Frances Hegarty’s Auto Portrait #2

Auto Portrait #2 draws on the history of portraiture in art, the proportions and orientation of the video image reflecting this. Hegarty adds motion and sound to what has traditionally been an image-centric exercise. The video image shows the artist performing to camera, whilst we hear the artist’s disembodied voice, as she rapidly recites her life story. Within the video image, the artist sits facing us, her body in the immediate foreground of a dark, shallow space. Mainstream narrative cinema’s illusions of depth and perspective are absent. Both sides of the artist’s body are lit alternately by strobing lights, corresponding to a rhythmic clicking sound. As each side of the artist’s body is illuminated in turn, her gestures seem to become more panicked, as if the increasing speed of the on/off rhythm of the lights is racing her to the end of her narrative. The strobing lights gradually absorb the image of the artist whilst her voice is enveloped by static noise before the four-minute cycle begins again.

Auto Portrait #2 offers a haptic experience for the viewer, where senses other than the visual are engaged. In ‘Relational Sense: Towards a Haptic Aesthetic’, Jennifer Fisher suggests that art criticism’s preoccupation with the visual sense excludes a consideration of other senses and poses ‘a more immanent and relational aesthetics: an aesthetics which refers to experience as well as objects’.[1] She suggests that the ‘haptic sense’, a dimension of sensory experience, is as important as the visual sense.

The haptic sense, comprising the tactile, kinaesthetic and proprioceptive senses, describes aspects of engagement that are qualitatively distinct from the capabilities of the visual sense. Where the visual sense permits a transcendent, distant and arguably disconnected, point-of-view, the haptic sense functions by contiguity, contact and resonance. The haptic sense renders the surfaces of the body porous, being perceived at once inside, on the skin’s surface, and in external space. It enables the perception of weight, pressure, balance, temperature, vibration and presence.[2]

In Auto Portrait #2 visual and haptic senses combine. The darkness in the background of the video image merges with the darkness of the installation space rendering the video frame invisible. The figure appears to be coming forward, moving beyond the space of representation and into the gallery space, making the viewer aware of the position of their own bodies and of the presence of the artist’s body in the space. Whilst this is a visual effect, the affective result is haptic. Although our view of the artist does not alter in terms of angle or camera position, the changes in lighting and sound act as driving forces, pushing the work forward and taking the viewer along towards some kind of frenzied conclusion. There is however, no closure, finality or ending, as the work slows only to begin again its repetitive cycle of stability, escalation, intensity and subsidence. 

Hegarty’s use of the strobe lighting within the video renders the video image somewhat indistinct in that we are prevented from fully reading the visual image, from perceiving the object; the female figure. Hence, we cannot master the image and objectify the female body. From a feminist point-of-view, a haptic image calls for mutuality between image and viewer and certainly appeals to any attempt to avoid objectification of the female body:

The ideal relationship between viewer and optical image tends to be one of mastery, in which the viewer isolates and comprehends the objects of vision. The ideal relationship between viewer and haptic image is one of mutuality, in which the viewer is more likely to lose her/himself in the image, to lose her or his sense of proportion.[3]

It is certainly possible to lose a sense of proportion when viewing Auto Portrait #2, as we feel the figure as well as see it. The constant movement of the figure, as it appears to emerge from the screen keeps us engaged and conscious of our own presence, unable or perhaps afraid to glance away in case the figure makes it beyond the screen space. We are unable to comprehend this image and cannot master it for we are, in a sense, captured by it.

In Auto Portrait #2, as the artist’s image is lit by the strobes, the gallery space is also lit. When the pace slows, the artist disappears into darkness, also darkening the gallery space. The point where light turns into dark, does mark the limit of the duration of the video/audio cycle, but does not mark an ending in conventional narrative terms. The work’s cyclic nature contravenes the conventional linear narrative structure of mainstream cinema, whilst the artist’s position as protagonist, subject and creator revises the position of woman as object of, but not subject of many cinematic narratives. The cyclic narrative structure and the female subjectivity imperative in this work are both reasons for my selecting it, as I am interested in the use of a cyclic structure being a potential strategy for producing alternative video narratives in which the female subject can be constructed.

Further Reading:

Fisher, Jennifer, ‘Relational Sense: Towards a Haptic Aesthetics’, Parachute, vol. 87,

(1997), 4-11

MacWilliam, Shirley, ‘A Snapshot of Performance and Video Editing, Punctuation 

and Self-image in “Auto Portrait” and “Instant Exposure”’, n.paradoxa, vol. 5, (2000), 27-34

Marks, Laura U., ‘Video Haptics and Erotics’, Screen, vol. 39, no. 4, (1998), 331-347


[1] Jennifer Fisher, ‘Relational Sense: Towards a Haptic Aesthetic’, Parachute, Vol. 87, 1997, p. 6, (pp. 4-11)

[2] Ibid. p. 6.

[3] Laura U. Marks, ‘Video Haptics and Erotics’, Screen, no. 39:4, (1998), p. 341, (pp. 331-347).