How do selected artists relate their work to personal identity in contemporary art? By Me Samantha Thornton

This is my 3rd year dissertation for uni, please give it a read :)

How do selected artists relate their work to personal identity in contemporary art?




The Present essay originates from a personal interest in working with identity in contemporary art – not defined, as a minority group like, feminist, homosexual or ethnic identity but as personal identity relating to the individual self.

There is much debate about the nature of personal identity and how it might be defined. This is the reason why it is important to discuss theories on personal identity with theoretical insight.

One of the most important arguments throughout this essay is that memory appears to play a crucial part in our personal identity; this is highlighted by this quote by theorist John Locke;

“A thinking intelligent being, that has reason and reflection, and can consider itself as itself, the same thinking thing, in different times and places”. (Locke, J. 1975)

This quote suggests that as long as you consider yourself to be the same ‘self’ in past and present situations or actions, then that consciousness defines who you are.

I am going to examine a selection of artists and their works in an attempt to uncover the connections and differences of how they portray their personal identity through the medium of art and how these ideas might relate to my chosen theorists views on identity.

This essay will be divided into five Sections;

Chapter one

In this section I will examine personal identity theories put forward by a number of philosophers and theorists. Two theorists to be discussed with opposing ideas will be John Locke and Thomas Reid.  John Locke believed that personal identity is a matter of psychological continuity and considers it to be based on consciousness and not body.

Whilst Thomas Reid’s theory on personal identity states that memory is neither necessary nor sufficient for personal identity, and that personal identity is simple and un-analyzable and memory simply provides first personal evidence of personal identity.

Chapter two

In this section I will introduce the first of my artists, Yinka Shonibare. I will examine the areas of identity he explores and his connections to colonialism and post-colonialism and how he uses these theories and cultures in his own practice. I will also look at how his ideas of portraying his own personal identity might relate to my chosen theorists.



Chapter three

In this section I will introduce the second of my artists Tracey Emin. I will identify the area of identity she explores with her use of feminism and its theorists. I will examine Emin’s use of ‘autobiographical’ artworks and the way in which she confronts the viewer. I will also look at how memory plays a crucial part in her artwork and how this could relate to theories on personal identity.

Chapter four

In this section I will introduce my third artist Rachel Whiteread. I will examine the areas of identity she explores and discuss connections with shared memories as well as personal memories. I will explore Whiteread’s use of place and objects and look at theories as to how these might convey memory and personal identity.

Chapter five

This section will be my conclusion. Here I will give a brief summary of the issues and people I have covered in the essay. I will follow this by giving my own views and ideas on memory and personal identity. Finally I will introduce some of my own artwork and discuss how I explore personal identity and memories as inspiration for my creative practice.

Chapter One:



“If any feeling remains in the mind or spirit after it has been torn from body that is nothing to us, who are brought into being by the wedlock of body and spirit.” (Lucretius 1951, 121)

Put simply this quote means that you are made up of body and soul and if your soul lives on after your body has died, it will be no comfort, as you will know nothing of it.

In his essay ‘Of Identity and Diversity’, Theorist John Locke speaks of personal identity and survival of consciousness after death. Locke appears to be against the theory that soul accounts for personal identity but that the consciousness can be transferred from one soul to another. (Shoemaker, D. 2012)

According to Locke personal identity is a matter of psychological continuity; he also considers it to be based on consciousness and not body. (…) (Nimbalkar, N. 2011)

In his work ‘An essay concerning human understanding’, Locke states that, personal identity relies on the same ‘self’, same rational being in both past and present experiences. This could imply that if the ‘self’ changes there will be a consequently follow a change in personal identity change. This quote by philosopher John Locke highlights his theories on personal identity;

“…. Personal identity, i.e. the sameness of a rational being: And as far as this consciousness can be extended backwards to any past action or thought, so far reaches the identity of that person; it is the same self now it was then; and ‘tis by the same self with this present one that now reflects on it, that action was done” (Locke, J. 1689)

It could be argued that the consciousness that Locke refers to in this quote is equal to memory. So long as a person can remember themselves as the same person in the past action or situation, and is the same person in the present, then that is personal identity. However, the identity of that person only extends as far back as their memory allows. The person then reflects or remembers as the same ‘self’ now as in past actions or situations.

