I remember being in Hong Kong on fashion assignments, observing and people watching, scanning an ocean of humanity, “I saw seas of people hunching over, never looking up…” It reminded me of those evolutionary charts that show fish growing legs, then in stages becoming homo sapiens and walking upright – except that it was like the far side of that. Determined to document this shift, I set up a conceptual and formal structure – both a physical space and a method by which to explore the contrast between the projected and observed self.
During my isolation/observation booth portraiture process, each participant spends about 30 minutes in a private session with me. The subjects are alone in a confined, featureless space, furnished only with a single chair, and permitted to enter only with his or her mobile device. Communication between the subject and I takes place exclusively via text message, and I'm not visible or audible to the subject. Conversations are captured in multiple layers – text message, still image, and video. Clothes are all or mostly removed not to create vulnerability, although that certainly occurs, but rather, to better study inflections of posture and spinal stance. But it’s worth noting the people soon forgot they are nude. I collaborated with a sociologist and a psychologist to produce questions that she could control for, adopting a more scientific methodology to measure emotions and physicality against each other.
The final images are presented in a series of back-lit panels, whose lightbox qualities recreate the luminosity of a smartphone itself. Large-scale typographical emoticons both inform and interfere with the image, obscuring and contextualizing the subject’s character at the same time. Like a mashup of Muybridge and Baldessari with the cool detachment of Arbus, the earthy, sepia tonality visually links the portraits to art history and to documentarian pursuits as well as to tropes of conceptual art. Stylistically, the series’ naturalism marks a break from the artist’s well-known high-gloss Barbie-based works, but this also represents a jump from deconstructing personal relationships to technological ones. “They know I’m observing them, and they add these smiley faces, even to the saddest stories. I’m watching them, how they are standing while they’re texting with me, and there’s this disconnect between the stories, the bodies, and the language – because what they are saying isn’t really what they are feeling. My goal is to show how the smartphone phenomenon is literally – on both a social and a physiological level – changing what it means to be human.”