As usual introductions go, the roots of “Moan” began when I first picked up a film camera at the age of fifteen. From then on, all the photographs that I produced with that machine, mechanically yet magically transformed my “snapshots” into “artistic creations”. I knew not how or why. I never got particularly technical, for it was always a larger message that I was searching to express. With this little black box, my eyes were opened to an ineffable symbolic world of beauty. Yet it was a beauty that had extremely morbid and haunting overtones. Again, I knew not how or why.
My own life experiences at this juncture had been uprooted from its warm innocence. I attribute it to opportunities, sometimes with accusatory blame. It would, like most things, continue to be unresolved. (Adolescence is a long-drawn process. We never quite leave adolescence, for we are perennially in flux). I was impressionable, but too introspective. At this time I fell in love with Man Ray and Andre Breton’s group of Surrealist geniuses but I was seduced by another illicit affair with the “lowbrow.” Pressing my nose up against the glossy prints of Vogue and Pop Magazine, my eyes peeping above its pages, I would watch American Beauty on repeat and psychoanalyze Lolita for the thrill of living in a fantasized world of fetishized dysfunction.
The sexiness of the taboo was fed to me through these mediums as I continued my own image making. Looking back, I do not condone it, nor do I condemn it—my thesis today is definitely both complicit as well as critical of the materials that proliferate the exotic side of the depraved. My voracious appetite for visual culture in the past has undeniably shaped my own aesthetic sensibilities today.
The gratuitous conflation of sex and violence as depicted in these various mediums are difficult to parse. Fashion editorials by photographers like Steven Klien and Nick Knight feature themes of a sadomasochistic nature, whereby models pose provocatively, dressed in nothing but PVC and leather. The various rhetorics surrounding such image-making were lost on fifteen-year-old me, who only saw the world of possibilities via representation. The feminist in me today might take the Catherine MacKinnon stance and question the objectifying treatment of women and the possibility that these images would lead to a mass acceptance of the sexual mistreatment of women. However, that very same feminist might also take the Gayle Rubin route and question the very MacKinnonian sexual politics that threatens to victimize a possibly legitimate sexual practice like S&M.
Regardless of the politics, I would venture to make this generalization by saying that there is nothing wrong with fashion editorials or films that glamorizes sex and violence – for we are visual creatures with romantic idealizations. No matter the subject of our own personal interests, we are always drawn to romanticized versions of reality. Take for example the urban poverty of the Dhavari slums in Mumbai that was transformed into a poetic circus in Slumdog Millionaire, the real and regrettable poverty of India polarized and filtered, nowhere to be found in Doyle’s rhythm of India. We are beings of ideals.
“Moan: the Monstrous Sublime” is my attempt at symbolically representing a romanticized idea of desire and eroticism in a manner that I know can never be achieved in real life, for practical intimacy is messy and sometimes boring.
Exchanging saliva. Digging tongues. Dinner stuck in molar dislodges and unwittingly drifts into partner’s mouth. Pubic hairs paste themselves on dry and sandy tongues. Unsheathed feet free of their leather encasements exuding a slight stench that pervades the room…
And the balletic play of domination versus subordination commences in a clothed platform they call a bed. The bed, a site of contradictions, is simultaneously a site of repose and a venue for activity.
This fundamentally grotesque and horrific nature of sexuality – of strange bodies touching, the unspoken fight for power – is something that paradoxically constitutes the experience of pleasure. The lump of unclean bodies that meet and fuse together is the ultimate construction of the Kristevian abject. During the sexual act, the individual figures metamorphose into a nameless aggregate. The subject (an individual) is in a constant wrestle between its own identity as a subject and its anonymity as an object as it exists as part of a pair, as half of a whole. How can something so monstrous – the wrestling bodies, the penetration – ever be beautiful in practice?
Perhaps we are primed to believe through a doublethink logic that Desire in practice is to be exalted. But how are we to know if there is such a thing as the pure, primal self? We are surrounded by pornography that displays sex as a performative act. We hang cheap reproductions of John Waterhouses on our walls that espouse medieval chivalry. We revere and desire the iconic women depicted by Gustav Klimt. We are bombarded by romantic comedies, dating websites, and pulpy beauty magazines that spout the bible of love and in extension, the veneration of this idea called “sex”. But this push for Desire’s perfection in art, literature and culture perhaps exists only as a figment of our imagination. Perhaps it is much like the body of Ingres’ Grande Odalisque, beautifully elongated and twisted in paints, absolutely repellent and inhumanely disjointed if we happened across her lounging on our neighborhood park bench.
