I had reason today to review my thesis from a few years ago. I can't help but think it feels like another person wrote it. I feel like my brain functions completely differently now than when I was in school. Maybe it does! Maybe that's okay. Maybe I need to... read actual books again. 😑
Below is another abbreviated excerpt from my 2015 thesis, SelfSame. This chapter introduces the concept of doubles.
Doubles—a blanket term I will use often in order to refer to not only twins, but also to various types of identical bodies, such as doppelgängers or clones—are pervasive in visual media as well as popular culture and mythology. When my interest in doubles became more research oriented, I began to look for examples of twins and—in a more generic sense— ‘doubles’ in art, literature, film, and in television. The unsettling atmosphere that an image of twins creates is, I think, due to the pervasive cultural material about twins and the concepts these stories imply, as well as the unnatural presence of identical faces—which can presume identical identities.
We tend to assume that a single face is representative of a single identity. Being able to recognize faces as different provides an early channel of communication in child development.(38) Face recognition also plays an important role in society, such that evolutionary psychologists have been interested in face recognition as a special ability which has been selected and preserved through evolutionary pressures.(39) The way one would recognize and differentiate most of the population—by faces—can, however, fail when confronted with identical twins. Twins have a likeness between them that can be unsettling. Being unable to distinguish between two persons is not only embarrassing or frustrating, but also prompts an uncomfortable sensation. Human faces, Dr. Anthony White declares, are “not supposed to be completely identical, unlike the product of the camera[.]”40 While photography allows for the mechanical reproduction of a face or body ad nauseam, human faces are constructed organically and individually and develop over time independently of another— and so to experience two (or more) identical faces is an abnormal thing. Images which achieve a disturbing likeness, such as artist Diane Arbus’s Identical Twins, Roselle, New Jersey, 1967 (see figure 6) lead us to an experience of tension, as we try to negotiate the similarities we see first and the differences we then seek out.
Of course it is worth noting that ‘identical twins’ are not identical. It used to be the case that identical twins were thought to be the same to the smallest detail.(41) However, as Allessandra Piontelli explains:
. . . so called identical twins can. . . have discordant chromosomes. . . .During early separation [of the fertilized egg], for instance, chromosomal components can be lost, leading to . . . Chromosomal aberrations.. . Besides which chromosomal expression is also influenced by environmental components. Therefore not even identical [genetic material is] necessarily a guarantee of identical outcome. . . Furthermore, with late splitting, in the period between conception and division, environmental components of various origin may intervene giving rise to further dissimilarities between the embryos. 42
Changes in genetic material are common during embryonic growth: therefore, it is not possible for twins to be completely identical, and one could say that the term ‘identical twin’ is a misnomer. My sister and I are identical twins, and share very similar faces— however, her nose appears to be slightly longer than mine, and my jawline is a little bit wider. During my graduate work I thought about the idea that my sister and I were ‘identical’ when really we were very similar. I was interested in detailing exactly where our differences and similarities began and ended. One simple experiment created a compelling diptych (see figure 7).
Gridding and cutting apart a photograph of both our faces, I replaced square slips of paper, one for one, between our images. The rough result is a portrait of my sister, which is 50 percent composed of my face, and a portrait of myself, which has 50 percent of my sister’s face replaced with my own. The portraits are, in fact, not either of us. Strange and compelling spaces appear in the diptych when scrutinized carefully: a perfect alignment of cheek to chin, a disjointed matching of her earlobe to my ear cartilage. Our eyes, in particular, strike me as similar. The clue to knowing that they are not meant to match as one person’s set of eyes, is that one twin's set of eyes look glassy due to a difference in lighting.
In The Culture of The Copy, Hillel Schwartz states that the presence of an identical copy confronts us with “uncomfortable parts of ourselves—emotional, cultural, historical.”(43)
To see faces that are eerily similar brings to the surface stories and myths that have represented violent and unsavoury aspects of supernatural beings ...
[Here I list and describe the plots lines of several examples of eerie stories about twins or doubles - Orphan Black, The Dark Half by Stephen King, The Doppelganger by Dostoevsky, The Simpsons Halloween Special, Treehouse of Horror VII]
The fascination with twins in literature and in television extends to artwork. Similar to how stories of twins provoke ideas of unstable identities and malevolent impostors, the work of art which features identical or near-identical bodies provokes unsettling feelings of discomfort and even aversion.
