Wellcome Collection: Identity

‘Beneath this mask, another mask. I will never be finished lifting off all these faces’.
~Claude Cahun

I found myself in the Wellcome Collection on my way home from a meeting today.  It’s in that cold, miserable area around Euston station, where concrete buildings and relentless traffic reduce people to grey shadows urgently flickering to someplace brighter. 

In the course of my work I spend a lot of time – head down, defenses up – hurrying away from that station.  Today however, in a strangely foggy state, I picked out the one radiant doorway in the block and went inside for the first time. 

Since breaking my wrist rather badly, I’ve been in physical and mental limbo.  As I lay on the couch, alone and immobile in a city that wasn’t mine, gloomy thoughts came unbidden.  What am I doing with my life?  How much of my identity is tied up in my London lifestyle?  Without London, am I anyone at all? 

With the cast due to come off on Monday, I know my life will soon be a blurred carousel of theatre shows, exhibitions, talks and films: it certainly won’t slow down long enough for any lagging doubts about who I am to jump aboard.  So stumbling across the Wellcome Collection’s Identity: eight rooms, nine lives exhibition today seemed almost fateful. 

I challenged myself to stand in each of the eight little rooms and form a question about my own identity based on the contents within.  For Claude Cohen’s masculine, feminine, and “neuter” self-portaits, I wondered how much of my sense of self is tied to my appearance and feminity (answer: too much!).  In the Samuel Pepys room I marvelled at Clive Wearing, the ‘man without a memory’ who lives in the “perpetual present”, and asked myself what it would take for me to let go and live for the moment every now and then (answer: too long and too personal for this post!).

Identity is complex, and I concluded that I am a tangled web of a myriad of things: my memories, my physical appearance, my genetic make-up, my actions, my relationships, my words, and even my masks.  I’m no closer to a coherent answer about who I am, but it’s reassuring to be reminded that it’s a question we all wrestle with.

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