username: narcissus

“Why video has attracted a growing set of practitioners and collectors?” After a few pages discussing the notions of narcissism, video art, and its relations to psychology in the essay “Video: The Aesthetics of Narcissism,” Rosalind Krauss presents this question – but leave the answer open to being discussed in a future moment. Borrowing a Krauss insight and making it a starting point, the aim of this essay is to address the problem of narcissism within the wider context of our culture.

Victor Burgin’s “Possessive, Pensive and Possessed; Susanne Gaensheimer’s “Moments in Time”; Laura Mulvey’s “Stillness in the Moving Image: Ways of Visualizing Time and its Passing”; and, as said, Rosalind Krauss’s “Video: The Aesthetics of Narcissism” will be used as foundations to the development of the main arguments in this text.

Narcissus, in Greek mythology, was a man distinguished for his beauty. To make a long story, short:  He fell in love with his reflection in the waters of a river and drowned trying to reach the object of his adoration (himself). Some believe that the story may have derived from the ancient Greek superstition that it was unlucky or even fatal to see one’s reflection."

The French psychoanalyst and psychiatrist Jacques Lacan, in The Language of the Self, uses the example of a therapy session to paint a picture of narcissism by characterizing the space of the therapeutic transaction as an extraordinary void created by the silence of the analyst. Into this void, the patient projects the monolog of his recitation, which Lacan calls “the monumental construct of his narcissism.”

 “(…) In this labor which he [the patient] undertakes to reconstruct his construct for another, he finds again the fundamental alienation which made hum construct it like another one, and which has always destined it to be stripped from him by another.”

 And, further:

“I would say that the analysis consists precisely in distinguishing the person lying on the analyst’s couch from the person who is speaking. With the person listening [the analyst], that makes three persons present in the analytical situation, among whom it is the rule that the question… be put: Where is the moi of the subject?”

To bring the concept of narcissism to a more contemporary context, we can draw a parallel to Krauss ideas. In “Video: The Aesthetics of Narcissism,” written in 1976, while questioning the sudden interest of practitioners and collectors in video art, Rosalind Krauss assesses the effects that mass media had in the art world, in general:

In the last fifteen years [the 1960s] the art world has been deeply and disastrously affected by its relation to mass media. That an artist’s work be published, reproduced and disseminated through the media has become, for the generation that has matured in the course of the last decade, virtually the only means of verifying its existence as art. The demand for instant replay in the media finds its obvious correlative in an aesthetic mode by which the self is created through the electronic device of feedback.                 

Today, we may say that in the last fifteen years (the 2000s) the art – and the whole – the world has been profoundly and disastrously affected by its relation to social media. Mass media surely had its effects in our society (as we see in Krauss – and hundreds of other readings) but today we can say that the ‘new’ phenomenon of the so-called social media is the current plague.

In “Possessive, Pensive and Possessed,” Victor Burgin writes:

“a ‘film’ may be encountered through posters, blurbs, and other advertisements, such as trailers and television clips; it may be encountered through newspaper reviews, reference work synopses and theoretical articles (with their ‘film-strip’ assemblages of still images); through production photographs, frame enlargements, memorabilia, and so on. Collecting such metonymic fragments in memory, we may come to feel familiar with a film we have not actually seen. Clearly this ‘film’ – a heterogeneous psychical object, constructed from image scraps scattered in space and time – is a very different object from that encountered in the context of ‘film studies" 

This excerpt portraits a perfect example to a very contemporary theory that serves as a background to our discussion. Proposed by Henry Jenkins, the Media Convergence theory, in summation, says that “we see a movement to the world where every story, every brand, every sound, every image, every relationship plays itself off across the maximum number of media channels. The information system is converged, integrated, so we carry pieces of media with us all through the system”.

Jenkins also argues that everyone is potentially a producer of media – as well as a consumer of media. In that sense, we see a shift in the production of content. Before, the public agenda was set by the mass media (television, newspapers, radio networks, etc.). Now, with the emergence social media, everybody has the ‘authority’ (or autonomy) to create and publish their ideas. The once passive spectator, is now the artist, producer, director – all at the same time and a click-of-a-button distance.

