There’s Nothing Behind It

Gudrun Ankele

Andy Warhol’s famous sentence was related by Gretchen Berg in a conversation in 1966: “If you want to know all about Andy Warhol, just look at the surface: of my paintings and films and me, and there I am. There's nothing behind it.” Warhol was known for creating a myth of himself and at the same time disappearing behind it. The “sphinx without a secret”, as Truman Capote called him, often evaded questions about himself in interviews, while as an artist he vanished behind the serial production of his works and the observing attitude of his early films, and appeared in public wearing a platinum blonde wig.

Stages of the ego

Nevin Aladağ calls her work for Arter Stage - conjuring up a performance stage, the idea of staging, and a stage as a step or phase. The work consists of six objects whose dimensions are adapted to the exhibition space. Approximately three-metre-long hairpieces in different colours (scarlet red, brunette with light blue, platinum blonde, maroon with copper red strands, salt and pepper, and sapphire green) are draped on aluminium poles, triggering associations of stage curtains or window curtains. The four objects that are installed between columns in the space each use the approximately one and a half-metre deep recesses of the wall, forming a border between the audience space and an (empty) stage area. By contrast, the two curtains on the narrow sides of the room are mounted directly on the wall. In spite of the purported “naturalness” of most of the colours, it is immediately apparent that the hair is artificial. But the specific arrangement of the artificial hair makes it a “hairstyle” - in one case the hair is clamped on the side with a clip, in another it is braided, in another it is given bangs - opening up a field of tension between artificiality and authenticity.

Authentic hair

Hair is considered an indication of identity. It is part of the body, yet inanimate. As a sign of beauty, health and sexuality, hair is assigned to the sphere of Eros. Detached from the body, it can function as a relic, or, as a curl in a photo album or a medallion, it can serve as a fetish of remembrance or a memory of the absent or the dead. Or it can be considered as waste. Hair that has fallen out continues to refer to the absent person, remaining part of her, as it were.

In his work “Vitrine de références” from 1970, Christian Boltanski embraces this identity-related understanding of natural hair as part of a person and a sign of absence by presenting a bushel of his own hair as a personal relic. According to the presentation text, he sent the hair to 60 friends to remind them of him. Mona Hatoum has also used her own hair in a few works, for example in “Recollection” from 1995, an installation conceived for a beguinage in Kortijk, Belgium. The artist collected the material for the work over many years. The hair is rolled into balls, yielding light, delicate objects that were distributed in the space like cocoons or fluffs, hung from the ceiling in strands, and formed a work piece on a weaving frame. The hair objects in Hatoum’s installation are delicate, virtually ephemeral signs of absence, yet at the same time liven up the space due to the memories they call to mind.

Artificial hair

But what happens when the hair is obviously artificial? In Nevin Aladağ’s installation, the understanding of hair as pointing to identity is annulled. The audience is confronted not only with the artificiality of the material, but with six different variations. There is no longer a reference to an identity, to a person - as, for example, with Boltanski. Nor is a history invoked, as with Hatoum.

In feminist art history, there are numerous works that take up the understanding of hair as a sign of gender and identity and use the artist’s own natural hair as a medium of change. An example is the long-forgotten artist Claude Cahun, who staged many “self-portraits” with her partner Marcel Moore between 1920 and 1940 in which her shaved head frustrated attempts at identifying a gender. Cutting hair as a self-determined act, through which the woman escapes the hegemonic gender and beauty norms by which the female body is determined and determinable, is also addressed in Rebecca Horn’s “Exercise 8: Cutting One's Hair with Two Scissors at Once” from 1974. These works do not interpret hair as an allusion to a lost, absent history, but rather as a medium of changeability, as a possibility of undermining and reinterpreting the rigid norms of identification. They open our view to a changed future.

Aladağ picks up on this understanding of hair in her installation and takes it a decisive step further. There is nothing else behind it, nothing that refers to something, nothing to detach oneself from, no identity that can be understood as a stable point of departure. The question of whom the stages of her installation are conceived for, who might be performing here, is not answered yet. Only the performance would let a subject arise as a representation. Aladağ’s work does not refer to the past, but evokes possibilities of becoming different, of changing oneself. Identity is viewed as a changing surface. As a process of permanent transformation, such a deconstructed notion of identity defies any attempt to determine or localise it.

