A History of Narcissism

The first thing I notice is the dirty sole of a foot. It makes me think of all the hours I’ve spent barefoot. I take out the trash and ignore the rotting meat stink coming from the garbage bin because I know it’s maggots and I can’t stomach spraying it down with bleach in the mid-July heat; I drag my feet across the floors of the dance studio and feel the ashy gray dust collecting on my heels despite the half our the dance instructor spent vigorously mopping; I pace back and forth in the yard while on yet another dull work call and narrowly miss stepping in a hardened mound of our dog’s shit. I make a mental note to clean it up later but forget.

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Vahid Sharifian, A History of Narcissism (2020). Image courtesy of the artist.

I look closer. Perhaps the earthy colors are merely meant to suggest shadows, but I cannot help but perceive the feet as filthy, grimy, and evidence of a flagrant disregard for personal hygiene. I pull my face back instinctively, my brow furrowing and my lips pursing like a wrinkled scrunchie. The light-blue upholstery of what appears to be a sectional looks easily stainable and the subject’s foot hovers inches from leaving a faint imprint of dirt. I find myself absurdly wishing that I could use a pumice stone to scrape away the khaki-colored callouses.

The foot is the most inconsequential detail of Vahid Sharifian’s A History of Narcissism (2020), but it reaches out towards me and guides my eye up the figure’s taut leg and toward the focal point of the painting. A woman is widely sprawled across a couch and is gingerly holding her decapitated head to her groin with arms that look frail and airy like a chicken’s wishbone, easily breakable.

She is undoubtedly performing cunnilingus on herself.

One of her tits rests neat and blood splattered in the crook of her arm. Her outstretched leg and flexed foot suggest she is about to climax, overemphasized by the upward fountain of blood emerging from the open hole of her neck. She is holding her shoulders high and tight to her body like a shy teenager recoiling from their father’s affirming shoulder pat used in place of an affectionate hug. The background unnervingly looks like two hallways converging, suggesting a semi-public space. We are voyeurs watching her.

After spending several months in self-isolation, I don’t balk at the idea of prying my head from my shoulders like I am unstopping a bottle of cabernet sauvignon so that I can pleasure myself. Even the vaguest fantasy of a hand running the length of my stubbly thigh made my eyes roll back into my head earlier. So, I stare at A History of Narcissism and nod sympathetically. I remember clicking endlessly through PornHub until I finally give up after 87 pages of flesh-colored thumbnails and masturbate to nudes that I took of myself earlier that day. Is that narcissistic? I think of all the times I have playfully joked that I would love to have sex with a clone of myself because who knows how to pleasure me more than myself.

Sharifian posted the painting to Instagram on March 11. I am retroactively and zealously scrolling through the comments. Most of them are boring and contrite, asking if they can buy the work or someone just leaving a few emojis. Yet, there is one authored by @paleluminos that makes me quietly gasp and immediately feel stupid for fixating on a dirty foot that may not even be dirty and for inserting my own sexual desire into the painting like a stray cat climbing through your garage (Please forgive their grammar and spelling. I don’t think English is their first language):

“not the egoism love, sexy cannibalism, eating and drinking from her entity. self-destruction by the hidden hands of the pleasure. as the nature, is feeding the creatures from their own existence. tribulation through each root.you do the same with a little difference. it just appears with full version. there are many kinds many ways... to eat me to drink me.”

Their comment makes me think of Björk’s song “Bachelorette,” where she sings “I’m a fountain of blood, in the shape of a girl… drink me, make me feel real.” The subject of A History of Narcissism has quite literally become a fountain of blood with a volley of variously sized blood droplets cascading down her body. Yet, she is not asking us to eat her, to drink her, to pleasure her. She has buried her own head between her legs and we watch as she takes herself in her mouth. What must she taste like? Sweat and warm flesh and the perfume of wanting. What would she feel like? Soft and uneven and delicate like the salmon I cooked for dinner, crumbling easily into rosy pink slivers. We will never know.