The Elu[va]sive Portrait: Mimicry, Masquerade and Camouflage
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From early trials in drawing, painting, printmaking and sculpture to the most adventurous works in contemporary art, making portraits has been a longstanding theme in the visual arts. In photography, early commercial photography studios concentrated on the production of portraits, nourished by the belief that the photograph could capture the ‘truth’ of its subject, a view well embodied in the Japanese term for “photograph”, shashin 写真, which literally translates as “reflected truth”. In the current issue of the TAP Review, we are specifically interested in portraiture that goes beyond questions of ‘nature’ and ‘truth’. We will examine varying approaches to portraiture, taken by photographers working in China, Japan, Korea, India, Pakistan, Tibet, and the U.S., most of whom were resolutely aware of the problems of representation. These photographers self-consciously manipulate visual and conceptual codes, taking into account practices such as mimicry, masquerade, disguise, ‘passing’ and camouflage. In their work, the “truth” of the photographic portrait becomes both elusive and evasive, as the portrait image itself becomes an object of inquiry, rather than a piece of information.
In this introductory text I shall direct the attention of the reader to several relevant themes in theoretical and conceptual work that relate to portraiture, identity discourse and cultural difference. I will consider dilemmas of mimicry, masquerade and camouflage in relation to gender identity as explored in the work of Joan Riviere and Judith Butler, in the psychoanalytic field as expressed through the thoughts of Roger Caillois and Jacques Lacan, in the philosophical space of Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari, as well as in the political arena as articulated in Homi K. Bhabha’s work. Through this journey among the different territories of thought that touch on issues of mimicry, masquerade and camouflage, I intend to open the idea of the evasive/ elusive portrait to an abundance of interpretations and understandings.
Several scholars have already considered the effect of masquerade and mimicry in the gendered context: in 1929, Joan Riviere had written in Womanliness as a Masquerade that
Womanliness therefore could be assumed and worn as a mask, both to hide the possession of masculinity and to avert the reprisals expected if she was found to possess it—much as a thief will turn out his pockets and ask to be searched to prove that he has not the stolen goods. The reader may now ask how I define womanliness or where I draw the line between genuine womanliness and ‘masquerade’. My suggestion is not, however, that there is any such difference; whether radical or superficial, they are the same thing. The capacity for womanliness was there in that woman—and one might even say it exists in the most completely homosexual woman [...].
In this text, Riviere has clearly identified that ‘womanliness’ was not a given characteristic of the body; rather, she identifies ‘womanliness’ with ‘masquerade,’ as covering a lack, as the placement of masquerade to disguise the absence of the woman, hence opening the possibility of ‘becoming woman’, regardless of the body’s initial physical structure. Masquerade of femininity is a kind of reaction-formation against the woman’s trans-sex identification, her transvestism, as it were. Masquerade also doubles representation; it is an excess of femininity subverting the masculine structure of the gaze, the law and the word. Riviere has laid the foundation for the discourse on performativity in the context of gender and sexuality, a discourse that became the main pivot of Judith Butler’s Gender Trouble. In that text Butler states:
...gay is to straight not as copy is to original, but, rather, as copy is to copy. The parodic repetition of “the original” [...] reveals the original to be nothing other than a parody of the idea of the natural and the original.
If Riviere was looking into issues of womanliness, and the nature of ‘femininity’ in our society, Butler carries this task even further to argue that initially a relationship of repetition and mimicry forms the basis of society and culture: one internalizes the values of gender and sexuality through the performance (and repetition) of known forms and behaviors, and with this process, socialization takes place. Butler’s discourse centers on the importance of the perfomative act, identifying culturally prescribed behaviors and conventions as performance. In the context of her discourse, the self-portrait needs to be identified as a self-fashioning act, which is mostly based on previously established models, anti-models and their relationship. Butler’s emphasis on the copied relationship, rather than the essentialist assumption that gender lies in the body, is crucial to understanding the meaning and importance of mimicry, masquerade, repetition and pretence in the formation of social norms. In the context of portraiture, especially self-portraits, it is intriguing to view how various artists take the norms and conventions of self-presentation, and work through them to criticize those very conventions.
Takano Ryudai’s project In My Room (2002) (fig. 1-3) is an interesting example in this context. The artist works through conventions of display, especially of feminine bodies, yet leaves the sexual and gendered identity of the photographed subject enigmatic. In this manner he is successful in breaching agreed norms of the “natural” or “original” and places the viewer in an in-between space of ambiguity and (un)clarity as to what is viewed.
