Leonard Nimoy: Secret Selves
of an Exhibition
Published on December 30, 2010, Modified on December 30, 2010
Visit Date: December, 2010
Monday arrived for a trek out to MASS MoCA! The three hour drive west to the Berkshires of Massachusetts is worth the unique experiences within the re-purposed factory buildings which house the museum. This visit did not disappoint. Secret Selves was the second stop on my self guided tour. I was pleasantly caught off guard by the quirky and provocative photography exhibition. Nearly one hundred residents from the nearby town of Northampton had their portraits shot by Leonard Nimoy. Yes, THAT Leonard Nimoy. Twenty-three of the one hundred were selected for this exhibition.
The gallery for Secret Selves was closed off from the rest of the museum’s halls. I entered through the first set of doors and was practically eye to eye with a man covered in mud who reminded me of Pan. The man in the photograph facing me was life-size in an empty white space. The wall label stated his name: Matt, his occupation: Painter of Americans who have witnessed war, and this sentence: I would aspire to be a force of nature, a simple and pure avatar of the Earth. A glance through the doors confirmed this was the format for the rest of the photographs and this lone image, wall label, and wall text was my introduction. The wall text provided a context for the last sentence. Nimoy referenced Aristophanes’ theory that humans were once double-sided beings and in a moment of anger Zeus cleaved humans in half. Since the separation, humans are forever fated to search for their absent piece. Nimoy asked each participant to find their other half for the photograph. He asked each person to reveal her or his secret identity, fantasy, or true self the rest of the world fails to notice.
I opened another set of doors and entered a larger rectangular room. The exhibition was welcoming and soothing. The wooden floors seemed to dampen the footsteps of other visitors. Now that I was in the second room, there was no sightline to the rest of the museum. I felt as if I was encouraged to focus and to linger. On each side of me were five life-size portraits flanking the left and right walls. On the back wall hung twelve smaller frames in a 4 X 3 grid. In each photograph a single person stood in a white space and each had the same formulaic wall label: name, occupation, secret self sentence. I circled the perimeter considering each image and text. I was struck by the variety of ages and occupations. Curious contradictions between the person’s occupation and secret self added richness to the portrait. Often there was a hint of humor infused with touching honesty connecting the text to the image. After revisiting many of the photographs, I began to wonder if I was drawn more to the image or to the text.
In addition to the photographs, a video looped in the center of the room. Initially, I heard it in the background but was not paying attention. After I studied the photographs a couple of times, I gladly sat on the bench to watch. The video was edited footage for each individual session in 2 or 3 minute segments. I was brought into the experiences. The other visitors in the exhibition and I were able to see the body language and hear the conversations. The participants introduced themselves, sharing their first and last names and what they did for a living. After background was established, Nimoy asked every person: “Tell me about your secret self.” When a person was prompted to explain her or his secret self, the anxiety melted away and there was instant relaxation. She or he began to enjoy the moment when the secret self transformed into the entire being.
I had already enjoyed the still portraits, now I was mesmerized by the same people in motion. Through video the stories behind each secret self were shared. Some were light, others were deeply touching. I found myself admiring each person for the candid bravery it takes to share something which is often very private. Therapeutic revelations were met with care and patience. The humor I gleaned from the wall labels and portraits was abundantly clear in the video. Ridiculousness was celebrated. A wonderful energy is palpable when a person realizes she or he can be exactly who they want to be and be fully accepted for it.
The exhibition celebrated individual identities in every and any manifestation. I left the gallery feeling joyful, confident, and empowered to reveal my own secret self to the world. After I meandered through the rest of the museum, I could not help myself from stopping by once more to appreciate these individuals before heading home.