Friday 11 December 2009

Who are you?

Identity: Eight Rooms, Nine Lives, Wellcome Collection, London

Even the most unobservant user of Euston tube station could not fail to be aware of this exhibition at present. Intriguing adverts posing questions about identity fill the space on both sides of the escalator up to the main station concourse and, as they point out, the exhibition itself is only a short walk away. Who are you? It’s a question which plagues us all at some point in our lives and is, to some degree, always with us. So an exhibition which explores this question holds out a distinctive promise of personal relevance, all the more so given the ennui which can descend on commuters forced to negotiate Euston station on a daily basis. The crucial question therefore is not the pertinence of the questions raised by this exhibition but rather the adequacy of the answered offered. These take the form of eight ‘rooms’ within the main gallery space at the Wellcome Collection.

One of the most interesting rooms presents the case of April Ashley, who was born as a boy, George Jamieson, in Liverpool during the Second World War, before joining the merchant navy as a teenager. Ashley was one of the first people in Britain to undergo a full sex-change operation and subsequently became an internationally successful fashion model. Eventually she was ‘outed’ by a Sunday newspaper in 1961 and nine years later her then husband had the marriage annulled on the grounds that she had been born male. Watching television interviews with her, along with the other materials on display in the room, offers a fascinating insight into the interrelationship between gender and identity, as well as the challenges faced by those for whom their own particular relationship between gender and identity runs contrary to social expectation. Another room highlights the theories of the originator of phrenology, Franz Joseph Gall, as well as the subtly resilient influences of this largely discredited science. Perhaps the most intriguing room considers the diary as a medium for self articulation and self reflection. The diaries of Samuel Pepys sit alongside those of anonymous and ‘ordinary’ persons, underscoring the shared humanity which unites the literary diary with the common journal. The bookshelf full of famous memoirs (most pleasingly all three volumes of Alan Clark’s) which visitors are invited to read is an enjoyable addition to this room.

The eight rooms are laudable attempts to concretely illuminate different aspects of a characteristically nebulous issue. However the overall effect is one of an unwelcome eclecticism and fragmentation, as a sustained sense of the profound questions being asked by the exhibition gets lost in the particularity of the different rooms. One could argue that fragmentation of this sort is characteristic of our age as, paraphrasing the social thinker Zygmunt Bauman, identity is turned from a ‘given’ into a ‘task’; increasingly the burden is placed on us to knit the different aspects of our lives into a coherent and meaningful whole. So perhaps there’s a sad irony in the failure of the exhibition to really get to grips with its expansive subject matter, even if it fulfilled its curator’s aim of presenting ‘an array of historical and contemporary ideas about self and personal ideas’. Without a sustained attempt to contextualise these ideas and account for why they’re powerful and pertinent it inevitably falls short of meeting the expectations it raises.

Likewise the social context in which identities develop, change and fracture is never really interrogated. The salience which notions of identity hold for politics, particularly at times of crisis, is hinted at in the exhibit on DNA through a well thought out display featuring an online discussion between Nick Griffin and BNP members on ‘racial science’ and its relationship to social identity. Likewise the juxtaposition of the diaries of Samuel Pepys with the diary room of Big Brother suggests the role social changes play in transforming the act of self confession. However apart from these isolated instances the connections between identity and contemporary society aren’t developed in any sort of substantive way. At a time of financial crisis and political uncertainty this absence is particularly striking. The way someone answers the question ‘who are you?’ is shaped by the circumstances they confront in their life. As the sociologist Ulrich Beck puts it, our society demands that we seek ‘biographical solutions to systemic contradictions’. It’s a shame therefore that the significance of social, political and economic changes to matters of identity plays little explicit part in this exhibition.

Till 6 April 2010

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