A magic trick is immediately obvious. A bad trick exposes itself as such, while a good one instantly draws you in.
For a long time I considered whether the selfie should play a role in this text. Whether this sort of image, perhaps the most banal of our time, actually has anything at all to do with the work of the artist. After all, while he doesn’t want to be an artist, he naturally is one nonetheless, this Tomasz Machcinski, from the small Polish city of Kalisz.
But there is a video on YouTube of Machcinski in which he explains how he first made an image of himself, sometime in the mid-’60s of the last century. And how this older man now stands there in his front room, around 60 years later, and once again stretches out his arm, camera in hand, to shoot himself – so there it is. Machcinski doesn’t use the word selfie, of course; he speaks of light and shadow, of faces and figures and poetry. “I create figures that have lived, that do live, and some which are still to be born,” he says. The earliest online use of the word “selfie” can be traced back to 2002. It describes a photographic self-portrait, often taken at arm’s length from one’s own hand. The Oxford English Dictionary declared the term its “Word of the Year” in 2013. Since then, it has also stood as a codeword for the act of working on oneself; for the permanent pressure to perform one’s own life; for the spiral of public staging; for the always more beautiful self; for the cult of the body; and for a schizophrenic relationship to media, and online narcissism. Today, 30 percent of young people see becoming famous as an explicit goal in life; 10 years ago, it was 14%.
Tomasz Machcinski is not famous. Did he want to be? Machcinski was born in 1942. He is the only man on the planet with 1000 faces; 22,000, to be exact. Since taking the first photograph of himself, Machcinski has repeatedly staged himself in new roles. “I is another,” the poet Arthur Rimbaud wrote in 1871, in the second of his so-called “Seer Letters.” And this is perhaps the greatest question of Machcinski’s unbelievable body of work: whether he really has been photographing himself for 60 years now, or 22,000 others. Machcinski has previously transformed himself into Charlie Chaplin, Marx, Lenin, a long-haired junkie with needle, a sheikh with pointed beard, a prisoner with shaved head, a young priest with sacrament, a soldier with pipe, a film noir police commissioner, a Nazi commander, a bearded biker, a bard with guitar, D'Artagnan with rapier and red hat, a bearded biker with steel helmet, “Che” Guevara, a hippie, the Pope, Caesar, a half-Hitler, Jesus. In addition, countless fantasy and historical figures, a knight, a cowboy, a policeman. And when he dresses as a woman – as Mother Theresa, a glamorous Hollywood actress, a woman shopping – Machcinski seems somehow even better, more exalted, more diverse.
One sees the passing of time in his pictures – analogue black-and-white photographs from the ’60s and ’70s, later on digital photos. A young man, an old one. But their allure stems from the relationship between virtuosity and infirmity: at some point he loses teeth and gains a hunch; he wears no wig, his hair simply how it is, sometimes long, sometimes short; his chin sometimes covered by a massive beard, at others smooth. It is always both him and another that we see – an obsessive, overwhelming confusion of authenticity and artificiality. And the work of an amateur: all of these images he produced alone. Looking through them, the artist, who sometimes exhibits his scars and bodily infirmities and sometimes hides them, appears rich. The perfection of many images, his gaze, the light, the contours of his glamorous face. His 22,000 faces create a mood that irradiates out of the images. It speaks of old Hollywood – a camp, knowing otherworld; a fragile tight-rope dandy.
It was in the small Polish city where the artist has now lived for 80 years – his whole life – that the photo first reached him that started it all. On the photograph, sent to him in 1947 by the actress Joan Tompkins, stood the message, “With love to Tommy. Joan ‘Mother’ Tompkins.” Until he was 20 years old, the artist was convinced that the great Hollywood actress was in fact his actual mother. He then learned that, as a war orphan, he had been part of an “remote adoption programme.” It was the end of his dream. What is real? What is not? What is a self? Machcinski’s pictures leave all of these questions in pieces.
- Timo Feldhaus