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1. Cross-Dressing in Fact, Fiction and Fantasy

Costumed doubles and avatars in Janieta Eyre’s photographic self-portraits



Cet article tente de mieux cerner l’utilisation du costume dans l’autoportrait grâce à l’analyse du travail photographique de Janieta Eyre. L’artiste canadienne exploite la capacité de la photographie à manipuler l’image de soi et joue avec les conventions de l’autoportrait dans des mises en scène à la fois ludiques et introspectives. L’atelier devient un huis-clos expérimental permettant à la photographe d’explorer de manière fantasmatique les différentes facettes de son identité. Les costumes qu’elle réalise sont au centre de ces théâtralisations du moi devenu autre. Dans ces auto-fictions, le costume fonctionne comme une prothèse. Les rôles burlesques joués par Eyre abordent la question du genre de manière subversive. Son utilisation de la sérialité et les multiples mises-en abymes font écho aux analyses de Judith Butler considérant le genre comme la répétition stylisée d’actions ou gestes. La notion d’identité projective, développée par Paul Gee (une identité liminale à l’intersection du moi réel et du moi virtuel), ainsi que les travaux récents sur l’avatar éclairent également la pratique de Janieta Eyre.

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  • 1 Hippolyte Bayard’s L’Autoportrait en noyé (1840) is considered to be the first example of a fictiti (...)

1Janieta Eyre is a British-born, Canada-based photographer interested in fictitious self-portraiture, a trend in contemporary photography explored by many artists from Cindy Sherman, Sophie Calle, Christian Boltanski, Keith Cottingham, Cornelia Hediger to Gillian Wearing, to name just a few. The use of costumes and make-up in amateur and professional photography has long allowed for metamorphoses, vicarious experiences and playful or subversive identity plays,1 with costume or disguise having a prosthetic and a projective function. The photographic technique allows for a disquieting blend of reality and fiction, truth and falsehood which lends itself to multiple experiments challenging the cohesiveness of identity and the earnestness of the autobiographical mode. Unsurprisingly, postmodern and posthuman self-portraiture have tapped into the fictionalizing potentialities of this “play-based” medium (Bruś 21). Like other self-portraits in costume, Eyre’s works establish “an exaggerated mode of performative self-imaging that opens up an entirely new way of thinking about photography and the racially, sexually, and exaggerated theatricality” (Jones 947).

2In her much-acclaimed series, Incarnation (1995), Lady Lazarus (1999), Motherhood (2002), and The Mute Book (2012), Eyre stages herself in historical or fantasy costumes and make-up, posing in elaborately designed settings. Many of her compositions explore the theme of the double, as the artist often appears twice on the image. Wavering between surrealism and postmodern parody, her photographic series offer the viewers visual enigmas hinging on multiple identities. Transformed into an oneiric huis-clos, the photographic studio becomes an experimental place where the portaitee can erase her customary identity and safely explore less normative alternative selves through costuming. In an unpublished interview Eyre declared:

When I first made a double image of myself, and was looking at the negative, I thought, ‘Who is that?’ I didn’t recognize myself any more, and I realized I had found how I wanted to work. I want only those images in which I don’t recognize myself.

3Three layers of identity manipulations may be observed in her stagings: many images feature a diegetic costumed twin playfully undermining the modernist and rational paradigm of unified personhood; series of self-portraits in costume relying on performativity allow the artist to embody alternate avatars; lastly, the photographer’s pseudo and her revelations as to her personal history are textual equivalents to the visual blurring of identity.

4To further the understanding of the role of costuming in the othering of the self we shall adopt a transdisciplinary perspective weaving together the fields of psychoanalysis, anthropology, gender and performance studies, game theory and art history. We propose that Janieta Eyre’s multifold uses of costuming and dressing-up enable her to negotiate artistic freedom and social constraints as well as the paradoxes of female authorship.

1. From duplication to duplicity

5Janieta Eyre’ attempt at deconstructing personhood is manifold. By taking up the motif of the double and costuming her photographic twins, by weaving textual and visual references into her compositions and by endlessly multiplying her metamorphoses she flouts the conventions of the self-portrait –traditionally conveying an earnest confession—and challenges the very idea of an authentic singular self.

