CRITICAL WRITER IN RESIDENCE, LAURA ROBERTSON: TERESA ENG’S INSTAGRAM
A new piece of writing from our critical writer in residence, Laura Robertson, in response to Teresa Eng’s Self/Portrait series, part of ‘Snapshot to WeChat: A Migration of Identity’.
Lost in blossoms. Millions and millions of them, blanched out – almost white – against black. ‘Somewhere else in the world it’s spring’, the caption reads; ‘just not in England.’ I look out of my window at the wet flurry of snow soaking the garden, and back to Eng’s flowers; a dense mass of tiny, soft heads. The black is water, rippling under branches. The only colour comes from a string of red lanterns, far back into the scene. It is quiet, as if Eng unnaturally appeared just to take the shot, then morphed back into thin air; the only human to observe it all. I look again, and see small, grey domes under those lanterns; umbrellas, held aloft with invisible hands.
I’ve been looking at the Instagram of Teresa Eng, and falling into her imagery. Her photographs contribute to a great sense of melancholy, a long series of pictures of people and objects in isolation.
Amongst these: A single pumpkin, bright against its own shadow. A pool of very long, black hair attached to a girl, lying down on the floor. A blossoming purple bruise on a naked thigh. A plastic Father Christmas mask hung on a fence. A man walking into a cyclone of concrete, a repeating image on two, flag-like panels.
A faded ornamental rabbit and vase on a bathtub shelf, the tiles around them shattered and veined with green; a pair of black scissor handles just in shot. Fronds of grass swaying under murky pond water. A painting of a pagoda on wood, highlighted by a streak of light. A robot picking up and moving cars down a factory shaft.
Eng’s colour palette, too, contributes to a remoteness: spectral pastels and rusts – pinks faded out to dirty champagne – with the occasional and startling addition of hallucinogenic pigments – lime greens, acid yellows and Azure blue. People are scarce, but when they do feature, they tend to take up the entire frame with anxious eyes and glistening skin. The effect is one of distance, a lightness of touch and observation from someone who is barely there. Eng is watching from afar, but she is not without empathy; when she gets up close it is to show us something in us that we can’t, or don’t like to, articulate. It is almost overwhelming.
Perhaps some of these feelings can be understood by Eng’s caption for ‘Mirror’: ‘No matter how much I return to a place, there’s only so much I will understand beyond the surface. China, with all of its contradictions, provides me with an endless source of fascination while discovering more about my roots.’
Eng’s work doesn’t just tell her about her roots. It tells us about our anxieties.
As a London-based, Chinese-Canadian, Eng’s trips to China have provided a wealth of reflective work. An artist-in-residence there in 2012, she returned in 2015 and ‘was struck by the rapid rate of development that was occurring in the country. Villages were being transformed into cities and in turn cities were absorbing the surrounding lands.’1 This statement reflects the disconnect that I feel when visiting a new city, or walking the streets of my hometown. In searching for her roots, Eng has recognised the tensions between heritage and progress and begun to record it, lingering over what we might be losing. Her images cling onto the familiar, against a wider and uneasy backdrop of metamorphosis.
The consideration of change is perhaps what led Eng to make her best known, and arguably most anxious, body of work to date, Self/Portrait. Approaching young people in a shopping centre in Chongqing, Eng took two photographs: one close-up portrait of their face and upper torso, and one of a selfie from their mobile phone. I look at them on Instagram, selfies amongst a sea of selfies.
Eng presents three viewers: the participant (the terms ‘subject’ or ‘sitter’ don’t seem quite right), Eng, and us. Self/Portrait, she says, reflects ‘how I see them versus how they want to be seen’. We may at first understand Eng’s image as ‘real’ and the participant’s selfie as ‘unreal’. But on closer inspection, who is to say which one most resembles the participant, or tells us most about their ‘self’, when both images are deliberated, composed and edited?
In those Self/Portrait posts, amongst the pumpkins and ponds, Eng’s camera is squarely levelled at millenials. She seems fascinated by ‘digital natives’: young people who have a natural understanding of digital technology that she, and their pre-Internet parents, do not. ‘Using technology’, she observes, ‘the selfie is an idealised portrait where anything is possible. With beautifying apps, wrinkles can be erased, eyes can be enlarged and skin can be whitened and made blemish-free. All of this perfection, can then be projected back onto the world.’
Eng points out that, like any young people from any era, her participants have found tools for self-expression. In this, we are the same. In the selfie, we have claimed back our image.
But ultimately, it makes me consider this false idea of perfection as a serious cause for anxiety. When will people find out that I’m not who I say I am? By contrasting the self-portrait with her own – outsider’s – view, Eng has pointed out all that is different. We may see Eng’s shot as the more truthful interpretation, or as an interpretation of how we remotely view others as ‘other’. Not us, better than us, or worse than us, but rarely like us. The history of the selfie as a place of ridicule and anxiety has been condensed here, and it makes me feel truly uncomfortable.
The definition of the selfie – ‘a photograph that one has taken of oneself, typically one taken with a smartphone or webcam and shared via social media’ – is accompanied by an example in the Oxford dictionary2 which seems to sum it up more accurately:
‘Occasional selfies are acceptable, but posting a new picture of yourself every day isn’t necessary.’
Selfies are associated with narcissism. Narcissism is and has long been associated with young people, and in particular, young women. Selfies, and Eng’s Self/Portraits, fundamentally expose the questions that we ask ourselves as we grow: Which version of me do people like the best? What do people see when they look at me? Dr Mark Griffiths’s study on obsessive selfie-taking examines it as a condition with ‘psychosocial impacts’, both positive and negative. His ‘Selfitis Behaviour Scale’ asks us to rate 20 statements from 1 to 5 (where 5 is strongly agree, and 1 is strongly disagree), including:
1. Sharing my selfies creates healthy competition with my friends and colleagues
2. I am able to reduce my stress level by taking selfies
3. I feel confident when I take a selfie
4. Taking more selfies improves my mood and makes me feel happy
5. I become a strong member of my peer group through selfie postings3
The higher your score, by the way, the more likely it is that you have the selfitis condition.
I think about this as I scroll through Eng’s Instagram, searching for my favourite diptych from Self/Portrait: a melancholy girl who reminds me of me at that age. Too skinny, too pale, too aware of every movement and expression. Learning to be herself. Would she think she had selfitis? And if she did, would it change anything?
Her eyebrows are knitted together and her mouth is slightly parted, as if in alarm. She seems to see her own image, off camera, but we know that can’t be; her selfie has been post-edited into this scene, on our phones, in our hands. It is illusion. Strands of loose hair float upwards in the warm air. She is forever alone with her own image, looking at herself; unaware of an uninterrupted, invisible observation from endless screens.
1. Allen Murabayashi, 2017, Teresa Eng’s Portrait of a Selfie, Photoshelter blog (online)
2. Oxford Dictionary, 2018 (online)
3. Republished by Sarah Knapton in The Telegraph 2017, ‘Selfitis’ – the obsessive need to post selfies – is a genuine mental disorder, say psychologists (online)