On Friday, March 6, at the Sego Art Center 35 performers will be playing the role of one visual artist: Chris Purdie. Wearing the artist’s “uniform” — black clothes, black glasses, black knit cap — they will be acting out the part of the visual artist during the three-hour performance. This idea may seem like the narcissistic fantasy of an egotistical megalomaniac, but in reality Purdie is a shy, soft-spoken individual. The performance, then, is an examination of identity, a play on personas, and in the words of Sego director Jason Metcalf, “an excercise in relational aesthetics.” The artist and collaborators participate in a collective experience greater than individual artistic achievement and invite viewers to become part of the dialogue. A week before the opening performance I sat down with five of the thirty-five Chris Purdies participating in the performance to discuss art, performance and the creation of identity. What follows is a redaction of the conversation.
Chris Purdie 1: For me, I think it is a lifelong process. I might find my identity here in Provo but when I move to grad school my identity might become lost in a world and I might have to redefine where I fit and how I interact. Chris Purdie 2: There are so many aspects of one’s core or essential self. They are very contradictory, some are vulnerable, some are cruel, some are wise, and each role all relates to an aspect of an own personal being. Chris Purdie 3: Everyone has a different side of them that comes out depending on their surroundings. When I am at home I am at a place where I can be comfortable, where I can be Chris, a Chris that I am comfortable with, or when I am at a show, where I can talk about my art, I find that I draw in because this is a place where I feel uncomfortable, that this brings out the scared side of Chris, the upsetting frustrated side of Chris, or when I am doing my finances this brings out the analytical side of Chris. 2: This project came from developing another persona in a way, letting someone else be Chris Purdie.
Chris Purdie 5: I used to think maybe identity was having an internal identity and everything else was trying to come up against that, trying to break into that identity but in doing this show and doing the things that I have been thinking about, I think I realize more that identity is made up of your environment and the people around you. I remember this kid in the fifth grade who had tons and tons of quirks and everyone recognized his character and I remember at one point I realized I didn’t have these quirks so I started making some up. Now that is past, but push and shove we take from people. 3: I feel it is really important for us to understand the differences between different people and how each action that we have with someone affects the way we think. Every person that I ever talk to in my life will change my life in some way and I think that by examining that closely I have a better understanding of who we are. 4: For me, my identity came across more from my family, doing some genealogical work, hand-me-downs, collecting portions of my background and having them with me and now that I have nieces and nephews I am finding different things that are more inherent in me, in my family that come out, I see them do things that I do and I didn’t realize that- that’s me, that’s not something I collected from someone else, from my family and that is something that is closer to me, my essence. 5: It’s kind of an internal reflection, so, how you interpret what’s around you, that becomes your identity instead of that you have something specific that everybody’s trying to change, so I think there’s a lot of free agency that you are allowed to take in. I think we definitely have the ability to create these environments, like with music, or with art or writing, and this type of performance.
3: It is impossible for us to completely invent ourselves without seeing culture, experiencing the effects of art or theater, even music; so it is our decision, it is how we react to the people we are talking to, the things we are experiencing. 2: The media today has a way of pushing various options that a lot of people buy into. We construct our exterior persona and part of that has to do with marketing and what other people do. It is important to remember that there are two aspects, there is the real you, the interior being, the essence of who you are, and then the construct you present to other people. That changes a little bit in how far you take it, but into the commercialism of the persona, are you going to really take the whole package or are you going to try to select it yourself and kind of construct your own persona rather than allow someone else to construct your persona. 1: I think there are plenty of people who are finding ways around marketing’s influence; for me, for three years I have just tried my hardest not to push other people’s products, not to buy things with logos, not to buy into what everyone thinks is important but try to retain my identity in some way through that. 2: I think there is a spark that I get from the idea of constructing a persona and being able to identify myself as an individual, or at least lean that way rather than buying into a market label. 3: I think that the outside is a manifestation of what is inside; by seeing me, how I choose to present myself, you see a part of my soul, the way I present myself, the way I talk, this is all a manifestation of who we are inside. 2: I like to dress in very plain clothes, almost like a uniform, I like to be able to set my own standards for how I come across to other people. 1:I think that ultimately I have to be myself. Some people react to that differently, some people try to be somebody else, some try to come across as themselves, as an individual; this doesn’t change who you are and how you come across, these are two separate things.
2: In life we have to play different roles, from this time to this time they are this person, and from this time to this time they are this person, so hopefully when they come to the show they will see this side and it will relate to them. 3: I think we are all essentially 100 Chris’s and we have to become one common thing that brings us together as Chris. 2: Maybe it’s just a matter of finding ties and commonalities between other people that bring us to that common reality…there’s the reality that we’re all individuals but there’s the reality that we have more in common than we have separate. Each one of us is Chris Purdie, in some ways that is very literal in that we have 99.9% of the same DNA, there are some very minor differences in that physical makeup that I think it does get into existentialism when we talk about the individual spirit that makes each person different.
2: Ultimately, though, everyone is an individual, there is no getting around that, men can only sympathize with women to a certain point, woman can only sympathize with men to a certain point, we’ll never know what that reality is but we do know how it feels to be a human being and how to share these things…I think the key is empathy with another being allows us to understand that other being and allows us to understand ourselves in a more significant way. 4: That’s the way these portraits, the artwork that the artwork is created for this show, the idea that we can’t really know what it’s like to be someone else, we can only know what it’s like to be us trying to be another person, it is a composite portrait, it’s the combination of two people, the performer with the artist and creating the portrait out of that unique perceived identity that happens and creating a persona or character out of that. 5: I guess the virtue of being a human being, we’re all such unique characters with experiences and the composite of all those is unique to each person so I think this project is an opening up on that and letting people in on my experiences, a kind of letting go, being stifled and this is all of me.
1: This show is how these personas connect, how we interact with each other and we become a part with each other, influence each other. With this project what I found is that I was able to see how other people see me in some ways: really uncomfortable, nervous, meek, and then talking low and slow and I sound kinda stupid so I’m finding these things that I don’t know about myself, and I’m like…’Oh, I don’t know if I want to be me,’ and then getting up and not knowing how to act. Do I keep doing those things, maybe there’s going to be some things I might alter but I’ll wait till after the show is done.
The five (out of thirty-five) Chris Purdies that participated in this interview are:
Chris Purdie 1 : Chris Purdie
Chris Purdie 2 : Brian Christianson
Chris Purdie 3 : Lisa Stoffer
Chris Purdie 4 : Carl Hoiland
Chris Purdie 5 : Ashley Mae Christensen
I am Chris Purdie opens at the Sego Art Center with a main performance and reception Friday, March 6, 6 – 9 p.m. It continues through March 28.
Ehren Clark studied art history at both the University of Utah and the University of Reading in the UK. For a decade he lived in Salt Lake City and worked as a professional writer until his untimely death in 2017.