VIRTUAL TO REAL TO DIGITAL ‘Bree LaCasse, Chris Moore & Oliver LaCasse Moore, Portland, Maine,’ by Tanja Alexia Hollander.
If you've been buzzing about "Are You Really My Friend?" the new installation of Facebook-inspired portraits by local photographer and Bakery Photo Collective founder Tanja Alexia Hollander, you're not alone. Any high-profile intersection between the fine-art world and a massively influential populist medium is bound to cause a stir.
Some excitement comes from factors outside of Hollander's practice. One of the exhibit's major draws is the totalizing cultural fluency of the language of Facebook — even its most ardent detractors at least know how it works. Of course, displaying hundreds of locals in the state's biggest art museum won't lose you any friends either.
If one of these factors may have drawn you to the show, be careful it doesn't obscure Hollander's true brilliance. Her eye has been praised in these pages often enough; the active ingredient here is the conceptual design. Down the long corridor of the museum's crannied fourth floor, Hollander has arranged ten-by-ten-inch color portraits of her Facebook friends (and their families, where applicable) according to display methods borrowed from the digital world. Most are shown in a long horizontal line, as if the photos of an online slide show were strung together. Others backed with magnets adhere to a giant board, where users are invited to drag-and-drop them as they wish. A couple others — most notably the reverent, compositionally stunning portrait of local art maven June Fitzpatrick — are larger and framed; to continue the analogy, they're the exhibit's profile pictures.
Hollander may be one of the most esteemed fine-art photographers in the state, but thinking of "AYRMF?" as a photography show sells it short. It's a terrifically successful work of relational art, an interdimensional project that examines the "natural" social fabric by purposely disturbing it, and folding that disturbance into the artistic process itself. It's a pretty rare event for Maine art, and especially so for the PMA.
Under the banner of the project, Hollander traveled around the country and photographed her "friends" (per Facebook's definition) in their own homes or studios. While they all are radically different people (obviously), the portraits obey a strict formula — families huddle at their kitchen tables, fellow artists sit in their slick studios, young couples lounge on the couch with their pets. Notably, none of her subjects smile, and it's the application of this simple rule where Hollander shines the most.
Conceptually, an exhibit of a thousand expressionless people has the natural effect of highlighting the more dubious qualities of Facebook, a theme Hollander emphasizes in the title. It also limits her subjects' ability to project their individual personalities. With no clues available in a person's face, the viewer is more inclined to look for clues in the room — food in the cupboards, art on the walls, ukulele in the corner, etc.
The subversion here is a radical one. Social networking has given rise to the notion that a personality can be contained in a photographic thumbnail. Think of how easily we toss dozens of sepia-tinted headshots onto our profiles. By extension, Facebook's conceit is that the presence of a friend can be simulated in the virtual world. Instead, using the very same lexicon that governs Facebook, Hollander suspends this hollow function of the "profile," suggesting that we might get a clearer idea of someone's personality by their material habitat — who and what they surround themselves with — than any of the mediated images we find on their virtual page.