Archive for the ‘The Male Gaze’ tag
The noughties are commonly described as a decade in which celebrity culture proliferated, a decade which saw a massive increase in the commodification of sexualized imagery, also the decade of voyeurism via TV shows such as Big Brother. The American video artist and photographer Laurel Nakadate, born in 1975 and raised in Iowa, is an artist of the noughties. Seemingly engrossed with artifacts of popular culture, her earliest work Oops! from 2000 is a witty homage to Britney Spears’ classic hit Oops! I did it again – the music video of which caused a huge scandal for depicting Spears as not-so-innocent school girl. Nakadate meanwhile practiced and memorized Spears’ dance moves from the video and re-enacted them while filming herself with complete strangers – all of whom are single, white, middle-aged and rather unkept looking men. Crucially, the filming took place in the men’s homes while Nakadate appears to have deliberately positioned herself as vulnerable subject in their company. While Nakadate dances away to Britney Spears in a tight pink top, one men stand still, another awkwardly wiggles to the music, while another man mimics the artist’s movement. The resulting artwork split on three video screens makes for uncomfortable viewing.
Nakadate clearly lays out a powerful set of dichotomies in this work: the young, female artist, blessed with youthfully good looks, juxtaposes herself (and her body) against older men, apparently drifters or social outcast as the smudgy looking interiors of their homes might indicate. Nakadate’s well-practiced dance moves also clash with the men’s awkward bodies – an awkwardness further emphasized by the presence of the camera. Another important dichotomy in Oops!, and in much of Nakadate’s later work, is the notion of control: who is controlling whom, who is dominating whom, even, who is exploiting whom? It appears that despite purposefully situating herself and her body into a vulnerable position, emulating stereotypical depictions of gender such as Lolita, Nakadate is fully in charge of what is happening. She is the one with the camera thus ultimately in control what is being filmed and edited, she is the visual artist who is trained in what ‘type’ of imagery she is looking for, and lastly, despite depending on the understanding and hospitality of complete strangers, she is ultimately also in control of what subjects she wishes to perform her video with. As a result of deconstructing and inversing this complex power dynamic, the viewer, too, is asked to submit him or herself to Nakadate’s visual game.
In more recent works, Nakadate continues to explore notions of gender, voyeurism and control. With the help of the internet and social networking (another byproduct of the noughties) Nakadate posted an open casting call for young women in Syracuse, New York. The purposefully crude and shaky video footage in Good Morning Sunshine again makes for uncomfortable viewing as Nakadate’s intrusive camera enters the young women’s bedrooms who responded to the casting call. Like the men in Oops!, the women appear to have been, in one way or the other, quite carefully selected as they encapsulate a melange of teenage anxiety and innocence.
Nakadate further heightens the sense of anxiety by intruding on the girls’ personal space and giving them instructions as to what to do in front of the camera. Totally submitting themselves to Nakadate’s demands, the filming ends as each of the girls undress to their underwear. A teddy bear in one of the girl’s beds acts as a sign that Nakadate is trodding on dangerous territory in this work. While, on one hand, her subject’s appear innocent, on the other hand, the intrusion of the camera, the verbal instructions and the crude video footage situate Good Morning Sunshine in a visual aesthetic more commonly found in amateur pornography. Here too, despite not actually being in the frame itself, Nakadate’s body is part of the work as the shaky handheld camera refers to a corporeality beyond the frame of the video.
In 365 Days, A Catalogue of Tears, Nakadate photographed herself crying for every day in 2010. The photographs are displayed in grid formation creating a large montage of imagery that usually needs to be separated on several walls. Despite the large and potentially overwhelming amount of images, a browse through the work reveals a number of elements fairly quickly: in every photograph Nakadate is alone, in most of the photographs she occupies a private space, while her solitude and withdrawal from society is emphasized by dark and sometimes grainy printing techniques. On closer inspection it also becomes apparent that many photographs were taken in anonymous and alienating spaces. A courtesy bottle of water in a hotel room, a sign that indicates where the towels are located in an airplane toilet, the clinical interior of a waiting room – these are the signifiers of a transient existence. Nakadate’s ‘catalogue of tears’ is thus also a catalogue of America as she seemingly traverses the country in the pursuit of her art.
While Nakadate stopped short in asking her subjects to completely undress for the camera in Good Morning Sunshine, in 365 Days she routinely exhibits her naked body. By integrating windows, reflections and mirrors in her self-portraits, Nakadate is also referencing the very act of looking: that she is looking at herself and that the viewer is looking at her. Here, Nakadate also appears to borrow techniques from cinema, not only in the aesthetic construction of the image but also in the way the images are consumed: the hundreds of photographs viewed at a quick browse evokes the crude viewing experience of flicking through a thumb cinema. To a degree, by turning the camera on herself, Nakadate’s voyeuristic and investigative gaze functions as a commentary on the unyielding search for identity in an age that is over-saturated with images.
