DOPPELGANGER and the corruption of memory
Cosima Hawemann’s exhibition Doppelganger is about recognition and the corruptibility of memory.
The German word ‘Doppelgänger’ means literally ‘double goer/walker’ and is used to describe a second person or ghostly apparition that looks identical to the subject. Hawemann, herself a German, has deliberately used the anglicised spelling “doppelganger” to align it to popular culture usage as her source images are drawn from screen idols and contemporary advertising.
Across the ages, there has been a superstitious belief that there must be personal or spiritual characteristics shared between two unrelated persons who look the same, whether they are alive during the same era, or exist centuries apart. We imbue the double with similar qualities to the original, and vice versa. This assumed link between the doubles has been a recurring theme in folklore and literature for centuries, then more recently in film, and is often a harbinger of misadventure or misfortune.
Hawemann, however, uses ‘doppelganger’ in a metaphoric sense rather than literal. Her doppelganger is our memory of who we believe a public figure is. She exploits the publicity images of famous stars from the early 20th century and contemporary advertising to demonstrate the vulnerabilities of our memory.
These photographs in their original state are carefully crafted illusions of glamour, privilege and mystique that have been selected for their sense of drama and pose. Hawemann is deliberate in not naming her subjects, except by using the initials of their real name (as opposed to their assumed name). One of Hawemann’s subjects, Marlene Dietrich, was a master of using lighting, makeup and costuming to dramatic effect; she also understood how important they were to preserving her iconic image as she aged. Hawemann is conscious of the teams of professionals who worked to create the public faces of these idols, who she describes as being unnahbar (unapproachable/unattainable). As viewers, we begin to take the fiction as fact and believe that the star’s projected life is connected to the real life.
By altering the light and shadows of the images with overpainting, Hawemann’s art reduces or negates the professionals’ illusions and in the process, she confuses our recognition of once familiar faces. The struggle to recall their features creates a feeling of unease: our memory is piqued, but we are denied the comfort of immediate identification and with that the narrative we attach to that idol.
Hawemann’s deliberate manipulation of an image’s lighting acts to flatten the subject’s features to the point where she is not immediately recognisable and her emotional state has become ambiguous. Is that face sad, fearful or vacant? The extreme bleaching of colour from the face - as would be the case under an intense spotlight – suggests a death mask. The real woman’s presence diminishes as her glamorous public doppelganger takes precedence.
In an age where social media has placed the image centre stage, there is an abundance of people pouting and come-hithering into their mobile phones. Through these narcissistic filter-processed selfies, the average mortal attempts to emulate the glamour and appeal of mega-icons and to present their lives as something it may not be. For some, these selfies become their own doppelganger that they hope will mask their own normal lives, but in the end, they only increase their sense of isolation. For the viewer it can be impossible to tell where fact and fiction merge; our orientation becomes confused as it becomes increasingly difficult to cross-check the narrative being spun.
The disquiet created by Hawemann’s altered glamour images highlights the importance we give to our memory of people in our daily lives. We piece together images and information with each interaction, from which we build our own picture of who we think they are. With such weight placed on the link between the infallibility of memory and our sense of Self, when our recall is interrupted we begin to question the reliability of our own memory and eventually, our own sanity. Rarely do we stop to consider that memory is a capricious beast and that some of what we take on face value as truth, has in fact been fabricated.
Ultimately, the face that is projected publicly may not reflect the private reality, and our ability to recognise someone is not infallible. Once the memory of a face is corrupted, so too is the narrative we hold of the subject.
Doppelganger was first exhibited in Germany in May at the KÖLNISCHES STADTMUSEUM Zündorfer Wehrturm, Cologne. This solid stone tower was built in the 12th century and is thought to be the oldest secular building in the region. The exhibition comprising 49 paintings, an artist book and a box of six small paper works was conceived to suit its intimate spaces. Complementing the ‘doppelganger’ portraits, the life-size painting of the chandelier contributes to the atmosphere and sense of luxury and the painting of the waterfall provides a ‘view’ to an imagined exterior where no window exists, while possibly alluding to the inner drama of the women’s real lives. Despite the confined scale of the rooms forcing the viewer into close proximity with the paintings, the subjects remain out of reach, forever unattainable.