Kate Random Love
Stories Masquerading as Objects: Manuel Vason's Photographic Collaborations.
Manuel Vason's portraits of artists such as Ron Athey, Franko B, Helen Spackman or Guillermo Gómez-Peña, are presented as collaborations, creative unions between Vason with his camera, and another artist. The encounter with such works is a confrontation with the play of presence and absence that permeates these images: a confrontation, that is, with the logic of the fetish. The Freudian formulation of the fetish seems an appropriate interpretative model with which to approach Vason’s photographic practice, in that the latter turns on the same process of substitution and disavowal that structures the psychoanalytic concept. The photographic documents that we are presented with in this volume are asked to take the place of a live event; however, they should be distinguished from conventional documents of performance in that each one records a unique and exclusive encounter between two artists, an always already lost event. We could never have been present to the event; they are works that have been performed, and often created specifically for an audience of one, namely Vason.
In his important essay of 1985, ‘Photography and Fetish, Christian Metz proffers an understanding of photography in terms of the Freudian concept of the fetish:
[T]he off frame effect in photography results from a singular and definitive cutting off which figures castration and is figured by the click of the shutter. It marks the place of an irreversible absence, a place from which the look has been averted forever. The photograph itself, the ‘in frame’, the abducted part-space, the place of presence and fullness—although undermined and haunted by the feeling of its exterior, of its borderlines, which are the past, the left, the lost—a … shares, as we see, many properties of the fetish (as object), if not directly of fetishism (as activity).
In his 1927 account of the fetish, Freud proposes that the male child, confronted with the mother's missing penis, represses this lack and finds some object to stand in as substitute—usually something close to the space of absence, such as hair, underwear, or a shoe. This substitution relieves the child’s castration anxiety, the threat of which is disavowed by the substitution, thus restoring, through displaced way, the erotic attachment. I want to focus my study not on the original, missed performance, but on the photographic object that stands in its place: the shiny, tangible, present something through which I can disavow the loss of the originary event from which I was excluded. I want to discursively cut off these images from the moment of private and exclusive collaboration in which they were made, and attempt to resituate them as photographic practise within the public context of contemporary visual art. In doing so, I am aware that I am partaking in the activity of fetishism myself, guarding against the anxiety of an original loss by a process of substitution (the photograph stands in for the lost performance event) and disavowal (but these are photographs and thus must be thought about only in the context of photography).
The stylised composition and glossy appearance of the images bear the trace of Vason’s training in fashion photography, a genre that frequently draws on the logic of fetishism in its composition. Since its earliest incarnation, fashion photography has been characterised by a stylisation, fragmentation and objectification of the (usually female) body. Conventionally, it has deployed artistic strategies such as the cropping, substitution and abstraction, perhaps in order to alleviate the castration anxieties aroused by the potentially mutilated/mutilating woman by displacing attention onto an idealised image of illusory wholeness. Regarding early fashion photography, Sandra Philips notes, “Horst, Hoyningen, Huene, Blumenfeld and Lee Miller all treated the beautiful woman as object… The fetishistic appreciation of gloves and hands, the personal character of objects such as jewellery, and the treatment of woman as a cold, distant, mechanical being were constraints in the pages of Vogue and Harper’s Bazaar.” As performance artists who enact unfamiliar and sometimes brutal (dis)figurations of the human body—the subjects of Vason’s photographic portraits perform the processes of masking, binding and reification employed in fashion photography, perhaps to an extreme. Vason’s collaborations with Ernst Fischer, for example, portray an artist who has bound, tarred, and feathered his body, transforming it into a new hybrid, animalistic form. In another image, recalling the work of Guy Bourdin, we see only Fischer’s bound legs and exposed bottom, melded into a desk, enacting the total objectification of the body that fashion photography so frequently strives for. Moreover, the fetishistic disavowal of difference enacted in fashion photography—where lack is displaced onto a substitute phallus—is taken to a parodic limit in Vason's collaboration with Anne Seagrave, Here, the signifiers of sexual difference are obliterated: a flat wooden plank covers her breasts, and she holds a hard, mechanical mixer tap in front of her missing genitals. By photographing performances that enact such fetishistic displacements, objectifications and fragmentations of the body employed in fashion photography itself, Vason’s work subtly deconstructs the formalities of the visual discourse that he simultaneously emulates, situating his work in the space between representation and critique.
