The singular art of the self-portrait

Photography

Russian artist Uldus Bakhtiozina, who has gained attention for her surreal, staged portraits, breaks down the magic of self-portraiture in our selfie-saturated time.

It was only in 2013 that the Oxford English Dictionary named “selfie” the Word of the Year, but given the way the word has come to exemplify contemporary culture, it’s already hard to remember our pre-selfie lives. The emergence of the selfie has, perhaps unsurprisingly, coincided with a surge of interest in the related but distinct genre of self-portraiture, which art historian James Hall calls“the defining visual genre of our confessional age.”

Selfies and self-portraits both serve as mirrors of sorts for image makers. It was, after all, the emergent cultural fascination with the mirror toward the end of the 14th century and the potent symbolism it offered the artist that led to the flourishing of the self-portrait genre during the Renaissance. The mirror, which fascinated and excited people more than 700 years ago, still holds our gaze today.

What can self-portraits convey that selfies cannot? And why do they continue to be so compelling to both artists and viewers alike? For the last decade, Russian artist Uldus Bakhtiozina has been exploring questions like these, producing surreal images of herself that examine modern womanhood, her cultural heritage and her evolving identity as a creative person. Here, Bakhtiozina, a TED Fellow, describes the art behind her process.

Above: Bakhtiozina’s very first self-portrait, which she made in 2009 when she was a student in London. While making this portrait, which pokes fun at Russian stereotypes, Bakhtiozina was stopped on the street by a policeman who had assumed she was engaged in a protest.

“I started with self-portraits to explore the world of photography as a part of a university assignment,” Bakhtiozina says. “They were a tool for me to open my own limits and explore my identity.” They also arose from practical considerations: as a student, it was hard to find willing subjects, she says — it was easier to just photograph and paint herself.

Bonus: using herself as a subject has allowed for enormous artistic freedom. “You can go as crazy as you want to, because no one sees you,” she says. “You can become very honest in terms of your expression, because you have nothing to be afraid of. You can either never show it to anyone and have it just for yourself, or if you find it’s something you want to share, you can do that too.”

Above: In this image, Bakhtiozina offered the irreverent opposite of the Mona Lisa smile. She says, “From my childhood, I’ve tried to smile in a modest way without teeth — my mom always told me not to smile too wide. But I wanted to so here I’m bringing the Mona Lisa smile to the extreme.” And she combined this with another cultural influence. “I often describe my style in Russian as Tatar. The Tatar people are seen as very spontaneous and they make and do unexpected things.”

At 5’3”, Bakhtiozina is smaller in person than she might seem in her photos, with distinct facial features — high cheekbones and large, penetrating eyes. But that’s not what she sees when she looks in the mirror. “The way I look is boring,” she says. “I wouldn’t pick out myself as a model, because I don’t have the appearance of being either beautiful or being edgy and strange looking. I’m a normal, regular-looking person.”

Hence, the costumes. Most of Bakhtiozina’s work is fanciful, inspired by classic fairy tales, canonical works of art and cultural iconography. Her self-portraiture is not about rendering herself accurately but rather about exploring alternative identities and commenting on the cliches of modern womanhood. “I love to become a different person in front of the camera,” she says. “My art is about theater, about performing. My self-portraits are a mirror which shows me another version of myself, existing somewhere else, having another life.”

Above: On the left, Bakhtiozina posed as the Firebird, the Russian version of the legend of the Phoenix, with a blazing fire behind her. “Now I use fire with models more often, since I’ve learned how to make it safely,” she says. On the right, she posed as Zlatovlaska, a Russian Goldilocks famous for her golden hair, bright enough to light up the night sky. “I was completely naked going up to the rocks in that gold wig,” Bakhtiozina says. “That shoot broke my own fear of being nude.”

Self-portrait can be logistically complex: the artist must create and compose a vision, sit for it, and capture it, all by herself. And because Bakhtiozina works exclusively with film (not digital images), constructs her own sets, and refuses digital manipulation in post-production editing, setting up for a shoot can be gruelling. Before she had assistants, she’d sometimes use a doll as a stand-in to set the camera’s focus; other times, she’d use her mother, who she says “didn’t understand what it was all about.”

Above: French artist Claude Cahun (left) in a portrait from her “Don’t Kiss Me I’m Training” series. Cahun has long been a source of inspiration for Bakhtiozina (right), here she portrayed a fish from the classic Russian fairy tale in which a fisherman catches a talking golden fish that promises to fulfill all the man’s wishes if he spares her life. “It’s too many wishes for one fish,” Bakhtiozina says. “I wanted to humanize the creature from the fairy tale.”

Bakhtiozina sees the self-portraits of Claude Cahun, Frida Kahlo and Marina Abramović as key influences on her work; the urge to create one’s own image, she says, is wrapped up in the essence of being an artist. “Every artist who practices self-portraits does it for herself,” Bakhtiozina says. “Let’s be honest, every artist is so deeply in love with himself, and that love makes him very ambitious and productive, patient, strong. As an artist, you must love yourself so much that this power will make people believe in what you make.”

Above: On the left, Bakhtiozina played Masha in the fairy tale “Masha and the Three Bears,” the Russian equivalent of “Little Red Riding Hood.” On the right, she personified the brutal Russian winter in all white. “It was minus 20 degrees, and I was on the street and was dying from cold,” Bakhtiozina says. “And it’s an irony, because I actually had just come back from Indonesia, so I was very sunburned.”

So, what’s the key difference between a self-portrait and a selfie? The means of production, says Bakhtiozina. “The selfie is something that is very casual, it’s made by your hands, and it takes one second,” she says. “With self-portraits, you set up everything.” What’s more, the process — from inception to display — is one that’s wholly guided by the artist’s intention. Bakhtiozina also points to the emotional impact of self-portraiture on the viewer. “When we look at the work of Abramović, Cahun and Cindy Sherman, we feel something deep inside ourselves,” she says. “We are not trying to imagine ourselves in their clothes or environment. We never dream to look like them, but we do want to keep looking at them. They convey some truth about life.”

Above: These are two self-portraits Bakhtiozina made for Russian fashion magazines. On the left, Bakhtiozina represents Yggdrasil, the ash tree from Norse cosmology that connects many worlds. On the right, Bakhtiozina represents the Triskele (derived from the Greek word meaning “three legs”), a Celtic symbol representing a triple spiral with various meanings.

Through the process of self-portraiture, Bakhtiozina says she has grown in confidence, pushed herself to her limits, refined her aesthetic as an artist and learned “almost everything” about herself as a young woman. “I learned to love myself,” she says. Now, she says, she wants to learn more about the strangers around her. This is why for the past year she hasn’t produced a single self-portrait. But as she enters the next phase of her career, she says, “I know for sure that new experiments with self-portrait will start in a few years time. As I get older and enter another age of life, I will find another way of looking at myself.”

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