  • 2 In the beginning of the twentieth century, spirit photography, making extensive use of stereoscopic (...)

6Janieta Eyre plunges the viewers in a highly theatrical make-believe world which foregrounds an uncanny sense of discrepant reality. Both in Lady Lazarus and in Incarnations the artist impersonates twins who are costumed and made-up in a burlesque manner and are involved in weird rituals that the viewers cannot fully elucidate (Illustration 1). These doppelgängers seem to spring from pantomimes, silent movies (Ernst Lubitsch’s The Doll, 1919, is a prime example), nonsensical fantasies or gothic tales. This generic hybridity contributes to the mystery and strangeness emanating from the works. The black and white compositions in the Lady Lazarus series pay a tribute to early spirit and trick photography,2 notably to Hannah Maynard (1834-1918), who experimented with double exposure or photomontage and whose photographs staged comic doubles. The inter-iconicity of Eyre’s images, coupled with the theatrical bricolage and choice of antiquated black and white printing in the series, betrays the cultural constructedness of the projected self image. Many compositions in the Incarnations series parody Dutch painting. The mirrors, the patterns of the tiles, the lace in the costumes, the domestic setting invoke the Flemish masters and connect photography to painting, thereby raising the question of photographic mimesis. More often than not, the comical expressions on the faces of the twins, who never are strictly identical, are all the more puzzling as their gazes are both assertive and inquisitive so that the viewer’s intersubjective response is solicited. The latter becomes complicit in the macabre rituals or experiments performed by the spooky characters.

Illustration 1

Illustration 1

Incarnation series, 1995-97, 35,5 x 28cm

Reproduced with kind permission of the artist

7Eyre’s stagings usher us into an alternative world and another time: the patterns decorating the garbs and settings flatten the representation space and delineate an unreal space while the medieval or Victorian costumes are conducive to a feeling of temporal disjunction which accompanies the emergence of the doppelgänger within the image:

Like all ghosts, it [the doppelgänger] is at once an historical figure, re-presenting past times, and a profoundly anti-historical phenomenon, resisting temporal change by stepping out of time and then stepping back in as revenant. (Webber 9)

8Despite the burlesque nature of the scenes, these theatrical twins, seemingly springing out of a transformative mirror, elicit a sense of uncanny alienation. One should keep in mind that the myth of Narcissus revolving around the mirror-like surface of the water brings to the fore a feeling of self-estrangement that is equally attached to photographic self-representations. The omnipresence of mirrors and the numerous visual mises-en-abyme in Eyre’s images introduce a reflexive comment on photographic self-portraiture. The latter is indeed the inverted mediated and projected image of a doubled-self and, as Therese Lichtenstein argues, “between reflection and objet reflected are a distance and a difference” (Lichtestein 91). The concept of the doppelgänger, like photography itself, plays on the interplay of similitude and dissemblance: “The subjective spook at once threatens and underpins the objective claims of realism; it has something of the effect of a photographic negative” (Webber 9).

9Eyre’s double characters are staged in domestic settings that could be reassuring were the twins not holding strange props (bicycle wheels, slices of tomatoes, animal body parts, graters or sieves) or performing esoteric rituals. The deliberate opacity of the symbols surrounding the characters further flouts the conventions of the self-portrait since they provide no understandable clue as to the real identity of the characters or the meaning of the self-display elaborated by the artist. Eyre toys with the idea of self-disclosure normally attached to self-portraiture by concealing, masking, even blindfolding herself in some images. Consequently, the “I” is devoid of depth and reduced to a costumed character whose uniqueness is negated.

10The compulsion to disguise the body and the repeated impersonations performed throughout the series lead to a symbolical killing of the self which is suggested by the ritualistic signs in the series: undecipherable scribblings or letters, esoteric diagrams and objects evoking black magic or demonic rituals often heighten the uncanniness of the scenes. In March 24th, Quarter Moon, From the Manual of Human Dissection or the Yes Queen for instance incongruous objects and esoteric signs invite the viewers to unravel the mystery behind the scene but provide no clue at to the rules of the game. In many compositions chequered patterns or painted backdrops transform the real space of the studio into a chessboard or a game board. Identity is therefore reduced to a form of ominous role-playing. In most series, the masqueraded self becomes the epitome of deceit.

