Essays & Publications

Wendy McMurdo (Salamanca)

Publisher: Salamanca, Spain: Ediciones Universidad de Salamanca, 2001

2nd Edition

Revised and expanded second edition, first printing. Soft cover. Includes photographs from the Museum series, the Drama Workshops series and the In a Shaded Place series. Photographs by Wendy McMurdo. Essays (in Spanish and English) by Francis McKee and Gilda Williams. Includes a list of works, biography, bibliography and exhibition history. 112 36 four-color plates and numerous additional illustrations. 8-7/8 x 8-7/8 inches.

ISBN: 8474819962

Available to buy

Read Identity Twins – The Work of Wendy McMurdo by Gilda Williams. This essay first appeared on the occasion of Wendy McMurdo’s first solo exhibition at the Centro de Fotografia in Salamanca in 1999. It was subsequently reprinted in a second expanded monograph produced by the Ediciones Universidad de Salamanca in 2000.

‘A Doppelganger is a mythical monster of German folklore who randomly chooses an innocent person and pursues them in their shadow, observing their habits, appearances, expressions and idiosyncrasies. As time passes the Doppelganger starts to look like his selected victim, behave like them, and eventually becomes and even replaces that person, without anyone noticing. The word itself is made of two, derived from the German doppel (double) + ganger (a modification of gehen, ‘to go’). The Doppelganger enters the lingua franca of psychoanalysis thanks to Freud’s much-quoted essay on the uncanny (unheimlich), in which he defines uncanny experiences as resulting when ‘something which is familiar and old-established in the mind … becomes alienated from it only through the process of repression’. Rooted, therefore, in the dark recesses of our own fears and anxieties, the uncanny unfolds through repetition and coincidence as it invokes the sense of fatefulness, of something inescapable, of chance becoming destiny. Freud identifies three principal sources of the uncanny — and these are all at the heart of Wendy McMurdo’s digitally-manipulated photographs of ordinary-looking subjects combined with ‘doppel ganger’ twin images of themselves. The three experiences which determine the uncanny are 1) when we are faced with a being whom we cannot be sure is inanimate or alive, mechanized or living; 2) the fear of losing sight, i.e., of not being able to trust our eyes for information and for recognizing the familiar; and 3) the fear of confronting one’s own double, the Doppelganger.

McMurdo’s photographs, with their somewhat hallucinatory feel, follow in a rich twentieth century tradition of visual and literary works which have impersonated and contextualized such instances of the uncanny. The frightening apparition of multiple selves is a recurring theme since the early days of cinema, when it was discovered that the screen could be split and otherwise manipulated, allowing the actor to ‘meet himself’ through the miracle of post-production. In Henrik Galeen’s 1926 film The Student of Prague, the young man in question sells his mirror image to a warlock, and then is cursed with an evil twin who destroys his life by committing a series of crimes. He eventually is forced into suicide, killing his criminal double and, thus, himself: his ‘innocent’ side as well as the ‘guilty’. In a chapter of Italo Calvino’s If on a winter’s night a traveller, a tycoon hires countless look-alikes to take his place, to ward off kidnappers, to mask his love affairs, to confuse his enemies. He eventually loses himself, caged in a kaleidoscopic tangle of self-effigies, killed by multiple murderers and mistresses.
The psychological symbolism of these two works is easily read: these are literal portrayals of such themes as self-inflicted punishment, repression, denial of the unsavoury or uncontrollable sides of one’s personality, schizophrenia, and the non-recognition of a desired self-image in one’s real actions. Facing oneself within the hidden confines of a guilty conscience is unpleasant enough; having actually to sit down and converse with its embodiment, observing the ticks, narcissism and other unflattering habits of one’s physical person is positively unbearable.

Although this fear lies at the centre of Wendy McMurdo’s double (triple, quadruple, and further multiplied) portraits, hers are not sinister images. In contrast, to Galeen’s or Calvino’s Doppelgangers, which present menacing figures who embody a sort of death warning, in McMurdo’s self-confrontations the encounter is neither violent nor unexpected. Like Alighiero Boetti’s collage Twins (1968), in which the artist levitates quite cheerfully, hand in hand with himself in a garden, in McMurdo’s works we seem to witness a kind of serene, if momentous, meeting. Her subjects are posed to perform a kind of relaxed inevitability. Though we are unsure whether these images are real or not, i.e., in Freudian terms, whether the people photographed are mechanized, digitally manufactured beings or living creatures, we are not frightened by this bewildering — and unresolved — impossibility. The psychosis associated with the uncanny, here, seems virtually cured.