The implications of these theories would suggest that if one cannot recall experiencing a situation or action then one is not the same person then as they are now. Does that then mean if one has no memory further back than say, five years old, that one didn’t exist before then?

It could be considered that some of our memories are created through evidence, from the testimony of others or photographs, the belief in the evidence being enough to store it as a memory and become a part of our personal identity.

Another interesting implication of these theories is, what happens if a person has total amnesia and has no memory of the past. Does this imply that that person has no personal identity? If this is the case it could be argued that that person continues to have a personal identity because they are still a unique person, but present instance and without an awareness of their personal identity through memory.

In comparison philosopher Joseph Butler believes that consciousness presupposes identity, and therefore cannot constitute it. (Shoemaker, D. 2012)

This means that, you can only remember your own experiences, that it’s not your memory of the experience that makes it yours, but that you remember it because it is already yours. These ideas compound Butler’s idea of identity as being based on the body, therefore being the same substance now as the substance in memories.

According to Philosopher Thomas Reid, memory is neither necessary nor sufficient for personal identity, He believes that personal identity is simple and un-analyzable and memory simply provides first personal evidence of personal identity. Reid states that memories allow one to know their past but does not make them the same person over time because memories are fleeting and their existence is slippery over time. (Copenhaver, R. 2012)

Contemporary philosophers draw distinctions among varieties of memory;

Procedural memory i.e. remembering how to ride a bike.

Semantic memory i.e. remembering an historical event even though it was not experienced personally.

Episodic memory i.e. remembering a personal event such as a childhood birthday.

Reid’s theories work on the distinctions between episodic and semantic memory.

The following quote by Thomas Reid is an example of his ideas of episodic memories;

“Things remembered must be things formerly perceived or known. I remember the transit of Venus over the sun in the year 1769. I must therefore have perceived it at the time it happened, otherwise I could not now remember it. Our first acquaintance with any object of thought cannot be by remembrance. Memory can only produce a continuance or renewal of a former acquaintance with the things remembered.” (Reid, T 2009)

This quote suggests that, to recall a memory of an event in our past we must first have had experienced it personally otherwise we would have no conception of the said event. When we experience something for the first time we have no pre-conceived thoughts or ideas bought about by memories. Memory can only be triggered by something previously experienced.

Reid argues that Locke confounds consciousness with memory and also confounds consciousness with reflection. According to Reid memory and consciousness are distinct phenomena, consciousness being used in present mental acts and memory from past witnessed events. He believes that if consciousness could extend to past events then we would have no need for memory. (Copenhaver, R. 2012)

According to theorist Thomas Reid the only real identity is personal identity.

“The identity …we ascribe to bodies, whether natural or artificial, is not perfect identity; it is rather something which, for the conveniency of speech, we call identity” (Copenhaver, R. 2012)

This quote seems to be saying, that identity is just a way of explaining how a person exists over time.

Reid and Butler both favour a substance-based view of identity due to our consciousness changing from moment to moment, believing that we couldn’t possibly be the same person when we were a child as we are now as an adult or even the same person now and in say five years’ time. Butler asserts; (Shoemaker, D. 2012)

“…to imagine our present self will be interested in what will befall us tomorrow, since our present self is not, in reality, the same with the self of yesterday, but another like self or person coming in its room, and mistaken for it; to which another self will succeed tomorrow” (Butler 1736, 102)

Contemporary philosopher Derek Parfit believes that when psychologists talk of identity their main concern is what type of person they are, but that it is numerical identity they mean. (Hirsch, E. 1982)

Questions about numerical identity would refer to a person at different times. An example could be: is it that the same Mr. x you spoke to on the phone yesterday, as the Mr. x you’re speaking to on the phone today? This illustrates the issue of identity over time.

One view might be that we have the same body over time; therefore we are the same person. Another view might be that of psychological continuity, as in Locke’s theory of memory and identity.

According to Parfit both these ideas should be combined, that a person is an entity that has body, thoughts and other experiences; he calls this view Constitute Reductionism.

