‘A good portion of people within Western culture at least, would still firmly identify with statements such as “I am who I am”, “I was born the way I am”, or that there is a “real me” ‘, argues Vincent Miller in his recent book Understanding Digital Culture (2011). ‘So ingrained in us are the fundamental assumptions of personhood’, he continues, ‘that to challenge them often seems threatening or insulting.’ Miller’s study considers how this essentialist mode of thinking was undermined by the breakdown of traditional Western hierarchies, particularly religion and monarchies, and the rise of industrial and consumerist ideologies. In concluding, Miller asserts that contemporary identity is inextricably bound up with the culture in which it arises. Josephine Sowden understands this and, through performance, her art seeks to strip away built identity, in search of something closer to nature.
Usually featuring a lone protagonist in direct engagement with natural forces, Sowden’s video works act as documentation of her performances. In The Lilies of the Field (2012), sheis seen bathing in mud set down by a freshly ebbed tide, while channelling the trivial chatter of contemporary daily life. The smearing of her entire bodyin mud – the cleansing properties of which have not escaped the global cosmetics industry – reflects her call for us to shed the skin of consumerism and emerge a little closer to nature than we presently find ourselves. Creating a tension between truly cleansing oneself and merely adding more layers, The Lilies of the Field acts as a metaphor for the building up of notions of the self that Anthony Elliott refers to in Concepts of the Self (2008). Like Miller, Elliott suggests that the individual seeks to create selfhood externally, from relationships to objects and other individuals, as well as prevailing social structures and cultural nuances. Drawing heavily on Poststructuralist ideas, Elliott puts a rather bleak spin on the prospect of any kind of return to nature, describing the core of the self as being marked by a profound sense of emptiness and that fragmentation, loss, and mourning lie at the heart of the psyche. ‘This lack is masked’, says Elliott, ‘through immersion in the realm of images and representations’; the ego is ‘built upon various narcissistic identifications that defend against the painful and unsettling turbulence of the unconscious’. Through meditative introspection Sowden challenges these ideas, seeking a more peaceful self; one that is in harmony with nature and comfortable in its own skin.
In any climate a return to nature would mean confronting one’s own reliance upon the artefacts and imagery of contemporary culture for reassurance as to who we are, and why we are here. If one agrees with Miller and Elliott – both of whom have written extensively on the subject of selfhood in the digital age – then one should expect a bumpy ride. Such a journey would be replete with harsh realisations relating to what, at our most basic level of identity, might truly define us. Today, mankind’s inexorable march away from nature and towards urbanisation is all but complete; in the last 200 years the portion of the world population living in built-up areas rose from 3% to 47%, and now for the first time in history, over half of all people on the planet live in an urban landscape. The organic forms and milky night skies of the pre-industrial world have been glossed over by rows and columnsof cold concrete which nowdominate the landscape; its paths aremarkedout by strip-lighting and roadside signage; tracing its contours against the luminous fog of artificial city light. Mankind’s instinctual urges – to gather in numbers, to fortify against predators and enemies, and to transform the new into the familiar – have led us this far, and in this sense the urban environment is the neo-natural; the latest and most vivid manifestation of our attempts to accommodate the great project of humanity. Such projects are planned in concrete and signed in neon.
If we strip away the city lights, the billboards, the laptops and smartphones, what remains? Sowden’s work represents an ideological proposal, but what chance is there of a return to nature in an age where one’s every whim is only a mouse-click away? Even the term ‘mouse-click’ has now passed into a pre-touchscreen era. For some, a return to nature would mean simply giving up these recently acquired luxuries of convenience; for others it might mean urban farming, and for others still, leaving behind everything material and walking off into the woods with nothing but a knife and a survival book. In Imperfect Existence (2012), Sowden shows us what it means for her: this film features the protagonist in nature, climbing a steep-sided tor at dawn and meditating at its summit while aspoken word soundtrack encourages introspection and self-reflection. But where do we draw the boundaries? At what point did man’s conscious thoughts and actions come to hold sway over his instinct and reactions? Might it be enough that we pause every once in a while, head for the countryside, unplug from the online social networks that demand we publish our every thought, and consider what truly motivates us? As Sowden’s tantalising videos attempt to demonstrate, it might not be quite as scary as Elliott and Miller would have us believe. The question is, are we brave enough to follow her lead?
Trevor H Smith
Trevor H Smith graduated from BA Fine Art at Bath Spa University in 2012. Trevor is an artist, a member of installation collective MadeScapes and has recently had texts published by a-n, Nom de Strip and Reviews Unedited. For more information see Trevor’s website.