Real Traces of the Phantom Self, Dušica Popović





Real Traces of The Phantom Self

 on the exhibition Face – Once Mine


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                                                                               Who should one scorn more than the     one who scorns knowledge about oneself?

                                                                 John Ralston Saul, The Unconscious Civilization

Natalija Simeonović’s exhibition Face-Once Mine showcases ten self-portraits 30x30cm that are a combination of analog collages and digitally processed photos. They are “excerpts” from the artist’s visual diary where she uses psychologically differently intoned paraphrases of her own self to reexamine the existential position of the contemporary individual.

From the Renaissance to this day, portraits and self-portraits have been a significant segment of art history. However, up to the 19 century they were less a presentation of the individual but more a representation of his/her social status, professional affiliation, family ancestry and so on. Thanks to the décorum (rules of representation in accordance to the social status, sex, age, etc.) and/or personification (portraying people as biblical or mythological characters), the specific person would obtain his/her integrity: he/she would actually borrow it from various collective formations he/she belonged to. In other words, the personality was not a psychological category in the contemporary sense, nor was the aim of the (self) portraits to reflect the uniqueness and irreducibility of the person in question. On the contrary, people would establish their identity and credibility by successfully embodying the general knowledge about individuals of both sexes from their own class, that is, their social background whereby such representations had a public character.

However, the 19 century introduced autonomy and psychological self-sufficiency of the personality. The outdated class conventions were abandoned in favor of authenticity. Influenced by artistic, cultural and philosophical movements such as Romanticism and German idealism, the individual (very rarely a female one) was gradually emancipated from his/her immediate social environment and inherited affiliations. Instead the individual has been essentialized thus becoming a modern subject with his/her own value and value for itself. He and only rarely she begins to perceive the development of their distinctiveness as their most urgent and challenging task. The self is not to be found in the social etiquette but it has its own validity and signification that can, that is, must transcend if not abolish the previous social conventions. As already said, the new self was considered potentially infinite, thus it could not be reproduced in its totality in any medium – from then on it is assumed and explored that in each (self) portrait there is a trace of a more or less hidden inner life and this pertains to painting and very much to the newly discovered medium of photography. According to Richard Sennett authenticity was proclaimed at the expense of expressiveness, thus disturbing the up to then accepted distinction between the public and private:

“ The modus of authenticity erases the difference between the public and private. Under the aegis of authenticity the conception that humaneness can include withholding offensive feelings towards another person has lost its significance, that concealment and self-suppression could be an expression of moral strength. Instead, exposing oneself has become the universal measure of credibility and truth – but what is being exposed in revealing oneself to others? … The more a person concentrates on truthfulness of feelings rather than on the subjective content of what he/she feels, the more subjectivity becomes a goal in itself, the less can the person be expressive. Under conditions of self-obsession, instantaneous exposing of the self becomes formless”.

Although Sennett had in mind the 19 and 20 century in this citation, we feel that it is a good description of today’s situation. Namely, the epoch of Modernism insisted that the person who creates/exposes him/herself must have an authorial “seal”. Nowadays a personality is less created but more implied and it is not important if it really exists and how rudimentary it is. What’s more, the selfie culture as a contemporary (non artistic) form of a self-portrait is somewhat different from the previous similar practices. If the Modernist subject was inclined to (de)construct itself, the contemporary subject aims to be seen, literally, to be visible; its lack of authentic contents is compensated by a surplus of visibility (of lack of contents). This is indicated by a hyper production of selfies, that are mostly shared on the social media. However, it is the social media that totally eliminates the old distinction between the public and private and instead of it creates a space-time continuum of public-private (partnership). In his book Technologies of the Self Michel Foucault writes:

“We inherit the tradition of Christian morality which makes self-renunciation the condition for salvation. To know oneself was paradoxically the way to self-renunciation. We also inherit a secular tradition which respects external law as the basis for morality. How then can respect for the self be the basis for morality? We are the inheritors of a social morality which seeks the rules for acceptable behavior in relations with others. Since the sixteenth century, criticism of established morality has been undertaken in the name of the importance of recognizing and knowing the self. Therefore, it is difficult to see concern with oneself as compatible with morality. “Know thyself” has obscured “Take care of yourself” because our morality, a morality of asceticism, insists that the self is that which one can reject. To summarize: There has been an inversion between the hierarchy of the two principles of antiquity, “Take care of yourself” and “Know thyself”. In Greco-Roman culture knowledge of oneself appeared as the consequence of taking care of yourself. In the modern world, knowledge of oneself constitutes the fundamental principle.”