Parfit also asserts that the existence of a nation just consists in the existence of a group of people, on some territory, living together in certain ways. But the nation is not the same as a group of people or territory. (Hirsch, E. 1982)

This suggests that to know the facts about the history of a nation, we need to know what large numbers of people did and said.

Parfit states; for personal identity to have a definitive answer there would need to be the presence of a soul whose existence must be all-or-nothing; (Hirsch, E. 1982)

But it could be argued that this would only be belief or hope because the presence of a soul cannot be proved. According to Parfit personal identity is; what matters in survival and our concerns for the future.

Philosopher Franz Fanon whose work includes post-colonial studies, was born in the French colony of Martinique then moved to France to study. In his work ‘Black Skin, White masks’ Fanon speaks of his experiences as a black intellectual in a whitened world. He states that colonizer/colonized relationship is normalized as psychology. Due to his cultural background he considers himself to be French but was met with racism because he was black. Fanon also spoke French, which he believed was critical to his self-identity as a black man in a white culture. (Paulos, J. 2012)

“To speak…means above all to assume a culture, to support the weight of a civilization.” (Paulos, J. 2012)

Homi K. Bhabha speaks of identity through hybridity, implying that a post-colonial person might have dual identities of both their original identity from their own cultural background and their new adopted cultural influences, their new personal identity being an interface between those differences.

Chapter Two:

Artist Yinka Shonibare


Personal identity can be sought through Colonialism and Post-Colonialism theory, of which both seem to rely on a progressive understanding of history. Colonialism can be defined as the conquest and control of other peoples land and goods and is the practice of domination involving the subjugation of one people to another (Kohn, M. (2012)

Post-colonialism can be seen as descendants of once colonialized peoples living equally everywhere.

Contemporary artist Yinka Shonibare is well known for his exploration of colonialism and national identity, He considers himself a ‘postcolonial hybrid’ as he has always spanned different identities, physical and national. His dual identities include being African/British, physically able/challenged, also his name sounds feminine and his recently given MBE evokes thoughts of imperialism.

Artist Yinka Shonibare states;

“Is there such a thing as pure origin? For those of the post-colonial generation this is a very difficult question”. (Steveson.M. (2013)

This relates to both the philosopher Frantz Fanon and his personal struggle with dual identities, and to Homi K. Bhabha with his theories of identity though hybridity.

Shonibare was born in London in 1962 to Nigerian parents, who returned to Nigeria when he was just three years old. He attended an exclusive boarding school in London at the age of 16, where other students assumed all black people were poor. Shonibare went on to the Byan Shaw School of Art in London, at the age of 19, soon after he contracted a virus that left him paralyzed, following three years of physical therapy he remained partly disabled. (Gersh-Nesic.B.S (2003)

Whilst at art college.

Whilst at art college Shonibare’s tutor challenged him to express an African voice in his artwork. This led him to buy batik fabric from Brixton market, this material was worn by women in Africa to show their cultural and social standing. (Stevenson.M. (2013)

His dual identities clearly emerge through his work with his exploration of identity and social standing, Shonibare’s artwork often deals with historical events. He draws on theorists Thomas Reid’s use of semantic memory to remember events you have not witnessed personally. Although Shonibare does this with a sense of fantasy allowing the viewer to remember and rethink events, he also addresses issues of race, culture and identity and is well known for his use of batik fabric giving an African theme to what firstly appears to be a British concept thus allowing his work to take on a ‘hybrid’ identity.

An example of this can be seen in his work ‘Nelson’s ship in a bottle’, which can be seen in Trafalgar square and commemorates the battle of Trafalgar. This work considers the legacy of British colonialism whilst symbolising African identity with the use of richly patterned textiles for the sails.