Illustration 2

Illustration 2

From the Book of Small Souls, Lady Lazarus series

Reproduced with kind permission of the artist

  • 3 Eyre’s early series, entitled Rehearsals, 1997-2000 directly refers to Sherman’s own Untitled Film (...)
  • 4 The tale has been interpreted in two different ways by Ernst Jentsch in “On the Psychology of the U (...)

11The objectification of the self induced by iterative concealment and costuming fosters a feeling of loss which Amelia Jones analyses in relation with Cindy Sherman’s Untitled photographic series3: “in spite of its obvious promise of delivering an unmediated, indexical image of the real or the deep emotional thoughts and the feelings of its maker […] it is an inexorable sign of loss and absence.” (Jones 947) A technology of abduction, photography fetishises the subject, Jones argues. The exaggerated theatricality of Eyre’s twins or triplets materialises the ontological objectification that lies at the core of photographic self-portraiture. The burlesque characters that Eyre impersonates wear costumes and make-up that evoke automata, dolls or theatrical puppets (Illustration 2). Their uncanniness conjures up that of Hoffmann’s tale, The Sandman, which has given way to interpretations positing intellectual uncertainty or undecidability as the sources of the uncanny.4 The costumed characters are equally reminiscent of Hans Bellmer’s sinister dolls or Claude Cahun’s numerous photographic impersonations. Embodying either clownish figures from the circus or Alice in Wonderland-like characters, both Cahun and Eyre create a disquieting confusion between the animate and the inanimate. Repetition suggests a compulsive elusiveness while compounding the sense of alienation and loss.

  • 5 Reproduced in Claude Cahun Photographe (23 juin - 17 septembre 1995, Musée d'Art Moderne de la Vill (...)
  • 6 In Aion - Researches Into the Phenomenology of the Self, Carl Gustav Jung connects the fish and the (...)

12The intertextuality and intericonicity at work in Eyre’s series equally undermine the authenticity of the self-disclosure: the viewers find themselves trapped in a world of cross-references, echoes and impenetrable clues. The title of one series, Lady Lazarus, comes from a poem by Sylvia Plath focusing on death and rebirth and providing a mysterious feminist rewriting of the crucifixion. From the Book of Small Souls (Illustration 2), referring to a Dutch novel by Louis Couperus, features three images of the artist blindfolded and dressed in a cartoonish uniform. The composition is reminiscent of Claude Cahun’s photograph of Solange Rousseau in Barbe Bleue (1929, private collection5) and adopts an antiquated aesthetic inducing temporal distance. Seldom is the costume anonymous; far from being an empty shell, it enables the wearer to borrow the identity of a previous person or character and is therefore endowed with a ghostly presence. The costume is a sartorial equivalent to the double in that it makes identities collide. Faced to multiple echoes, the viewers are likely to experience a baffling sense of déjà-vu which often percolates in dreams. Twin manicurists (Incarnations), showing twin portraits of the artist costumed in a Renaissance dress with lace veils and fur on her shoulders, is a feminist retelling of the were-wolf: the long pointed toes of this medieval maiden suggest a beastly transmogrification. This self-portrait is embedded in another photograph from the same series, a triptych showing the artist six times in a surrealist costume adorned with dead sliver fish. Dead fishes are ubiquitous in Eyre’s compositions and could be associated with the unconscious and the urge to explore the self in a phantasmatic manner.6 By placing costumed self-portraits within other self-representations, Eyre playfully loses the viewer in the visual maze of her own imaginary identity.