A parallel with the notion of the pensive viewer can be drawn from Jenkins ideas. In “Stillness in the Moving Image: Ways of Visualizing Time and its Passing,” Laura Mulvey writes:

“All these inflections depend, above all, on the viewer’s new command over viewing technology and, most of all, the freedom given by the technology over the pace and order of a film. New technologies allow the spectator time to stop, look and think. (…) The still image both makes the moment of registration comparatively visible and creates a new space of time for the ‘pensive’ spectator to reflect and experience the kind of reverie that Barthes had associated only with the photograph.”

And in his text, Burgin completes it:

“The arrival of the domestic video cassette recorder, and the distribution of industrially produced films on videotape put the material substrate of the narrative into the hands of the audience. The order of narrative could now be routinely countermanded. For example, control of the film using a VCR introduced such symptomatic freedoms as the repetition of a favorite sequence, or fixation upon an obsessional image.”

Although the two excerpts refer specifically to the medium of film, it is easy to see that the advent of technology had an impact on all aspects of our contemporary culture. Getting back to the social media phenomenon: It is ironic that these new technologies that have 'social' in their name creates deeply isolated individuals. They give a false sense of sociability – that seizes to leave the virtual world.

As nowadays we are constantly in camera/video surveillance all the time, we perform the role of the actor 24/7. The social mask is glued so tight to our faces (the real ones and the facebook ones) that it is almost impossible to discern, in a Lacanian perspective, who is the person talking and the real person. Our ‘social’ persona has to be prettier, cuter, smarter, cooler than our true selves. We cover up in makeup, or photo-edit our image with all sorts of ‘filters’ to portray a better-looking image that often doesn’t match reality. With camera in our cell phones and the ‘share’ button, the concept of narcissism just blew up right in our faces. The whole‘hype’ concept of ‘selfie’ itself is a good example of it. If you’re blessed enough not to know what a selfie is,

A selfie is a type of self-portrait photograph, typically taken with a hand-held digital camera or camera phone. Selfies are often associated with social networking, like Instagram. They are often casual, are typically taken either with a camera held at arm's length or in a mirror and typically include either only the photographer or the photographer and as many people as can be in focus, which is more commonly known as a 'group selfie.'

The Wikipedia page (not surprisingly, Wikipedia is the only place – for now – that we can find a ‘serious’ definition of a selfie) is still not updated enough with the new ‘trends’ in the selfie world. Hollywood stars are posting pictures of themselves with the hashtag #nomakeupselfie to raise awareness to cancer (how the fact that those women without makeup relate in any way to cancer patients are beyond any sense, but still) and, in just 48 hours, upraised over £2m for Cancer Research UK.

While, in on hand, selfies apparently have the power to cure (or at least attempt to) cancer, they have other sorts of collateral damages. Not just ‘selfies’ itself, but the whole range of pictures and posts shared online to contribute to an overall effect of low self-esteem and envy. When typing “facebook causes” on a Google search, the first results:

[facebook causes depression / anxiety / relationship problems] 

Exploring the ‘depression’ related articles, we find dozens of studies from all-over-the-world universities and, in the great majority, the results are more or less the same:

"On the surface, Facebook provides an invaluable resource for fulfilling the basic human need for social connection," said U-M social psychologist Ethan Kross, lead author of the article and a faculty associate at the U-M Institute for Social Research. "But rather than enhance well-being, we found that Facebook use predicts the opposite result—it undermines it."

The same people that are promoting the fake-social-persona culture are left feeling miserable when looking at other people profiles. In Freudian psychiatry and psychoanalysis, the term narcissism denotes ‘an excessive degree of self-esteem or self-involvement, a condition that is usually a form of emotional immaturity.'

Today, the apparently narcissistic-over-sharers on social medias are getting backfired. As they pretend to have ‘an excessive degree of self-esteem,' their emotional immaturity makes them all the more vulnerable to the ‘side effects’ of social media. In our modern mythology, narcissuses are daily drowning in virtual mirrors that reflect nothing but their false selves.















Encyclopedia Britannica -, consulted on 4/6/14. Web.

Jenkins, Henry. Convergence Culture: Where Old and New Media Collide. New York: New York UP, 2006. Print.

Michigan University Research


the artist as the white cube

Before digging deep in three very different articles, it is important to underline that this essay does not mean to make a direct relation of cause/effect amid O’Doherty’s ‘White Cube’; Krauss’s “Sculpture/Monument” concept, and Tucker’s PheNAUMANology themes; and it neither proposes a necessary historical link between them. The aim of this text is to find a connection amongst the main arguments presented in those articles and invite the reader to reflect on where contemporary institutions and artists stand today.   