Figure 1:


Yinka Shonibare; Nelson’s ship in a bottle. (Brown, M. 2012)

The Dutch batik fabric became his signature medium, which was designed in Indonesia, made in Manchester, England, and then exported to Africa. Thus making an African identity through fashion. (Gersh-Nesic.B.S (2003)

Shonibare states;

“It’s the fallacy of that signification that I like, it’s the way I view culture it’s an artificial construct”. (Gersh-Nesic.B.S (2003)

Shonibare’s African cloth shows the connection between European and African colonizer/colonized, artificial and authentic. (Gersh-Nesic.B.S (2003)

Other examples of Shonibare’s work can be seen at his recent exhibition at James Cohan gallery entitled ‘Prospero’s monsters’. In the first room in the exhibition the theme of colonization and subjugation are given emphasis by a model of the famous French frigate

Meduse, furnished with Dutch batik sails. The Meduse sailed into dangerous shoals and whilst the French governor survived, the crew perished. Thus symbolising the Bourbon regime. French slave trade was outlawed in France during the 18th century but the French government turned a blind eye. (Gersh-Nesic.B.S (2003)

The main exhibition space sees dark honey colored headless mannequins, which invalidates racial identification, dressed in elegant 18th century clothes made of Dutch batik material. (Gersh-Nesic.B.S (2003)

Another inspiration for his Victorian era installation piece, according to Shonibare, came from Margaret Thatcher (former British prime minister) and her call for Victorian values in the 1980’s. Thatcher also reviewed British immigration policy and sent residents from former colonies, home. (Steveson.M. (2013)

Shonibare’s art installations named ‘ The scramble for Africa’ is depicted by a scene of African leaders sitting round a table deciding ways to divide and steal the continents resources, thus perpetuating horrors of the past, where European colonialists left behind competing cultures in Africa. (Steveson.M.(2013)

Another example of Shonibare’s work that challenges predetermined colonial and post-colonial identities.

Shonibare’s ‘Diary of a Victorian dandy’ created a series of five photographs depicting events in a 24-hour period, each entitled with the time of day. These were made in a stately home in Herefordshire.

Shonibare depicts the dandy, which is contrary to history of Western painting.

In the 14.00 hours, picture Shonibare character appears to have a high school status, with money and position. Wearing a suit and standing proud enjoying the applause of his friends.

By putting himself into these pictures, he produces a fantasy feel to the images, which allows the viewer to question their assumptions of immigrant’s status and social standing.



Yinka Shonibare: 1400 hours ‘diary of a dandy’ (Jones, A. 2012)

These images are ironic but also due to his Nigerian origin and British citizenship show his interest in what the Victorian era meant for Britain and its colonies.

The Victorian era, can be seen as profitable, through expansion and colonialism but this was dependent on the subjection of others in terms of the colonies.

Theorist Homi K Bhabha Theories on cultural identity include the central idea of ‘hybridisation’ where new cultural forms emerge from multiculturalism, He believes that colonialism is not restricted to the past but influences the present and our understanding of cross-cultural relations.

Bhabha describes cultures ‘in between’, the spaces among cultures and individuals which do not have a single position but form identities as part of an ongoing process.

Chapter Three:

Artist Tracey Emin


Personal identity can be displayed through autobiography in different forms and practices. In literature it may be in the form of ‘the diary’, ‘the confession’ or ‘the memoir’. Mass media such as newspapers and television have made the revealing of personal histories very popularized.

In the same way autobiography can be displayed through artwork, the first artist to make self-portraiture a trademark was Rembrandt Van Rijn (1606-1669). Rembrandt made a series of self-portraits that lasted his adult lifetime, which clearly showed his changing appearance but also appears to capture the essence of him and a passage of time.

Contemporary artist Tracey Emin’s work is characterised by her confessional and autobiographical style. She appears to have literally traded on her own identity, revealing intimate details from her life and experiences.

Tracey Emin’s uninhibited style of work addressing female issues from a very personal perspective, allows women in society to identify with these issues and perhaps be more open in discussing them and condemning cruelty and abuse.

Emin could certainly be seen as a feminist displaying her anger and contempt towards men who would dominate or abuse women, through her artwork.

