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Coco Capitán's Inscrutable Self-Portraits

The 22-year-old's first solo show, Let Me Not Introduce Myself the Pleasure Is Yours, opens this week at London's Display Gallery, so I talked to her about how she hides her identity in plain sight.

by Zach Sokol
Oct 15 2014, 4:30pm

From the series 'No Homework on Sundays.' All images courtesy of the artist

On the surface, Coco Capitán's photographic self-portraits may look intimate, or personal. But these starkly beige shots of the artist doing irreverent things in domestic, private settings-such as standing in her underwear on a toilet, or eating alone with a piece of lettuce on her head-are an identity-based sort of red herring.

"They are not much about me, nor about the self, but rather an instrument to visually explore certain ideas," she told me over email. 

"I am not a confident individual," Capitán later added. "It is probably because of this that I need to protect myself from myself in all these games." Touches like the coy title of Capitán's upcoming solo show, Let Me Not Introduce Myself the Pleasure Is Yours, opening October 17 at Display Gallery in London-add a playful tone to the work, which feels simultaneously revealing and disingenuous.

For a supposedly unconfident individual, the 22-year-old is both extremely prolific and hyper-articulate about her work. Recent spreads in Dazed, international editions of VICE, and many other publications, along with collaborations with fashion houses like Maison Martin Margiela, suggest that even if Capitán is sometimes uncertain of herself, others aren't worried about her talent and promise. Or perhaps this is all part of her artistic sleight of hand. "I see the self-portraits as a game in which I can explore many subjects (including my own reality as a subject, if you like) in a visual way-like an illustrated story tale. It's about playing with reality," she said.

In anticipation of her first solo show, Capitán and I talked about the complexities of taking self-portraits that don't necessarily reflect her self, Baudrillard, and imagining life as a musical.

From the series 'I Have More Fun When Home Alone'

VICE: Your solo show includes the self-portraits from your earlier series The System of Objects and Interiors, right? Are there any images that aren't self-portraits in this show?
Coco Capitán: It actually consists of six series in which self-portraiture is the only constant among the work. Paradoxically, I don't think the topic of the show is self-portraiture, or even "the self." The self-portrait is more like the instrument to talk about other things.

You've been taking self-portraits for years now. Do you approach self-portraiture differently each time? 
It's not that much about the technique. Obviously, I keep learning technical things that I apply to my practice, and I suppose you can see that. But it is the content of an image that I care about. Conceptually, it's about what I am feeling in the moment I shoot, or the intellectual ideas I am engaging with or studying around the same time I'm shooting.

For example, when I shot the series The System of Objects, I was writing an essay on consumer society. I had a photo studio day scheduled, but not specific ideas or models. I packed a few things and mixed them with what I found in the studio. I played very loud music while I took the images, as usual, and you can see what came out.

Then I thought about it: Oh, what are these images about? Oh, maybe it has a lot to do with what I am reading now; Jean Baudrillard probably inspired me. Oh, yes, I got it now: These photos include a system of objects, too. The reasons that brought me to photograph these objects and not others had a lot to do with the reasons consumers decide to buy certain objects or products and not others, and these objects somehow talk about my taste, and my taste talks about me, and that brings us back to the initial Baudrillard concept: Objects are categories of objects which quite tyrannically induce categories of persons. Objects (and by extension consumerism) are speaking for us today. 

From the series 'The System of Objects'

So why did you choose the specific objects included in each shot? Are they arbitrary aesthetic choices (like the blue barrel matching your blue shirt) or is there something more telling about your identity or personal history hidden in those objects?
I think they are arbitrary on a first level. I could think I chose them freely, but-as Baudrillard explains-we are less free than we believe when making choices. I don't think it is very accurate to say, "I own a blue car because I truly and purely like blue. I was born liking blue!" It doesn't quite happen like that. You truly like blue, but it's your context, your experience, the emotional attachment to blue, that makes you like the color and the car.

