How Many Selves Hide Inside Us?

Less than a week after I wrote “The Self Is Not Constant,” my latest post for this website, I came upon a TED talk by Shea Hembrey, a contemporary American artist. It’s perhaps the most extraordinary TED talk I’ve ever watched, and it dovetails nicely with my recent thoughts on the morphing self (and Hembrey will also teach you a trick or two about how to shoot flies with a BB gun).

Shea Hembrey spent some time traveling throughout Europe, attending one art biennial after another, and he found himself largely unmoved by a good bit of the work he encountered at those gatherings. His first idea was to create his own biennial, bring together a grouping of artists he admired. But the daunting logistics of contacting, organizing and presenting the work of a large number of, you might say, used or pre-owned artists, led him to another idea: he’d invent 100 artists, and present the varied work of those artist characters in an imaginary biennial.

And that’s what he did. Working for over two years, he came up with all those artists (106, actually, but six didn’t make the cut by the two curators he also invented) and their art, and the result is Seek, Hembrey’s biennial that is now collected into a hefty catalogue.

The art is amazingly varied: drawings, oil paintings, large installations, environmental art, videos, performance art, sculpture, photography, you name it. Hembrey has “found” a talented international array of artists, all of them born and bred–as he would say–in his head, heart and hands.

Here’s Hembrey at the TED talk introducing the work of an environmental artist who digs holes and then places giant mirrors at the bottom, to reflect the shifting canvas of the sky above (click to enlarge all photos).

And here he presents the work of a performance art duo who like to create “local traditions.” Here they are dancing in a cemetery in Tennessee, encouraging people to establish a ritual of dancing on the space that will one day host their graves.

Here’s the work of a South Korean artist, K. M. Yoon, a sculpture of stone and butterfly wings. “In flutterstone,” the catalogue states, “we are startled at seeing how the wings subtly rustle—a stone not of stasis, yet not going anywhere, just surely pulsing with life.”

And here’s a monumental installation piece by another of Hembrey’s invented artists:

And on and on it goes, one stunning work of art after another, each work created by yet another artist that Hembrey has created. What I’ve shown above is merely a small sliver of the artists Hembrey presents in his TED talk, which in turn only touches on a fraction of the artists that appear in his biennial catalogue. He’s the Fernando Pessoa of contemporary art, and like Pessoa he spins off and embodies the welter of voices within.

Like the poetry of Pessoa’s internal literary salon, Hembrey’s work utterly entrances me. I’m reminded of Stephen Marche’s masterpiece Shining at the Bottom of the Sea, a faux-anthology of the writers of Sanjania, an island in the Atlantic ocean that doesn’t exist; or the multi-voiced novels of David Mitchell that burst with the weaving stories of a panoply of characters, like Ghostwritten and Cloud Atlas. So I was not surprised to hear of Hembrey’s longtime interest in narrative, which he describes in an interview at the Cool Hunting website:

“Coming from the rural South, I grew up with a rich storytelling tradition. And, the quirky, colorful characters that I grew up around made me see the world as a place filled with fascinating individuals. Then as an undergraduate, I was also an English major toying with the idea of becoming a novelist. So, yes, I have always been fascinated by narrative and strong individual characters.”

Don’t most writers, over the course of a career, create their own biennial of characters? I’ve written and published scores of short stories, and each main character within those stories has to come alive inside me, a new separate shard of my various selves given wing, in order for a story to finally begin to breathe its own breath. Writers transform the multiple selves within into works of art, characters who then may pace the stage of a reader’s mind.

Everyone in the world sails along a current of competing voices. Many of us ignore these, or try to shape the ones they’re aware of into the small shoe of a single self. Writers, and artists of all sorts, and really any quiet soul regardless of audience, are the ones who manage to discover those selves and learn how to release them.

When Hembrey is asked, in that same interview, “Does it get confusing being so many people?” he answers, “The sheer number of artists was hard to manage, so I had to focus on just a few people at a time to stay organized and productive. Once I understood an artist and had his or her voice, then they were largely autonomous and then after making their work, I spoke about and thought of them as individuals separate from me.”

Why do we do this, what generating force sets us on this task? Speaking for myself, perhaps, in the aftermath of a childhood drama, for years I’ve been reassembling the broken pieces inside. Or perhaps not. I doubt I’ll ever truly know. Everyone attempts to craft a life path toward what most matters to them, though the reasons why are not so easily discovered.

