/jean-renÉ Leblanc - Body Rituals
The BODY RITUALS series is a personal exploration of the concept of new male subjectivity, the fluidity and discontinuity among sex, gender, and identity, and the phantasmic processes of constructing the body. The strategic conflation of lace, a "male" body and the absence of any specific genitalia operates to destabilize any visual reading or assumptions of gender constructed on a strict historical binary framework. The absence of the head acts to liberate the gaze from the dualistic world of desire. Such mobility of gender offers to the viewer a possibility of transgressing prescriptive notions of desire.
JEAN-RENÉ LEBLANC is the Head of the Art Department and professor of digital arts at the University of Calgary in Canada. He is co-founder of the Sensorium Lab, a cross-disciplinary group focused on research and development of systems of interaction that encourage kinesthetic perception and interpretation.
/Jean-René LeBlanc’s series of photographs, Body Rituals, presents fourteen androgynous torsos against as many nonexistent white backgrounds. Lacking marks of identity such as faces and unambiguous marks of sexual difference such as genitals, they foreground bodily forms that have been reduced or abstracted to the performance of gender. The lithely muscled bodies are marked with nipples, with hair, and – in some of the images – with breasts and buttocks evoked and sculpted in a delicate pattern of lace. Clearly feminine, the lace transforms male skin into new bodily forms, disrupting the distinction between the natural body and the social construction of gender. It sticks to the skin ambiguously, both displaying and hiding the body parts it constructs.
Lit harshly and directly from the side, the bodies are deliberately stone-like. The cropping from the neck to the thighs recalls the forms and shapes of classical sculpture, but also – in some poses – of hard body culture. The near life-size presence of the depictions underscores both the physicality of the photographic medium and the photographs’ painterly qualities. Just as the lace seems inseparable from the skin, so does the skin seem inseparable from the photographic surface, its texture, and its pictorial aspects. The bodies cross the frame in a slant, as an arc or a stripe, they reach upward and beyond, they occupy the frame frontally in self-display. Always extending to the top and bottom edges, the figures are captured in shots that comprise a series of oversized strips or clinical slices. They are excerpts from a body whose integrity they both evoke and deny. The camera captures this body as it is but also crops it and cuts it, reproducing and multiplying it as simulacra. And the images meet this recording gaze with a self-appropriating reduction of substance and bodily form to surface that denies the camera any entry into the inner identity of what it records. In abstracting these bodies onto the surfaces of multiple media, the images thus also challenge the claims that photography has historically made as an index of reality.
This display resists that “chronic voyeuristic relation to the world” that Susan Sontag diagnosed three and a half decades ago (1) – a visual age that seems quaint in comparison to the present digital stream. In their decency, even modesty, the images push back against the commercial and pornographic currents in contemporary visual cultures, while also posing the question of what happened to the hyper-politicized, polemical clashes provoked by photographs of the body at the height of the culture wars of the last two decades. They make themselves explicit only in the negative, in nipples and breasts that have been sexualized as feminine by the pattern placed over them. These qualities distinguish LeBlanc’s images from those they evoke. The photographic composition recalls Mapplethorpe’s late, geometric studies of bodily form, including images of the body-builder Lisa Lyon. And the images’ ambiguous play with gender echoes Volcano de La Grace’s more recent images of butch, masculine bodies shot from behind or with faces occluded by clothing. Wearing military uniforms or camouflage, the bodies in de La Grace’s images reiterate the question of passing on multiple levels: in the bodies themselves; in the signs of military membership and the social and physical construction of subjects this demands; in the re-staging of these signifiers as markers of queer communities; and in the ambiguous intentions of violent refuge originally embedded within the camouflage and its blurring of nature and culture. (2) Both Mapplethorpe and de la Grace stake out semiotic possibilities that LeBlanc’s images exploit but also temper. The images in Body Rituals eschew the outsized, outrageous phalluses or the hard masculine contours of Mapplethorpe’s physiques; they make gender trouble not through the physical presence of the bodies they depict but through the photographic construction of these bodies. And they stage the question of passing as an elemental composition in which bodily form, ornamentation, and photographic medium coincide. They cite the conventions of gender performance that have always been prominent in photography – the incongruity this tradition exploits between bodies, clothing, and selves – to then reduce that play to forms that have become more fluid and less theatrical. (3)
The character of these images resides, in short, both in and on the skin – supple, pliant, radiant, taught, aged, wrinkled, with darks folds and voids, and sprouting hair that is almost hidden yet stubbornly obtrusive. We cannot say whether this skin is the surface of the body or of the photograph, just as we cannot tell the natural body apart from its ritual adornment and ornamentation with the lace. It is this lace, of course, that also transforms these bodies into hand-drawn studies and sketches, though we cannot say how they have been created or applied. The lace pattern marks are negatives of a process, industrial or not, that produces fabric as a second skin.
Immediately before drawing the explosive conclusion from his theory of sexual selection that humans must have evolved from “some lower form,” Charles Darwin turns to the topic of body hair, tattooing, and bodily ornamentation. (4) His suggestion that humans must have lost the hirsute skins of an earlier ancestor as a consequence of sexual selection implies a corollary that this evolutionary process was then supplanted by aesthetic practices, which found in the naked skin a canvas for cultural expression. In “savages,” he argues, the passion for ornamentation plays out on the skin even at the cost of “extreme suffering,” which in “civilized” societies has become the impermanent fashions of dress. (5)
Body Rituals takes up the camera as one radically modern technology for aesthetically reconstructing the body. The series can thus be read as an archaeology of those unstable displacements and fraught distinctions – between nature and culture, savages and civilization, and of course male and female – that symptomatically erupt in Darwin’s attempt to reconcile sexual impulses and aesthetic technologies. The images stage, as photographic imaginations, the multiplicity and instability of the gendered ideals we project onto bodies, and of the natural body itself as a ground beyond or before our cultural constructions. By delicately evoking this photographic history, its transformation of body to surface, and its power to elicit desire, the images reveal this archeology from within the fetishistic potential of photography itself.
/2 Three recent catalogues give a comprehensive overview: Robert Mapplethorpe and the Classical Tradition, exhibition at Deutsche Guggenheim, Berlin (Berlin: Deutsche Guggenheim, 2004); Mapplethorpe: Polaroids, exhibition at Whitney Museum of American Art, with an essay by Silvia Wolf (Prestel Verlag, Berlin / London / New York, 2008); and Robert Mapplethorpe: Perfection in Form, ed. Franca Falletti and Jonathan Nelson (New York: teNeues, 2009).
/3 I am thinking here of two excellent volumes, the catalogue Rrose is a Rrose is a Rrose: Gender Performance in Photography, Guggenheim Museum New York, 1997, organized and edited by Jennifer Blessing (Guggenheim Museum Publications); and Helene Reckitt’s Art and Feminism (London: Phaidon Press, 2001).
/4 Charles Darwin, The Descent of Man, and Selection in Relation to Sex (New York: Penguin, 2004; 2nd edition originally 1879), see Part III, “Sexual Selection in Relation to Man, and Conclusion,” pp. 621 ff.; here p. 675
MICHAEL THOMAS TAYLOR is an Assistant Professor of German at the University of Calgary. He has published on the history of aesthetics and of literary and theatrical criticism, on the reception of the German enlightenment, and on cultural imaginations of the bourgeois family. Together with Annette Timm, he recently curated the exhibition PopSex! at the Alberta College of Art + Design.