“Where are we in Cindy Sherman’s photographs?” by Hazelina Oh

Cindy Sherman is now 63-years-old, a successful conceptual photographer and one of the most influential figures in contemporary art, who pushed the definition of ‘selfie’ way before Sony Ericsson introduced the concept of a front-facing camera in its Z1010 mobile phone. As the muse, blank canvas and protagonist of her entire body of work, Sherman articulates the elasticity of the self-portrait through the language of photography. Her photographs explore themes such as identity, gender and role-play; drastically transforming herself by using make-up, wigs, costumes and prosthetics into characters and roles that evoke the uncanny and unsettling effect at first look. Best known for her early black-and-white photographic series Untitled Film Stills (1977-1980), Sherman portrayed herself as an actress in fictional film stills using the aesthetics of mid-century Hollywood films, film noirs and B-movies. She went on to complete other series, collecting and playing countless guises, earning her the label of ‘The Chameleon’.

At Sprüth Magers Berlin, Sherman’s most recent complete series – created in 2016 and on view for the first time in Europe – saturates the walls of the gallery. Large-scale colour portraits of herself cast as the leading ladies of 1920s Hollywood cinema, with the effects of ageing visible under the make-up, embellished threads and hairdos, Sherman presents the ‘grande dames’ in their twilight years. The faces bore an excess comparison to drag, but which had no piercing animatedness.

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I stepped closer to the photographs, with parts magnified for me to inspect, I found myself not asking why Cindy Sherman is in these photos, but of where my position is in them. In this series, I felt no frustration in seeing my subtly reflected form on the metal surface of her photographs; there were no glass protections to the works, the dyes that captured Sherman’s divas were exposed to feast my eyes on. But it is here that the grande dames differ from her previous works: they describe Sherman without the comical effect, commentary and caricature. Here, the real Sherman gradually appears under the imitative facades of Greta Garbo, Bette Davis and Gloria Swanson.

The exaggeration of her characters often draws on our desire and fantasies for an idealised version of ourselves, of our lives, and of our tiny bubbles. While her photographs are parodies of female representation in the media and online, the meticulous set-up for every snapshot and every series speaks to a much more sweeping observation of how we are obsessed with presenting our best selves. Sherman looks closer at the way we curate and filter our identities, highlighting the distance we create between the picture and our true selves. As technology and social media are enabling the platforms for the freedoms of speech, expression and beliefs, self-portraiture and avatar creation continue to feed our fantasies and add more layers to our already subjective and complex identities.

Adding on to the proliferation of narcissism, Sherman’s works provide clues as to how we present ourselves on- and offline, where the freedom of expression blurs the line between genuineness and anonymity. How often are we truly ourselves in the 21-century era of oversharing and increased narcissism?

Cindy Sherman is now showing at Sprüth Magers Berlin until 8 April 2017. Admission is free.

Hazelina Oh is a painter, art educator and arts manager from Singapore. She graduated with a Diploma in Fine Arts from LASALLE College of The Arts in 2013 and dived into Visual Art Education for 3 years before returning to pursue Arts Management in 2017. She designs and develops identities for young artists and collectives such as photographer Ridaudin Abdul Rasid, KAROTZ Clothing and Love.Play Radio. Her recent contribution to The Berlin Style is her first slant into art writing.

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