Imagine Being Attractive - Process & Review: Reflections from Emily McGuire's Exhibition

As part of the growing pervasiveness of digital culture into everyday life, Tumblr allows bloggers to explore alternative forms of presence and interaction in the social world. Tumblr is a microblogging platform that allows bloggers to instantly post quotes, text, videos, music, links, and images on individual blogs. Despite this variety, the platform is saturated with reproduced images with blogs resembling quasi-exhibition spaces that imitate the layout of mood boards. In particular, Tumblr has become a space overwhelmed with fashion imagery, typically derived from mainstream fashion media sources. Through rapidly compiling image after image on their blogs and following other users with similar taste, bloggers can participate in and connect with an ideal world of beauty, novelty, desire, and style.

Emily’s engagement with fashion via Tumblr begins with her own blog. Emily began using the platform in 2011 as a daily resource for imagery that guides her design process. As a young female practitioner interested in dressing the female body, Emily predominately follows Tumblr blogs that focus on fashionable female identity and this subjectivity is reflected in her practice. Almost all of these blogs – including Emily’s own blog – are entirely anonymous, blogging under the guise of pseudonyms. Central to this enquiry is Judith Butler’s (1990) idea that gender identity is always performative through the re-enacting and re-experiencing of behaviours, gestures, and codes of dress on the surface of the body. Tumblr blogs are a kind of surface on which anonymity and found imagery articulate fashionable female identity as a performative act. This identity plays out as a ceaseless process of becoming through the continuous blogging of posts in an unending search for an ideal self-image.

On Tumblr bloggers play out a logic of “look what I found”, not “look what I made”. Through acts of de-authorship and decontextualisation, Tumblr blogs attempt to display the bloggers’ individual tastes and “image-hunting abilities” in a way that seems original.2 In Textual Analysis (2015) Emily replaces Tumblr posts with a pithy description of their contents displayed to mimic her blog layout in the form of fabric banners. The archetypal fashion blog on Tumblr displays high fashion photographs alongside reproduced images of modern art, photos of cities and architecture, and fragmented pseudo-philosophical phrases quoted from cultural figures, literature, or poetry. Elements of high and low culture are conflated with an anarchic indifference toward status or value. By textually analysing these posts in a visual way with bold, clunky cut-out letters and cringey colour combinations, the work playfully protests the way in which Tumblr blogs display the banal desire to appear smart, unique, and attractive. Ultimately, these blogs constitute a profoundly seductive performance of a more beautiful and hence more socially valuable image of female identity.

At a closer reading, the fashion photographs circulating on Tumblr evoke a sense of melancholic femininity. This expression characterises the fantasy scenarios of desire, depression, and ecstasy constructed within western contemporary fashion photography. In depicting ideal female beauty as skinny, white, fresh-faced and wide-eyed fashion photographs convey states of boredom, alienation, indifference, and psychic disturbance. At the same time, the models seem empowered and are often portrayed alone, in the city, and suggest a “profound reluctance to embrace domesticity”. What’s produced is a hysterical discourse that elicits the impossibility of femininity, provoking an unsettling atmosphere of melancholia. In Feminine Melancholia (2015) gathered frills of scrap fabric form coiled arrangements that follow the exact dimensions of found images posted to Emily’s Tumblr blog. Synonymous with western female beauty, seduction, and elegance, the decorative ruffle becomes almost grotesque and uneasy in its exaggeration. Awkwardly fragmented into clashing prints, colours and fabrics, the girlishness of the frills is undermined by a sense of ambivalence. In a depressing way, the work intensifies the cultural construction of ideal female beauty as a desire that’s perpetually unsatisfied.

The sameness of these ruffled forms responds to the interchangeable and hence homogenous quality of fashion image posts, which conflate to produce a seamless image. Images do not function autonomously on Tumblr blogs but rather, they slip over and blend with other images to portray a “shared, vague field of [cultural] references”. Though this work depicts Emily’s blog layout its title and other information has been left out, calling attention to the blog’s anonymity and hence her lack of agency. Although the use of anonymity on Tumblr suggests empowerment and control over one’s identity on Tumblr, the irony is that anonymity simultaneously disempowers these qualities through the ways in which Tumblr blogs constitute a performance of conventions, ideals, and constraints of mainstream modes of femininity.

