The Power Plant

Auto Emotion: Autobiography, Emotion and Self-fashioning

Marina Abramović, Reza Afisina, Eija-Liisa Ahtila, Sophie Calle, Andrea Fraser, Rodney Graham, Christian Jankowski, Yayoi Kusama, Nikki S. Lee, Rafael Lozano-Hemmer, Matt Mullican, Benny Nemerofsky Ramsay, Adrian Paci, Johannes Wohnseifer

Past Exhibition

May 17 – Aug 18 2007

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Rafael Lozano-Hemmer, Eye Contact, Shadow Box 1, 2006. Photo: Antimodular Research. Courtesy to the artist.


Gregory Burke Helena Reckitt

Disavowal of narrative and self-expression is a strategy rooted in conceptual art practices, yet a number of contemporary artists have begun to mine the highly personal territory of autobiographical and biographical genres. These artists do not hesitate to express deep feelings about the world, themselves and the role of the artist. They wrestle with questions of how to represent the self, sometimes trying to avoid clichés, and at other times deliberately appropriating them. Drawing inspiration from events in their own lives, and setting up situations that blur the division between art and life, these artists explore the potential for art to invoke transformation and catharsis. Underlying these works is an interest in relationships between social conformism and autonomy, brain chemistry and emotion, automatic behavior and self-determination, the fictional and the real.

Sophie Calle's Exquisite Pain (2000) presents the artist's attempt to gain distance on her experience of romantic rejection in a series of photographs and embroidered texts. As in Calle's renowned works The Sleepers (1979) and Suite Venetienne (1980), an event in her life becomes the catalyst for art.

Heartbreak also preoccupies Toronto artist Benny Nemerofsky Ramsay in Live To Tell (2002), a choreographed arrangement of surveillance-camera footage that records Nemerofsky Ramsay performing Madonna's ballad as a choral piece.

Parts (2005), by Korean-born, New York–based artist Nikki S. Lee, comprises photographs of Lee in which her image is cropped from that of the man who originally accompanied her. Evoking the pain of break-up, the succession of social personae that Lee assumes also suggests the malleability of identity while we are under the spell of romantic love.

This experience of being under the influence is explored by artists from Matt Mullican, who performs and makes paintings while in a deep hypnotic state, to Rodney Graham, whose Halcion Sleep (1994) shows him unconscious in the back seat of a car while being driven around Vancouver after he has consumed the sleeping pill Halcion.

In Mexican/Canadian artist Rafael Lozano-Hemmer's Eye Contact (2006), the spectator influences the work of art, creating a picture that interacts with the shadows of former viewers.

Finnish artist Eija-Liisa Ahtila’s video installation The Present (2001) depicts psychosis as a form of influence, dramatizing several women's experience of madness.

Taking a more whimsical approach to psychological distress, Berlin-based artist Christian Jankowski's Desperately Seeking Art (1997) shows him consulting a psychotherapist for his artist's block. Also by Jankowsi, Angels of Revenge (2006) presents costumed attendees at a horror film convention reciting their violent revenge fantasies.

Violence against the self is the subject of several works. In Song of a Manhattan Suicide Addict (1999), Yayoi Kusama sings against her trademark polka dot backdrop. Her theme links with the tongue-in-cheek reference of German artist Johannes Wohnseifer's painting Why not commit suicide as an expression of happiness (2007). Self-inflicted suffering also features in Indonesian artist Reza Afisina's What (2001), a video depicting Afisina alternately reading from the Bible and slapping himself.

Nemerofsky Ramsay's Lyric (2004) is a form of durational art that shows the artist singing fragments from pop songs organized by category – flight, madness, waiting, crying, “Please, please, please, please!” – over the course of a day.

Marina Abramović has explored the limits of physical and psychic endurance since the 1970s. In the photo, Lips of Thomas (2006), Abramović is seen with a five-point communist star carved into her belly. The photo was made during her performance work Seven Easy Pieces in which she restaged iconic performances by herself and other artists. In The Onion (1995), Abramović eats a raw onion while complaining in a voiceover about her life. By the end of the tape her eyes stream and her nose runs, leading the viewer to question whether her emotions are real, staged, or a bit of both.

Also tackling the border between theatricality and authenticity, Andrea Fraser's video Official Welcome (2001), shows her stripping while mimicking speeches given by artist celebrities. When Fraser chokes up while recounting her own "artist's story," the gap between performance and reality becomes disconcertingly blurred.

Albanian-born, Milan-based artist Adrian Paci also riffs on the artist-as-performer in The Mourner (2002), a film in which he stages his own funeral in the presence of a professional mourner.

Performance and video installation, 31 min. Courtesy the artist and Friedrich Petzel Gallery, New York. Photo: Rafael Goldchain.

DVD monitor installation. © Crystal Eye Ltd., Helsinki. Courtesy Marian Goodman Gallery, New York / Paris.

Courtesy the artist and Paula Cooper Gallery, New York. Photo: Rafael Goldchain.

Photo: Rafael Goldchain.

Video projection, 27 min. Courtesy the artist and Donald Young Gallery, Chicago. Photo: Rafael Goldchain.

Photo: Rafael Goldchain.

About the Artists

Adrian Paci

Adrian Paci was born in Shkodër, Albania, in 1969.

Adrian Paci Photo

Eija-Liisa Ahtila

Eija-Liisa Ahtila was born 1959 in Hämeenlinna, Finland Lives and works in Helsinki, Finland. She is a visual artist and filmmaker noted for her experimental approach to narrative storytelling.


Rafael Lozano-Hemmer

Rafael Lozano-Hemmer was born in Mexico City in 1967.


Sophie Calle

Born in Paris in 1953, Sophie Calle is the daughter of oncologist and collector Robert Calle and book critic and press attaché Monique Findler.


Yayoi Kusama

Yayoi Kusama's work has transcended two of the most important art movements of the second half of the twentieth century: Pop art and Minimalism.