Ana Šuligoj is a photographer of the younger generation, whose photography practice investigates particular social phenomena. The universal and always relevant issue of the complexity of human identity and its tension between nature (body) and society (social convention) is at the core of her interest. She attempts to deconstruct the position of identity and its visual signifiers through the principles of theatrical performative re-creation and the immersion into various roles.

The identification with the body is focused primarily on our outward appearance, the visible part of man, whose contents, internal structures, are nevertheless inaccessible to our view. In anthropology and other social sciences, identity is made up of a complex and changeable set of physiological and psychological states and experiences that the individual identifies with as his own self and attributes to himself. He considers these to belong to him and be unique to him (self-identification). Social or cultural identity may be assigned, recognised or imposed on him through reputation, position, rights and duties. Identity is also something he can manipulate, merely show it, play with it, he can also be alienated from it, which can lead to identity crises. In all this, the body, which defines us fundamentally due to its biological laws (genetics, heredity, ageing, disease, death), is the centre of our consciousness and the starting point of identification with our own body, group of other bodies and the human species as such. Both individuals and groups identify with and through the body. We announce our presence, our existence in the world and among other people with the body; we present ourselves with it, express ourselves, we communicate with others through it, we can transform or abuse it.

The social appropriation of the body can be executed through various social mechanisms, levers and power relations, leading to control and various manipulations of the body. Differences in corporeality are often ideologised and stereotyped (ethnicity, race). We like to attribute different and transformative meanings to the structure and appearance of the body, which go beyond corporeality. We often assume that an individual’s personality has an effect on his or her physical features and vice versa. We infer a person’s personality, character, emotions and moods from his bodily constitution, posture and body language. Every part of the body has its own ability to communicate, which we interpret differently according to context. The body also acts as an image to others, it is its own perception, which we project to others. However, since the perception of one’s own self that stems from experiencing the body is often burdened by various social conventions, the body is also a source of dissatisfaction and discomfort. The dialectic between the real, desired and demanded (body) is a trait that is also attributed to the photographic image.

A portrait shot in the documentary manner can be rather eloquent in telling us a lot about the person portrayed – age, gender, occupation, social status, ethnicity, race, mood, emotions, etc. Of course, it can also lie about all these, because just as we can “dress” our body in a certain identity, we can also stage it for the camera. In the series Undefined (2014), Ana Šuligoj tackles the deconstruction of human identity through the exploration of the corporeality that determines one’s identity. She raises the question of what is left of an individual’s corporeal identity if we remove all of its visual signifiers and clear it of social conventions. The randomly selected people portrayed are covered with a white sheet that completely obscures their bodily appearance, physical characteristics and any other individual identity that would allow comparisons between them. The portraits are taken in front of the same white studio background, which adds a common denominator to them. The portraits differ only in the variations of their gestures, by which we lose the sense of whether they are different individuals or just one person. Minimalism and the refined aesthetics of white on white give the concealed bodies a feeling of hovering in an undefined space, making them seem supernatural. The artist plays with different dichotomies as related to the ambivalent experience of one’s self: inside/outside, covering/uncovering, presence/absence, visible/invisible. In a ghost-like portrayal of the individuals, she points to the intangibility of identity, which is made even more uncertain by the anticipation of the body outlined through the sheet. The artist’s conscious or unconscious connection to the tradition of depicting ghosts therefore touches upon the idea of the very essence or nature of man, which is based on the dualism of soul and body, and has been included into the systems of belief by all cultures and world religions in one way or another. The soul is a metaphor for life, the individual’s essence, consciousness and identity, which frees itself from the body and continues its existence in different form. The belief in the independent existence of ghosts as a special kind of presence, which have different origins, purposes and reasons for remaining among the living within various perceptions, nevertheless tries to imagine this kind of existence with the attributes of a corporeality that makes itself apparent in various ways. One of the most common stylistic depictions of the bodiless form is of human size, clad in a white sheet, which gives it a certain materiality. Whether we attest to a belief in ghosts or not, we can understand them as cultural projections, formed on the basis of human need and emotion. They are the result of man’s desire to go beyond himself, his corporeality, the limitations and finiteness of life, and the desire to transcend the boundaries of the direct experience of life. The fact that our bodies are transient is fundamental to our identity. The thought of his own end is inconceivable to man as a self-conscious being and is an unsolvable paradox for him.

Similarly as to the depersonalised depictions of ghosts, the portraits of the Undefined evoke a sense of alienation and separation. The removal of the traditional signifiers of identity and personality emphasises their status as supernatural phenomena. The turnabout from the friendly apparitions created for comfort and security to the malicious supernatural entities that threaten the existence of the living primarily reflects a sense of the current time, marked by uncertainty, a lack of a sense of existential security and meaning, as well as a permanent identity crisis. A body devoid of social conventions is an undefined body that falls out of the social symbolic order. It is a phantasm of the ghost that strives to preserve its subjectivity and individuality, without the possi(a)bility of actually influencing the current social situation and the reality we live in.

Text by: Jasna Jernejšek

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Južnič, Stane, 1993. Identiteta. [Identity.] Ljubljana: Faculty of Social Sciences.                                                                     Južnič, Stane, 1998. Človekovo telo med naravo in kuturo. [The Human Body Between Nature and Culture.] Ljubljana: Faculty of Social Sciences.

 

 

Biography

Ana Šuligoj (1988) graduated in Photography from the Academy of Fine Arts and Design in Ljubljana in 2014. She completed her postgraduate studies in Photography at the Aalto University in Finland. She completed her matura exams at the Nova Gorica Art Grammar School, majoring in Drama and Theatre, and went on to study Journalism at the Faculty of Social Sciences in Ljubljana. A personal interest was brought to the fore during her time at both institutions, which she attempts to express through photography today. Theatre, as the idea of performative re-creation and immersion into the identity of another, and the social sciences, as scientific exploration of the activities of individuals and groups. These two aspects merged for Ana Šuligoj with the study of Photography, into a search for answers to the ancient, but at the same time completely topical, questions about the origins, boundaries and ends of identity: what defines us as individuals, how far do social constructs go, what and how much character contributes as the “spice” of the individual and what does our body have to do with all of this?

Jasna Jernejšek (1982) is an independent curator, project manager, researcher and text-writer within the field of the contemporary visual arts. She is particularly concerned with the contemporary art practices, the theory and history of photography, as well as visual communications, which she interweaves in an interdisciplinary manner with the other social sciences. She graduated in Cultural Studies from the Faculty of Social Sciences, University of Ljubljana (2007), where she completed a master’s degree in Communication Studies (2013) and is continuing with her doctoral studies. She writes exhibition and catalogue texts, and also publishes articles in the magazines Fotografija and Membrana. She is a lecturer and programme leader in the Department of Photography at the Higher School of Applied Sciences (VIST) in Ljubljana. Besides managing Zavod Sektor, a non-profit organisation established for the purpose of connecting, researching and promoting the media arts, she also collaborates with various exhibition venues at home and abroad, as well as other non-government organisations within the field of culture.