Consider again the iconic work by Diane Arbus, Identical Twins, Roselle, New Jersey, 1967 (figure 6). This image represents real persons: sisters who were photographed in 1967. Yet the portrait is complicated by the seemingly unnatural presence of a second self. The twin sisters stand next to each other in identical dresses, in stockings and headband. The near perfect symmetry of their collars and posture is at odds with small differences between them (how their hair lies, the angle of their mouths). Despite small differences, they appear almost as one body, the distinction between their inside arms dark and indistinguishable by shadow until we reach their wrists, where their hands seem to touch. The image is well known for its psychologically dark and strange atmosphere: the visual impact of the image was even recycled by filmmaker and personal acquaintance of Diane Arbus, Stanley Kubrick, who recast the originally differently aged sisters in the screenplay for The Shining to be identical twins.(48) I imagine most people, whether or not they had seen Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining are familiar with the image of the Grady twins standing at the end of the hotel hallway, beseeching Danny Torrance to play with them, “forever... and ever... and ever.”(49) Their grasped hands and identical dresses encourage a mesmerizing fascination and discomfort directly inspired by Arbus’s photograph.(50) Other artworks such as Théodore Chassériau’s The Two Sisters (see figure 10) and Frida Kahlo’s The Two Fridas (see figure 9) also feature doubles. Kahlo’s figures represent different aspects of the artist herself: the double is used by the artist to symbolize an internal duality. Kahlo’s use of doubling and portraiture signifies, as Salomon Grimberg states, the artist’s feelings of loneliness, “…incompleteness, fragmentation, and lack of integration.”(51)
Figure 8: The Grady Twins from Stanley Kubricks The Shining, 1980 (Entertainment Weekly)
Figure 9: The Two Fridas by Frida Kahlo, oil on canvas 1939 (Artnet)
Figure 10: The Two Sisters by Theodore Chassériau, oil on canvas 1843 (oneyearonepaintingaday.blogspot)
Each Frida in the painting, heart vulnerable and bleeding from an exposed artery, looks at the audience and holds each other’s hand. Despite representing opposing symbols of life and death, the figures hold a physical connection in their touch and through the shared artery. In the essay “Frida Kahlo: The Self as an End” Grimberg notes that the painting was created following Diego Rivera’s request for a divorce and that Kahlo had told a friend “[one] Frida was kept alive by the love she received from Rivera; that the second Frida, the one on the left in a lace white dress, is dying since she is not loved by Rivera.”(52) The dual nature of the painting is furthered by the choice of dress for each. One Frida is dressed traditionally as a Tehuana,(53) in recognition of Kahlo’s Mexican identity, while the other Frida wears a European fashioned white dress, perhaps in recognition of her part Jewish-German ancestry. The two Fridas—despite designation of past and present, loved and unloved, life and death— are painted as though they exist at once. They hold hands and sit with knees angled to one another, as if sitting for a portrait. The two figures do not seem to simply represent a transition from one state to another, from past to present— rather, they indicate the multiplicity, flexibility, and complexity of identity. The two Fridas must exist with one another: the arteries connecting their hearts create a metaphorical conjoining of their bodies.
Théodore Chassériau’s painting, The Two Sisters (figure 10), is not a double portrait of one person as in Kahlo’s The Two Fridas. This painting is of two different people, sisters who share a striking similarity to each other— a similarity enhanced by identical dress, jewellery, and hair styling. The repetition of their arms moving across the body, one touching the other, encourages the connection between them—while at the same time subtly disrupting the sense of symmetry directed by dress necklines and the shine on their hair. The arterial ties of The Two Fridas and the physical touch and grasp of both Chassériau’s The Two Sisters and Arbus’s Identical Twins all imply a physical connection regardless of the intention of the images and the individuality of the models ... The portrayal of twins implies more than just representation of individuals. Rather, these ideas are bound to questions of identity and loneliness, as well as the superstitious and supernatural aspect of doubles in popular culture.
38 Charles A. Nelson, “The Development and Neural Bases of Face Recognition,” Infant and Child Development, Volume 10, Issue 1-2 (2001): 3-18, doi: 10.1002/icd.239.
39 Ibid., 40 Anthony White, “The Trouble with Twins Yoruba: Image and Ritual of the Yorube ère ìbejì,” Emaj Art Journal Online, Issue 5 (2010): http://emajartjournal.com/past-issues/issue-5/, 1, emphasis mine.
41 Alessandra Piontelli, Twins: From Fetus to Child (London: Routledge Publishing, 2002), 21.20
42 Ibid., 21
51 Grimberg, Salomon, “Frida Kahlo: The Self as an End,” in Mirror Images: Women, Surrealism, and Self-Representation, ed. Whitney Chadwick, 82-105 (Massachusetts: Massachusetts Institute of Technology, 1998), 97.
52 Ibid., 97-98. 25
53 Ibid., 98 26