When I Say Image, That’s Different Than Me

L.A. Expanded: Notes from the West Coast
A weekly column by Catherine Wagley

Mariah Garnett, "Encounters I May Or May Not Have Had With Peter Berlin," a 16mm installation

“What I advocate is threatening,” said Peter Berlin in 2004, talking to Butt magazine about his fondness for wearing nylons under tight, tight white shorts. The artist/porn star, who emerged in the 70s sporting a blond-ish pageboy haircut, explained he’s always running from police who claim he’s wearing only underwear. What does Berlin advocate? A certain breed of exhibitionism, a self-love frightening because of its frank completeness? Or an edgy artifice that’s some offshoot of camp? He often describes the moment he first really saw himself in the mirror and realized his image turned him on, but he doesn’t confuse self and reflection: “when I say image, that is different than me.” “Really,” he said, “the only compliment that I want is to walk on the street and see at least one other Peter Berlin, but I’ve never seen one.”

Six years later, Mariah Garnett paid Berlin that compliment. The L.A. artist performed him in a video, dressing, posing and turning as he would have, and playing with double exposures and self-photography just as he did. “Doesn’t she look like me?” the now-reclusive Berlin asked when Garnett met him to show him what she’d done.

The original video of Garnett as Berlin, the video of Garnett showing Berlin Garnett as Berlin, and the video of Garnett imagining meeting and making it with Berlin were all on view in Encounters I May Or May Not Have Had With Peter Berlin, an installation at Human Resources L.A. up for only a week. While these reflexive narrative plays were compelling, the installation’s highlight was even more so: a disco ball onto which two 16 mm films of Garnett as Berlin were projected. In the dark gallery, the ball reflected a flickering army of miniature mirror-like images. If you looked up at the reflections closest to the ceiling, you’d see Garnett’s head and chin, as you looked progressively lower, you’d be looking down her jauntily rotating body. She wore a leather jacket, white, well-packed undies, and not much else. When she turned to the front, and you saw her breasts, they didn’t break the façade or necessarily seem that feminine. Even if they had, Berlin-style masculinity was more an exaggerated attitude than a gender, and that blond bowl of hair could never be anything but androgynous.

Zoe Crosher, "The Unveiling of Michelle du Bois," Charlie James Installation view, 2010.

While Garnett’s installation closed the second week of October, another experiment in obsessive reenactment opened just down the street: Zoe Crosher’s The Unveiling of Michelle du Bois at Charlie James Gallery and the Dan Graham project space (a third component opens November 6 at Emma Gray Headquarters in Culver City, and even more du Bois is on view at the California Biennial). Crosher has inhabited an imaginary archive of an imaginary woman, who changed identities at will and tried her hand at being everything other than satisfied. Du Bois moonlighted as aspiring flight attendant, sex worker, housewife, socialite, etc. (or so I’m inferring), and so Crosher (or at least Crosher’s image), through du Bois, moonlights as all these things as well. As the story goes, du Bois photographed everything—all the changes in her guise have been documented. Photographing yourself performing yourself: du Bois resembles Berlin. Photographing yourself performing someone preoccupied with performing him/herself: Crosher resembles Garnett.

Zoe Crosher, "The Unvieling of Michelle du Bois," Emma Gray Headquarters, Installation view, 2010.

Jenny Holzer, feminist queen of expository, public self-searching in decades past, has become a sage-like twitter presence of late (though the artist isn’t actually behind the tweets). A recent post: KNOWING YOURSELF LETS YOU UNDERSTAND OTHERS BETTER. Crosher and Garnett, women artists of a different generation, might switch it up: UNDERSTANDING OTHERS LETS YOU KNOW YOURSELF. They might even drop the “your” and the “understanding”: OTHERS LET YOU KNOW A SELF. And that’s where their project becomes just as threatening as Peter Berlin’s self-image is when it parades in tight white shorts. If the goal isn’t some sort of gripping self-knowledge, than what is it? Can being others be the same as knowing others, or is inhabiting another’s body and using it to move through the world the definition of loneliness?