Portrait Symbolism

tumblr_n5l5tnMRBN1rv7enbo1_1280Humans are a unique species in that we accumulate objects. These are my objects. One of the more intriguing aspects of our insatiable materialism is that in the process we end up transferring or expanding the boundaries of our identity into our tools and aestetica. Each of these objects that surrounds me has more than just a story – each one IS me in an abstract sense. Each is a fragment of an identity which no longer fits within my skin.

 Identity spills into the virtual realm. At the center of the photograph I hold my phone, which displays the home page to this website. And so a virtual representation of myself holds a virtual representation of myself. Upon my shoulders are tarot cards – more self-images. These glyphs cannot tell the future, but rather provide a sort of symbolic mirror. As you riffle through the deck, certain images pop out and grab your attention. The reasons why these certain symbols resonate with me are deeply personal, and through them I gain a greater understanding of what it means to be me.

The ability to extend identity in this way comes with its tensions. We often feel as if we are being ripped in two, spilt between the physical and virtual worlds. My body is made of flesh, and I surround myself with the stuff of the earth – moss, bark, mushrooms, fruit, trilobite. And yet I can only interact with these things with the help of artifacts – knives, carabineers, mouse, hard drive, matches, car key, camp stove, soup pot, back pack. The tension between the real and the virtual, between the natural and the artificial, sculpts me into hypocritical concatenations. My task is to integrate all these opposing facets of identity into a unified whole. And so at the center of the portrait is a circumscribed delta symbol – an alchemical representation of the philosopher’s stone – the unifier of opposites.    

The ultimate pair of opposites is death and rebirth, and this theme penetrates all the objects that surround me. The camp stove turns dead wood into light, which breaks down my food so that I might transform it into my body. Mango scraps become sun rays. Mushrooms transform soil into sustenance. The strongest exemplar of this pattern is not so obvious – the price tags that bind my arms. Along with much of the food that I eat, those price tags came from the dumpster. Signifiers defining value lose their definition when tossed in the trash. I pull them out and give them new meaning – symbols of my uneasy relationship with money. The dollar bills by my shoulder are Gleaner Dollars made by Dayna Safferstein – an artificial currency that seeks to redefine value. The search is still ongoing.

Life tautologically defines its own values. Meaning arises from the interplay of life and death. Those organisms which survive into the next generation do so because they have evolved to embody a meaningful correspondence with their environment. This portrait is one of many attempts to carve out my own ecological niche from a hostile environment which is not completely physical, and yet not totally virtual either. Meaning is self-generated – value exists only with respect to the valuer. These objects which I value for practical and aesthetic reasons blur the boundary defining where I end, and the rest of the world begins. And in the end it is this self-referential interpenetration with our environment which makes us all alive. 

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