In contrast, the very personal, explicit nature of her works appears more as an outlet for her own angst and emotions, reveling in the ability to shock and gaining celebrity status. (EGS. 1997)

Judith Butler is a theorist on power, gender and sexuality. One of her works is the book ‘Gender Trouble 1990’. In this book Butler states that feminism has mistakenly asserted that grouped women shared the same interests and characteristics, thus reinforcing the idea of two clear-cut gender relation’s women and men. Butler believes that feminism closed down the options for people to choose their own identity, and states that gender should be flexible and that it changes in different situations and times. (Butler, J. 1998)

Butler states;

There is no gender identity behind the expressions gender; ……. Identity is performativity constituted by the very ‘expressions’ that are said to be its results”. (Butler, J. 1998)

Put simply this quote is saying that gender is a performance; it is about what you do at certain times. Butler states that we all give a gender performance whether it be traditional or not but choosing to be different any identity can be reinvented by its owner. (Butler, J. 1998)

Tracey Emin addresses power and sexuality as dominant themes of her work, it seems that this is her way of coping with traumatic cruelty and abuse she has suffered in her life. (EGS. 1997)

Artist Tracey Emin was born in 1963 in London; she had a difficult childhood and squatted in London after dropping out of school at 13. This period of her life seems to have been an inspiration for her later work. She graduated with a BA from Maidstone college of Art in 1986 after studying printmaking. Emin went on to study painting at the Royal college of Art and was nominated for the Turner Prize in 1999. However Emin destroyed all her work in 1989 after a traumatic abortion, returning to her work several years later she produced confessional letters and combined them with mementos from her youth. This work consequently constituted her first exhibition entitled ‘My Major Retrospective’ at the white Cube gallery in London in 1993.

Emin work is indeed intensely personal, often using her own body, exposing herself and baring her soul to the public. In this way, she is revealing her imperfections and insecurities, allowing the viewer to relate to her work on a personal level. (EGS. 1997)

Emin combines humor and sadness with the representation of personal memories and experiences, she covers a range of issues including; family, relationships, love, desire and psychological states. (ROLLO Contemporary Art. 2012)

An Example of how Emin displays personal identity, with her use of autobiographical artworks can be seen in her art installation entitled ‘my bed’, which is exactly what it is, a mattress on a base with crumpled stained sheets and panty hose. On the floor a blue mat host’s many items including vodka bottles, cigarette packs, soiled underwear and condoms.

The scene appears sordid and highly personal and when viewing this work, one gets the feeling of looking at a photograph, a moment in her life captured and preserved.

Figure 3: Tracey Emin; My Bed. (Jones, J. 2008)


Another example is her work ‘Everyone I’ve ever slept with 1963-1995’, Which depicts a tent with over a hundred names appliqued on the inside of people she has slept with, including sexual partners, family and friends. This work again is sharing information of the personal identity and memories of the artist with the public.

Figure 4:


Tracey Emin; Everyone I have ever slept with. (McGrath. 2002)

‘Exploration of the soul’ (1994), can also be seen as one of her autobiographical works, this consists of 32 pages of text, written in just ten days. In this text Emin recounts her troubled childhood which culminates in her being violently raped at the age of 13, of this Emin states

“For me my childhood was over- I had/become conscious of my own physicality- Aware/of my single presence…” (Manchester, E. 2004)

This quote appears to be saying that for the first time Emin had become aware of her own personal identity.

‘Exploration of the soul’ was also displayed on framed Blue A4 notepaper and Emin travelled around America giving public readings. Perhaps artist Tracey Emin shares such private memories with the public in an attempt to unburden herself of the trauma of their memories. At the same time you get the impression that she is also saying this is who I am now.

Emin’s works also include photographs, one of which is the ‘monument valley’ (grand scale) 1995-97. This photo was taken whilst Emin was on a trip to the United States. The photo depicts Tracey Emin sat in an upholstered chair, in monument valley. She is holding her book ‘exploration of the soul’ (1994). The book is open but it appears unclear as to whether she is looking at the book or the camera. Emin inherited the chair, depicted in the photograph, from her grandfather, which she has adorned with appliqued words and test, including her grandmother’s favorite saying ‘there’s a lot of money in chairs’

The interconnections between ‘Exploration of the soul’, photograph ‘monument valley’ and Emin’s grandmother’s chair, heightens the sense of a documentation of the artists life and personal identity.

Tracey Emin’s work could be viewed as endorsing John Locke’s theory on personal identity, relating directly to memory, as Emin portrays herself through her artwork by recreating scenes or images from her personal memories.

Without memories to draw on Emin’s work would surely not be as powerful or emotive.

