Dawn Kasper @ Circus Gallery
Published in Beautiful/Decay magazine
Dawn Kasper, “Life and Death” at Circus Gallery
Dawn Kasper’s visceral, uncanny self-portraits assuming the guises of various characters and re-enacting their fabricated death scenes are at once incredibly seductive and subtly humorous—perhaps precisely for their occlusion of verisimilitude. Invoking a kind of bizarre schadenfreude, the viewer can’t help but feel sickly bemused by Kasper’s cast of character’s untimely and unglamorous demises (choking on a sandwich in “Peanut Butter Shop,” or discarded, as in “Woman That Had Been Thrown out with the Garbage.”) Her visual language within these fictionalized horror mis-en-scenes owes more to the fantastic camp and vaudeville affects of tawdry wax torture museums and b-rate horror films than the gritty, stark reality of snuff films or forensic photography. Certain aesthetic clues tip the viewer off that the images are not operating under the pretense of literal-minded documents, they are, in fact, Kasper’s personal, stylized riffs on death: the overabundance of slick, glossy Karo syrup blood spilling across the floor, theatrically dark, zombie-like circles or the completely unnatural, mask-like white pallor of her face make-up. In many ways, these aesthetic details are precisely what make the images so compelling. Cutting through the constant droning hum of our current media saturated environment is no easy task, where we are constantly exposed to “authentic” images of tragedy, violence, death, crime scandals, car crashes and the like- yet Kasper’s accessible and appealing images somehow hit an underlying nerve.
Perhaps because the impetus behind Kasper’s images is not to devise sensationalist spectacles—though they are visually alluring. Rather, Kasper’s modus operandi is fundamentally rooted in the sincere existentialist task of questioning the nature and meaning of life-and, accordingly cathartically wrestling with, methodically and unnervingly, gazing upon her own demise. In an interview, Kasper relayed that in simulating these deaths, she wanted to believe that she would never have to die in such a fashion. Thus imagining, organizing, researching, acting out and actively creating indexical, self-imposed projections of her own corpse in some ways allows Kasper to reconcile and exert control over a phenomena in which she in fact has little agency.
I was instantly reminded of Hippolyte Batard’s Autoportrait en nove (Self Portrait as a Drowned Man), in which he presented a photograph of himself slumped over, described as a body that was sadly “unclaimed” in the morgue, to express his despair that the French government chose to credit Daguerre (rather than him) as the inventor of photography. In many ways, both Kasper and Batard’s images are compelling representations of an honest attempt to re-insert their “being” into the collective consciousness- and ironically, forestalling death or disappearance. As Walter Benjamin has philosophized within his theories on photography, these images reference the desire to bring things “closer” spatially and humanly- to get hold of an object at a close range by way of its likeness and reproduction.
By positing her own visage as both subject and object, living and dead, Kasper essentially accesses and taps into the nature of the “self,” via its visible, corporeal form. She enigmatically asserts and illustrates that the body as a vessel for meaning is never fixed nor simple, but a guile magician, constantly shape-shifting, re-assuming forms, its meaning both transitory and contingent. Or as Nietzsche so eloquently wrote: “To the despisers of the body will I speak my word. Soul is only a word for something about the body. The body is a big sagacity, a plurality with one sense, a war and a peace, a flock and a shepherd.”
By Sasha M. Lee freelance writer