Illustration 3

Illustration 3

The Mute Book, 2009-2012

Reproduced with kind permission of the artist

13The idea that the self harbours alterity is explored in The Mute Book (Illustration 3), a series of photographs dealing with split personality and entitled after the Mutis Liber, published in La Rochelle in 1677. The volume, in the collections of Carl Gustav Jung, includes esoteric illustrations and focuses on alchemy and transmutation, topics Eyre is interested in. Open to various readings, the book has been interpreted as a quest for spiritual equilibrium, an idea that is humorously reflected is Eyre’s work. The costumes that she created for the series materialise the notion of cleavage as well as our longing for wholeness and integrity. The artist wears outfits made of two different types of fabric that are sewn together. The two halves of the self that are clumsily stitched together allude to a difficult quest for integrity while the closed lips of the artist evoke her difficulty in reconciling her diverging selves. The series refers to a time-period during which the artist fell mute due to shyness and depression (Everett-Green). In some images, a vertical black line goes over her mouth symbolising repression. Considered from a psychoanalytical standpoint, the costumes in Eyre’s self-stagings unravel deep-seated anxieties: the fear of alienation and cleavage or the threat posed by the return of the repressed.

14The integrity of the self and its wholeness are further deconstructed by the postmodern fictionalisation of the artist herself. Janieta Eyre’s pseudo is an obvious reference to Jane Eyre and her dark double, the madwoman in the attic. In their feminist analysis of Charlotte Brontë’s novel, Sandra Gilbert and Susan Gubar consider Rochester’s mad wife as Jane’s darker self, the embodiment of women’s suppressed rage (Gilbert and Gubar 360). By taking on the name of Brontë’s character, Eyre pays tribute to this archetypal doubleness and induces a confusion between reality and fiction. The absorption of the persona into the real self seems endless and the distinction between truth and lies tenuous indeed. The artist explains that because so many viewers wanted to be given an explanation, she invented herself a Siamese sister who would have died when she was a child following an operation to separate them. Critical discourse becomes but another occasion to fictionalise identity and turn the repressed death instinct into a narrative or a mise en récit of the self.

2. Burlesquing femininity: costuming as restored agency

  • 7 To Freud, the uncanny apparition of the alter-ego manifests a failure to invest one’s libido in a p (...)

15Many of Eyre’s compositions, showing twins involved in different activities, juxtapose two opposed feminine figures, namely the maiden and the castrating female,7 the innocent and the mischevious. The Christening (Incarnations) stages identical women wearing a long white lace dress, one being absorbed in conventional needle work, the other holding the skinned head of a lamb as a macabre offering. In Confession (Incarnations), one of the costumed twins is quietly reading a book while the other, wearing an enormous grater as a necklace, holds a long animal tongue which she displays as a penis between her legs. In The Maids, inspired from Genet’s play, the sense of domesticity created through costumes and decor is subverted by the presence of many scissors on the shelves of the cupboard, graters and sieves which look like nightmarish instruments of torture. Repeatedly, a sense of unhomeliness and unfamiliarity oozes from otherwise banal domestic vignettes. As Andrew J. Webber notes,

the doppelgänger is characteristically at once permissive and prohibitive, both a vicarious agent and a frustrating usurper of the subject’s pleasures. Pleasure and unpleasure, desire and terror co-operate in the doppelgänger masquerade. Divided between person and persona, the figure creates scenes which may be parodic play or in deadly earnest. Its melodrama has tragic potential. (Webber 8)

  • 8 Unpublished interview with the artist.

16The burlesque, which may take on a parodistic function, is transgressive. It emerges through costuming and performativity, the two being entangled in the artist’s praxis: “I never think of my pictures as self-portraits. I lend my body to different lives; for me the body is interchangeable and ephemeral,” the artist explains (Eyre). Costuming, as we previously suggested, entails borrowing someone else’s identity. One should differentiate between dressing up as someone else and costuming in a carnivalesque fashion, the two being used by Eyre. As a matter of fact, Elizabeth Wilson introduces her essay on fashion, Adorned in Dream, by underscoring the feeling of uncanniness that surfaces when one wears the clothes of other, possibly dead or unknown people. The costume brings along the specters of previous, real or imaginary, wearers. If, as Wilson argues, dress is the frontier between the self and the not-self, putting on someone else’s dress erases the profound separation between the self and the other: “I often see the shape of the person who used to wear the clothes in them and they become part of who I want to become for the moment the shutter releases,” the artist declared.8 Costuming therefore entails a form of transindividuality which is fuelled by story-telling. It opens onto a virtual world that is visibly an alternate reality in which past and present, reality and fiction are enmeshed and prove difficult to disentangle.