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September 25th, 2011 by admin

The Self Is Not Constant

When I first lived among the Beng people of Côte d’Ivoire with my wife, the anthropologist Alma Gottlieb, at first I felt relieved to hear that the language of the Beng did not conjugate verbs. Thank goodness, I thought, what a friendly language—the ever-morphing ways of verbs had been my downfall with both French and Spanish. My relief didn’t last long, though, since Alma and I soon discovered that the Beng conjugate pronouns, not verbs (with a few exceptions—aren’t there always exceptions when it comes to language?).

So a different linguistic challenge confronted me: to adjust to the notion of a past tense I, a present tense I, and a future tense I, and to move with ease through such pronoun transformations in a conversation.

It wasn’t easy—for me, learning another language (and I’ve tried to learn four) is never easy. But the more I thought about it, the idea that a person, not the action, changes profoundly in time began to make more and more sense. Here are two photos that I think aptly illustrate the point, captioned in English and Beng.

He ran/E bé (E: the past tense of he; bé: run)

He will run/O bé (O: the future tense of he; bé: run)

Though running is an action replete with all the physical particularities of any individual moving through space (particularities that no language can completely encompass), I think one might safely assert that the different ages of the two runners above are where the deepest change has occurred. My five-year old self is different from my fifteen-year old self, is different from my thirty-year old self is different from my current (and newly minted) sixty-year old self.

So which “self” am I?

“The self is not constant,” the actress Thandie Newton says, in her recent TED talk, “Embracing Otherness, Embracing Myself.” Ms. Newton’s father is English, her mother Zimbabwean, and she spent a good deal of her early life negotiating a place within the two contrasting halves of her supposedly singular self.

What she eventually found was not one place to reside, but many, as she took on the challenges of inhabiting the characters she portrayed throughout her film career. “No matter how other these selves might be, they’re all related, in me,” she declares.

You bet! The essayist Carl H. Klaus could easily be offering a coda to Newton’s words when, in his marvelously varied collection The Made-Up Self, he observes, “The drama of one’s personality depends, after all, on the dramatis personae one is capable of performing.”

The Portuguese poet Fernando Pessoa understood dramatis personae. He engaged in a life-long project of giving names, identities and different poetic oeuvres to his many inner voices, turning the contradictory selves most of us gloss over into a literary salon. As Álvaro de Campos, one of Pessoa’s accomplished inner selves, wrote:

I study myself but can’t perceive.
I’m so addicted to feeling that
I lose myself if I’m distracted
From the sensations I feel.

This liquor I drink, the air I breathe,
Belong to the very way I exist:
I’ve never discovered how to resist
These hapless sensations I conceive.

Nor have I ever ascertained
If I really feel what I feel.
Am I what I seem to myself—the same?

Is the I I feel the I that’s real?
Even with feelings I’m a bit of an atheist.
I don’t even know if it’s I who feels.

So why are we inclined to gloss over our multiple selves? Our language tells us to do so. The “self” is a pretty pushy little word, asserting in its seemingly modest but authoritative way that we are defined by a unitary identity, rather than a concatenation of competing facets, each catching and reflecting a different light, other possibilities. For me, the Beng view of identity, as a morphing property expressed through tense changes, is far more insightful than the meager, static definition offered by the English language. Something else the seemingly solid word “self” obscures is its own morphing history, since the Western notion of self has changed, radically so, over time, and Douglas Glover charts this expertly in his essay “Mappa Mundi: The Structure of Western Thought.”

Recently, not long after watching the Thandie Newton TED talk, I came upon a rather extraordinary photo series featured in Guernica, “Self Study,” by the Iranian/American artist Natalie N. Abbassi, a series inspired by the dilemma of identity:

“It has always been a struggle for me to explain myself, who I truly am, and how I should or shouldn’t act in culturally diverse situations. Occasionally I feel confused, proud, and even awkward about how to deal with the differences of my two halves. Am I Iranian? Am I American? Should I be Muslim from my father or Jewish from my mother?”

Abbassi approaches this struggle by photographing her two halves as buddies, engaging in daily activities—driving, playing cards, or running—side-by-side yet each maintaining her defining characteristics. Would that we all could look into the imperfect mirror of our inner differences, and clink glasses!

“I Study Myself But Can’t Perceive,” by Fernando Pessoa/Álvaro de Campos, translated by Richard Zenith, from Fernando Pessoa & Co.

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September 15th, 2011 by admin