Yet, for all my practical skepticisms on this notion called Desire, my realist’s scoff softens as my artistic sensibilities still falls prey to Desire’s hypnotic seduction.
Yes, we, and more importantly I, aestheticize this otherwise grotesque Desire, especially when representing them as images and words.
“Two bodies entwine, collide and fuse like hot, twisted metal, straining to weld together for eternity.”
Doesn’t this very metaphor of lusting bodies, elevate the sexual act into an idyllic sphere, a sphere that mere physical flesh could never attain?
“But when cooled, the contorted metal grates on each other’s surfaces, creating sparks that scratches and defaces.”
During the beginnings of the romantic era, Edmund Burke distinguishes two experiences: the experience of beauty that derives from pleasure and the experience of the sublime that stems from pain. The sublime has the power to inspire awe in its ability to provoke terror. Conceptually, it compels and enchants through its threat to destroy. Desire possesses these qualities, with its almost unfathomable ability to inspire and consume simultaneously. Desire pulls us in and we derive pleasure from it, but it also requires a contractual exchange: It demands your sanity and logic in return for its hidden fruits, stripping you bare of your strength and leaving you vulnerable.
Though the sublime is usually reserved for majestic landscapes, Burke finds a corporeal locus of the phenomenon in the gradual changes in gradient between a woman’s breasts and her collarbone. In my work, I expand this locus to encompass the entire female figure, for the female body is a nexus of gradual changes comprised of waves and curves. (They sometimes teach you in figure drawing classes to conceive the building blocks of the male body as multiple squares, and the female body as a series of circles). If one were to trace a finger along the curves of the female body, and locate each turning point on this infinite loop, one can find the paradoxical concept of the sublime. Each turning point holds a lever, seesawing, holding fear and repulsion on one side and pleasure and joy on the other. They coexist simultaneously to produce the Burkian sublime, where the attraction in fear and the Kristevian abject feeds the notion of Desire, hanging it in perpetual balance.
This paradoxical attraction of fear manifests itself in the historical conception of women, as her symbolic representation fluctuates between two extremes – the madonna and the femme fatale. The important embodiment of this woman, the woman that nurtures and the woman that threatens, is split into Mother Mary and Mary Magdalene in the Bible.
In her seminal piece, “Visual Pleasure and the Narrative Cinema”, Laura Mulvey ascribes the classical, mainstream Hollywood viewer as male who ultimately produces meaning and representation. In this chauvinistic creative process, the female is first and foremost a passive object that is displayed onscreen to be desired and possessed. However, in psychoanalytic terms, the female figure poses a deeper problem for her implication as the castrated, and therefore castrative, threat. Viewing the represented female figure thus becomes a dual mode of reception: a fetishistic scopophilia that places the figure on a pedestal and venerates it as a thing of beauty, while the other is a voyeuristic act wrought with sadistic tendencies to subjugate the female figure.
Linda Nochlin postulates that women in history were never the creator or the artist because of this male gaze. So, dear reader, what does it mean now, given that I am a woman and (presumably so) an artist, who symbolically defaces, decapitates, and manufactures the female bod(ies) in beautiful ways for a presumed male viewer? What does it mean to be both the bearer and the creator of meaning?
At the crux of it all, this exploration of attraction and repulsion; of subornation and power; of represented female body and implied male viewer culminates in my interest in dualisms and contradictions. It is fascinating… this astonishing ability for subjects to exist temporally in two diametrically opposing worlds.
As such, I leave you with an excerpt from Hans Bellmer extracted from his art treatise titled “Notes on the Ball Joint” to ponder the dualisms in Desire and the body.
“The groups of images of the body tend to remain intact, even after real amputations, we might think that the parts located within the framework of our description – the chin, armpit, arm, in addition to their true meaning, take one images of the leg, sex, etc., which their very “repression” has made available. That amounts to this: the body, as dreams do, can whimsically displace the center of gravity of its images. Inspired by a strange persuasion, it superimposes on some what it has removed from others, the image of a leg for example on that of an arm, of a sex on that of an armpit, creating “condensations”, “proven analogies”, “ambiguities”, “plays on words”, strange anatomical “calculations in probability”.” —Hans Bellmer, Notes on the Ball Joint, 1938.
To view all the images from the exhibit please visit www.junkoh.com.