In Inside the White Cube, Brian O’Doherty investigates what the context of the modern gallery does to the art object; to the viewing subject; and how the framework ultimately overcomes the object, and end up becoming content itself. He opens the third chapter of his book, Context as Content, with metaphors of different art movements with interior spaces particular to each time; until he finally arrives at the starting point of this whole book: the White Cube.

O’Doherty describes the modern gallery space as “constructed along laws as rigorous as those for building medieval church.” The basic principle behind these laws, he notes, is that “The outside world must no come in, so windows are usually sealed off. Walls are painted white. The ceiling becomes the source of light… The art is free, as the saying used to go, ‘to take in its own life’”. (Thomas McEvilley Introduction, NYC, 1986)

 In other words, the modern galleries dismissed all the luxury and pompous ornaments of past times and became, literally, white cubes. A building composed exclusive by white walls - and preferably with no windows. Although, compared to Renaissance and Baroque times, a place like this tends to evoke ‘simplicity’ and ‘humility’; in fact, it is nothing like it: 

“For many of us, the gallery space still gives off negative vibrations when we wander in. Esthetics are turned into a kind of social elitism – the gallery space is exclusive” (O’Doherty)

Despite being written on the 1970s, after 40 years, this perception of the white cubes still remains precisely true. And, maybe, as consequence of that, the image presented by contemporary is very much the same, as they are often perceived as being some ‘genius’, ‘touched by the hand of God’ in a religious or shamanic way.


Going back a few decades, in the late 1910s, Duchamp tried to break the ‘sacredness’ of art by questioning the concept ‘artwork’ by sending a standard urinal, laid flat on its back, signed ‘R. Mutt 1917’ to be exhibited in a group show organized by the Society of Independent Artists. Instantly, a scandal took place in the institutional system, and the board of directors rejected the artwork. In protest Duchamp, who was a member of the Board, resigned immediately.

A few years later, in 1938, Marcel shocked the art world again, by questioning, this time, not the artwork itself, but the context where it was presented:

“In one of those bad puns he loved, Duchamp turned the exhibition topsy-turvy and ‘stood you on your head.' The ceiling is the floor and the floor, to drive home the point, is the ceiling.”

In a group show on Galerie Beaux-Arts, Duchamp hanged 1,200 bags of coal in the roof and “this inversion was the first time an artist subsumed and entire gallery in a single gesture – and managed to do so while it was full of other art.”

In his article, O’Doherty puts the question on why did Duchamp ‘got away’ with doing 1,200 Bags of Coal. My guess is that it was because he was the first. People didn’t know how to react to such a disruption and, maybe, that was the reason that they went along with it:

“This inside-outside confusion is consistent with tilting the gallery on its axis. By exposing the effect of context on art, of the container on the contained, Duchamp recognizes an are of art that hadn’t yet been invented”

Years later, on 1971, when Daniel Buren attempted to do a similar thing on a group exhibition – to transform the museum’s architecture and the way that it functions by hanging a huge piece of striped cotton canvas on the rotunda of the Guggenheim–, the day before the opening, Buren was censored by fellow artists Dan Flavin and Donald Judd, arguing that he was ‘hiding’ their artworks.

As Buren questionings were more directed to the institutional’s system themselves, the ‘Duchampian’ examination of the context’s effects on art, and the issue of ‘the container on the contained’ had a direct involvement with the spectators.  As O’Doherty notes, with Mile of String (1942)

 “Every bit of space is marked. Duchamp develops the Modernist monad: the spectator in his gallery box” and “Boxing up the space (or spacing up the box is part of the central formal theme on Duchamp’s art: containment/inside/outside”

And, further:

“Duchamp keeps the spectator, whose presence is always voluntary, hung up on his own etiquette, thus preventing him/her from disapproving of his/her own harassment – a source of further annoyance. Hostility to the audience is one of the key coordinates of modernism, and artists may be classified according to its wit, style and depth.”

In other words, as O’Doherty sees it, one of the goals of modernist artists was to hostiles their spectator. But this seemingly sadistic pleasure ended up turning towards art itself. To most people, Art (with a capital A) was perceived as something elitist and incomprehensible; seeming as ‘high culture,' since it was made by few genius (artists), placed in a sacred temple (white cube), for the nobles (high class and connoisseurs) to appreciate it.

