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The National Portrait Gallery acknowledges the Traditional Custodians of Country throughout Australia and recognises the continuing connection to lands, waters and communities. We pay our respect to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander cultures and to Elders both past and present.

Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander viewers are warned that this website contains images of deceased persons.

The art of multiplicity

by Meredith Hughes, 5 August 2019

Marcia Langton
Marcia Langton, 2009 Brook Andrew, Trent Walter. © Brook Andrew

Marcia Langton by Brook Andrew is a signature work in the collection of the National Portrait Gallery. The multi-armed form is central to the force of this portrait, a device that has been used to different effect by artists in assorted times and places. While reasons for its use vary, the desire to convey a consciousness in flux is a common one. In the case of Marcia Langton, the mutable experience of being human is given intricate form in what Langton herself describes as a ‘meta-statement’. Each of its elements and symbols richly and singularly meaningful, the work is configured to elicit momentum, a life in flow. At once it transmits its distinctive dynamism, while powerfully deconstructing expectations of stasis that have characterised portraits of Aboriginal peoples.

When I first encountered this portrait on the Gallery wall, its jostle of movement stirred me, drawing me in to look closer at the assembled pieces. Unencumbered by a glass cover, its variably printed and painted, layered paper is more accessible to the eye. Paper has an impermanent quality, especially in relative terms here at the National Portrait Gallery. The surrounding portraits are photographs of people encased behind glass, or paintings of people, who, in contrast with this incarnation of Marcia Langton, seem stilled within paint. In Marcia Langton, the vulnerable, transient pieces float upon the coursing, trapezoid-like shapes of a Wiradjuri river background. The combination of their placement and materiality – differently angled, crafted paper cut-outs of the body, head, limbs, skulls, fire and faceted sun – invites wonder about how the patterned and coloured pieces might look if re-arranged. I want to move them around, as if galvanising a daunting, dancing marionette. It occurs to me that the multi-armed figure form is ideal for unifying so many elements because it evokes creativity and fluidity, and because of its potency.

The form is also the aspect of the portrait most immediately noted by Gallery visitors. The great majority readily associate its shape with the visual multiplicity of Hinduism and Buddhism, common in images that have circulated since the increasing global interconnectedness of the early twentieth century that brought ‘primitive’ artefacts and imagery to Europe. Less experienced viewers – usually younger children within school groups – name the ‘spider-person’ (rather than divine iconography!) as the visual cue that captures their imagination.

In her book, Many heads, arms and eyes: origin, meaning and form of multiplicity in Indian art, Doris Srinivasen has identified the Rig Veda, one of the four sacred texts of Hinduism, as the place where the multiplicity form first appeared. By tracing the literary antecedents of multiplicity in early Hindu literature, Srinivasen demonstrates how numerous body parts signify creation through the story of the birth of Ātman. In the Upanishads (ancient Sanskrit texts) Ātman is a philosophical term that denotes the feeling of ‘I am’ or the self. In Buddhism Ātman refers to the unchanging or fixed self, the belief in which is a consequence of ignorance, and therefore a source of suffering. In the Aitareya Upanishad, the foetus (Ātman) is like a limb of the pregnant mother, as all of the limbs from both bodies rely on the host body.

Artists adapted these concepts to render the kind of bodily multiplicity that is common in Hindu and Buddhist iconography. The ultimate multi-taskers, these super beings use many body parts to literally see and do all. With multiple arms and hands, they sport an array of implements: hammers, swords, skulls, diamonds, tools for performing good deeds. This unfolding of the One into multifaceted, divine aspects that appear on earth makes visible the Hindu concept of Veda: theological knowledge, grandeur and power. In Marcia Langton, the multi-armed figure seems to draw energy from the multi-faceted diamond sun above. It is akin to Indra’s net – a Buddhist metaphor for interconnectedness – where a jewel at each nexus of a web-like structure reflects every other jewel at every other nexus of the net, perpetually stretching out throughout the multidimensional universe.