To an extreme: Maybe your boss owns a blue car, and secretly something deep inside you wants to be a bit like your boss. Or the cool kid in high school had that blue jumper your mother never bought you and now that you have the money. You spend it on the blue car because blue is about being cool in your sensory system and you don't even know it. (You don't need to know it-it is better like that!)

It was an arbitrary choice, but I do not even want to wonder why I own those objects, and why I chose to photograph them, but not others.

Would you say you often don't figure out the conceptual goals or meaning of your work until after it's developed?
If you explore what you did and what was around you in the moment you created something, you will probably discover the reasons that brought you to do it in that specific direction. I let the portrait happen, I think about it after.

I think I just keep producing images and texts as a lifestyle, but it is my interactions with people and what I'm reading that set the subjects. The context in which I create the self-portraits is always important. There might be a psychological approach, too, but it is not something I plan.

Above images are from the series 'The System of Objects'

How did you focus the topics explored in each individual series and connect them into one fluid conversation for this one show? What connects these particular self-portraits?
The curators are the ones who find these connections and give form to the piles of negatives. I do not think about "the show" when I work. In Let Me Introduce Myself there are images that were produced three years ago, when I obviously didn't know there would be a show. It's the work of the curator to find these connections. Lorena Benoit, the curator of the first part of this show, was the person who first noticed that self-portraits were a constant in my work. I have known her since I was 13, and she curated one of my first shows when I was 17.

One day last year, I was working in the studio and she called me on the phone: "You should keep exploring the self-portraits I think we should make something with them. What about a show called My Ego by Coco?" And I thought, This could be interesting, but "my ego?" Are you kidding? I can't have a show in a public institution in which the theme is myself, even with self-portraiture. It goes against my principles. But yes, we could still use my person as the link. Putting these images together made me realize I was using myself, but more like a model, to talk about other things.

Your work very directly references identity and perception. With these self-portraits, how much of you do the photographs capture?
That's a very interesting question, especially in the-yes, I am going to say it-"selfie era." Curating is making choices. When you curate yourself in a portrait, you are choosing which parts of you are going to be shared with your audience. I supposed you get the bit of me that I don't feel uncomfortable with. As I said, it is not that much about me, nor about the self, but an instrument to visually explore certain ideas.

How would you describe this curated version of Coco Capitán that's depicted in these photos? What type of identity, or ideas about identity, were you trying to portray in this particular exhibition? Is she the same Coco as everyday Coco?
The portrayed "Coco" can be very similar to the "everyday" one. But I like to think we are different people. My work is so personal that I sometimes need to unlink myself from it. In the sense that, at a personal level, I want people to relate with me as a human.

My friends go: Well, but photography is such an important part of you.

And I reply: Yes, but please tell me that you would still love me if I didn't take pictures!

And then I get: Then it wouldn't be the Coco I know!

And we carry on. It's a never-ending discussion.

I don't intend to remove or hide myself in the self-portraits, but obviously I don't expect someone to experience me by glancing at the images the same way my close ones might see me when I relate to them normally in my private life.

I see the self-portraits as a game in which I can explore many subjects (including my own reality as a subject, if you like) in a visual way-like an illustrated story tale. I often imagine quotidian scenes of my life in a musical comedy in which everyone is waiting to sing their line. It's about playing with reality.

From the series 'I Have More Fun When Home Alone'

From the series 'The System of Objects'

You consistently photograph yourself and encourage other people to stare or gaze at you. How comfortable are you with your current identity? Would you describe yourself as a secure or confident individual? 
Not at all. I am not a confident individual. It is probably because of this that I need to protect myself from myself in all these games. What I am is very determined and very nonconformist. And there I go, running for the "next me." Once I reach it, it soon is not enough, and I start looking for the next. This constant dissatisfaction often makes me sad, but at the same time, it's what keeps me going, and there is no harm in wanting to do better.

Let Me Not Inroduce Myself the Pleasure Is Yours is on view at London's Display Gallery through October 31. For more information, visit the gallery's website here, and check out Capitán's website here. 

Follow Zach Sokol on Twitter.

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