Chapter four:

Artist Rachel Whiteread

Personal identity can also be displayed through objects and places, French philosopher Gaston Bachelard believes that home objects are charged with mental experience. (Benjamin, W. 2013)

In this vein, contemporary artist Rachel Whiteread’s early work appears to explore the close relationship between domestic space and memory.

Whiteread’s casts of negative spaces in domestic objects such as; baths, beds, tables and chairs, could also be seen as a reflection of our temporal existence. The object being used as the mould, which is then destroyed revealing the cast of negative space as a solid form. It could also be argued that; by removing the function of an object Whiteread appears to be expressing absence and loss. Whiteread’s use of plaster, allows her to pick up details on the surface of the cast, which endorses Whiteread’s attempts to trap evidence at the site of memory.

Artist Rachel Whiteread was born in 1963, the youngest of three girls. The family lived in Essex, and then moved to London when Whiteread was seven. Whiteread’s mother was an artist and her father, a teacher. Her mother was involved in a famous feminist exhibition, although Whiteread claims to have rebelled against her mother. (Wroe, N. 2013)

“And claiming that I wanted nothing to do with art. But by the time I was in the sixth form I was pretty committed”. (Wroe, N. 2013)

 Whiteread studied painting at Brighton Polytechnic from 1982-85, although she spent a lot of time in the sculpture department where artist Richard Wilson gave a casting workshop, which was to be her inspiration for future works. (Wroe, N. 2013)

Whiteread went on to study sculpture at the Slade School of Art from 1985-87, it was here that she produced her first piece of sculpture ‘Closet’. Whiteread’s sculpture ‘Closet’ sees the cast of inside of a wardrobe that is covered in black felt. This appears to be both emotional and nostalgic for Whiteread, bringing back memories of hiding in a dark cupboard.

Whiteread states;

“An idea of comfort of something representing security”

(Nicholson, O. 2001)

Perhaps this sculpture evokes similar emotions and memories of the viewer.

Since 1988 Whiteread has been making sculptures of negative spaces, using castings of inside or around objects. Many of her early plaster casts appear to stem from her own personal experiences, with an attempt to recreate the reality and emotion of those experiences.

Whiteread’s use of everyday objects, common place to all, is cleverly used to convey personal memory of certain times but also to inspire shared memories with the viewer.

Whiteread went on to do larger casts in plaster including her installation ‘Ghost’ (1990). This being her first cast of a living space, which was of a room of a typical working class family in London. This house would probably have been similar to the one Whiteread grew up in, as she grew up in London, thus allowing the viewer to reflect on their own memories as well as those of the artist. On closer inspection of Ghost’ you can see a fireplace and grate, which appears to be streaked with soot and also patches of wallpaper and flecks of colour on the walls. All of which appear to validate the idea that spaces retain human history, memories and consequently personal identity.

Figure 5:


Rachel Whitread; Ghost. (Saatchi Gallery. 2014)

Whiteread’s next major work was ‘House’, cast from concrete, this was her first truly public work, created and exhibited in a public space in October 1993. ‘House’ was the cast of the inside of an entire Victorian house and was the last remaining, condemned property of a row of terraced houses. Most of the houses had been destroyed in World War Two and the remaining houses were demolished in early 1993. (Wroe, N. 2013)

Figure 6:


Rachel Whiteread; House. (Cooke, R. 2012)

When viewing ‘House’ you get the impression of a photographic negative, everything being the wrong way round and immediately you are drawn into wondering about the lives of the people who once lived there. ‘House’ was a house that was once filled with life, which appears now to be a memorial, a part of history frozen in time. Thus containing and concealing the lives and memories of all the people who once lived there. Also capturing the identity of a place by its history and preserving in sculpture what otherwise may have been lost. Whitread was thanked by two former residents of the demolished terrace for “making their memories real”. (Wroe, N. 2013)

Philosopher Gaston Bachelard sees the house as a sort of initial universe, asserting that;

“All really inhabited space bears the essence of the notion of home” (Benjamin, W. (2013)

Bachelard believes the house is the most intimate space of all, he believes it to be made from memories and experiences. Bachelard proceeds to examine the home as the manifestation of the soul and locations in the house as places of memory (Benjamin, W. 2013) Following these ideas it seems plausible that part of our personal identity could be embedded into the fabric of our homes long after we have gone. It would appear that artist Rachel Whiteread is attempting to capture these memories and identities in her casting ‘House’ and freeze them in time. Therefore the relationship between place, memory and personal identity are clearly evoked by Whiteread’s ‘House’. Although ‘House’ has strong personal memories for Whiteread, it was also a site of memory for the nation.