A different aspect of mimicry, one that touches upon the relationship between self and environment and, in an extended prospect, the individual and society, citizen and government, was well articulated by French theoretician Roger Caillois. Just a few years after Riviere expanded her understanding of masquerade, Caillois wrote his quintessential text Mimicry and the Legendary Psychasthenia which was first published in Minotaure, the Surrealist journal. Here he argued that mimicry of the background expresses not only a desire for protection and defence, but actually a strong yearning to assimilate and become part of the world, in a pantheistic desire to lose oneself and become an invisible part of the environment:
The animal mimics the plant, leaf, flower, or thorn, and dissembles or ceases to perform its functions in relation to others. Sometimes assimilation does not stop at the surface [...] it merely suggests that alongside the instinct of self-preservation, which in some way orients the creature toward life, there is generally speaking a sort of instinct of renunciation that orients it toward a mode of reduced existence, which in the end would no longer know either consciousness or feelingthe inertia of the elan vital, so to speak.
The most important and influential reading of this text belongs to Jacques Lacan, who in his 11th seminar on the Gaze, took Caillois’ insights a step further, stating that
Mimicry reveals something in so far as it is distinct from what might be called an itself that is behind. The effect of mimicry is camouflage, in the strictly technical sense [...] It is not a question of harmonizing with the background, but against a mottled background, of becoming mottled - exactly like the technique of camouflage practiced in human warfare.
Lacan’s quote of Caillois, in furthering the discussion of mimicry, camouflage and disappearance, expands on issues of visibility and identity as these are performed for the gaze of the viewer. As a psychoanalyst, Lacan’s commitment is, indeed, to the discourse of the self and its relations with others. When quoting Caillois, Lacan clearly identifies how self-shaping and self-performance form the gaze of the other, and how the impression conceived by the external eye can be manipulated on different levels, including through the ideas and practices of deceit, assimilation and invisibility. Lacan’s concept - of the self as a reflection of performance as well as the object of the gaze of an external other - is an important cross point of reference to the elusiveness of the self, and a bridge between Riviere idea of masquerade and Caillois’s discussion of mimicry, serving as a springboard for Butler’s discourse.
The series Existing in Costume (2006) by Bae Chan-hyo (b.1975, Busan, S. Korea, lives in London) (figs. 4-5) is an interesting example of mimicry and masquerade that crosses over cultural, as well as gendered, difference. Bae was fascinated with the presence and visuality of royalty in British discourse, and as a result, decided to use royal imagery as the motif of this set of theatrical images (the series consists of 25 photographs altogether). In his text accompanying Bae’s work, David Blazer indicates that Antonia Fraser, in her quintessential biography of Mary Queen of Scots, has already described the presence of monarchy and its representation as a given set of signifiers that defy personal characteristics and traits. Hence, by adopting the prescribed style of dress and other signifiers, Bae repeats an alienation from his own image and movement towards the agreed set of signifiers which is associated with royalty. The image of royalty is also chosen as a reference to Bae’s own alienation as a Korean who desires and aspires to become part of British culture, but is not readily admitted, finding himself in the category of foreign, imported princesses that occupied British royal homes for the sake of political maneuvers. Although Bae’s representations may seem to be related to transvestite disguises or cosplay  practices, he is actually not interested in gender placement per se, but more in the formation of alienated, excluded figures, in history and contemporary life.
On the other hand, Sugimoto Hiroshi (b. 1948, Tokyo/ Lives NYC/Tokyo) has produced images of royal figures Anne Boleyn and Catherine Aragon (2000)(figs. 6-7) which seem to correspond with Bae’s subject-matter. However, while Bae’s work is alluding to real life dilemmas, problems of immigration and cross-cultural references, Sugimoto’s work refers to questions of reality and its representation, and of the power of photography to lure and entice the viewer. Sugimoto’s pictures practice a traditional approach to portrait photography, with medium shots and radiant lighting to display the grandeur and beauty of his subjects. There is only one small difference: his subjects are not living models present in his studio, but rather, wax models on display at Madame Tussauds’ Museum in London, part of a series representing King Henry the VIII and his six wives. The tantalizing gap between Sugimoto’s images and the customary mode of viewing portrait images is where the “truth” of these photos leaks in. Photography is a medium that can mislead the viewer to believe in certain possibilities, while Sugimoto uses these assumptions to deliberately move in a completely different direction. If a photograph is thought to represent a “slice of life”, to snatch the ‘decisive moment’, then Sugimoto’s work plays with this notion, tempting the viewer to pump life into the dead wax figures, as death becomes a very slippery experience under these circumstances. Sugimoto’s portraits then are about stillness and living, humans and dolls, life and death, rather than royalty and cultural alienation.
