Each self-portrait is a representation not only of one's self, but also of one's time and, by extension, of everyone living in it. The materials used to make the portrait (stone, bronze, clay, glass, ink on paper, and so forth) influence the quality of the statement as much as the particular countenance of the face does. It is a dark time for the environment and the living organisms of the planet. Humans have taken and taken, and continue to take without regard for other denizens of the earth. In our wake we are leaving an incredibly thoughtless and selfish swath of destruction, poison, and death. In the forty-one years since I was born, more than one hundred known species have officially gone extinct, though the unofficial numbers are much, much higher, with some estimates stating that one species goes extinct every twenty minutes. If we consider the surface of the earth as a kind of collaborative self-portrait, it becomes a revealing portrait of how we exercise our humanity.
My own self-portrait takes this state of things into account. It is a statement about temporary existence, transience, and transformation, all of which understand humans as permeable and the relation between human and world as interpenetrable. My self-portrait sculptures, unlike traditional monuments that are meant to endure, are made to be taken and used by the world, at least metaphorically.
I made a mold of my head with my eyes closed in a state of dreaming. The first heads I cast were made of bird seed, which I placed out in the wilds. It wasn't long before the birds found me. And they then became the sculptors of my own transformation and eventual demise. Flying from head to head, the birds became metaphors of ideas and dreams, of songs and conversations. Some of these interactions are recorded in the video Bird Dream. On other occasions my seed heads became the feast of raccoons, wild cats, ants, and slugs. On one dark night in the summer of 2011, one of my seed heads was eaten by a black bear. I photographed that event with an infrared camera and it became the subject of the video Bear Dream. The next heads were made of concrete, and I cast these into a river during the spring flood as well as into the ocean waves to see how long it would take for those forces to consume me. I was amazed at how quickly the features of my face were eaten by the river. Just 100 meters of rapids and I was no longer recognizable.
When I moved to China this year, I was eager to see how my self-portrait might be transformed by my time here. My studio in Suzhou is located in a Qing dynasty garden that contains a small pond surrounded by limestone. This pond can be understood as part of a long tradition of ponds and small lakes built in Chinese gardens for thousands of years. One of the central concepts informing these ponds is the re-creation of the mythical islands of Penglai, the traditional home of the immortals. Of course, everyone would like the opportunity to meet an immortal and gain whatever wisdom they might impart. The problem is that no one knows how to get to Penglai. So, in re-creating these islands in the garden, one hopes that as the immortals fly through the clouds they will look down and be fooled into thinking the garden is actually their own home, and hence come down for a visit. And in this way the garden's owner has the chance to meet them. Very tricky!
I really love this vision, this desire to deceive an immortal. For me the islands of Penglai are a magnificent metaphor for the imagination, and the immortals are our ideas, hopes, and dreams. And so I decided to create a set of self-portraits that engage this tradition. The garden's owners gave me permission to populate this pond with carp. I then placed concrete sculptures of my head in this pond as if they were islands of Penglai. Into these heads, I drilled holes for the eyes, ears, and mouth, and then filled them with fish food. The carp became the visiting immortals. The fish, whispering in my ears, giving me kisses, swarm around my head like some sort of wondrous dream of return to the natural world. (see a shortened version of this video here)