17This use and understanding of costuming may be connected to the idea of the gendered body as resulting from repetitions as well as to the notion of performance as restored behaviour. Judith Butler’s emphasis on the gendered self as resulting from dramatised reproductions of previously constructed identities may indeed shed light on Eyre’s praxis. Butler’s understanding is premised on the body as a cultural sign. She holds that gender would be “an identity tenously constituted in time –an identity instituted through a stylized repetition of acts” (Butler 519). She adds:

Gender is instituted through the stylization of the body and, hence, must be understood as the mundane way in which bodily gestures, movements, and enactments of various kinds constitute the illusion of an abiding gendered self. […] The body is always an embodying of possibilities both conditioned and circumscribed by historical convention. In other words, the body is a historical situation, as Beauvoir has claimed, and is a manner of doing, dramatizing, and reproducing a historical situation. (Butler 519)

18Butler construes the gendered body as the legacy of sedimented acts and ties bodily enactments to repetition: “This repetition is at once a reenactment and a reexperiencing of a set of meanings already socially established.” (Butler 521) Just like Cindy Sherman, Janieta Eyre taps into a vast repertoire of preexisting representations to enact womanhood and subvert norms. Underlying references to Christian, family, literary or artistic history illustrate Butler’s take on the gendered body as iterative. Eyre often refers to family history by wearing her mother’s wedding dress in a composition addressing femininity critically for example. The reenactment is not a sterile repetition but a variation introducing difference and transgression. In most compositions, the straight gaze of the artist gives a strong sense of agency and empowerment.

  • 9 This photograph is embedded in another composition, in which twins wearing white hoods and lace bon (...)

19References to female entrapment abound in her works whether it be the close-fitting bodices and dresses imprisoning her body, the hoods and headdresses containing her hair and the eroticism traditionally attached to the hair, the ruffs or crinoline, the cages at times featured in the decors (as in Twin laundresses (Incarnation)), or the rigid grid-like patterns metaphorically buttressing her body. Cats Cradle features twins: one in a crinoline dress and a bodice that presses her breasts, with a black scarf tied around her neck, is holding an apple too firmly while the other is mischieviously toying with the rope of her bodice. Chicken feet decorate the room evoking an occult death ritual.9 Eyre appropriates the male-made tropes of the femme fatale as well as that of the castrating female, already illustrated by the Biblical figure of Judith, whom she impersonates in one composition, but turns these cultural archetypes into burlesque parodies. In The Maids, the killing of poultry is given another meaning on account of a photograph of a castrated penis displayed on the cupboard. The male gaze on the female body is metaphorically castrated.

Illustration 4

Illustration 4

Motherhood, 2001

Reproduced with kind permission of the artist

20One may view Eyre’s Motherhood series (Illustration 4) through the prism of Butler’s analysis. In this set of works the photographer offers a burlesque vision of motherhood. She stages herself in clownish attire using coloured wigs and gaudily coloured garments or make-up. One scene is actually inspired from a medieval book stating that babies are made from blood, milk and sperm. The artist is mixing these ingredients in a saucepan looking unconvinced and exhausted. This scene may be viewed as the comical antithesis of female orgasm. In Motherhood, many of Eyre’s images stage carnivalesque reversals: the imaginary baby may be a piglet, or a dead lamb’s head, while the mother and her twin, at times involved in domestic tasks, seem to be alienated because of their imposed roles. The stifling rooms in which these carnivalesque mothers are enclosed as well as the naïve patterns on their kitsch garments and the uncanny presence of the twin give a disquieting image of motherhood.

21In Eyre’s works, the burlesque body is turned into a resistance tool opposed to patriarchal and male-dominated representations. It echoes the new burlesque that Debra Ferreday tracks in feminist strip-teases: burlesque, she argues, dramatises femininity and allows women to appropriate stereotyped images of femalehood and femininity (Ferraday 47). By photographing domestic places where women have long been confined and dressing up in historical or vintage costumes that take on a burlesque appearance, Eyre is reclaiming normative sites and frames of gendered identity construction while displaying some attachment to the female sphere. The photographic studio, very much like the theatre stage or cabaret, places of excess and hyper-visibility, has long harboured transgressive gender role-playing. The loud garish colours of Eyre’s compositions, the preposterousness of some attires, the DIY aspect of the settings remove the photographs from the sphere of high culture and take on a farce-like style that has been keyed to feminist practices.