In the same spirit, Gilles Deleuze & Felix Guattari have already identified the final stage of their concept of becoming as becoming imperceptible. But before proceeding into the discussion of imperceptibility, we need to consider the broader context of this disourse within the framework of Deleuze & Guattari’s understandings of the simulacrum.
|Simulate v.||imitate or reproduce the appearance, character or conditions of.|
The simulacrum is not degraded copy, rather it contains a positive power which negates both original and copy, both model and reproduction. Of the at least two divergent definitions interiorized in the simulacrum, neither can be assigned as original or as copy.
Classic definitions of simulacrum, like that of the Oxford dictionary quoted here, have described the simulacrum as “an unsatisfactory imitation or substitute”, yet the Deleuzian articulation, as explained in Plato and the Simulacrum, places the simulacrum in a challenging position, one that disputes conventional values of “original” and “copy” (“unsatisfactory”). According to Deleuze, “The simulacrum is not degraded copy, rather it contains a positive power which negates both original and copy, both model and reproduction. Of the at least two divergent series interiorized in the simulacrum, neither can be assigned as original or as copy.”
The articulation of the Deleuzian simulacrum embraces the notions of mimicry, masquerade and camouflage in their broadest sense. Simulation is a process that produces the real, or even the more-than-real. However, simulation
does not replace reality [...] but rather it appropriates reality in the operation of despotic over-coding, it produces reality on the new full body that replaces the earth.
Cao Fei’s (b. 1978, Guangzhou, China) Rabid Dogs video (2002) is a video work that takes a radical approach by simulating dogs with human models. Referencing William Wegman’s famous portraits of his dogs dressed and behaving like humans, Cao Fei’s project centers on “doggy” qualities in human beings, criticizing these. In a text accompanying the screening of the work Cao states:
We love whips; we need to bite; we dare not bark. We work tamely, faithfully and patiently like dogs. We can be summoned or dismissed at the bidding of our master and understand his intentions clearly at once. We are surely a miserable pack of dogs and we are willing to act as beasts that are locked in the trap of modernization. When will we be daring enough to bite our master, to take off the masks, to strip off the furs and be a real pack of rabid dogs?
The humans mimicking dogs in Cao’s video do not aspire to become “real” or “fake”. The replication of dogs’ behavior here goes beyond the notion of similarity and resemblance into suggesting self-criticism on the part of the viewer..
In contrast with Baudrillard’s definition of the simulacrum, Deleuze’s simulacrum “does not replace reality,” but rather, it is an expansion of the visual field. Camouflage is to be read as a process of serial becomings: neither mimesis, nor trompe l’oeil. For Deleuze, camouflage and its visual materializations –the patterned fabric, the net, the Ghillie suit—is a simulacrum. The the camouflage layer takes on a complex relationship to the location/ landscape in which it is located – it is neither a repetition, nor a representation, or a copy; it is neither a replica, nor an icon, or a duplicate. Deleuze urges the viewer to judge the repetitive object for the “constituting disparity” itself and not to compare it to any previous identity – that is, to avoid any assessment based on resemblance or “success” in copying. One should think of the similarity between the mimicked, masqueraded, simulated and camouflaged and “reality” only in terms of their eminent difference, hence achieving the overruling of simulacra over portrait representational images or copies.
Deleuze & Guattari also add about the quality of rendering and depicting:
[...]for all of time painting has had the project of rendering visible, instead of reproducing the visible, and music of rendering sonorous, instead of reproducing the sonorous.
In A Thousand Plateaus, becoming-imperceptible parallels earlier thoughts on the process of camouflage as the goal of simulation through the process of becoming—Deleuze and Guatteri’s understanding of human life as a process of constant change and nomadism. Deleuze & Guattari define becoming-imperceptible as the highest goal in the chain of becomings: “The imperceptible is the immanent end of becoming.” Maintaining invisibility while the background constantly changes is the trickiest aspect for the camouflaged to achieve, as this demands the continuous becoming of the concealed, in order to be able to blend. The masquerade and imperceptibility become a meeting point between the (organic) perceptible (animal) and the (anorganic) imperceptible (portrait); the (signifying) discernible (conceptual/ textual) and the (a-signifying) indiscernible (signified); the (subjective) personal (human) and the (a-subjective) impersonal (crowd). Deleuze & Guattari’s answer to the question of ‘what is becoming-imperceptible?’ is ‘to be like everybody else’.