In later Hindu art the emphasis shifted to the deity’s lilas, meaning their divine pastime. Deities can perform their benevolence in different temporal periods, assuming qualities most suited to a cosmic age, or individual disposition, therefore becoming the most effective teacher for that temporal moment. In Tantra, an esoteric form of Hindu and Buddhist practice, practitioners perform sadhanas (meditation instructions) to embody such concepts. Drawing upon images of multi-armed beings to creatively identify with fluid notions of self, Buddhists penetrate illusions of selfishness, solidity and an historically determined ‘I’ that arises from conditioning. By inhabiting the image through visualisation, they become the deity in order to understand their essential nature as an apparition of the mind. This is one way that images of multi-armed forms or multiple forms of the one are technologies of self-transformation.

Given the creative and transformative capacities of visualising and performing in different identities, it’s no surprise that these approaches became artistic legacies of the surrealist movement of 1920s Paris, when artists experimented with the aesthetics of multiplicity. The surrealists aimed to plumb the human mind to disrupt and realign reality. With global exploration, cultural institutions exploded with ethnographic material to satisfy a flourishing interest in the exotic; this was sought after and elevated by the surrealists, who were fascinated by the artefacts and ideas of multiplicity. Foundational surrealist figure André Breton, for example, owned religious objects from Tibet, including a statue of Yamantaka, two thangkas (Tibetan paintings on cotton depicting a Buddhist deity or mandala) and a damaru (a two-sided drum used for sadhana practice).

1 Solarised double portrait, 1930s,. 2 Belle Haleine, Eau de Voilette, 1920-21,. Both by Man Ray.

The surrealists appropriated the visual and performative devices of multiplicity, experimenting with them to challenge convention and reality. Man Ray (1890-1976) and Bill Brandt (1904-1983) used doubling, a photographic technique with which they multiplied eyes, arms and breasts for disruptive portrait effect, amidst broader photographic experimentation. Historian Irene Gammel has credited the eccentric Baroness Elsa von Freytag-Loringhoven (1874-1927) as the first modern artist to experiment with performance of oneself in alternate identities. (Her experimentation was key in the development of Dada and Surrealism, movements that would influence so many others.) Perhaps the most famous example of the practice is Rrose Sélavy, Marcel Duchamp’s feminine alter ego, encapsulated in a portrait taken by Man Ray for Sélavy’s own brand of eau de toilette.

1 Photogravure from book Unavowed confessions (Aveux non avenus) Paris: Editions du Carrefour 1930,. 2 Photogravure from book Unavowed confessions (Aveux non avenus) Paris: Editions du Carrefour 1930,. Both by Claude Cahun.

From this rich world, fuelled by the impetus of new ideas and imagination, the self-portraiture of Claude Cahun emerged, exemplifying practices that would foreground the contemporary artistry of multiplicity. Claude Cahun, the preferred pseudonym of Lucy Schwob (1894-1954), was an artist who produced a variety of creative work – literary, theatrical and photographic – with her collaborator, Marcel Moore (1892-1972). Cahun is famous for her invention of hundreds of images of herself inhabiting alternate identities. Works that remain (many were destroyed or lost during the Nazi occupation of the Channel island of Jersey, where she was imprisoned during the 1940s) are held by numerous public collections; of these, the Jersey Heritage Trust alone has almost one hundred.

Cahun’s extraordinary self-portraiture is recognised for the way that it endlessly recasts gender and identity. She was clearly one of the first artists of the modern era to use visual and performative multiplicity as the critical apparatus of her work. Cahun used multiple and distorted body parts that bear a striking visual relationship to traditional Hindu and Buddhist imagery. For example, her collages from Aveux non avenues (Unavowed Confessions) from 1930 resonate with Hindu or Buddhist images of multi-limbed deities.

Images of Cahun in meditation as a Buddhist monk and also performing as the Buddha as part of the 1925 ‘Théâtre du Théosophique’ in Paris reveal her participation in the surrealists’ embrace of Hindu and Buddhist influences. Cahun had thoroughly investigated the tenets of Buddhism, having devoured texts about the philosophies of Buddhism, Zen, symbolism and Schopenhauer, and she closely associated with contemporaries who shared this interest, such as André Breton and philosopher Georges Bataille.

Unlike work by contemporary artists who critique representation, Cahun’s images are generative and expansive. Commentators Whitney Chadwick and Gen Doy have made the point that Cahun was immersed in Surrealism and its deconstructive strategies; her intentions cannot be understood as purely representational, or, indeed, perhaps they were not intended to be representational at all. This is reinforced by Shelley Rice who proposes that Cahun’s images were never for mass consumption, but rather, were private explorations for herself and her lover, who she called ‘The Other Me’. Much scholarship has been devoted to reading Cahun’s self-portraits in light of gender issues, but the sheer number of identities presented, coupled with the rendering of the marvellous strategies of surrealist photography, suggest an exploration inspired by more than gender preoccupations alone.