22As previously suggested, the use of costume undermines the veracity of the confession normally attached to self-portraiture or conveys a parodistic transgression through burlesque farce. It nonetheless induces a more complex identity game as costuming leads one to inhabit the tenuous space between the self and the other, that of the third self. Twins, dopplegängers and burlesque doubles may give way to alternate avatars.

3. The third self: the costume as prosthetic device

23Interestingly, in his Notes on the Ball Joint, Bellmer writes that “the mirror divides and reproduces at the same time it creates antagonisms, but its movement resolves the contradiction (…) and goes beyond to create a third identity” (Webb 62). The third identity that emerges in Eyre’s identity games, somewhere between the actor’s skin and the costume, may be construed as a photographic avatar, in other words a prosthetic identity.

24Through costumed performances, the artist actually steps into fiction. In an interview by Krystina Mierins, Eyre declared that she had always wanted to live in a painting:

I’ve always wanted to live inside of a painting. When I was a kid, I was lucky because my parents traveled quite a bit and we went to many art galleries, and I used to stare at those paintings and wish that I could climb into them. I know in some way I’ve carried that with me. Reading is a bit the same. You get to climb into a different world, and in writing and photography you get to make the world. (Mierins)

25In her burlesque tableaux-vivants, the costume, settings and props introduce a narrative strand and involve what Richard Schechner calls restored behaviours:

performances mark identities, bend time, reshape and adorn the body, and tell stories. Performances –of art, rituals, or ordinary life—are ‘restored behaviors’, ‘twice-behaved behaviors’ performed actions that people train for and rehearse. (Schechner 28)

26Those restored behaviours are framed or heightened behaviours in which the self may be ‘me’ at another time or in a different psychological state. They are, Schechner holds, behaviours treated as a film director treats strips of films; these strips may be rearranged or reconstructed:

The performers get in touch with, recover, remember, or even invent these strips of behavior and then rebehave according to these strips, either by being absorbed into them (playing the role, going in transe) or by existing side by side with them (Brecht’s verfremdungseffekt). […] The self can act in/as another; the social or transindividual self is a role or set of roles. (Schechner 36)

27Schechner interestingly compares restored behavior to a mask, a costume or a second skin inducing a suspension of the disjunction between the self and the impersonated other, in other words ushering the performers into a subjunctive mood. Eyre’s photographic self-portraits in costume perfectly illustrate Schechner’s subjunctive mood in that they rely on the distanciation allowed by the apparatus as well as on the absorption of another’s identity through the costumes. The costume is metaphorically lined with other lives and other bodies whether real ones or imagined ones; it is like a screen across and through which games of identification and distanciation may be enacted.

28The photographic studio, an heterotopic space (to borrow from Michel Foucault), may be likened to a virtual world and the staging of the self compared to the elaboration of a virtual avatar. Research in game theory has showed that “appearance is (most often) highly customizable and unrestricted by the everyday bounds of RL [Real Life]. For example it is possible to masquerade as one’s ideal-looking self or “try out” attributes of others. This permits unique opportunities for identity presentation.” (Neustaedter, 190) The avatar is an incarnation, a bodily manifestation in a virtual universe, and a controlled surrogate of the player enabling the user to negotiate social pressure and freedom. As Laetitia Wilson explains, the avatar is a virtual surrogate self that acts as a stand-in for the real-world self; it is multifarious, polymorphous and results from choices made by the player (Waggner 9). The control that the user exerts on his avatar is similar to the control the photographer has on her ‘characters’. Besides, as Eyre embodies her imaginary characters, she connects their appearance to actions and roles so that they become avatarial agents. An avatar is “a vehicle through which the player is given some kind of embodied agency and presence within the gameworld” (Klevjer 18). If the artist transforms herself into a puppet, she is the one who holds the strings, creating the scenes, settings, costumes and intrigues for the play she performs. Eyre designs her attires, assembling pieces of clothing that she finds. In an unpublished interview conducted for the purpose of this paper, she explained that it is an important part of the process. Dress and costume are therefore at the core of the performative self-exploration. From an anthropological perspective, costuming allows for experiences of doubleness (Castle, 4 and 73-77). David Napier argues that costumes or disguise are “legitimate manifestations of personality while tacitly maintaining their fictitious character” (Napier xxiv). The costume, whether it be the virtual skin of a digital avatar or a material garb sewn by an artist, is endowed with a prosthetic function. It is immersive and conducive to avatarial performances or modes of being. It is a bodily extension which impacts our phenomenological identity, actions and relations to others.