Usually McMurdo chooses as her subjects the very young, often small children. This is a strategic choice which accentuates the unfamiliarity with one’s physical self: a self which as children seems to grow ‘monstrously’ and relentlessly less recognizable each day. For children, so many events verge on the unfamiliar, resulting in childhood’s recourse to a rich and vivid imaginary life which can flourish, becoming stronger and more durable even than the everyday. (Witness the invention, by so many children, of an ‘invisible friend’, an imagined companion who, like a double, follows you everywhere.) In some of McMurdo’s work, such as Helen, Backstage, Merlin Theatre (The Glance) (1996), the double is seen literally in the instant of the initial encounter, when one is faced for the first time with the reality of one’s physical self: my eyes are too big, my legs are crooked, my hair has a will of its own. This is a kind of portrait of the first moment of physical awareness as children, when we admit to and really observe for the first rime the hand nature has dealt us, literally facing the bodily reality which will at least according to Freud’s conviction that ‘anatomy is destiny’ shape our lives. A hesitancy and slightly fearful curiosity is signalled in the righthand figure’s playful, sideways bend, as if wanting to be friendly but daring not to come too close, like our first tentative reckoning with self-image, bodily awareness and proprioception. Other portraits of the same girl such as Helen, Sheffield 1996 (1997) seem to follow chronologically, as if depicting events subsequent to the first encounter. Now little Helen is ‘photographed’ playing comfortably with her recently introduced self — although with obvious struggles for domination as seen in this playground game of ‘who’s on top’. In a sense, learning to live with oneself is a task we discover in childhood and never quite master. McMurdo’s childhood portraits mark an early period in our lives when we thought this coexistence would be easy.

McMurdo was formerly a painter, and the stillness and compositional rigour in her work bear the hallmarks of a ‘theatrical’, figurative and painterly style. Her work can recall that of Jeff Wall in this respect, who similarly, using photographic images, becomes a ‘painter of modern life’ (as Manet was deemed last century) in capturing the visual essence of contemporary existence. If we compare, for example Manet’s In the Conservatory (1879) (a painting often compared, moreover, with Jeff Wall’s Woman and Her Doctor 1980-81) with McMurdo’s photograph Catherine Cowan, Merlin Theatre, Sheffield (1995), the painterly matrix and economical use of a limited palette of background signs is well illustrated. Like the encounter in the conservatory, here the meeting occurs on a park bench, a symbol of bourgeois leisure-time and the falsely idyllic setting for a chance or amorous encounter. McMurdo has draped a huge red curtain behind her subject, who, tellingly, is dressed in a floral print, to enhance the faux-garden allusion of her scene. Leaves and twigs have been purposefully, if artificially, strewn under her feet, like stage props to underline the ‘outdoor’ stage-set contrived, not accidentally, in a theatre. McMurdo has orchestrated these loaded signals as if cleverly laying out a trap in which we might fall into another reality (meeting oneself in a garden), another medium (painting), another time (adolescence). Nothing, in fact, is real or recognizable in our everyday (heimlich) existence, and nothing here stands for itself. The references zig-zag back and forth, as if bouncing off the appearances of every calculated element here, and can never rest on a single stable element of ‘truth’. In Manet’s painting, while the doll-like woman also seems to evade reality, bordering between a ‘real’ and ‘unreal’ being, the man behind her is somewhat more vivid, believable and reassuring — though also threatening and devious, which makes him all the more ‘real’. McMurdo denies us any such recognizable presence; each figure is a doppelganger non-person. There is no moment of certainty, of reference to anything that exists beyond the frame of the image in any of McMurdo’s photographs, and for this reason they look so surreal. Hers are deeply unresolvable pictures: even when the secret of Photoshop and digital media is revealed to us, the technical feats do not suffice to explain away the uncanniness of McMurdo’s pictures.

The minor, like the double, is another theme repeated in film, art and symbolic tales, including the famous multiple mirror scene in Orson Welles’ The Lady from Shanghai (1948).The figures of Welles and (his then-wife — ‘his other half’) Rita Hayworth are repeated ad infinitum, to shower the viewer with images of these two icons, and to accentuate the sense of entrapment, of hypnotizing narcissism and the passion which will consume them both. Wendy McMurdo’s photograph Lesley Victoria Morris 14.11.94 (1995) presents a young woman, similarly seen from many perspectives; once again we are never allowed to rest on a single one of them. The sitter’s gaze, moreover, is never directed towards one of-her multiple selves, but stares off into some other space, at five different objects of her attention — or perhaps each is absorbed in her own image reflected in some out-of-picture mirror, perpetuating these five identical selves infinitely. Like Gustave Courbet’s painting The Meeting, or Bonjour Monsieur Courbet (1850), in which the artist has painted himself meeting two gentleman on a country road, their gazes once again never cross but venture off in some other, seemingly random direction, never to meet.