 In that scenario, there’s no place for the mere mortal to interact with those kinds of entities. The whole art world is closed, exclusive, guarded to a mystified high-cultured elite. O’Doherty ends this chapter by mentioning post-modernism attempts to break the superimposition of the white cube: 

With postmodernism, the gallery space is no longer ‘neutral’. The wall becomes a membrane through which esthetic and commercial values osmotically exchange. (…) Context provides a large part of late modern and postmodern art’s content. This is seventies art’s main issue, as well as its strength and weakness”

In Duchamp’s work, and more contemporary ones (like Buren’s, for example) the questioning about the context where the art was present; pieces joined “the outside world with the inside,” but the artist himself was nowhere to be seen. He was still secluded in his genius aura.

Then, when we move to Rosalind Krauss text, we encounter a changed art world.  Robert Smithson, Robert Morris, Michael Heizer, Richard Serra, Walter De Maria and few others went a step further in questioning the context of the artwork.

 Krauss’s article discusses, mainly, the concept of ‘sculpture’ on what she calls ‘the expanded field, and how sculpture is a category that can be, nowadays, almost infinitely malleable:

“The historian/critic simply performed a more extended sleight-of-hand and began to construct his genealogies out of the data of millennia rather than decades. Stonehenge, the Nazca lines, the Toltec ball courts, Indian burial mounds – anything at all could be hauled into court to bear witness to this work’s connection to history and thereby to legitimize its status as sculpture.”

            To demystify this now vague term, Krauss compares it to the concept of monuments and, later, makes a diagram to elucidate the notions of not-landscape and not-architecture to draw the limits of modernist sculpture; and end up in the thinking in another term: complex - both landscape and architecture piece. To illustrate the word:


By 1970, with the Partially Buried Woodshed at Kent State University, in Ohio, Robert Smithson had begun to occupy the complex axis, which for ease of reference I am calling site construction. In 1971 with the observatory he built in wood and sod in Holland, Robert Morris had joined him. Since that time, many other artists – Robert Irwing, Alice Aycock, John Mason, Michael Heizer, Mary Miss, Charles Sidmons – have operated within this new set of possibilities.


            Although this new conception of landscape and architectural art marks a critical shift in the way we perceive the context a work of art - by making the background as the content itself; and turning the outside (landscape/architecture) into the ‘inside’; the same issue found on modernism it’s still present: the absence of the artist.


            When, at last, we turn to Marcia Tucker PheNAUMANology, the cycle seems to finally close itself, as Bruce Nauman brings his insides, outside – to the public – and invites the viewer to do the same.


            While other artists shut the world off, were hostile to the spectators, and ‘ran to the mountains’ (in landscape and architectural art), Nauman works with the most real, straight-forward, possible material: his body.

Bruce Nauman finally opens his doors and windows, and let everybody in – changing the whole notion of artwork, context, artist, and viewer. He doesn’t exhibit a finished, neatly done, work of art; “he sees his art as more closely related to man’s nature than to the nature of art.” He promotes an experience with the viewer, inviting him to be the actor:

 By dealing with the ways things are experienced instead of how they are made or perceived, the intent of the work is realized only through the physical involvement of the spectator.

Although Nauman’s relationship with the audience may be considered ‘hostile’ in O’Doherty’s logic- as it “expresses itself through physical discomfort (radical theater), excessive noise (music) or by removing perceptual constants (the gallery space)” - it cannot be matched to other raging avant-garde artists acts.  


Nauman’s works are too concerned with the bodily experience and centered in his corporeal perceptions to be that aggressive towards another body. Yes, he intends to cause psychological emotions on his audience – but his primary goal is to let them experience these physic experiences in their way, and not trying to ‘impose’ anything. And, also

This concern with physical self is not simple artistic egocentrism, but use of the body to transform intimate subjectivity into objective demonstration. Man is the perceiver and the perceived; he acts and is acted upon; he is the sensor and the sensed.

With this last quote, by Marcia Tucker, we close the cycle of context as content, finally bringing together the artist, the viewers, and institutions:

If what we know of the world is the sum of our perceptions, and our physical, emotional, and intellectual reactions to our environment, then to effectively manipulate these factors is to effect a virtual change in the world.