Kim Sanggil’s (b. 1974, Seoul) series Off Line (2005) refers to the tensions residing around online, virtual lives of individuals who inhabit certain communities, and their real life meetings, where virtuality materializes into face-to-face encounters. Specifically, the group presented here, based in Seoul, uses fashion, brand name and particular design as their common interest and the center point of their relationship. Here all are shown dressed in an over-familiar pattern, a design associated with the British prestigious label Burberry. The over-use of this pattern, including its widespread imitation, makes it a signifier of desires to assimilate into haute couture. Moreover, when Deleuze & Guattari talk about impeccability and disappearance, they mention the tweed, the design associated with British upper class sport and hunting, as one of the early patterns of camouflage and disappearance.  In a strange way then, the Burberry plaid is turned into a tweed, causing the group presented to become tout le monde, to disappear as individuals, to become muted Happy Victims (a term coined by Tsuzuki Kyoichi). These unconscious fashion victims, who invest their life and assets in purchasing the objects produced by their preferred brands, become part of the enigma of a simulated world of names, brands, labels and their power to shape people’s lives.
Becoming-imperceptible, therefore, is a pre-condition of how becoming everyone is to make the world. In French – “devenir tout le monde, ça veut dire – faire le monde“ - becoming everyone, that is, becoming everything. Becoming everyone (“devenir tout le monde”) marks the portrait’s disappearance into the background, through multiplication, replacement, dissolution and its disappearance into everything else, thereby losing separateness, individuality, originality and subjectivity. This is the moment of the elusive portrait.
Zhang Huan’s (b. 1965, Anyang city, Henan, China/ lives in New York) Chicken Pox series (2000) is a group of images that play with the possibility of the photograph as a medium of imperceptibility. The darkened face in this series extends the ideas found in his earlier project Family Tree, in which calligraphic writing was applied to Zhang’s face, layer by layer, as if the burden of culture and history blocked the possibility of autonomy and opportunity. Chicken Pox is loaded with a tragic, pessimistic, darkened sense of non-existence, of danger and the inability to assimilate into Western life styles that Zhang experienced during this period, of disappearance and the permeability of one’s sense of self, as if losing one’s borderlines in darkness, with the eradication of sight in obscurity. As Roger Caillois already identified in Eugene Minkowsky’s writings, darkness is not merely the absence of light; darkness is matter, and this matter encompasses one —touches, surrounds and penetrates the individual. Zhang is very successful in this series in unifying a sense of lost self surrounded and enveloped in darkness as matter.
To go unnoticed is by no means easy —to be a stranger, even to one’s doorman or neighbours. If it is so difficult to be “like” everybody else, it is because it is an affair with becoming [...] much creative involution: this requires much asceticism, much sobriety [...] an English elegance, an English fabric, blend in with the walls, eliminate the too perceived, the too much to be perceived [...] eliminate everything that exceeds the moment, but put in everything that it includes – and the moment is not to be instantaneous, it is the haecceity into which one slips and that slips into other haecceities by transparency [...] to find one’s proximities and zones of indiscernibility [...] ”to put everything into it”; [...] to reduce oneself to an abstract line, a trait, in order to find one’s zone of indiscernibility with other traits, and in this way enter the haecceity and impersonality of the creator. One is then like grass: one has made the world, everybody/everything, into a becoming, because one has made a necessarily communicating world, because one has suppressed in oneself everything. 
The portrait becomes the equivalent of imperceptibility, as it is based on the anticipation that the viewer will misinterpret the viewed: it is not a question of not being seen, but rather, of not being interpreted; a moment of disappearance due to the viewer’s misconception of what is being looked at, or expected to be viewed. The result is an evasive portrait, an image of ‘passing’ for others, or, in Deleuze & Guattari’s terms, becoming like everybody.
The term becoming is used by Deleuze & Guattari to denote the constant moving and altering of one’s presence. In another place, Deleuze & Guattari specifically articulate the difference between mimicry and becoming, making it useful to say that if the elusive portrait is defined as one which blends into the background, then becoming is embodied in the need to constantly alter the surfaces of the viewed subject in relation to the background, therefore, becoming-imperceptible.
Finally, it is the effect of mimicry on the ambivalence of colonial discourse which in the end has a strong potential to deconstruct it, make it redundant and reduce its powers. In his well-articulated 1984 post-colonial critique, Homi K. Bhabha has shown how mimicry and repetition, copying and hybridity, are strategies used by the ‘Mimic Men’ of colonized societies. Bhabha argues that the act of mimicry (the native man learns the language and literature of the colonizer; internalizes the values and codes; repeats the style and action of the colonizer), holds a strong potential to expose the failure of the beliefs of the colonizer in the priority and dominance of the ruling cultures over subaltern ones. Bhabha brilliantly demonstrates how the actions of mimicry and camouflage destabilize the desire to dominate and dictate, to rule and lead other cultures and lives. For Bhabha, the very act of mimicry, which is imposed by the ruler over the subaltern moves both sides from their previous positions into a ‘third space’ of ambivalence and hybridity. This third space offers a new chance for a power shift, and the aspiration to new roles within the delicate balance of politics, social structures, colonialism, gender relations and sexualities.
