400 Nudes (2014):
For this series, Mayer appropriated female nude selfies from various sites on the internet, including revenge porn sites, and replaced the faces of the women in the images with her own. In an interview, Mayer describes being interested in how the selfie is inherently directed by the person in the photograph and how the majority of nude selfies are not intended to be mass distributed and are therefore not authorised – through her intervention, Mayer seeks to recapture and reclaim the images of the girls she features. (Byrd, 2014) In an interview, she expands on this idea:
“When these girls are taking these nude selfies, it’s interesting because they’re almost empowered. They’re the director, they’re the model, the editor and then the delivery vessel. They’ve created this while thing and then the minute it’s released, it becomes this item of vulnerability.” (Frank, 2014)
Vulnerability is something of a euphemism as the consequences for these women who have their nude selfies published online can be dangerous, far reaching, and life ruining – from public shame and damaged personal and professional relationships to suicide.
Reviewing the series’ exhibition at the 2014 Montreal Biennial, Cait Munro (2014) describes the public dissemination of nude photographs of women without consent as “probably the seediest underbelly of internet culture” but praises Mayer for reclaiming these from vengeance through her intervention:
“It’s a brave action that attempts to assuage some of the pain and humiliation many women have felt when they’ve found themselves compromised online in a way they never intended to be. It also opens a dialogue about the consequences of a culture that disseminates information without consent. Mayer recounts watching visitors approach her work during the opening reception, only to become visibly uncomfortable and back away. Part of it is just the natural response to encountering something sexually charged in a public space, but Mayer posits there’s something else at play too. “Because we are used to seeing nudity in a context where it is being taken from a woman, we feel we’re not supposed to be looking at these images, which in a way harms our [ability to enjoy] sexuality.” (Munro, 2014)
While praising the series for being a comment on visual oversaturation, Alicia Eler (2017) is less convinced about whether Mayer succeeds in reclaiming and anonymising the images from the malicious intent of whoever posted them to the internet:
“In making art out of actual revenge porn, Mayer further participates in the sharing and repurposing of intimate images that were never meant to be seen publicly. Within selfie culture, however, there is always an implied potential publicness, that this image could be shared. Selfies are taken with that awareness in mind. As an artist, is Mayer given leeway to use these images for the purposes of social commentary?
Mayer is both empathic to the women who originally shared these images, and fascinated by the images themselves. There is a certain sadness in all of these images. They are all evidence of betrayal. Once posted on the internet they join the glut of bodies as digital detritus or trash.” (Eler, 2017: 104-5)
Although Mayer states on her website that she went to great lengths to make convincing composites, the images I have looked at appear obviously fake. Aesthetically I do not have a problem with this in itself as it could be read as a comment on the other internet phenomenon where nude images of celebrities are faked. It is also of note that this series was first exhibited around the same time that a number of celebrities had their internet accounts hacked and nude images were posted online.
‘400 nudes’ is a challenging series that raises many issues that are important and deserve to be explored, I am not convinced that Mayer is successful with this however. The use of revenge porn to make art is problematic at best and most accurately unethical – there are strange contradictions concerned with empowerment and the fact that this is removed by the actions of a vengeful partner in an act that is a despicable betrayal of trust. Similarly to much rhetoric regarding rape when the survivor is portrayed as having behaved in some way that meant she deserved to be attacked, the victims of revenge porn are criticised for sending the images in the first place – an argument which fails to address the real issues and the fact that this sort of action is a form of sexual violence in itself. I am sure Mayer had positive intentions about being able to change this by her intervention, but she only adds to the problem by widening the audience. Ultimately I reach the same conclusion as Alicia Eler, and like her, I have chosen not to illustrate this post with any of the images from the series as I do not want to be complicit in showing images that were originally published to the internet with the purpose of humiliation.
Byrd, C. (2014) Jillian Mayer on the nude selfie project. Fresh Art Intl. Available at: https://freshartinternational.com/2014/10/23/fresh-talk-jillian-mayer/ (accessed 11th July 2020)
Eler, A. (2017) The selfie generation. New York: Skyhorse publishing.
Frank, P. (2014) Artist photoshops 400 nude selfies to explore the future of the online image. Huffpost. Available at: https://www.huffingtonpost.co.uk/entry/jillian-mayer_n_6064116?ri18n=true&guccounter=1&guce_referrer=aHR0cHM6Ly93d3cuZ29vZ2xlLmNvbS8&guce_referrer_sig=AQAAAL0a-uK5MU_gYJjkKlUg_H_lfEMDng2_R0ocSAyf9JpWqGl8EGwKxkFZu9wSY02de46WU0ZnSLYfBlyGPepCe0EZvbiXDGWr5T0hq-MSBqmWDWT1rVq3sl-NPtbe2yv0malv-g4lO3BUglUeLZ9p-wr808yi4vHKwSIMLXVibkiQ (accessed 19th July 2020)
Munro, C. (2014) At Montreal Biennial artists tackle sexual politics in the 21st century. Artnet. Available at: https://news.artnet.com/exhibitions/at-montreal-biennial-artists-tackle-sexual-politics-in-the-21st-century-141607 (accessed 26th July 2020)