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Fantasy Kits: Steven Meisel's State of EmergencyAuthor: k-punk • Sep 25th, 2006 •
‘Obscene mannequins’. ‘Conceptual deaths’. The eroticisation of violence in the media landscape… the stunning ‘State of Emergency’ spread in the current Vogue Italia seems to come straight out of JG Ballard’s Atrocity Exhibition…
A few weeks ago, I asked whether it would be possible ‘for there to be a pornography, sponsored by Dior or Chanel, scripted by a latter-day Masoch or Ballard, whose fantasies were as artfully staged as the most glamorous fashion photo shoot?’ Steven Meisel’s Vogue photo-shoot, much more than Mike Figgis’s drearily vanilla promotional films for Agent Provocateur, suggests that such a pornography is conceivable.
‘State of Emergency’ shows, once again, that it is left to high fashion to take up the role that fine art has all but abandoned. While much of fine art has succumbed to the ‘passion for the real’, high fashion remains the last redoubt of Appearance and Fantasy.
The used tampons and pickled animals of Reality Art offer, at best, tracings of the empirical. Their quaint biographism reveals nothing of the unconscious. Meisel’s elegantly-staged photographs, meanwhile, drip with an ambivalence worthy of the best Surrealist paintings. They are uncomfortable and arousing in equal measure because they reflect back to us our conflicted attitudes and unacknowledged libidinal complicities. (In this respect, they form a sharp contrast with the infinitely more exploitative image being used to front the American Express Red campaign, whose meaning is easily anchored to the co-ordinates of the currently dominant ideological constellation.)
Reframed as Art, the Vogue photographs would no doubt be described — in the all-too familiar terms of art-critical muzak — as ‘negotiating with ideas of violence/ terror/ etc.’ As high fashion, they meet instead with a type of liberal denunciation that is no less familiar. In the Guardian, Joanna Bourke complained that, ‘It is no coincidence that the security forces are shown to be protecting us from a person who is neither male nor obviously Muslim’. Would Bourke have preferred it, then, if the images did feature a Muslim man?
Instead, the terrorist threat is an unreal woman. In contrast to the security personnel depicted, she is placed beyond the realm of the human. Her skin is as plastic as a mannequin’s; her body is too perfect, even when grimacing in pain. When the model is depicted as the aggressor, she remains nothing more than the phallic dominatrix of many adolescent boys’ wet dreams. In both instances, the beauty of the photographs transforms acts of violence and humiliation into erotic possibilities.
Again, what would Bourke have preferred: simulated snuff in which ‘real-looking’ women were roughed up by security staff? Bourke’s hostility to the fantasmatic is oddly doubled by the aggression of the security personnel towards the ‘unreal’ women. And what does it mean to substitute an ‘unreal woman’ for an all-too-real Muslim male, in any case? What does the confusion of ontological levels — agents of reality conjoined with the waxy artificiality of Bellmer-doll fashion models — tell us? The photographs are fascinating and unsettling because there are no straightforward answers to these questions.
Needless to say, Meisel’s photographs do find erotic possibilities in violence and humiliation, but this is not so much a ‘transformation’ as a rediscovery. Two hundred years after Sade, a century after Bataille and Masoch, it appears that anything which publicly acknowledges that eroticism is inseparable from violence and humiliation is more unacceptable than ever. The issue is not how ‘healthy’ sexuality can be purged of violence, but how the violence inherent to sexuality can be sublimated. Meisel’s photographs — which, we should remember, appear in a magazine the vast majority of whose readership is not ‘adolescent males’ but women — are ‘fantasy kits’ which offer just such sublimations, providing scenarios, role-play cues and potential fantasmatic identifications.
‘State of Emergency’ demonstrates that, rather than simply retaining its capacity to shock, The Atrocity Exhibition is more disturbing than ever. The overt sexualisation and compulsory carnality of postmodern image culture distracts us from the essential staidness of its rendition of the erotic. As Baudrillard argues in Seduction, biologised sex functions as the reality principle of contemporary culture: everything is reducible to sex, and sex is just a matter of meat mechanics. Ours is an age of cynicism and piety, which, as Simon suggested in his initial post on ‘State of Emergency’, primly and pruriently resists the equivalences between eroticism, violence and celebrity that Ballard explored.
Entering the exhibition, Travis sees the atrocities of Vietnam and the Congo mimetised in the ‘alternate’ death of Elizabeth Taylor; he tends the dying film star, eroticising her punctured bronchus in the over-ventilated verandas of the London Hilton; he dreams of Max Ernst, superior of the birds’.
JG Ballard, The Atrocity Exhibition
To imagine the atrocities of September 11th and Abu Ghraib mimetised in the alternate death of Paris Hilton feels far more unacceptable, because contemporary piety has sacralised its atrocities in a way that the 60s could not. In Atrocity, Dr Nathan’s reminder that, at the level of the unconscious, ‘the tragedies of Cape Kennedy and Vietnam…may in fact play very different parts from the ones we assign them’ is extremely timely. (As Burroughs tells us in his preface to The Atrocity Exhibition, ‘Surveys indicate that wet dreams in many cases have no overt sexual content, whereas dreams with an overt sexual content in many cases do not result in orgasm’.) It is clear that the appalling Abu Ghraib photographs were already intensely eroticised stagings whose scenarios were derived from cheap American pornography. Love and Napalm: Export USA, indeed*. Part of the reason that the Abu Ghraib images were so traumatic for a deeply conflicted American culture which combines religious moralism with hyper-sexualised commerce, and which is united only by a taste for megaviolence, is that they exposed the equation between military intervention and sexual humiliation that the official culture both depends upon and must suppress.
It’s interesting to compare both The Atrocity Exhibition and ‘State of Emergency’ to Martha Rosler’s series of collages, Bringing the War Home. ‘Sixties iconography: the nasal prepuce of LBJ, crashed helicopters, the pudenda of Ralph Nader, Eichmann in drag, the climax of a New York happening: a dead child’: this typical section from The Atrocity Exhibition could almost be a gloss on Rosler’s images, with their irruptions of war and atrocity amidst domestic scenes. But in Rosler’s case, unlike in Ballard’s, surrealist juxtaposition has a clear polemical purpose. The Atrocity Exhibition, like ‘State of Emergency’, is devoid of any decipherable intent; the oneiric juxtapositions in Ballard’s and Meisel’s work seemed to be conceived of as neutral re-presentations of the substitutions and elisions made by the mediatised unconscious.
Meisel’s fantasy kits, their narratives left implicit and mysterious, suggest ways in which Ballard might be adapted in future. Part of the problem with Weiss’s film adaptation of The Atrocity Exhibition is that it subordinated the fragmentary mode of the novel to the duree — the lived time — of the feature film. The most successful part of the film was perhaps the first few moments, where Ballard’s text was intoned over still images in a style reminiscent of Marker’s La Jetee (a film which Ballard adores, of course). That is partly because it is the profound stillness of the Surrealist paintings which The Atrocity Exhibition describes and appropriates — their beaches drained of time — which sets the rhythm of the novel. The most successful adaptation of The Atrocity Exhibition would, precisely, be an exhibition — not only of photographs, but also of newsreel footage, mandalas, diagrams, paintings and notebooks. It would be left for the viewer-participant to assemble their own narratives from these fantasy kits.
*Love and Napalm: Export USA — title of The Atrocity Exhibition’s original American edition
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