The universe started speaking to me before I even realized she was talking. I was on my daily run and pleased to catch This American Life’s Ira Glass tell the story of visiting the MOMA in NYC to see an exhibit by Cindy Sherman. While viewing the exhibit a woman came up to Mr. Glass and his friend and announced herself to be Cindy Sherman. They’d never met Cindy Sherman so they weren’t sure if the woman was in fact the artist. I won’t spoil it for you, but I remember slowing to a jog when I heard this:
“Well today on our program, Switcharoo, pretending to be somebody or something you are not. Sometimes that's perfectly fine, perfectly innocent, hurts no one. Sometimes it is not that at all. And sometimes it is really hard to tell.”
And sometimes it’s really hard to tell. Don’t I know it.
A few months later, the Cindy Sherman exhibit came to the SF MOMA. I was determined to check it out.
The first thing I noticed when I entered her exhibit on the top floor was how much the women (and it was mainly women) who were there to view the show looked like Cindy Sherman or rather what I thought she looked like: white, non-descript.
Cindy Sherman photographs herself as different women – the socialite, the movie actress, the Renaissance portrait subject. In each photo Cindy disappears into what amounts to a superficial depiction, basically a woman who is so identifiable she’s without an identity.
As I ambled through her show I began to realize that my assessment of her was the essence of Cindy Sherman’s photographs and genius – a woman who knows herself so well, whose identity is so clear, that she’s unafraid of being white and non-descript. And because she can embrace that about herself, she can explore it for its depths and come out with something very rich – pictures that beg the question, who are you?
I walked around and was convinced that whoever I was it wasn’t Cindy Sherman. That is until I caught a glimpse of a woman in the glass reflection of a Cindy Sherman photo. “She looks like Cindy Sherman,” I thought. Then realized in the same instance, it was a reflection of me. I was bowled over. That’s true art, I believe, when it literally causes you to see yourself in a new way.
I left the SF MOMA and didn’t give my experience another thought until a week later I was invited by friends to see a movie in the film archival space, Oddball Films. The title of the movie? Guest of Cindy Sherman.
The movie is by Paul H-O, Cindy’s former boyfriend, and starts by introducing Paul and his public access show Gallery Beat. His show went nowhere but his love life did when he met Cindy Sherman. The movie follows the arc of their relationship from giddy beginnings to incidents where Paul feels nameless to its eventual demise when ironically Paul begins working on a movie about their relationship.
His decision to make a movie about their relationship seemed to upset the balance of their relationship, their unspoken agreement that their relationship would be about her. His choice (whether he knew he was making it or not) to give up his identity in service of the relationship is something women do all the time and interestingly, is at the core of what a lot of Cindy Sherman’s work speaks to – identity.
Most people don’t blink an eye when the wife of a powerful man is snubbed or looked past. It’s so common place for women that it’s a movie when it happens to a man. But for me the movie only highlighted just what an epidemic identity is for women – if not defined by our men or our families, who are we? It’s no accident Cindy Sherman's work started garnering attention in the 70s when the women’s movement really took flight. And it’s no accident that she’s seeing a resurgence today – a time of great uncertainty. When who you are is all you’ve got.
Shortly after the film started my fingers began to dance in their telling way – signing “I’m anxious” in the dark. I chewed through half a pack of gum. Uh, oh my subconscious seemed to be saying, this is cutting close to home.
You see, I’ve been struggling with how to carve my own identity. So much of who I am, I’ve come to realize, has been repressed in the service of twinship (I’m a twin) and frankly, survival. Growing up, often in violent and emotionally abusive homes, I went along to get along. My thoughts and feelings safely tucked deep inside me. So deeply that over time I ceased to access them anymore. That’s the problem: when you press a leaf between two heavy books, it almost never regains its original shape.
That’s why I am here, late in the game, working to honor who Alicia really is.
But building an identity, of course, is more difficult than it seems. Which Paul does not seem to understand. His central lament in the movie is that everything is easy for Cindy. Yet, he seems to miss the fact that she worked long and hard, often unrecognized and alone, on her art and Paul happened to meet her at a time when she was finally being noticed. He doesn’t seem to recognize that building an identity takes work, unwavering commitment, and a good measure of courage. Cindy’s grace is that she knew and accepted (key word accepted) who she was early on and stuck with it. Paul might have accessed inklings of who he was with Gallery Beat, but he ultimately didn’t put in the work it takes to stay on one’s path.
So what happens when you lack an identity? You don’t go after what you want. Instead, you can get sucked into something that is not you or true to you. Do that long enough and you won’t even know what you want. That’s the switcharoo – the times it’s really hard to tell…who you are.
The clarity of Cindy’s identity is demonstrated by one memorable anecdote from the movie. A friend of Paul and Cindy recalls going to dinner with Cindy. The friend notices lobster listed on the menu and hems and haws about actually ordering the lobster. He listens to his “shoulds” – he shouldn’t eat it because it’s too expensive, etc. Cindy, he marvels, doesn’t understand why he wouldn’t get the lobster. Finally, the friend chooses something else and Cindy orders the lobster.
Towards the end of the movie, I leaned in hoping to understand how Paul reclaimed his identity after the break-up with Cindy. But sadly, he only seemed lost. Which after decades of putting your sense of self on hold is the only logical result. Unfortunately, instead of turning to the hard work of figuring himself out, he seems to still be defining himself in relation to her – hence the title, Guest of Cindy Sherman.
The credits rolled, the lights came up and my throat was dry. I felt sad. I told myself I had just witnessed a cautionary tale and said a silent prayer that I don’t fall victim to the same fate while simultaneously worrying that I already had.
As we exited the Oddball Films building and walked to our cars, my friends and I discussed what we took away from the movie. I hurried to voice my opinion that Cindy Sherman was a vortex. To use another metaphor, she shined her light on him and he could no longer see. As I said that out loud I pictured her personality in my mind as beast-like, ravenous.
And then it hit me. If I continue to think that living your potential, stepping into all that you are makes you a beast, I’ll never do it.
I realize now that I want the lobster. Scratch that. I will have the lobster. Which can mean only one thing: I am Cindy Sherman.