29Although the creation of an avatar entails some degree of distanciation between the creator and the character, the initial distance tends to fade away through a process known in game-theory as ego-investing. Thanks to the narrativity of the game, the avatar becomes a persona. In game theory, as in the theatre, the limit between the player and the avatar gets blurred as the narrative unfolds. As a matter of fact, the gradual immersion of the creator in the narrative game entails emotional involvement so that video games prove transformational experiences (Waggner 13-14). At the crossroads between real-world identity and virtual identity is what James Paul Gee calls projective identity which is a liminal form of identity or an interface between the real and the virtual self (Gee, 211). By resorting to costume, make-up and trick photography, Eyre seeks to create such interface and constructs “an autobiography that is based on possibility, rather than reality” (Eyre). Her photographic performances allow for the emergence of a transindividual or subjunctive self floating between the self and the other. According to Janet Murray, “games are ritual actions allowing us to symbolically enact the patterns that give meaning to our lives” (Murray 143). They overlap with real life and are prosthetic.

30In Prosthetic Culture: Photography, Memory and Identity, Celia Lury argues that because photography facilitates experimentation, it allows the individual to transform aspects of his/her personality that seemed fixed or immutable into controllable components on which he/she has a hold. She proposes that the restored agency offered by photography affects our understanding of individual and collective identity as well as of belonging, identification or exclusion. Seeing the costume as a self-extension or prosthesis and the act of costuming as experimentation enables us to view costumed self-portraiture as a means to negotiate the tension between constraint and desire or conformity and excentricity. The avatar and the self-portrait in costume enable the player or artist to circumvent social and cultural body regulations or discipline. These strategies are particularly relevant when they intersect with gendered representations. They reconcile the attachment to normative gendered identity, often connected to family history and memory, and the urge to transgress these norms.

31The third identity generated by virtual avatars or costumed self-portraits may also surface when masks are worn. “Masks are connected with deceit, danger, violence and disorder in a long European tradition which simultaneously incorporates the idea of desire and mystery” anthropologist Marcia Pointon observes (Pointon 197-198). But masks are duplicitous implements that are both prosthetic and projective: the mask has been associated with the possibility of exteriorizing emotions otherwise trapped in the self because of social constraints but it materialises the impossibility of total disclosure. As Pointon argues, “the mask is thus both the mechanism for the arousal of desire and the impediment to its attainment” (Pointon 198). Anthropologist David Napier views the mask as enabling paradoxes to exist, allowing for the reconciliation of two things that seem incompatible: “The mask is a means of transgressing boundaries because it provides an avenue for selective personification in manipulating certain recognized paradoxes”(Napier xviii). The same holds for costumes which usher the performer into a subjunctive expression of the self, nonetheless restricted to the space and time of the performance.


