Troubling Self-Care in a Selfie World: The Photographs of Karen Asher

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Karen Asher has always photographed people, from those she knows intimately to the strangers she meets in passing. As portraits, they fall within an established tradition of seemingly raw character studies purporting to capture that moment of bewitchment between camera and sitter. However The Full Catastrophe, Asher’s Spring exhibition at Winnipeg’s Ace Art Inc., seems to mark an impending change in her practice. As she returns to photography after a three-year hiatus due to a still-undiagnosed illness, she begins to estrange her subjects from the camera, even while they continue to actively perform for the lens. This, in turn, results in a shift in the camera’s position – from invited visitor to unwanted guest. Still present is Winnipeg’s art community, the bulk of which constitutes Asher’s circle of friends, but increasingly their faces are obscured and bodies ambiguously twisted. The two years of pictures on show feels more like a transition than a conclusion, building anticipation for future work.

Though citing Nan Goldin and Diane Arbus as influences, Asher’s visual vocabulary bears a strong affinity to the “snapshot aesthetic” popularized by Wolfgang Tillmans and Juergen Teller – a parallel with which the artist does not feel particularly comfortable. In the late ‘90s and early 2000s, Asher was active in Winnipeg’s music scene: hosting radio shows, working in record sales, and doing the occasional band photo shoot. It’s this influence that can be read into Asher’s use of flash, subject matter, and her choice of analogue photography (which was only recently dropped by Tillmans and Teller). However clichéd the sentiment, Asher’s photographs give the compelling impression of a raw moment not intended for the camera. It’s why the style remains a fixture of many independent and counter-culture publications, as well as a staple of social media. It’s immediately seductive, endowing celebrities with rebellious scrappiness and rendering them accessibly quotidian. Conversely, and perhaps more importantly, it endows our own photographs with a glamorous sheen.

If it’s the exploitative ties to fashion photography that renders her pictures alluring, then it’s the way Asher balances her personal relationship to her subject that makes them complex. For the intensely social artist, that relationship is defined through the intimate care she feels for her models. She has been repeatedly called, both in conversation and in print, an artist who loves people. Though, much like the effusive magnetism of her personality, that social connection might only ever be experienced locally where, at one of her openings, the audience can view photos of themselves and their friends – an activity oddly reminiscent of scanning through one’s Facebook feed. It’s a reminder that even while we are well aware of the manipulative mechanics of photography, we are no less prone to the Instagram spiral of looking at ourselves and looking at each other. The artist, however, has always been aware of the social-media parallels in her work, and the criticism of illusory friendships that come with it. She has thus begun to complicate her relationship to her subject.

For the outsider, clues to this change can be found in Asher’s exhibition title, poached from the father of mindfulness Jon Kabat-Zinn, in combination with the titles of individual works. Her evocation of self-help culture might read as wholly sincere if it weren’t for this second element. In the past, titles often bore their sitters’ names, rendering them, at least in theory, identifiable. Now, in addition to the frequently concealed faces, the title of each photograph is often formal: Stripes (2014) is an image of two men hugging; Ripe (2016) is a photograph of a mother and child. While the local audience may still recognize each other in the pictures on the wall, recognition is no longer an inevitability. In line with social media trends of obscuring faces and creating anagrams out of names, sometimes Asher’s subjects can only identify themselves. This change is not only a resistance to a communal suspension of disbelief concerning the camera as a transparent and immediate medium, but an attempt to articulate a new relationship with oneself in a time of near constant self-exposure.

In a 1983 lecture at UC Berkeley, Michel Foucault reminds us that the Greek dictum of “know thyself” was in fact always coupled with the imperative for self-care. His hour-long talk is an elaboration of the history of what he calls “The Culture of the Self.” Foucault concludes that we are mistaken when we conceive of the self as needing liberation. Of greater importance is the ancient tradition of building the self and developing new relationships with it. In a similar vein, new connections to the subject are taking shape in Asher’s work. No longer does a seemingly spontaneous snapshot capture an instant of a complete person. Instead, an anonymous body presents itself ambivalently, perhaps indecisively, to the camera. In her artist talk, Asher repeatedly refers to the body as sculpture and mass, thus estranging the physical from the individual. It’s a sign of the artist reworking her own relationship to her subject, complicating the care that previously existed as exuberant fascination. It also marks a greater ambivalence to her medium, and, on a more personal level, the illusions and limitations of self-knowledge.

Foucault is careful to illustrate that caring for the self is not an abstract moral precept but a series of well-rehearsed techniques encompassing both body and soul, one of which includes “unlearning.” The self, Foucault says, has been conceptualized as a site of permanent struggle, and Asher’s changing work is moving to the heart of the battle. As she describes to me her future projects, it seems she is asking, “how do you care for yourself in the face of that which you cannot know?” The question most literally refers to Asher’s health but has far wider implications for knowledge in general. While we use sight as a metaphor for knowledge and a means through which to build awareness, making invisible might also be a means of knowing. At the very least it allows for more nuanced and dynamic understanding.

The Full Catastrophe teems with all the messy contradiction implicit in human relations. It is open-ended, searching and partially blind. Knowing, Asher seems to acquiesce, is barely half the battle. This series of work begins the artist’s venture into the unknown.

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