Jane Benson  

The Chronicles of Narcissism

Jane Benson’s exhibition The Chronicles of Narcissism unpacks one of the most primary and pervasive human conditions. With its first literary appearance in the Greek myth of Narcissus – who took his life while gazing at his reflection – the condition of narcissism is a psychoanalytic disorder in which the patient overestimates her appearance and abilities and has an excessive need for admiration. In interpersonal relations, narcissism is so universally experienced that it would be difficult to find an individual who does not have contact with this ‘condition,’ even as an external force produced by an entity outside the self. In Benson’s artwork, there are palpable tensions between natural and artificial forms of beauty and the precariousness of identifying too strongly with appearances and status.

In recent years, Benson has produced an extensive body of work that examines how nature is represented in the built environment, exploring the transformation of meaning through representation and the reinvention of context. In 2002, for the World Financial Center, she created a series of fake plants that were subtly but laboriously augmented. Up-close the unabashedly fake trees’ leaves revealed unnatural shapes, a fantasy of future genetic mutations. Another recent public sculptural work is Imitation Day (2004), a massive camouflage colored ceiling garland produced for a White Castle restaurant in Jamaica, Queens. Benson’s floral installations in urban and corporate landscapes offer a fertile critique of the lack of authenticity in nature and identity in contemporary culture.

In The Chronicles of Narcissism, Benson integrates mirrored surfaces into installations and sculptural objects – swans, furniture, clothing, and globes – to address the contradictions implicit in narcissism. These materials are used to express Benson’s shift in focus from flora to fauna, important because plants literally represent the condition of the environment, whether in bloom or pallor. But narcissism is a human condition, or at least animalistic, and plants are low enough on the food chain that they are exempt from the culpability associated with waste, indulgence, and self-absorption. Narcissus fancied what he saw in his reflection, and literally drowned in it. In a similar vein, Benson’s artworks with mirrored surfaces express the impossibility of true reflection. Her series of Disco Globes (2005–6) are individually displayed on the axes of various globe stands. A glittering visual pun of global club culture, this series promotes globalization as a fractured reflection of the individual. A flattened disco ball, Mirror Globe calls attention to the limitations of any perspective. Though its flatness makes the surface of the world visible in a single glance, the globe is no longer true to its form.

In Naked Swan (2006), perspective is illusory as well. Positioned slightly behind the mirror, the swan is unable to access the reflective surface, suspending the moment between unselfconsciousness prior to seeing one’s image and an awareness of the reflected self. Resting on a jalopy of a concrete raft, the cruelty of the swan’s situation – stripped of his most beautiful features and unable to fly – is double-edged. The bird is pathetic, his feathers painstakingly plucked, but he cannot see himself, making apparent the benefit of not having access to one’s own image. Our engagement with the piece is subjective: do we prefer to see the empty surface of the mirror, undisrupted by our own image? Or is the experience of finding ourselves in the work a form of completion? The recent glut of reality television shows, for example, Fox Television’s “The Swan,” in which contestants are beautified through numerous rounds of plastic surgery, confirm that the cost of beauty is on the rise. Benson's work suggests that Western culture is more “plucked and fucked” than it is swan.

Hans Christian Andersen’s fairy tale The Ugly Duckling (1844) chronicles the transformation of a duckling into a beautiful swan. A reversal of the myth of Narcissus, Andersen’s ugly duckling is persecuted for his ugliness throughout the first year of his life. In the thaw of the spring, he wishes death as an escape from his loneliness and isolation, but is pleasantly surprised by his own reflection:

“Kill me,” said the poor bird; and he bent his head down to the surface of the water, and awaited death…. But what did he see in the clear stream below? His own image; no longer a dark, gray bird, ugly and disagreeable to look at, but a graceful and beautiful swan.

The former ugly duckling’s attractiveness is especially poignant after the suffering he has endured. The other swans’ appreciation of his appearance confirms that beauty is indeed subjective. Perhaps Benson’s Chronicles of Narcissism is nobler than the exploration of narcissism as she makes a strong case for cultural and physical authenticity, beyond the fleeting image perceived on a reflective surface.

Sarah Reisman