Sadly ‘House’ was demolished less than four months after it was finished due to a local authority decision. (Wroe, N. 2013)

Perhaps once it was demolished it existed even more strongly in the viewer’s memories.

Some of Whitread’s work is also linked to historical events, which again would promote shared memories from the past. This style of work supports the different types of memory studied by theorist Thomas Reid, which make up our personal identity. Semantic memory, which involves remembering an historical event even though not experienced personally. These ideas are given visual support by Whiteread’s ‘Holocaust Monument’, also known as ‘Nameless Library’. This monument is in remembrance of Austrian Jews killed during the Holocaust. The monument is located in the centre of The Judenplatz in Vienna. The shelves themselves of the memorial seem to hold endless copies of the same book facing inwards, symbolizing the vast number of victims. This could also be regarded as a comment on Jews as a ‘people of the book’. On one of the walls there is a negative cast of double doors. Of this piece Whiteread states;

“The politics were horrendous, but I’m happy at the way people seem to respect the piece and to use it as a place to think about what happened” (Wroe, N. 2013)

In comparison, Whiteread’s exhibition ’Drawings’ at the Tate, sees a collection of over eighty drawings along with sketchbooks, collages and objects she has collected. Whiteread calls these drawings ‘her working diary’ (Hamilton, A. 2013) and they appear to give you an insight into Whiteread’s creative process. These drawings highlight the themes of her sculpture works, of space, memory and human traces in everyday life. Also of her continued use of objects that have been made for human use.

Whiteread states;

“….It’s an incredibly personal thing. For me, every drawing is a memory, connected to specific things in my life….It’s like going through your diary” (Hamilton, A. 2013)

Most of Whitereads drawings are done on graph paper. Her drawing (‘untitled Double Mattress Yellow’) shows how the watercolour puckers the paper, giving it the appearance of twisted cloth. Also the way the colour seeps into the paper emulating the stains on a mattress and the inked outline brings it all together. Many of the drawings appear to have a ghostly aura.

Whiteread’s reliance on personal memory being an important part of this exhibition gives visual support to John Locke’s theories of memory being crucial for personal identity. Whiteread’s drawings have a more intimate feel to them and are more subtle than her sculptures. Maybe this gives us some insight into the artist’s personal identity.


 This essay began with the discussion of theories and ideas on personal identity with arguments put forward by my chosen philosophers. The two main theories being that of John Locke; who focused on the belief that personal identity is a matter of psychological continuity and not based on substance, and Thomas Ried; who believes that personal identity is simple and analysable. Reid favours a substance view of identity, believing that memory simply provides first hand personal evidence of personal identity. This argument was expanded upon by Joseph Butler who states that consciousness presupposes identity, and therefore personal identity is a based substance rather than memory. Whilst Derek Parfit argues that both substance and psychological continuity combined make up our personal identity, but more importantly he believes it’s about survival and our concerns for the future. Also with added views from Franz Fanon and Homi K. Bhabha who talk about identity through colonial and post-colonial theory and hybridity.

I have framed my interpretation of personal identity using my selected artists as case studies.

Yinka Shonibare who considers himself to be a post-colonial hybrid, focuses on his connections to colonial and post-colonial theories and applies these ideas to his artwork. Shoibare multicultural identity is clearly perceived through his artwork, with his choice of subject and mediums, whilst he challenges preconceived ideas of national and cultural identity.

Tracey Emin has been portrayed as a feminist with her themes of power, anger and sexuality. Her confessional style of work is very open and honest, further more Emin has traded on her own memories and personal identity with her autobiographical artworks.

Rachel Whiteread addresses shared and personal memories and uses objects and place to convey memory and personal identity. Whiteread works gives visual support to the idea that memory and personal identity can be captured in human objects and places.