While Vason trained as a fashion photographer, his photographic collaborations are, perhaps, first and foremost portraits. The move between fashion photography and portraiture has been made by many famous artists, such as Richard Avedon, Mario Testino and, more recently, artists such as Juergen Teller and Wolfgang Tillmans—as well as Nick Knight, with whom Vason trained. Knight began his career shooting the skinhead subculture of East London in the late 1970s, but is best known for his editorial photography on glossy fashion magazines including Vogue, Dazed & Confused, and The Face, as well as his portraits of celebrities such as Björk, David Bowie and Kylie Minogue. Vason shares Knight’s fascination with the intersection of social performance and the markings of marginal culture, allowing for a reading of his work in the context of documentary/insider photography. In the latter, the artist becomes a participant, a style exemplified in the work of artists such as Nan Goldin and Larry Clark. As Liz Kotz has observed in her discussion of Goldin's work: “[p]art of the pleasure this work offers is to allow the viewer to feel like an “insider”, an intimate, partaking in an experience that is neither public nor official.” Vason’s images are populated with stars of a relatively underground, subcultural art form whose extreme and often disturbing bodily performances are positioned at a tangent to the workings of the mainstream. Vason’s choice of photographic subjects, perhaps like those of Goldin or Clark, confirm the photographer’s status as privileged spectator, as an ‘insider’, promising us virtual access to normally unseen sights.
One of Vason’s favourite photographers and a clear influence, Richard Avedon has commented that portraiture is the culmination of a kind of performance. He states that the best portraits explore and expose this quality, as opposed to embarking on the impossible mission of revealing some authentic inner truth hidden inside the sitter. “The point is that you can’t get at the thing itself, the real nature of the sitter, by stripping away the surface. The surface is all you’ve got.” Avedon identifies the German expressionist painter Egon Schiele as one of the most exciting portraitists, observing,
Rather than attempting to abandon the tradition of the performing portrait (which is probably impossible anyway), it seems to me that Schiele pushed it to extremes. He shattered the form by turning the volume up to a scream. And so what we see in Schiele is a kind of recurring push and pull: first toward pure ‘performance,’ gesture and stylized behavior pursued for its own sake, studied for its own sake; then these extreme stylizations are preserved in form, but disoriented, taken out of their familiar place, and used to change the nature of what a portrait is.
We see this amplification of the performing portrait in the images included in this volume. Focusing on subjects who pursue gesture and stylised behaviour “for its own sake,” the photographic work of Vason and contemporaries such as Clark and Goldin each rehearse the performative nature of all portraiture. Goldin’s key series, The Ballad of Sexual Dependency, documented the lives of post-punk new-wave scenesters in a series of images depicting drug use and violent, aggressive couples. Larry Clark’s first publication, Tulsa (1971), showed a group of young drug users shooting up, fucking, and hanging around, and his later works similarly represent groups of adolescents engaging in similarly illicit, subcultural activities.
