, looking forward to the ever-closer post-human world, but at the same time, only conjecture, a broad brushstroke of what lies ahead.
“Looks” is on view at the ICA, London, Apr. 22–Jun. 21, 2015.