Attention and behold: Marcel Duchamp… as a lady! Or, not exactly. This is more than just a giddy Surrealist in a pretty hat and a little rouge. This is Rrose Sélavy, Duchamp’s alter-ego with her own look, her own mind, even her own body of work. Sometimes artists create more than paintings and sculptures — they create people. They form whole other identities, personas. Let’s meet classic alter-egos from art history and contemporary performance practice. Be warned: Gender-bending, age-regression, metamorphosing, and dimension-crossing may occur.
Marcel Duchamp’s female alter-ego Rrose Sélavy fully surfaced in 1921 — a sultry, stylish vixen in photographs by Man Ray. Her name sounds like Eros, c’est la vie, or “Eros, that’s life.” Not just a pretty picture and a fantastic name, Rrose was Marcel, snagging bylines for the Why Not Sneeze Rrose Sélavy? readymade of marble sugar cubes in a birdcage, Duchamp’s Anemic Cinema , and others. Glamorous, at times more evidently masculine, Rrose wasn’t the surrealist’s first genderfuck — observe his moustached Mona Lisa.
Andy Warhol’s early ’80s homage to Duchamp’s Rrose Sélavy unfolded with “eight wigs, two days of posing, 16 contact sheets, and 349 shots,” as photographer Christopher Makos recalls. Some have guessed Warhol was trying to get closer to his silkscreened idols — Marilyn Monroe, Liz Taylor, the like. Makos, a member of the Factory, speculated that these were characters based on rich collectors who paid $25,000 a pop for a portrait from Warhol. Maybe it was just drag?
“Drag queens are living testimony to the way women used to be to be, the way some people still want them to be, and the way some women will actually want to be,” Warhol’d said. “Drags are ambulatory archives of ideal moviestar womanhood. They perform a documentary service, usually consecrating their lives to keeping the glittering alternative alive and available for (not-too-close) inspection.” Drag is never “just.”
She was born Lucy Schwob, reborn Claude Cahun circa 1919. This artist and writer’s alter-ego was fluid rather than fixed in gender. Also, a beautiful badass. She took the Surrealist and Dadaist exploration of identity to its unrestrained fringes and she did it by taking photographs of her selves. You’re welcome, Cindy Sherman.
Kahlo painted The Two Fridas in 1939, shortly after her tumultuous divorce from Diego Rivera. This post-break-up double self-portrait was her first large-scale work — analyze that as you will. She is split into two — Frida the Diego’s beloved in Mexican attire and Frida separate, styled in European dress. Two exposed hearts are intertwined by an artery. Two exposed Fridas hold hands. One is clearly in greater danger of bleeding to death. It will be alright, girl. It will be alright.
German artist Max Ernst’s alter-ego wasn’t a gender variant or tormented doppelgänger. It was a familiar, a Freudian metaphor, a… bird. Ernst was fascinated with the feathered kind and the significance of their flight, the symbolic, total freedom of it. Birds were a motif throughout his paintings since the ’30s. Well, one specific bird with the most awesome name — Loplop. It even sounds cheery and unburdened, doesn’t it?
Performance artist Andy Kaufman (I dare you to say “comedian,” c’mon!) once attempted to read The Great Gatsby to his audience in its entirety, until one by one they walked out. And yet, it’s tolerating Kaufman’s alter-ego Tony Clifton that sounds painful. Based on a real lounge singer Kaufman met in the late ’70s at the International Hotel in Las Vegas while waiting for Elvis (the King, not Kaufman’s other alter-ego), Tony Clifton is aggressively bland, nasal, annoying, irritating, just plain terrible. In other words, perfect. He’s so good at this. Even Latka had an alter-ego.
At the risk of falling into a long, loving rant about graffiti, its culture of the alias and its cathartic, vandalistic pursuits as the ultimate contemporary manifestation of “the alter-ego” … I’ll just mention SAMO©. Jean-Michel Basquiat, as the most recognized member of the collective, used it with poetry, carried the “tag” off the street and, subsequently in the early ’80s, declared it dead via this tag in downtown New York. RIP SAMO©. Long live SAMO©.
Are you ready? If this works, this is going to break your head just right. See Michael Smith’s alter-ego Baby IKKI performing with Malcolm Stuart’s hoop dance troupe Color Wheel and friends within the collaborative video installation of Michael Smith and the late Mike Kelley A Voyage of Growth and Discovery , set in Black Rock, Nevada. Yes, the Burning Man one. It’s as close as you’re going to get to embracing your inner wildchild, uh, baby, without getting marooned in a regressive, spiritual psychotic episode in the middle of the desert. And now, to blow your mind: this is how normal Michael Smith looks like sans diapers.
Performing artist and musician Tobias Bernstrup is huge in Sweden, and known internationally for his glossy latexed and elaborately costumed “performance persona.” For someone so delightfully strange, his concept of alter-ego is quite populist. It’s a digital avatar, sometimes performed IRL — a combination of video game aesthetics and performance art, exploring the boundaries between the real and the unreal.
Multidisciplinary artist Jayson Musson is truly a gift from the Internet Gods, in more ways than one. As his alter-ego Hennessy Youngman, Musson unleashed his YouTube series Art Thoughtz, steadily picking up a loyal fan base, demystifying relational aesthetics and the essence of performance art (“titties”). “Hennessy comes out of a specific reaction to graduate school and the academic, fine-art world that I was exposed to at school,” Musson, who got his MFA last spring, told The New York Times. Though it may come from “a place of anger,” he explains that “the relationship between anger and laughter are very, very close.” Stay angry, Hennessy.