If it’s not about violence, it’s about sexy times.

When Lila Athanasiadou first explained the theoretical foundation behind her exhibition Smeared States to me, I was a bit lost. All the artworks presented by the artists in the exhibition centres around mimicry, a concept I hadn’t really considered much up until that point. For me personally, mimicry is a word I’m mostly familiar with because of old nature documentaries and popular culture. As a kid I remember watching footage of weird chameleons stealthily becoming one with the trees and octopuses moving their bodies like regular fish.

Fascinating, but also unnerving because I distrust animals without hair. Still, I have to say that organisms that have the ability to recreate one’s surroundings and are able to blend in with the world around them are captivating. It’s like they possess some kind of superpower. I saw mimics as masters of confusion, using mimicry as a cool survival gimmick by blending in with their environment. Some organisms stay hidden (lol, y u no see me?) from predators, others attack (surprise, motherfucker!) from a stealthy position in order to kill prey. And less carnivorous organisms might play an intricate game of hide and seek, revealing themselves in exactly the right way in order to attract a mate and reproduce. If it’s not about violence, it’s about sexy times.

I also remember being ten years old and playing the videogame Metal Gear Solid for the Playstation 1, which translated the natural phenomenon of stealth camouflage to a high-tec gadget. With this item in my inventory, my character became an invisible killing machine who was able to murder every single guard up close in ways most gruesome. Fellow guards were unable to see me, running around in confusion and shouting ‘huh!?’ and ‘what was that noise?’ while their colleagues were being slaughtered right in front of their eyes by some invisible force. Another example is the Pokémon universe. Ditto is a Pokémon who somehow evolved into a specimen with the ability to use mimicry to their advantage. It was always a thrill to catch them and lock them up in small balls until I called on them to use their mimic-abilities in glorified animal fights to the death. Fun times were had with mimicry.

It was only later in my life that mimicry became a word that could also be used to indicate something outside of the biological world. When transitioning into adulthood, the semantics of the word slowly changed for me. I can honestly say that I have never tried cultivating my mimicry skills as compulsively as when I was a teenager. In those times, the word mimicry carried a negative connotation. It was no longer a concept relating to a natural phenomenon, but simply carried the conventional definition of imitating – and being accused of imitation is always a bad thing since it means you are being lazy or unoriginal. Struggling with my own evolving identity, as most teenagers do, I got catapulted into an unforgiving real life game of trying to blend in and stand out in exactly the right way.

mean_girls-2Mean Girls (2004)

Think stuff like buying the same shoes as the rest of your environment. But at the same time employing the vague unwritten rule your new shoes shouldn’t be an exact copy of someone else’s, lest you be judged by those around you for the crime of imitation. I felt as if I needed to blend in and mimic my environment because I did not want to be considered a weirdo (mission failed).

At the same time I also wanted to stand out just a little bit, because having a fraction of my own identity seep through for my environment to see was essential to my survival strategy; it allowed me to retain at least a tiny part of my sanity in the superficial and cruel world of puberty. Thankfully I’m more comfortable with my identity these days, but back then the result of my mimicry was a very tiresome identity crisis. I was constantly redefining and measuring myself looking for some imaginary balance. Fun times were not had with mimicry.

The word mimicry has an interesting history and very smart people have been analysing the concept for a long time. Recently I did some Eurocentric research and found out that the written debate around mimicry became fashionable among Ancient Greek thinkers such as Plato and Aristotle, who used the term in relation to philosophical ideas regarding human nature and arts. For Ancient Greeks, mimesis, as they called it, relates to the realistic reproduction of nature in all its facets. Therefore the aim of art would be represent the world around you as perfect you can. Aristotle posed that when creating a work of art you can actually use a mimetic model to strive for truth and beauty; and as such guarantee a certain quality.[1] In short, the more mimetic a work, the better the quality. Of course, what exactly was considered to be true and beautiful was heavily discussed, even way back in ancient times.[2] I’m sure it was also around this time the slogan “mimicry is the sincerest form of flattery” was first being adopted by designers and music producers.

Conversations between Plato and Aristotle took place over 2300 years ago and in the meantime there have been many, many different interpretations of the word mimicry. Most of these interpretations let go of the old fashioned Greek idea that true beauty can be mimicked.[3] Lila Athenasiadou mainly looked to sociologist and theorist Roger Caillois’ notion of mimicry in his essay Mimicry and Legendary Psychasthenia, which shows mimicry can actually be dangerous for oneself. For example, he calls out Walking Leaves for their totally irresponsible use of their mimicry skills.[4] Walking Leaves happen to be so masterful at mimicking their environment that sometimes their own friends mistake them for real leaves.

plato_arisoteles_atheense_school_rafael-2Plato and Aristotle discussing mimicry, hoping one day someone will write a story about it (Detail:

The result is a cannibalistic dinner party, with Walking Leaves obliviously nibbling each other until they die. It seems being an expert mimic can actually be extremely dangerous, sometimes unconsciously making you erase your identity to such an extent your environment tries to eat you. Kind of makes me wonder what keeps high schoolers from becoming cannibals and constantly trying to nibble on one another.

All of the works created by the artists featured in Smeared States in some way or another use mimicry as a focal point. From Kari Robertson’s fascination with orchids mimicking their environment to attract bees, to Kerry Downey’s research into the environmental boundaries between oneself and an intimate other, to Kevin Bray’s visual and emotional deconstruction of foreground, background, depth and surface; all of them show that there is no such thing as a natural fixed identity and mimicry is always and ever present in the world around us. At the same time Smeared States warns us not to lose too much of ourselves in the search for our own identity. And my message to kids struggling with forming their identity: drugs and beer is what helped me through puberty!

[1] Sörbom, G. (2002). The classical concept of mimesis. In: A companion to art theory (P. Smith, & C. Wilde, Eds), New Jersey, Amerika: John Wiley & Sons. 19-28.
[2] Verdenius, W. J. (1949). Mimesis: Plato’s Doctrine of Artistic Imitation and Its Meaning to Us. Leiden: Brill.
[3] Maran, T. (2017). Mimicry and Meaning: Structure and Semiotics of Biological Mimicry. Dordrecht: Springer.
[4] Caillois, R., & Shepley, J. (1984). Mimicry and Legendary Psychasthenia. October, vol 31, 17-32.

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