Pictures of Self-Portraits: Eva and Franco Mattes' Avatar Portraits

Curator's Note

In 2006 the artists Eva and Franco Mattes held a solo exhibition titled “13 Most Beautiful Avatars” at Ars Virtua, a gallery inside Second Life; two weeks later they opened a show with the same title at the Italian Academy, Columbia University, New York. “13 Most Beautiful Avatars” is one version of a larger project of self-portraits of avatars from Second Life. The portraits are images of avatars. They are exhibited inworld in SL, online on the Mattes' website, and as canvases on gallery walls in Real Life. Whilst it remains unclear how the artists 'take' or make these portraits, they describe their process as one of reappropriation: ‘[...] our works are not portraits, but rather “pictures of self-portraits”’ (artist's website).

The avatars are someone else’s design; the artwork is the Mattes' capturing and framing of an image of someone else’s image. To call these images ‘self-portraits’ is problematic. The Mattes’ reappropriation can be straightforwardly read as the production of a portrait (of an avatar). The use of ‘self’ in this formulation reconfigures this process, implying the Mattes’ images are portraits of someone’s self-portrait. These images complicate received ideas about the way an avatar functions, remediating the performance of these digital incarnations of (unseen, unknown) users. The overall construct is complicated by the Mattes’ agency as the artist-producers of these ‘self-portraits’. At no point is an audience able to gauge to what extent the users behind these avatars view the avatars as portraits of themselvesthis is a framework imposed by the Mattes.

The portraits signify the emergent aesthetic values of Second Life, and remediate pop art modalities of the fallacy of “portraiture” through digital culture. They also play with the shared language of these two discourses—the idea of "likeness". The Mattes' Portraits draw a viewer’s attention to the likeness inherent in the digital medium—its propensity to make things look the same, the by-product of digitisation—in place of viewing the portrait as a likeness of a user. Maybe then these are portraits of a medium as much (or as little) as they are likenesses of the embodied person they ‘stand-in’ for.


Thank you for your insights about this work and its implications, Zara.  I wholly agree with you that the pull of the Mattes’ portraits-of-self-portraits directs our attention from whoever created these avatars to the digitized medium itself.  I’d say it also points toward the digitized, Photoshopped nature of fashion portraits through its combination of the stylish design choices—which, in this case includes trendy "flesh"—made by the avatars’ owners and the self-consciously arty framing of the images: the work seems to offer a new take on the notion that commerical media provides the model by which we imagine (and image) ourselves.


Eric, thanks for the comment. Hadn't thought about the fashion angle but this is absolutely true. In that sense (the photoshop’d kind) it also speaks to these portraits as being, at least in part, the creation of the Second Life programmers. The pre-set-ness of these images perhaps functioning as a more radical version of the way photoshop homogenizes fashion and beauty photography. This might also factor into the reification of certain trends and image-ideals—perhaps the software to some extent working as a bias; and certainly the Mattes' 'arty' framing suggests such a relationship.



Hi Zara, What a fascinating topic and post! Given that the title of their shows ("13 Most Beautiful Avatars") emphasize beauty in relation to the avatars, and since their texts draw on Pop art - imagery in which irony was an integral theme - what sort of commentary do you think the Mattes' are making about the relationship between Beauty, irony, and avatars in these "pictures of self-portraits?" Extending on Eric's point as well, are avatars the new aspirational beauties? ~ Dara

 Dara-- thanks for the comments. The Mattes' are definitely playing with (in) the irony-beauty-pop triangle; though I keep coming back to the digital. It seems that these images always turn you back to the materiality of the media, there is nowhere else to go; perhaps in a more involuted way than Pop Art, certainly in a related way. 

Also I should say that one of the other of the Mattes' collections of these portraits is titled: "Annoying Japanese Child Dinosaur". Comments welcome.

Also if anyone London based is interested in the Mattes work they have a solo show currently open at Carroll / Fletcher Gallery.

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