We should notice that a reverse of priorities has taken place in our contemporary culture: if as Foucault claims in antiquity knowledge of oneself was the consequence of taking care of oneself and if in later times up to the recent past, knowledge of oneself implied rejecting taking care of oneself, then it seems that today knowledge of oneself has been rejected in favor of taking care of oneself. Also, a paradoxical parallel can be established: while Christian morality and culture generally demanded self-renunciation in this world because of eschatological reasons or a supposedly richer individual life in the next world, the contemporary selfie culture assumes self-renunciation of self-consciousness for the sake of self-affirmation (taking care of oneself) regardless of the cost – on the social media.

The former affiliation by birth to a predestined social collective does not offer enough to contemporary man, but at the same time, committed work on fashioning him/herself  demands too much of him/her. Thus, an attentive self-recording, the scrupulous recording even of the most banal life situations and images is  perhaps an attempt to cover up and hide from oneself the negligible symbolic capital a person has at his/her disposal in that interspace.

Natalija Simeonović underscores the nowhereness of contemporary man in the self-portrait Smiley. We see the artist’s face, frozen in the interspace between a smile and a spasm. Somewhat alluding to Barbara Kruger and her politically engaged works Natalija Simeonović points to the chronic disorientation of the contemporary subject. The strenuous facial expression shows an unnatural balance of energies and motivations under inner pressure. The slogans placed on the face cover all possible social labels that are at disposal. Embodying all conventional determinants, the artist  in an ironical manner showes the contemporary subject as being “versatile”, although her/his reality is composed only of  commonplaces.


The photograph Beauty Face Mask problematizes the way in which the contemporary society is opsessed with female beauty. The title can be seen as wordplay. A beauty face mask can simply be a mask that enhances beauty but it can also represent a mask that hides beauty. Another possibility can be that it can belittle beauty (using radical methods of plastic surgery which is becoming all the more affordable), although despite everything people still desperately aspire to attain it. Thanks to the improvements in technology, physical beauty has been losing its previously characteristics like being accidental, rare, unique, short lived, etc. It has become a commercial category and mass produced, it has all the more obtained the character of a social and thus generated personal standard. Somewhat ironically we can paraphrase Simone Beauvoir’s famous statement from her book The Second Sex: One is not born, but rather becomes, a woman which can today be worded: One is not born beautiful but rather becomes beautiful. It is not certain if  such a perceived and applied beauty depersonalizes or perhaps the beauty lies – in the  depersonalization.

Beauty Face Mask

The self-portrait The Disappearing Persona made by a combination of motifs from an alchemic copper etching and the artist’s photograph represents the continuation of the artist’s dealing with the topic of depersonalization, this time from the angle of the transience of life. Based on Jung’s concept of the persona or the social mask, the face we show society, this piece reminds us of the fragility of our projections and social roles that ensue from them. Tiny drops and dots associate with the pointillist painters and how they used atomized dots of paint to compose their images. However, the pointillist painters used the tiny dots structurally as a pattern for figures, landscapes and similar things. Densely grouped dots of different color on their paintings form shapes, integrating into a single image by an optical illusion that was achieved by the observer viewing the image from afar. Natalija Simeonović uses a different technique, using monochrome dots in the foreground that are liberated from the “duty” to form the shape of a face that is positioned behind them as their basic background. Thereby, the illusion the artist wants to achieve is not of an optical but  mental and temporal character: the dispersed dots or crakes do not depict but graphically signify the future disintegration of the face in the background (that the viewers need not see but imagine).

The Fading Persona

Facing It is also a collage of motifs taken from an alchemic copper etchings and a digitally processed photograph. A face without a mouth, expressing panic, surrounded by hands with pointed fingers instead of hair, letting out a mute scream. Whiteness occupies the central position of the piece, as a kernel of the inability of communication. The accused and disarmed emptiness emphasizes the inability of the individual to confront his/her own self that retreats in the face of illness, physical pain, fear, grief, mental disorder, etc. The artist hints that sudden and difficult existential distress often causes mental and emotional poverty since the person is overwhelmed by negative emotions that he/she cannot control nor articulate. The individual is then in danger of being reduced to a mute and ungainly copy of him/herself.

Facing It

Reacting to the current crisis of individuality, Natalija Simeonović explores certain forms of disassociation of the contemporary self. She combines the social and private aspects of this phenomenon in her self-portraits into one, positioning herself as a kind of litmus paper. Thus, the artist takes an ambiguous stand, hiding and exposing herself in the other and the otherness in herself

Dušica Popović

art historian


Prevod: Vanda Perović