I am totally consumed by an inner debate right now, regarding using personal content in artistic work.
I was in Portland last weekend where I experienced the incredible Alien She exhibit, split into two spaces: Museum of Contemporary Craft and Pacific Northwest College of Art. Focused on the Riot Grrrl movement, the exhibit featured fascinating contributions from an assortment of pivotal Riot Grrrl artists (as well as an impressive collection of zines). I was particularly drawn in by Miranda July's work. There was a reel of filmed live performances that I couldn't look away from, one series included Miranda playing a mother character, captured by an on-stage video feed which was then projected at the audience. Following the mother character was a sudden shift as Miranda became a lecturer informing the audience about atoms and energy within a moving horse. Like much of Miranda's work (of which I am undeniably a fan), the combination of motherly concern and horse atoms was odd and absurd and, well, strangely personal. The same question kept coming up for me as I lost myself in Miranda's section of the exhibit: how is it possible to create such intimate projects without memoir, without blatant discussion of self? I've always felt that Miranda has the unique ability to marry an intense personal vulnerability with large playful concepts. Her work is not [typically] overtly autobiographical in any sense, yet there is always a deep emotion of intimate connection. She isn't talking about her own life. She isn't even necessarily talking about someone else's life. So how is it that her work still gives me the feeling that I've been handed an unlocked diary? What are the qualities and conventions that allow ideas to to be expressed as abstract concepts yet still be absorbed by the viewer as personal content?
Right at the heels of my Alien She experience came Alison Bechdel, whose presentation I attended at Town Hall last night. She discussed (with a nod of humor) her lack of boundaries as she shared insights on the connection between her process, her work, and her personal life-- and the inability to separate it all. There was a Q&A after her presentation, where an audience member submitted the question-- would Alison be working on a piece of fiction anytime soon? Her response was that she would continue to work in memoir, and didn't see fiction in her immediate future. She also made a comment that perhaps it could be seen as immature to continue in memoir, that writers are expected to transcend into fiction, eventually. A valid point, I thought.
And of course, my brain followed up with more questions: When is revealing one's private life in art an act of courage? Is it artistically pivotal? And when does it cross the line into self-absorption? Self-obsession? Is making a project based entirely on the exploration of self and autobiography innovative or trite? And does it matter? Is it only innovative when the project is successful and only trite if it fails?
My work thus far in my (young) career has dabbled in the autobiographical, but I have yet to explicitly put my life/relationships at the center of a project. I'm really mulling over the idea, though.