My viewers know this, each from living her own life. I cannot use the vocabulary of philanthropy or pedagogy, as I am not enlightening anyone. I am in the position merely of commiserating with my audience. I complain to them. I throw out anecdotes for them to respond with bitter nods of recognition.
Back in 2004, I made a book called Love Story wherein two versions of me happen to sit down together and nervously strike up a conversation, and in the end, they are getting along pretty well. I think of this as a mild success-story: tenuous self-cohesion. The commiserative anecdote is bittersweet. We laugh together at shared failure.
I am interested in the open-ended explorations of looking in the mirror; staring yourself down in the mirror. I am interested in the mirages that we see everywhere. Often, we do not love each other but fall in love with notions of each other that our minds build. We are heart-broken when we discover that our lover does not and never did exist. We grieve for them and feel deja-vu when regarding the body that we confused for this other person. We may build the notion of our selves--the identity--in a similar way and be traumatized by the shock of finding that we--the we we thought we were—does not exist either.
My audience is everyone. This is a human experience we all have; some in more iterations than others, but what is the sense of counting? We all have anecdotes: tales of the Catch-22, the mire, the state of limbo. We all know the grief of being fundamentally mistaken in our understanding of reality.
I am complaining to my audience or confiding in them. Co-misery is a goal, because co-misery precludes unique or lone misery. Grieving the loss of identity, of friends, of any scrap of certainty creates the illusion of unique suffering and isolation within the self. We feel cut off and abnormal. Sympathy and empathy are the roots of communication and understanding, and we must cultivate these faculties with which we are endowed. Commiseration is the airing of grievances. As we confide in each other, as we reveal our vulnerable and secret selves, our ugly selves, we create the possibility of accepting one another.
The displayed struggle is my model. I make self-portraits of shame, anti-heroism, self-horror, bereavement. I dress up as the struggling protagonist of Paul McCarthy and the entrapped protagonist of Cindy Sherman. I am opening my struggle for comparison and judgment in hopes that it is universally conquerable.
Maggie Sullivan was one of 7 students who participated in 1708 Gallery's Graduate Student Invitational Forum. She is studying art at UVA on a post-bacc fellowship. Her work is part of the 1708 Forum show at Capital One headquarters.