by Nicola McCartney
Emile Durkheim argued that the growth of moral individualism would reduce the significance of organized religion. If religion consecrates the belief system of the community, I would argue that the Celebrity represents our increasingly secular and individualised society. With the unpopularity of Christ and continued endorsement of celebrity culture, society is justifying a world of human flaw that should be viewed, used and abused. The Celebrity acts as a stand in for what we want to be or imagine ourselves as. The Celebrity, as humans in our lifetime (a time frame inherent in the technology and media used to ‘celebrate’ their personalities or achievements), are more tangible and accessible to contemporary man than a virgin’s child. They make ‘success’ and beauty look possible. It is therefore understandable that the imagery of Hollywood gloss and iconic figures such as Hepburn and Monroe act as more immediate and accessible nodes of visual communication within the masses. When I want to convey feminist liberation, I can use ‘Thelma and Louise’; comedic melancholy, Charlie Chaplin; scandalous affairs, ‘Brad and Angelina’, as common parts of my vocabulary because they are more widely understood than the writings of feminist theorist Linda Nochlin, Shakespeare’s Caliban or Lady Chatterley’s Lover. The demise of religious figure painting and increasing appropriation of Hollywood films and imagery for the sake of art, as a means of visual communication, seems to confirm this.
Artists such as Andy Warhol, Candice Breitz, Stella Vine, Christian Marclay, Karen Kilimnik, Sam Taylor Wood and Elizabeth Peyton, to name but a few, have all appropriated images of Hollywood and/or the Celebrity as part of their artwork. This could be seen as cheap and easy form of publicity but also a convenient and immediate way of reaching the masses in order to convey and provoke new thoughts and questions through ready-made, accessible mediums.
Artist Sepideh Saii, a 2009 Slade graduate, recently exhibited a two channel video installation, Behind the Scene, that featured footage from the 2007 film, La Vie en Rose, the Hollywood portrait of the life and works of Edith Piaf. As part of the short piece, a young woman is seen intently watching and listening to ‘Piaf’ being called from her dressing room to perform on stage. When ‘Piaf’ finally exits her dressing room, after much coaxing, so does the real star of Behind the Scene, presumably Saii herself. At this point our leading lady enters the second video channel to stand in front of what is revealed to be a projection of La Vie En Rose, masking Piaf both visually and in audio, by singing her own estranged tune. The revelation highlights the several layers of appropriation in effect; Piaf the singer and personality, subject of a film and mimicking actress, the projection of this film onto both screen and Saii, within a new film/artwork and its being given an entirely different audience. Saii’s projection and appropriation of Piaf the woman, actress and film could easily be argued as a longing to be ‘on screen’ and the unequivocal silence and attention we all desire at times in order to be ‘seen’, ‘heard’ and ‘understood’. The choice of scene from La Vie En Rose is interesting, however. To select a piece that reveals the fears and insecurities of ‘Piaf’, our heroine, helps us to empathise with ‘Piaf’, bringing her closer and more alike, to the extent that (Saii would seem to argue) we are interchangeable with the Celebrity. The emphasis upon Piaf’s biography throughout La Vie en Rose and the focus upon her ‘real’ person and not her singing or stage persona, within Behind the Scene, indicates that the portrait plays just as much a part as the object does when it comes to understanding works of art and their artists.
Illustrations from top to bottom:
installation shot of Behind the Scene, Sepideh Saii, 2009, two channel digital video installation
selection of stills from Behind the Scene, Sepideh Saii, 2009