Art and Virtual Identity in Second Life

Nitroglobus Roof Gallery: Margherita Hax, Virtual Identity

To round out what has been another year of totally flawless exhibitions at Nitroglobus Roof Gallery, Dido Haas has invited Margherita Hax to present the first ever gallery exhibition of her SL photography, which will be up through the month of December.

Entitled Virtual Identity, this is a fascinating series of black-and-white avatar studies that are in and of themselves, a demonstration of the art of photography in its truest. From framing through the use of focus, depth of field, filters, cropping, to post-processing, these are images that are visually engaging. Within them, can be found both single-frame narratives and threads of broader stories and themes.

While the title of this exhibition suggests a focus purely on a matter of the “real” and “virtual” identity dichotomy, it does so from a broader perspective than we might normally view it:  purely from how an individual presents themselves through their avatar, actions and words to create a character. While this is part of Virtual Identity, so to is the other – oft overlooked  – aspect of identity: how we overlay what we see through projection, being overly focused on our own emotions and even idolatry. In doing so, it also touches on subjects such as honesty and filtering.

Nitroglobus Roof Gallery: Margherita Hax, Virtual Identity

Within Second Life, much has been made about the freedom of expression we have: one to another, the majority of us are very much anonymous, with complete agency over how we choose to present ourselves via our avatar’s appearance and – more intrinsically –  what we chose to reveal of our actual natures and selves. Many commentators have seen this as something that leans very much towards the beneficial, with a  quote by Oscar Wilde often being used to underline this point:

Man is least himself when he talks in his own person. Give him a mask, and he will tell you the truth.

– Oscar Wilde, The Critic as Artist (1891)

However, as a truism, this quote is actually a double-edged sword; whilst broadly taken as a being a “good” thing for our freedom of expression in Second Life; Wilde’s words also underline the fact that that very anonymity can be used to detriment; not only in the more obvious ways we all think of, but also in one-to-one interactions and relationships, in that the likes of avatar appearance and the use of text make it both next to impossible to judge intent. Thus, within it lies a paradox, as Margherita notes:

I have always felt the fascination of this paradoxical combination of emotions which, although limited and contained by an important filter in one sense, flow even stronger into the other. Thus, suspended from judging what is true or fake, in my photos, through portraits, gazes, stories and attitudes, I try to show and narrate emotions, lifestyle, relationships and (why not) love in 3D.

Through a central story – told down one arm of the gallery, and more individual pieces down the other, Margherita tells both the story of a Second Life relationship from beginning to end, whilst also opening up questions of what level of reality that can be found purely through a screen / text relationship. Both are somewhat linked through the use of mythological figures: Narcissus, Eros and Athena.

Nitroglobus Roof Gallery: Margherita Hax, Virtual Identity

In particular, the former is used in an emphasis of what the artist calls “fake love”. It actually sits well with Projections, the two underlining how projecting our own needs / wants / desires into a relationship as a result of what we see is something that can result in heartache and hurt, regardless of any intent on the part of the other within the relationship. Eros, meanwhile, is used as a symbol of true love, and in the process perhaps offers a pairing with Athena and PinkPower in expressing the natural outflow of emotion and contentment that can be brought to the fore when our real personalities and heartfelt feelings are brought to the fore, and honesty forms the basis of our interactions with one another.

By using different avatars throughout, Margherita offers a reminder of how the two sides of identity and its role in a relationship and who we are. That something as simple as a change in appearance  – from skin tone through to gender – can completely alter perceptions, responses and personal outlook. This further underlines her central tenet of Margherita’s description of the exhibition: that when we are reliant purely on a single filter, emotions and projection also become singular; something that can be, depending on the intent of both parties, potentially harmful  – or actually unifying.

Remarkable in its power, this is an exhibition that offers multiple opportunities for discussion, there is simply so much wrapped within the images and the themes. As individual pieces, the images at Nitroglobus are all inspiring in their presentation and depth; by using the west-east arm of the gallery to focus on a core story of love (and regret), and the north-south arm for more “individual” pieces that can also help to underline the motifs and emotions of the other arm, Margherita offers an exhibition of two intertwined halves that might be said to present a metaphor that again underlines her idea of paradox.

Nitroglobus Roof Gallery: Margherita Hax, Virtual Identity

As this is the end of the year, and  – as I’ve noted – another superb series of exhibitions at Nitroglobus, I’d like to close with a personal note with regards to Dido herself. Her approach to the exhibitions she hosts – invitation, collaboration, encouragement, the use of additional 3D to offer contrast or emphasis, her sheer enthusiasm for art, makes any visit to Nitroglobus a consistent delight and an absolute pleasure to write about in these pages.