Alongside this performance, Tumblr bloggers have a penchant for using text posts to express ironic, self-deprecating parodies that critique the idealistic fashion images that circulate on Tumblr. These text posts such as “on a serious note I’m cute”, “attractively bored”, and “imagine being attractive” relate to ideas of beauty, fashion, taste, and self-gratification. They also evoke an apathetic sense of humour and elicit the “low-culture absurdity” of Tumblr blogging. The Text Post Series (2014) appropriates user-created text posts from Tumblr as vinyl prints. Slashing the printed words in half and stitching exposed threads to loosely re-join them is a method of deconstruction that subverts the process of garment making. The disproportioned, unfinished appearance of the works speaks to the constructedness, instability, and ambiguity of affirming idealistic representations of fashionable female identity on Tumblr. However, the colourful handworked stitching introduces elements of mending and empathy as a way of playfully celebrating user-created text posts as an intimate and candid view of Tumblr culture. In fact, the popularity of this mode of critique suggests the text posts build a sense of belonging and hence cultural intimacy between bloggers. This occurs as a collective awareness that neither the blogger nor the reader is desirable or attractive like the beautiful models and fantasy scenarios depicted in fashion imagery displayed on blogs. In turn, the performance of fashionable female identity on Tumblr is often deeply ambiguous as bloggers complicate a simple dichotomy of empowerment and disempowerment through the affirmation and critique of fashionable female identity.

User-created text posts are a reoccurring theme throughout Imagine Being Attractive. In Seductively has No Life (2015) this phrase, which is appropriated from a user-created text post, is cut from gold-foiled synthetic velvet and fused to an oversized merit badge. Smothered in pink fabrics almost sickening in prettiness, the merit badge signifies the affirmation of female beauty and hence, female success. The badge states, “seductively has no life”, which collapses tragically against the edge of the badge. The work highlights the way in which performing fashionable female identity on Tumblr is a ceaseless process of becoming that’s perpetually undermined by a sense of disappointment or failure to achieve this impossible ideal. In it’s self-reflexive mode of address, “seductively has no life” calls attention to the self-deprecating irony of Tumblr blogging – perhaps to seductively have no life is to be scrolling aimlessly through Tumblr, typically in a state of abject boredom and continously re-blogging posts that affirm an exceptionally fashionable, desirable, seductive image of feminine beauty.

This tension between affirmation and critique continues in I Just wanna be Profound and Gorgeous (2015). A panel of grey silk organza hangs tenuously from the ceiling with the phrase “I just wanna be profound and gorgeous” printed off-centre. As a piece of fabric it seems unfinished; perhaps it’s to make a garment, or maybe it’s a delicate veil, or mimicking the screen. Suspended in a state of unfulfillment, this work returns to the idea that the performance of fashionable female identity on Tumblr is a permanent process of becoming. But this time, a confronting desperation is evoked. There’s an eerie feeling about the work – a highly seductive surface brimming with anxiety. Here, the performativity of identity on Tumblr is perhaps most explicit. The work communicates a self-reflexive knowing that wanting to ‘be’ profound and gorgeous is a desire that remains perpetually unfulfilled on Tumblr, and this work finally confesses to the banal, narcissistic pre-occupation with this insatiable longing.

Imagine Being Attractive attempts to articulate the some of the complexities of performing fashionable female identity on Tumblr blogs. Emily explores her Tumblr experience as a participant observer on Tumblr through processes of garment making, textiles, fabric printing, text, and installation. Her creative practice translates the digital to physical world through which the immediate, intangible, forgettable and the fleeting become clumsy, highly tactile, heavily labored, and enduring. Rather than suggesting contempt against Tumblr as narcissistic and superficial, this exhibition evokes a passionate kind of empathy toward Tumblr bloggers who, through their blogs, pay an ironic homage to an ideal world to which they know they’ll never belong.

sessional academic | fashion | QUT