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Graduate student’s artwork harnesses hyper-femininity to comment on identity

Design media arts graduate student Maya Man poses in front of an art installation. Man’s solo exhibition, “Secrets From a Girl,” occurred from April 19 to 21. (Christine Kao/Daily Bruin staff)

By Mindy Luo

April 26, 2022 8:31 p.m.

This post was updated April 27 at 10:27 p.m.

Maya Man is refreshing the tab and building her avatar offline.

Expanding upon her background in computer science and website design, the design media arts graduate student opened her first solo show titled “Secrets From a Girl” at the Broad Art Center on April 19. Man said she specializes in browser-based generative art, a medium that allows her creations to exist as live algorithms in the digital universe. Named after a Lorde song in which a woman imparts wisdom to her younger self, she said the exhibit is similarly a reflection on female adolescence and how gender performance is guided by internet culture.

“My identity has been extremely shaped by the time that I spend online,” Man said. “I want to make work that is native to the internet and that I put online that also comments on it (the internet).”

Man’s interest in the consumption of online information is exemplified in “Read it and Weep,” one of the exhibit’s three code-based projects, she said. The generative piece is a website that extracts excerpts from Man’s personal diary entries, sociological articles on gender, as well as random web fragments which she refers to as internet trash, Man said. In order to capture how one is constantly curating and altering their identity online, she said she constructed the algorithm to unpredictably layer the word fragments on a screen in varying fonts.

Man sits at a vanity in front of a laptop displaying snapshots, which are also seen on the computer beside the vanity. For "Secrets From a Girl," Man said she wanted to transform the exhibit space into one that looked similar to her childhood bedroom. (Christine Kao/Daily Bruin staff)
Man sits at a vanity in front of a laptop displaying snapshots, which are also seen on the computer beside the vanity. For “Secrets From a Girl,” Man said she wanted to transform the exhibition space into one that looked similar to her childhood bedroom. (Christine Kao/Daily Bruin staff)

[Related: Student crafts personal empowerment through fashion focused on the feminine]

As an ode to the lifestyle publication she grew up reading, Man said the exhibit’s poster fliers are designed to mimic the format of a Seventeen magazine cover. Man said by drawing comparisons between modern-day social media and popular 2000s beauty magazines, she intended to trace the progression of mediums that act as instructional manuals for young women. Including captions on the mock cover like “The Trick to Intersecting Art and Technology: He’ll LOVE This Move,” she said studying the language used in women’s magazines was vital to understanding the heteronormative, male gaze perspective it promotes.

“I think a lot about the language and how much is imparted about how a woman should be through this language and through these visuals,” Man said. “It’s in a way that’s framed as silly and fun and looked down on by the rest of the culture but has a very serious impact on us.”

Although her work critiques the role of societal conditioning in womanhood, Man said she does not consider her work to be fully satirical. When manipulating cultural products of hyper-femininity for creative purposes, she said disparaging commodities enjoyed by many women including herself would only perpetuate the misogynistic lens she aspires to confront. She said her approach is to express her genuine appreciation for femininity while examining the difficult relationship she has with it.

To explore girlhood, Man said she transformed the gallery space into the likeness of her childhood bedroom with the addition of a vanity and a pink punching bag. As a way of confronting society’s belittlement of hyper-femininity, Man said she aims to provide contexts in which the aesthetic can coexist with the traditionally male-dominated tech field by incorporating pink color palettes into her software-based arts practice.

Finding it a challenge to transition her artworks from a virtual space to a physical one, she said she experimented with several mediums of display. For “FAKE IT TILL YOU MAKE IT,” a piece that generates parodies of typical social media graphics, Man said she chose to project the piece on a wall to retain the characteristic square dimensions of Instagram posts.

Man holds her poster for the exhibition, which was modeled after the design of the Seventeen magazine, featuring satirical blurbs such as "The Trick to Intersecting Art and Technology: He’ll LOVE This Move." (Christine Kao/Daily Bruin staff)
Man holds her poster for the exhibition, which was modeled after the design of Seventeen magazine, featuring satirical blurbs such as “The Trick to Intersecting Art and Technology: He’ll LOVE This Move.” (Christine Kao/Daily Bruin staff)

[Related: Graduate student commentates on rigid art world through experimental game design]

As Man’s mentor, design media arts associate professor Laura Lee McCarthy said Man’s approach involves using her own self as a medium for experimentation. In the instance of “love/hate” – an installation that features a smartphone playing a compilation of Man’s personal TikTok dancing videos – fellow design media arts graduate student Camille Wong said she found it particularly evocative that Man was able to utilize her own internet persona in demonstrating the universal craving to be desired online. With the belief that anything one shares digitally becomes part of a performative act, Man said it is impossible for true authenticity to exist virtually.

“You become this singular identity, which can never represent anyone who’s a multi-dimensional person. So, it’s been really freeing for me in some ways to think of when I post on the internet – I always think of it as a performance,” Man said. “I’m not being fake. It’s just an exaggeration of a facet of my identity.”

Looking to the future, Man said the experience of curating the solo exhibit has inspired her to seek out more opportunities to present her virtual artwork in physical spaces. She said along with pursuing her MFA program, she hopes to continue using code-based work to discuss the cultivation of internet personas. Having recently taken a dance composition class, Man said she imagines her next venture will be integrating components of live performance art with digital arenas.

“I really hope people walk away thinking critically about how we present ourselves on the internet and how reciprocal the relationship is between ourselves and our identities and what we consume online,” Man said.

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