For example, in a self-portrait from 1930, Cahun’s head has been stretched into an elongated shape, seeming to propose a figure that is beyond human. In another her head turns sombrely upward from inside a bell jar. In yet another, she has ‘doubled’ her head, perhaps revealing two moments, or that there is more than one side to Claude Cahun. There are as many identities and moments as there are portraits, their endlessness perhaps the function of an artist revelling in the sheer joy of experimentation and unfolding possibility.

The documentation of oneself performing many selves endures in the work of contemporary artists such as Cindy Sherman and Mariko Mori, as well as those who explore post-colonial perspectives such as Pushpamala N and Christian Thompson. Sherman has continuously created self-portraits as a tool of representational critique, revealing taken-for-granted modes of seeing, particularly stereotypes of women. Sherman’s Untitled Film Stills, a series she began in 1977, epitomise this function. The images are small black and white photographs of the artist impersonating various female character types from old B-grade movies. Occupying cinematic tropes, Sherman explores the myriad ways women, and the body, are represented in contemporary and historical image-making, especially in the mass media, fairy tales, portraiture and surrealist photography. In later works, The Sex Pictures, photographs of disassembled mannequin and doll parts in horrific, sexualised configurations surpass the irony of previous work, with their success in the 1990s a reaction to the conservative political climate of the time. Sherman intended, in part, to reference the violence and misogyny of the early surrealists (perhaps the most infamous is the crudely re-shaped feminine body of La Poupée by Hans Bellmer in 1936) by using surrealist photographic tropes that incorporate references to deconstructed and re-configured bodies.

Performing in multiple identities also elaborates on the imagined potential of many ‘selves’. Pushpamala N and Mariko Mori draw fully upon this function to create portraits where they are each the subject of their own compositions. Pushpamala N embraces multiple realities. In one image she is Jayalithaa, a Tamil Indian starlet who became a politician. In The Ethnographic Series Native Women of South India: Manners and Customs (2000-2004), she embodies a host of female identities that detail, in immaculately crafted copies, conventions of ethnographic photography to explore that medium as a tool of ethnography. In recent work, part of the Mother India Project, she is Kali, the Hindu archetypal mother goddess who represents the divine and the demonic. Kali fiercely punishes demons to bring balance to the world, horrifying and shocking in order to strip away our pretensions so that we may confront cosmic reality.

1 Cracking the whip, 2000–04 (printed 2016),. 2 Kali (after 1908 Calcutta Art Studio print), 2014. Both by Pushpamala N.

Writer and activist Susie Tharu has observed that the citation of Pushpamala N bears only a visual resemblance to work by Cindy Sherman. For Tharu, Pushpamala N uses the life and power of the image to renew it, through reconnection with contemporary life. In This Is Not an Inventory: Norm and Performance in Everyday Femininity, Tharu’s comments also illuminate the multi-limbed and performative power embedded within Marcia Langton: ‘The life of the image, its power, however, depends on the textured relevance, the facticity, the new life these performance artists give to it when they carry it into unprecedented contexts and update it in the historical specificity of their lives.’

With Marcia Langton, Brook Andrew garners the powerful, Vedic, surreal, appropriative force of multiplicity to deconstruct and reconfigure his sitter as simultaneously extraordinary (writer, advocate, academic, activist) and as a being-like-any-being – someone who exists momentarily and in flux. The lightness and materiality of collage is an art form that embraces the bits and pieces of things to wield its own dynamism. Associated more with Dada, the precursor to Surrealism, the assembled nature of the technique is itself a performance of multiplicity. Together these strategies render redundant the idea that any person exists inertly, Aboriginal or otherwise. It compels us instead to wonder at the potential of this perspective, to consider what may be revealed as we further imagine the self – made indefinite and infinite, by recognising it within its vast and limitless potential.

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The National Portrait Gallery acknowledges the Traditional Custodians of Country throughout Australia and recognises the continuing connection to lands, waters and communities. We pay our respect to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander cultures and to Elders past and present. We respectfully advise that this site includes works by, images of, names of, voices of and references to deceased people.

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