To summarize, we can see that current theoretical discussions such as Butler’s, Deleuze & Guattari’s and Bhabha’s discourses all arrive at a point where copying and mimicry, camouflage and hybridity, ambivalence and imperceptibility become the center of their view, With these values at hand, one may hold a new approach to the visual, and be aware of the fragility and slipperiness of visual icons, holding a cautious view of the possibility of “Truth” within the photographic image.
Ayelet Zohar is an artist, curator and visual culture researcher. She was curator and editor of PostGender: Gender, Sexuality and Performativity in Japanese Contemporary Art/ Culture (2008). Zohar currently teaches in the departments of Art History and Asian Studies, University of Haifa, Israel.
See for example Walden’s discussion of the subject in: Walden, Scott (2010). ‘Truth in Photography’ in: Walden, Scott (ed.) Photography and Philosophy: Essays on the Pencil of Nature, Oxford: Blackwell Publishing (UK), 91-111.
Dower, John (1980). ‘Ways of Seeing, Ways of Remembering: The Photography of PrewarJapan,’ in: A Century of Japanese Photography, pp. 3-20; Fukuoka, Maki (2010). ‘Toward a Synthesized History of Photography: A Conceptual Genealogy of Shashin’, positions: east asia cultures critique 18(3): 571-597; Hirayama Mikiko & Rousmaniere, Nicole Coolidge (1997). Reflecting Truth: Japanese Photography in the Nineteenth Century, Norwish (UK): Sainsbury Institute for the Research of art and Culture in Japan.
Deleuze, Gilles & Felix Guattari (2004; c 1980). A Thousand Plateaus, Brian Massumi (Trans.), London and New York: Continuum, 304-307.
Caillois, Roger (1984, c1935). ‘Mimicry and the Legendary Psychasthenia’ October 31, (Winter, 1984), pp. 16-32 (originally published as ‘Mimetisme et psychasthenie legendaire,’ Minotaure 7 (1935): 4—10.
Hofmann , Irene E. (2001). Documents of Dada and Surrealism: Dada and Surrealist Journals in the Mary Reynolds Collection, Chicago, IL: The Art Institute of Chicago, Ryerson and Burnham Libraries, 20-3; http://www.artic.edu/reynolds/essays/hofmann.php [last accessed: June 20th, 2011]
Lacan, Jacques (1977, c1973). ‘The line and light', Of the Gaze as object petit a, The four fundamental concepts of psycho-analysis: The Seminar of Jacques Lacan, Book XI, Jacques-Alain Miller (ed.), Alan Sheridan (trans.), New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 99. (Originally published as Le seminaire de Jacques Lacan, livre XI, Editions du Soleil, 1973)
Cao fei website http://www.caofei.com/works/video/35.html [accessed Aug. 2011].
This paraphrasing is based on Deleuze & Guattari’s: “What is the relation between the (anorganic) imperceptible, the (asignifying) indiscernible, and the (asubjective) impersonal?” Deleuze & Guattari, 279.
I borrow this idiom from Tsuzuki Kyoichi’s fascinating series about fashion consuming victims. See his catalogue Tsuzuki Kyoichi (2006). Happy Victims, Kyoto: Seigensha. and exhibition website at: http://www.photonet.org.uk/index.php?pxid=129 [accessed Aug. 2011]
Minkowsky, Eugene(1970; c1933). Lived time; phenomenological and psychopathological studies (le temps vecu), Evanston, IL: Northwestern University Press; also, quoted in Roger Caillois (c1935;1984), ‘Mimicry and the Legendary Psychasthenia’ John Shepley (transl.), October 31:17-32 (Originally published in Minotaure 7)
Zhang refers to this cultural tension and depression in his wording attached to the series on his website http://www.zhanghuan.com/ShowWorkContent.asp?id=28&iParentID=18&mid=1 [accessed Aug. 2011].
Homi K. Bhabha considers the link between the act of mimicry and the process of deconstructing colonial authority. Bhabha, Homi K. (1994, c1984) 'Of Mimicry and Man: the Ambivalence of Colonial Discourse’s Civility', the location of culture, London: Routledge, 85-92. Reprint from October 28 (Spring 1984):125-133.