Laurel Nakadate: 365 Days: A Catalogue of Tears is available as book. Other recommendations can be found in our online bookshop.
Advertising for perfumes, particularly perfumes by female celebrities, is produced with amazing visual consistency. A brief glance at a variety of ads shows that there appears to be a formula for celebrity perfume ads in American popular culture: the celebrity is photographically represented alongside the perfume she advertises which is usually shown on the bottom, or more specifically, on the bottom right hand corner of the page. There might be a practical reason for this phenomenon in visual culture since, when flipping through a magazine, the right hand side of the page is, from an advertising perspective, more desirable. By showing the perfume bottle on the right hand corner, the reader encounters the product in the last instance as he or she turns the page. The first visual encounter in the ad is usually with the celebrity herself. In above example its Jennifer Aniston draped in a knitted blanket, sitting on a rock, with the sun setting on a beach. The ocean in the background, Aniston’s implied nudity and her windswept hair are strongly reminiscent of Botticelli’s Birth of Venus. The reference to water, a theme running through many perfume ads, also underlines the liquidity of the perfume itself.
Another theme explored in the perfume ad formula is the celebrity returning a gaze back to the spectator over her left shoulder. The pose is strongly suggestive of photographs taken on the red carpet in which the celebrities twist and turn to present their dresses to the assembled photographers. While Kylie Minogue is simply referred to as ‘Sexy Darling’, this emphasis on exhibitionism and a visual encounter with the celebrity is further stressed in Britney Spears’ ad for Curious. A man can be seen in the background to the photograph looking at Spears, while Spears herself is suggestively looking at the spectator. The slogan ‘Do you dare?’ further underlines a sexual element to the representation of gender, as if the spectator is invited to join the subjects into a hypothetical ménage à trois via the gaze.
Halle by Halle Berry and Eva by Eva Longoria also submit to the perfume ad formula of celebrity returning a gaze back to the spectator over the left shoulder. In both cases, the name of the perfume is the first name of the celebrity herself, whereas the name is written in such a way that it looks like the celebrities’ signature. This is an important element in the ad since, as it appears, the perfume is not only endorsed by the celebrity, but rather, it’s created by the celebrity herself. Like the artist signing his artwork, the celebrity signs her creation. I am using the word sign in the semiotic sense – the sign as a signifier. Her the signature signifies the celebrity’s assumed personal affiliation, even creation, of the perfume.
The perfume ad formula, because it is so consistently reproduced, appears to foster a culture in which ads are also copying other ads. Apart from Halle by Halle Berry and Eva by Eva Longoria, this can also be observed in Deseo by Jennifer Lopez and M by Mariah Carey. Both Deseo and M make references to a tropical wilderness in which the female subject appears carefree, ‘swinging’ with the rhythm of nature. The celebrity is represented as Tarzan’s Jane: scantily clad, wild, sexually available. A more historic reference to Jean Honoré Fragonard’s The Swing also suggests that here the swinging also evokes connotations of voyeurism. The alternative use of the word ‘swinging’ clearly situates the ads in a context of promiscuity.
With these many references to sexuality, it is not surprising that another major theme in the perfume ad formula is the bedroom. Jessica Simpson’s head is resting on a pillow while Mariah Carey is reclining on a bed. The skin coloured silk is, in both cases, alluding to the subjects’ nudity in the confines of her bedroom. Here, the perfume ad evokes connotations of the boudoir, or, in other words, an intrinsically private and intimate space. The spectator is invited to join the celebrity to a space that is exclusive, suggesting that the consumption of the perfume also manifests an exclusive relationship with the celebrity.
Despite the many references to an intimate and apparently heterosexual relationship with the celebrity in mass media and culture, it is important to stress that the ads are mostly reproduced in women’s magazines. In other words, the representation of gender in the perfume ad formula ads is designed for a female spectator. The typology of the perfume ad formula thus brings up a visual paradox in feminist visual culture. While the ads are designed for a female spectator, they apparently subscribe to the iconography of voyeurism, the commodification of women, even the visual codes of pornography. Beyonce’s Heat is one such example. What advertisers seeks to tap in here is the female consumer’s assumed desire to obtain a glimpse of the celebrities’ lifestyle in American popular culture. Here it is specifically her scent that might be desired. And having obtained her scent, it is suggested that the consumer becomes equally as desirable as the celebrity herself. However, desirability in the perfume ad formula always hinges on being visually desirable from the cliched perspective of a man. The perfume ad formula, rather than opening up new avenues for independent and successful celebrities, is actually further reproducing a hegemonic image economy that connects the fetishism of the commodity with the commodification and colonization of the female body.