In depicting these normally impenetrable milieux, the photographs of Clark and Goldin—perhaps like Vason’s intimate images of private, unique performances—invite us into a space from which we are or have been prohibited from, while at the same time affirming our exclusion from it by positioning us as voyeur. Kotz draws attention to the repeated disavowals of voyeurism and the “constant affirmation of Goldin's status as insider, participant and survivor of the worlds that she records” in the discourse surrounding her work. “Presented under the guise of an ‘intimate’ relationship between artist and subject,” Kotz continues, “these images relegitimize the codes and conventions of social documentary [and] ignore the extraordinary power of the photographic language employed: a language with a history and an inscribed structure of power relations that cannot be easily evaded by the spontaneous performance before the lens.” The snapshot aesthetic favoured by Goldin and Clark contributes to this illusion of intimacy. In Vason's work, however, the highly stylised mien of the images—as suggestively polished as a pair of knee high leather boots, perhaps—prevents us from the very misrecognition of the photograph, as a substitute for a real encounter, that it simultaneously asks us to undertake. In Vason's portrait of Veenus Vortex for example, the scorched, headless, corpse-like figure, recumbent with arm aloft and genitalia exposed, explicitly recalls Marcel Duchamp’s paean to voyeurism, Étant Donnés (1946-66). As with Duchamp's diorama, we are precluded from investing the visual encounter with any sense of intimacy by the distancing sensation of voyeurism aroused by the sight of this naked figure, a sensation compounded by the knowledge that, without a head, this fallen bride cannot return our gaze. In this image, however, it is not only a sense of voyeurism that negates the intimacy of what we are seeing, but, once again, the distancing effect of the fetish. The vision of Vortex's double castration—her exposed gash and decapitated body—is contained and sublimated by the charred picture frame that surrounds her supine body. This frame within a frame doubly marks the image as representation, acting as a further proscription from the scene that it nevertheless invites us to enter.
The spaces inhabited by the junkies, transvestites and teenage delinquents in Clark and Goldin’s photographs are beyond the discursive realms of public and private; their inhabitants perform their subcultural identities in geographically marginal spaces—underground clubs, shooting galleries and flop houses—elsewhere from the mainstream, but always in front of an exclusive audience of intimates. In Vason’s photographic documents of private, performed collaborations, space is equally important, but where the environments depicted in Clark and Goldin's images contribute to a sense of authenticity, in Vason's work, location is used to achieve very different results. Carlos Noronhafeio, for example, is photographed in a disused warehouse; Helen Spackman's deathly white form hangs from a beam in a cramped attic space with loft insulation lagging the floor; and a cocooned Paul Hurley is shown suspended, larval, in the shell of a car partially submerged in the sea. These are alien spaces, radical different to the darkened theatre in which we might sometimes experience live art. This re-location operates as a dis-location, heightening our sense of unreality, disconnecting the image from any existing frame of reference, and compounding our sense of exclusion from an authentic encounter.
Vason’s carefully constructed, lush and glossy images also clearly differ from the work of Goldin and Clark's early projects in that they are not photographic documents of the everyday lives of subcultural scenesters, but rather visual records of a staged event, a collaboration between two creatively engaged participants. The recent work of Ryan McGinley, a young photographer based in New York, performs a similar distinction between taking pictures and making pictures. McGinley began his career documenting the hedonistic lives of his beautiful young friends, but in more recent work he has photographed happenings that have been carefully planned and constructed, such as his Trees series of 2003. The Trees images document a night when McGinley asked his friends to go to the woods, strip naked and climb a tree. In another of McGinley’s works, Everyone Interlocked, a group of mostly naked young people hold their breaths, link arms, and sink to the bottom of a lake. When constructing an image in this way, some of the artist's control is relinquished; McGinley or Vason may be able to formulate the idea, choose the location, and control colour levels, lighting and the framing of their subjects, but through situating their work upon, in McGinley's words, “the borders between being set up and really happening,” a new space of creative uncertainty and possibility is opened up. While Vason's practise may differ somewhat from McGinley's, in that McGinley's photographs document artistic interventions into the everyday life of a gang of friends, allowing the 'performance' to unfold naturally and by chance, and Vason's images portray highly successful artists engaged in their own carefully constructed act of artistic creation, each are brought to life by a shift from the dynamic of subject/object that structures the active artist and passive model scenario, towards a subject/subject(s) dynamic in which both parties are actively, creatively engaged.
Perhaps then these photographs should not, after all, be considered as fetishistic substitutions, through which we might paper over the loss of a performed encounter between two (or more) artists. Rather, perhaps, we should see these images as encounters between two artistic practices—between, that is, performance and photography. Performance tends to emphasise presence, that of the bodies of both the performer and audience; photography, on the other hand, as Metz observes, is dependent on absence, “stubbornly pointing to the print of what was, but no longer is.” Vason’s images exist in a space not of pure presence or pure absence, but rather, in the collision of these two very different art forms, in the space, simply, of pure collaboration.