Staged identities

In many of her works, Aladağ deals with topics that revolve around the constructed and manifold nature of identity, as well as around an identification arising from social pressure. In Nevin Aladağ Interviews Nevin Aladağ from 2009 (2010 and 2011 versions), the artist combines fragments taken from different people’s answers to questions she asks. The interview with herself assembled in this way impressively shows the brittleness of individual existence. In a “temporary symbiosis” between the artist and the respondents, individuality and identity are presented as a kaleidoscopic playing with possibilities. Not only the artist’s questions, but also the answers turn out to be a search for herself in the performance setting. In the course of the performance it becomes apparent that the answers of the interviewees invited do not provide much information about themselves, let alone express their individuality or a distinctive self, but rather show reflective searching, playful experimentation, fun at inventing or staging of identity. As in the installation Stage, in Nevin Aladağ Interviews Nevin Aladağ the performative process of constructing “identity” is presented.

Aladağ repeatedly uses the curtain in her works as a sign of theatricality and a boundary between illusion and reality. In the installation Curtain House (shown in 2005 in Amsterdam, in 2007 in Berne and in 2009 in Limerick), the windows of different institutions are marked with white curtains that are clearly visible from the outside and that flutter in the wind. Bringing the supposed border between the intimate private sphere and the external public sphere to consciousness in this way means addressing it as a boundary inscribed in the body of the individual.

In Gemeinschaft des Augenblicks (Community of the Moment), a performance given at the Berlin Hebbel am Ufer in 2004, only one or two visitors were admitted to the auditorium at a time at certain intervals. As more and more people took their seats, the lighting became increasingly bright. But that was the only change during the performance—the stage curtain remained closed. For a moment, the audience formed a community and was left to its own devices for the duration of the performance. The visitors played themselves in the role of the audience.

In Spiegelfamilie (Family Portrait) from 2007, (gender) roles within a family and simultaneously the role of the father-mother-children-dog family in a heteronormative society are interpreted as predetermined mirrors in whose reflections the viewers fit to a greater or lesser degree and can recognise themselves to a greater or lesser extent.

Becoming a stranger to yourself

People mainly use toupees and wigs made of natural hair or hair that looks natural to shore up their own identity or their understanding of it or to meet expectations - one need only think of the toupees worn by men who are going bald to stay youthful for ever, or the wigs worn during periods of illness so that the loss of hair is not visible. On the other hand, toupees or wigs that are obviously synthetic are often used to play with identity, in costumes, when getting dressed up, or when dressing in drag. Unlike transgender portrayals, which frequently try to meet expectations related to the target gender, in drag representations, expectations of what the person should look like are consciously confounded. This staging of identities, for example in the case of drag queens the portrayal of a “woman”, often exaggerates the signs of identity. The lips are too red, the clothes have too many sequins, the wigs are too big. RuPaul, a U.S. drag queen, once said: "I do not impersonate females! How many women do you know who wear seven-inch heels, four-foot wigs, and skintight dresses? […] I don't dress like a woman; I dress like a drag queen!" With this remark, he makes it clear that in his performances he is not concerned with imitating a seemingly natural identity (“woman”), but rather with using the manifold possibilities of staged identities. The search for an identity, the quest to find out “who I am”, is given up and replaced by experimentation with “the myriad possibilities of who one can become”.

Behind the artificial hair in Aladağ’s work there are no identifiable people or bodily histories, but at most production conditions. Industrially manufactured, these synthetic hairpieces no longer tell biographical stories but can be interpreted as a sign of the commodity character of identity, intending to convey the following message: You can be someone different every day. In Stage, the audience is confronted with this seductive offer and its ambivalent consequences. Stage invites the audience to leave their supposedly secure, ‘own’ place, their supposedly ‘clear’ identity, and to suspend the privileges connected with this and accept the opportunities of placelessness.

Gudrun Ankele, 2012