“The Gold Painted Stripper”. It’s the kind of caption that is descriptive, pragmatic and to the point. We see a woman, dressed in a bikini, drinking a glass of water in, what appears to be, the backstage area of a strip club. She is photographed in profile thus accentuating her gesture and the shape of her body. She appears relaxed and undisturbed by the American photographer Weegee, a dimunitive, excentric and well-known visitor to New York’s nightclubs. Judging by the woman’s demeanour, Weegee might have asked for her permission to be photographed. He might have even payed her to pose for him. Weegee’s gaze is thus comparable to the gaze of the paying clientele in the strip club. A gaze that desires the complete uncovering of the body, yet at the same time, a desire that is never entirely fulfilled. As Giorgio Agamben has remarked in his book ‘Nudities’:
‘Strip-tease, that is to say, the impossibility of nakedness, is … the paradigm for our relationship with nudity. As an event that never reaches its completed form, as a form that does not allow itself to be entirely seized as it occurs, nudity is, literally, infinite: it never stops occuring.’
The stripper is part of this cycle of ‘teasing’, infinitely, the gaze of the clientele, but also, Weegee’s gaze, and by extension, our gaze. This cycle is signified by the water that she is drinking, suggesting that she is refreshing herself in preparation for the next show. And so, the cycle continues, show after show. And while the performances might vary (here she has covered her body in glittery gold paint), the premise will always remain the same. Although the photograph appears to be taken in the backstage area, the stripper, as a professional performer, did not seize to act towards the camera. She remains graceful, despite the rugged surroundings, holding her head up high, her body glowing in an otherwise murky world of vice. Compared to Susan Meiselas photographic series ‘Carnival Strippers’ from the 1970s, Weegee’s impression is far more sympathetic towards his subject. By photographing the woman from a lower vantage point, he makes her look strong and assertive. The sympathy is expressed, again, in the glass of water signifying that the stripper, despite being caught in an endless cycle of representing her body, has also real bodily needs.
Like in many of Weegee’s photographs however, the descriptive caption is not telling the whole story. Here, the caption simply confirms something that we can already see in the photograph. Much harder to identify are the men entering to room in the background. Their presence elevates the photograph to a complex narrative. Why are they entering the room? Who are they? Why is one man hiding his face? And, in particular, what is the content of the paper bags he is carrying? The hiding of the face deeply affects our reading of the potential content of the paper bags. While the face hides behind the stretched out hand, the content of the bag, too, is kept ‘undisclosed’. This hiding and veiling stands in complete contrast to the woman, who is almost completely bare. This was Weegee’s preferred working environment: a world of extremes, of paradoxes, of tensions and secrects.
The immidiate understanding of the man’s actions might be explained by Weegee’s very own presence. Here is a man who simply does not want to be photographed by Weegee. The pervasive flash picking up every little detail and the ‘shooting’ of his subjects earned Weegee a reputation for relentless and sometimes shocking revelations. His photographs of car crashes are bordering on the pornographic, and, earily foreshadow the scandalous Paparazzi photographs of Princess Diana’s fatal car crash.
Several Hollywood films have, in one form or another, made a reference to Weegee’s infamous persona: ‘The Untouchables’ featuring Kevin Costner and Sean Connery includes a scene in which a short built and over-eager photographer joins the police squad on their raids against New York’s crime syndicates during the prohibition era. In ‘The Road to Perdition’, a character played by Jude Law depicts a photographer obsessed with criminality and the underworld. This obsession is carried so far that the photographer himself turns into the criminal. Not only his photographs, but actually, Weegee himself has become and integral part of American visual culture.
This delight in the underworld is also apparent in ‘The Gold Painted Stripper’. The men entering the room, one can assume in the larger context of Weegee’s work, are part of this underground world. They are, as it appears in the photograph, literally, stepping down into Weegee’s trap. Stunned by his presence, the man raises his hand because has has something to hide. The mug that didn’t want to be shot. The distinct and troubled relationship between surveillance, voyeurism, identification and crime, all present in the man’s hand seeking to avoid, not the gold paint glowing from the woman’s body, but the flash of Weegee’s penetrating camera.
For more on this topic, please read Exposed: Voyeurism, Surveillance, and the Camera Since 1870. Other recommendations can be found in our online bookshop.