Pictures of Self-Portraits: Eva and Franco Mattes' Avatar Portraits
by Zara Dinnen — Birkbeck, University of London
May 01, 2012 – 00:00
In 2006 the artists Eva and Franco Mattes held a solo exhibition titled “13 Most Beautiful Avatars” at Ars Virtua, a gallery inside Second Life; two weeks later they opened a show with the same title at the Italian Academy, Columbia University, New York. “13 Most Beautiful Avatars” is one version of a larger project of self-portraits of avatars from Second Life. The portraits are images of avatars. They are exhibited inworld in SL, online on the Mattes’ website, and as canvases on gallery walls in Real Life. Whilst it remains unclear how the artists ‘take’ or make these portraits, they describe their process as one of reappropriation: ‘[…] our works are not portraits, but rather “pictures of self-portraits”’ (artist’s website).
The avatars are someone else’s design; the artwork is the Mattes’ capturing and framing of an image of someone else’s image. To call these images ‘self-portraits’ is problematic. The Mattes’ reappropriation can be straightforwardly read as the production of a portrait (of an avatar). The use of ‘self’ in this formulation reconfigures this process, implying the Mattes’ images are portraits of someone’s self-portrait. These images complicate received ideas about the way an avatar functions, remediating the performance of these digital incarnations of (unseen, unknown) users. The overall construct is complicated by the Mattes’ agency as the artist-producers of these ‘self-portraits’. At no point is an audience able to gauge to what extent the users behind these avatars view the avatars as portraits of themselves—this is a framework imposed by the Mattes.
The portraits signify the emergent aesthetic values of Second Life, and remediate pop art modalities of the fallacy of “portraiture” through digital culture. They also play with the shared language of these two discourses—the idea of "likeness". The Mattes’ Portraits draw a viewer’s attention to the likeness inherent in the digital medium—its propensity to make things look the same, the by-product of digitisation—in place of viewing the portrait as a likeness of a user. Maybe then these are portraits of a medium as much (or as little) as they are likenesses of the embodied person they ‘stand-in’ for.
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