Retroactive Selfies: The Return to/of the Boy in the Avocado Bathtub

Asphalt Expressionism collage

For my exhibition Asphalt Expressionism (Aberystwyth University School of Art Museum and Galleries, 13 Feb. – 28 Apr. 2023), I once again rummaged through decades-old photo albums in search of pictures of myself as a walker in New York City.  Some of them had been displayed as part of my show Travelling Through: Landscapes/Landmarks/Legacies in 2018-19.

As I browsed those old albums, I was reminded of an unsettling homecoming in 2022, when, on a dark December afternoon, I returned to my mother’s house for the first time in about thirty-four years.  I had lived in that house – one in a row of unassuming bungalows in a small town in the dull flatness of North-Rhine Westphalia – for about fifteen years, during which time, in the process of growing up that many deem concluded all too prematurely, I gathered a great many memories, not many of them great, that made me eager to forget the place.  And although my skin never developed the thickness of an elephant’s hide, I cannot but remember.

You can’t go home again, Thomas Wolfe reminds us; but when we do return to the places we once called home – whether by choice or not – it can hit home hard that whatever home may be is a construct the mind makes even when it is not made up on that point. A lot of what happened or befell us where we come back for a second or umpteenth look is bound to topple from the shelves to which we relegated some of those none-too-precious but relentlessly durable mental keepsakes.

The living room in my parents’ house was never my place, even though it held several attractions: a good stereo system, courtesy of my paternal grandmother, and, after years of resistance from my father, who held that the technology had not been perfected yet, a colour television set.  My room was more of a listening post; apart from drawings I made, the comics I consumed and the magazines I scoured for material to luxuriate in, vivid dreams were produced there, many with the aid of a radio and cassette recorder.

Since then, my Kinderzimmer had been repurposed, although its current state said nothing more distinctly about its present purpose than “spare.”  None of the cheap furnishings had survived, and the change of décor did little to revive, revise or confirm the images that, originating there, I had been carrying in my mind since the late 1980s.

It was the most private place in the house – the shared bathroom – that brought back the identity crises I experienced growing up queer: the shame of developing breasts that waited long for the development of pectoral muscles; the attempts at concealing the unseemly tissue by stretching my t-shirts and tying them around my genitals; the anxieties that caused me to scratch the skin off my ankles that, raw and oozy, were then soaked, doctor’s orders, in a bidet filled with salty water.

Memories tend to come back faster and with greater force when we return to the places where there were made.  That was certainly the case when I stepped into Mutti’s abode (my father having left and since died decades ago).  The interior was like a time capsule.  Not only the furniture was unchanged, but all the bric-a-brac was still in the same spots my mother had set aside for their display and regular dusting.  

The self-exploration that happened in that room also took a creative turn, as, transitioning from adolescence to dreaded adulthood, I took what I now call retroactive selfies: photographs of my body that I initially produced mainly for my eyes only but that I am now, in this post, making public for the first time via the social medium of blogging so as further to blur boundaries the maintenance of which can cause so much sustained and needless suffering.  

Once we do decide to “come out,” we soon realize that we do not come out once only: we must do so over and over again, and each time we come out – and come out looking – differently, like an inadvertent burst of digital photographs that, owing to a finger staying put too long, shows our poses changing and our masks slipping.

Excusing myself from the dinner table during my short visit to my mother’s, I secreted myself in the bathroom, that anti-parlour of abjection.  Not that I needed to go.  What I needed was to go look at myself in the mirror that, in my youth, became a lens of self-exploration.  I needed to return to the spot where I had once stood and posed – donning masks and dappled in spraypainted dots – a young person, once called “the battle of the sexes” by a classmate, learning to live in and with the strangeness of a changing body, an organism that I seemed to be invading and that rejected me as much as I was rejecting it.  

Uneasy, curious and ever self-reflexive, the boy in the avocado bathroom is not gone, though none may recognize him now.  He is a persona still grappling with the challenge of achieving personhood: a retroactive selfie.

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