In discussing the representation of my chosen philosophers I have come to the conclusion that there is no definitive answer to personal identity.

Throughout this essay I have shown that memory plays a crucial role in personal identity and although I found Locke’s argument to be convincing, I did find that his theories felt incomplete. Likewise there is much to suggest that Reid and Butler’s substance based theories on identity are viable but felt only partially correct. Consequently I would have to favour Derek Parfit’s views; that personal identity is both substance and psychological continuity.

My personal opinion is that part of our personal identity must surely be put down to genes, which may influence behaviour or personality and dictates the way we look. I believe we start to develop our own sense of identity when we are young children, when we first recognize ourselves in the mirror and learn to use language to express our needs and emotions. As we proceed through our childhood we develop our own thinking patterns separate from mimicking our parent, gaining a more comprehensive sense of ‘self’. Our childhood identities are also influenced by external factors including school, teachers and peer groups. By the time we reach adulthood for the most part we have a confident sense of ‘self’.

I also consider memory to be at the heart of our personal identity. Memory of the past helps influence how we react to present and future situations. Memories allow us a true sense of who we are today.

Furthermore I believe our personal identity to be forever evolving and adapting  to meet the needs of our lives. Very rarely do we question our identity, perhaps only in times of crisis.

My recent artwork comes from my desire to explore my own personal identity.

I received a ‘life in a box’ as a present from my mother, which contained childhood photographs and letter, which were used as inspiration for many of my artworks.

I began by doing drawings of myself as a child and went on to do several drawings of my mother.

After writing an essay on Helvetica I was inspired to experiment with typeface in my work and started to incorporate text in my work. I found myself experimenting more and more with the juxtaposition of text and imagery, using words and text from my mother’s personal diary and letters. Text and language have become a very prominent feature in my artwork and there is a free flowing dialogue between the past and the present, emerging from the use of language.

As an artist my influences are first and foremost everything I see, feel and experience. Artists that have inspired me include; Sue William and Tracey Emin for their clever use of text in their artwork and finally Gary Hume for his flat planes of paint and abstract style.

I have more recently moved on to do self-portraits, displaying different emotions, although many of these works see myself as partly obscured, perhaps this is due to my continued exploration of my personal identity.

 Reference page

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Additional Reading list


Goodin, A.V. (). The sight of trauma: loss, memory, and Rachel Whiteread’s reversals . Available: Last accessed 10th July 2013.

Makufka, B. (2010). Feminist art. Available: Last accessed 15th July 2013.

Monogr, S. (2011). John Locke on Personal Identity. Available: Last accessed 15th July 2013.

NO more pink. (). Sue Williams. Available: Last accessed 15th July 2013

Piccirillo, R.A. (2010). The Lockean Memory Theory of Personal Identity: Definition, Objection, Response. Available: Last accessed 15th July 2013.

Rosenberg, K. (2009). Fashions of a postcolonial provocateur. Available: Last accessed 13th July 2013.

Shonibare, Y. (2013). Biography. Available: Last accessed 13th July 2013.

Stevenson.M (2013) Where art meets post-colonial African Artifice, Available at: (Accessed: 10th July 2013).

Tate. (2007). Shedding Life . Available: Last accessed 13th July 2013.

The telegraph. (2010). Fourth Plinth: Yinka Shonibare interview. Available: Last accessed 10th July 2013.



Gibbons, J (2007). Contemporary art and memory. New York: I.B. Tauris and co.


Hall, S (1996). questions of cultural identity. London: Sage publications.

Mirzoeff, N (1998). The visual culture reader. London: Florence production.

Paul De Gay (2000). Identity: a reader. London: Sage publications.

Woodward, K (1997). Identity and difference . London: sage publications.












‘exciting times’

This week has been full of excitement :)

First I had my work professionally photographed in the uni studio and I cant wait to see the results :)

Then with a little help and some practice I used an old fashion camera and 35mm film to take photographs of my screen prints,

which I have now sent away to be processed and made into slides for my ‘very old’ carousel slide projector….

I’m using the company and costs £7.89 to process and mount in slides.

The 35mm film cost £10.99 from Carmarthen cameras.