There’s something seductive about anonymity. On the outside, it’s mysterious and alluring – a secret begging to be found. But there’s also a sense of danger, a fear that you’ll regret the discovery. There is always a reason someone prefers to remain anonymous. There must be – right?
Choosing to be anonymous is entirely different. It offers a sense of security, the freedom to be exposed without consequence. It can hide the things you don’t want found, allows you to show the things you couldn’t with an identity. For many artists, this is the ideal situation: your privacy remains intact, your art has no limits, and your appeal triples.
But sometimes, the anonymity can just be for the art itself. Without the artist’s identity taking up space, the art can take control. At least, that was the intention of performance artist Narcissister, who goes around in little besides a mannequin-inspired mask and a variety of wigs. As she explained to The New York Times’ Tim Murphy, she will never reveal her name. “That wouldn’t be allowing Narcissister to claim who she is on her own terms… I’m actually a very private and shy person, and Narcissister is separate from me.” The woman behind the mask may be reticent, but her character is anything but.
Since her first appearance in 2007 at the “Miss Galapogozonga” burlesque contest, Narcissister has continued to break ground with her daring performances. She does “reverse stripteases” where she pulls clothing out of her private parts. She has made films, one of which even won “Best Use of a Sex Toy” at the 2008 Good Vibrations Erotic Film Festival. Then, in 2011, she appeared on “America’s Got Talent,” and she now plans to appear on the French version later this fall. As her work progresses, the woman behind the mask never lets her shyness hold Narcissister back. If anything, her performance pieces only became more and more audacious.
When it comes to performance art, boldness is practically a characteristic. In Narcissister’s case, she actively uses her audacity to call attention to her activist values. In an email interview, she told me: “My work is fundamentally about empowerment and liberation for women (and all people), myself included, and actively works towards these aims.”
Narcissister brings all of these goals together in her recent photo project, “Narcissister is You.” People submitted pictures of themselves in the Narcissister mask, baring their chests as she often does herself. On her site, Narcissister explains her intentions behind the project: “Women exercising their right to legally bare their breasts in the streets is a symbolic act of physical freedom intended to inspire others to exercise freedom in all forms.”
The fight for equal topless rights has become somewhat popular over the past years, especially among artists. Last year, I interviewed Holly Van Voast, a New York City street performer. She, like Narcissister, created a persona who went around topless. Van Voast, however, insisted that she was not an activist – she was just an artist who was penalized for her vision. Narcissister, on the other hand, definitely has activist intentions. Both artists envisioned remaining anonymous, but Van Voast’s identity became intertwined with her persona, despite giving him the name “Harvey Van Toast.” Perhaps it is Narcissister’s narcissism that maintains the artist’s anonymity; the persona truly takes over.
To be honest, I don’t usually associate narcissism with anonymity. In my mind, “narcissists” want their credit. I have always assumed that people who identify as “narcissistic” eventually want to be revealed. Or at least given extra attention for their namelessness. In an attempt to understand Narcissister’s association with this characteristic, I asked her what she thought was the most important thing to understand about narcissism. She responded: “Perhaps…there is a form of narcissism that is radical and through which one could cultivate genuine self-love. A greater abundance of this kind of self-love would have an immeasurably positive impact on society on many levels.”
This artist isn’t simply remaining nameless, she is letting Narcissister take over – she is giving this aspect of herself the chance to speak. Others may think of narcissism as “extreme selfishness,” but Narcissister’s interpretation focuses on unconditional self-care, a concept that is often overlooked or misinterpreted. By remaining anonymous, Narcissister’s artist is protecting her privacy and allowing another identity to take the stage. Narcissister and the artist may be separate, but the two will always exist together. After all, it is both the woman and the character who consider French pastries to be her “Achilles heel.”