So too this young women, despite being confronted with no less than five self-replicas, not once returns her gaze, thus never admitting to the kind of recognition indispensable for the uncanny to occur.

In Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland (1865) and the sequel Through the Looking Glass and What Alice Found There (1871), Alice plunges into a hypnotic and perplexing world of transforming selves, violent changes in scale, unwanted encounters. In McMurdo’s The Meeting (1995), a very young girl sits rather expectantly at an undersized table, waiting for two smallish guests to fill the remaining seats at this empty tea-party. A clock ticks in the background, and in the shadows there might be other creatures, but we dare only focus on the disturbingly quiet event centre stage. McMurdo is very skilled at lighting her images with the single principal light source common to much traditional painting and theatre. The lighting here accentuates the emptiness of the two extra seats and, their potential to be filled and re-filled with still more incarnations of this ghostly little girl. It seems to suggest an adult’s fears that the cracks and splits in one personality could, with time, begin to splinter into still more alien versions of the allegedly unified self, and that these tiny chairs eventually will heave under the weight of fully grown, unresolved, unrecognizable, adults.

This kind of self-conflict is most literally staged in the photograph The Joy Reynolds School of Theatre and Drama, Sheffield (1997), in which budding, pre-pubescent pugilists attack identical little boys in a mock fist fight. Here strands of hay are strewn on the floor, once again suggesting, in the minutiae of details, a barnyard boxing ring, the barefisted matches of old, giving this and other works a definite nostalgic flavour. This is moreover, perhaps her most sculptural work, with the skin smoothed to an alabaster or marble-like finish. McMurdo has moreover found a device through which to view a single figure from multiple vantage points, referring, surprisingly, to baroque sculpture, which manipulated the viewer into observing them in the round and never achieving a singular, gratifying, ‘frontal’ view. McMurdo also thwarts our need to decide which, of the many figures, is the real one, although here we are somewhat assisted: surely the figure on his own, outnumbered two-to-one by exactly equal-sized opponents, is the one most cruelly experiencing ‘reality’ and the injustices of ‘real’ life. The other two pugilists, if we can somehow identity the lone figure on the left as composed at flesh and blood, must represent some kind of apparition, a digitally masterminded Doppelganger, out to challenge the integral self. Similarly, of the two boys reclining in Under the Bed Summerfield (1997), surely the well-behaved, serene-eyed youngster lying demurely on the bed is the ‘real’ boy, while the sward brandishing, slithering ‘brother’ concealed under the bed is the unwanted Doppelganger. We always beg to identify, as fellow human beings, with the good guy: the bad guy must be a kind of robot, a mechanized ‘evil twin’ ordinarily kept ‘out of the picture’.

McMurdo often exploits the uncanny, spectre-like quality of her figures, achieved through computer manipulation, to great advantage. Oddly still figures along a roadside Ross Needham, Derbyshire 11.4.95 (1995) or standing motionless in a forest Lydia Cowal, Derbyshire 11.4.95 (1995) provide the folk-tale like setting for an unnerving encounter. Set in the context of her Doppelganger photographs, we become convinced that this bare-chested adolescent ghost gazing out of the picture must be seeing himself, forcing his uncanny presence on us in our unwilling acknowledgement that we are somehow confronting ourselves. Like Michelangelo Piscoletto’s Mirror Paintings, in which the artist literally forces the viewer into the picture plane, often in the company of doubles (Two naked women dancing, 1962, or The Etruscan, 1976), McMurdo, by setting the viewer directly on the curved path leading out of the frame, invites us to partake in the experience of this unwanted, unexplicable encounter.

The double, finally, also embodies an innate desire for symmetry, the childhood desire to organize all things in pairs, and it is no accident that Wendy McMurdo chooses for many of her works one of the most symmetrical of formats, the square. Her multiple selves are not necessarily, in fact, the personification of one’s most despicable side, but could also symbolize the desire for completion, for self-knowledge, for objectivity in observing oneself. They are stirring pictures, fable-like, dramatic images of a lonely, ordinary world occupied solely by ourselves, with only our thoughts to keep us company.