32In his Notes on the Ball Joint Hans Bellmer argues that “the body is like a sentence which invites dissection in order that its true meaning may be reconstituted in an endless series of anagrams” (Durant, 108). Parodying this statement one could say that the self-image invites multiple dissections and stagings so that its unfathomable complexity may be apprehended in an endless series of avatars. Eyre’s world looks very much like a mirror house in which the self is hypnotically reflected and multiplied, oscillating between dissimulation and simulation. Janieta Eyre, the Victorian writer’s avatar, represents what literary critic Elaine Showalter identified as women’s double-voiced discourse containing a dominant story and a muted one (Warhol 858). The double seeing or writing that many feminist critics have singled out as a “strategy for negotiating differences between and within male and female, center and margin, inside and outside, public and private, realism and romance” (Warhol 858) is embedded within Charlotte Brontë’s eponymous novel. The costumes that Janieta Eyre wears are visual correlates to textual doubleness and the artist’s compulsive costuming may be viewed as an equivalent to the split narrative apparatus in Jane Eyre with the photographer being both the stage director / writer, the actor / narrator and the object / character. In Janieta Eyre’s mirror house, each of these instances is plural and erratic so that the self is endlessly refracted.

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Durant, Mark Alice, “Lost and Found in a Masquerade: the Photographs of Pierre Molinier”, The Passionate Camera: Photography and Bodies of Desire. Ed. Deborah Bright, New York and London: Routledge, 1998, p. 103-119.

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1 Hippolyte Bayard’s L’Autoportrait en noyé (1840) is considered to be the first example of a fictitious self-portrait.

2 In the beginning of the twentieth century, spirit photography, making extensive use of stereoscopic images, double exposure, overlapping glass plates painted with figures, or long exposures eliciting photographic evidence of ghosts grew increasingly popular. Then, photography sustained a new scientific curiosity in the occult and attempts at delving into the human psyche through magnetism, mesmerism or hypnosis.

3 Eyre’s early series, entitled Rehearsals, 1997-2000 directly refers to Sherman’s own Untitled Film Stills 1977-1980 series although Eyre stages her own death in a parodistic macabre way.

4 The tale has been interpreted in two different ways by Ernst Jentsch in “On the Psychology of the Uncanny”, 1906, and Freud in his text “The Uncanny”.

5 Reproduced in Claude Cahun Photographe (23 juin - 17 septembre 1995, Musée d'Art Moderne de la Ville de Paris, France), exhibition catalogue, p. 159, n°257.

6 In Aion - Researches Into the Phenomenology of the Self, Carl Gustav Jung connects the fish and the unconscious.

7 To Freud, the uncanny apparition of the alter-ego manifests a failure to invest one’s libido in a proper object of love and leads to narcissism. Freud equates the uncanny with the return of the repressed, in other words, the resurfacing of primitive psychic features, namely castration, the double and the compulsion to repeat. (Freud, 241).

8 Unpublished interview with the artist.

9 This photograph is embedded in another composition, in which twins wearing white hoods and lace bonnets are holding an animal tongue and a grater.

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Table des illustrations

Titre Illustration 1
Légende Incarnation series, 1995-97, 35,5 x 28cm
Crédits Source:​incarnations#1Reproduced with kind permission of the artist
Fichier image/jpeg, 16k
Titre Illustration 2
Légende From the Book of Small Souls, Lady Lazarus series
Crédits Source:​workReproduced with kind permission of the artist
Fichier image/jpeg, 16k
Titre Illustration 3
Légende The Mute Book, 2009-2012
Crédits Source:​1344406-the-mute-bookReproduced with kind permission of the artist
Fichier image/jpeg, 16k
Titre Illustration 4
Légende Motherhood, 2001
Crédits Source:​motherhoodReproduced with kind permission of the artist
Fichier image/jpeg, 14k
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Référence électronique

Valérie MORISSON, « Costumed doubles and avatars in Janieta Eyre’s photographic self-portraits », E-rea [En ligne], 16.2 | 2019, mis en ligne le 15 juin 2019, consulté le 24 novembre 2020. URL : ; DOI :

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Université Bourgogne Franche-Comté, TIL EA4182
Valérie Morisson is a lecturer in English at the University of Burgundy, Dijon, France. Her research focus is on Irish contemporary art and its relation with post-nationalist culture. She investigates how political, social, and cultural evolutions in the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland are reflected in visual culture (painting, sculpture, installation, performance, video, photography). Her articles focus on feminist art, the issue of memory and the commemoration of history, post-nationalist revisionism and the Northern-Irish situation as reflected in art. Several of her articles tackle photography and performance art from both an Irish and a European perspective. Her recent research focuses on Irish as well as British contemporary art and photography.

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