FEATURE FORBIDDEN FRUIT
Two festival exhibitions of photography explore the boundaries between art, eroticism and pornography but, as Miranda France discovers, they reach very different conclusions.
Greten Gettian de Clerambault, Psychiatrist end Photographer Is at the French Institute until 4 Sept.
hey haven’t done it yet, but ifthe ' whim took them, Stills would be entirely justified in hiring a man in a natty suit to walk up and down outside their gallery, approaching potential customers and whispering, ‘Step inside mate, we’ve got lots of pictures of lovely boys and girls, all naked! And erections too!’
It would attract controversy, but then Stills isn’t afraid of that. Long before Marie Claire broke new ground by publishing pictures of a motley collection of men’s penises, Stills hosted Behold the Man, a show in which photographers lovingly lingered on the naked male body. Last year councillors and pillars of society gasped at the audacity of Stolen Glances: Lesbians Take Photographs and this year’s Addressing the Forbidden: Art Looks at Pornography — originally commissioned for Brighton Festival — is
even fruitier. Addressing the Forbidden goes well
beyond the tits-and-bums frontier of soft porn to the explicit images of Robert Mapplethorpe — the subject of a hugely controversial trial in the States — and Robin Shaw, who was even excluded from the Brighton Festival venue when a councillor objected to her pictures of women looking at men masturbating. There is an image by Amy Jenkins, in which a woman masturbates watched by a giant eye, and a quaint 19505 Robert Doisneau, in which a man lounges on his bed watched by a bevy of naked lovelies pinned to the wall.
But none of this is gratuitous: any lascivious punter who climbs Stills’ stairway to scandal will undoubtedly be disappointed — as will anti-pornographers looking to have their opinions confirmed. Far from a seedy expose, Addressing the Forbidden is as bright and cheery as a beach party. At first glance this could be the Royal Scottish Academy’s summer exhibition. Look closer and you see that those breezy colour paintings and photographs, even that large knitted cushion cover, all feature genitalia and delirious, orgasmic faces.
It is impossible not to have an opinion about pornography. Alasdair Foster, who curated this show and Behold the Man, marshalls his against anti-pornographers of every hue: ‘The reasons why the left and the right line up behind a word called
Addressing the Forbidden: Art Looks at Pornography is at Stills Gallery until 5 Sept.
pornography are various and their definitions are almost opposite. The right fears pornography because it stands for a loss of control. The left is worried about the misrepresentation ofwomen, the exploitation of weak people and the possibility of violence. although a great deal less violence is found in pornography than people imagine. It’s a marriage of convenience: they are mightier in expunging what they perceive to be the same thing by. well, getting into bed with one another’.
Nevertheless, he claims that his show covers the range of responses. This is not strictly true. Although the title ofthe exhibition suggests a variety ofopinions. there is no work on show that gets to grips with the images of humiliation and wretchedness that pornography conjures up for many women and men.
Foster is right to say that most people’s definitions of pornography are too fuzzy to
‘One show leaves nothing to the imagination, the other everything.’
be very useful when it comes to deciding what to do about it, ‘for most people it just means “something I think is beyond the pale”.’ But far from seeking clarification. this exhibition muddies the issue. Firstly it throws gay and straight porn together. ignoring that the whole issue ofgay pornography has become a symbolic part of the fight for freedom ofexpression. which is almost entirely the opposite of most heterosexual women’s feelings. Secondly. it
suggests that violence is not a part of
pornography, just five months after Canada’s Supreme Court revolutionised the
debate by ruling that there is a link between
pornography and sexual violence.
Addressing the Forbidden is up-beat, well-presented and often very funny and, even though it cannot claim to have done any more than ﬂirted with a subject that is almost impossible to do justice to, Foster deserves credit for getting the ball rolling. But a small, unﬂashy exhibition at the French Institute says a great deal more about sexuality, fetishism and voyeurism, and is every bit as provocative as Stills’ show.
Gaetan Gatian de Clerambault, born in 1872. was an inﬂuential psychaitrist working with the Paris police. He specialised in mental illness. wrote seminal text on hallucination and delirium, and would have been responsible for declaring criminals sane or insane.
Little more is known about Clerambault’s life and he would doubtless have disappeared into the abyss of history ifit were not for his extraordinary hidden
passion for Moroccan women’s traditional clothes. The fetish seems to have developed when Clerambault was sent to Morocco to convalesce after he was injured in the first World War. From then until the end ofhis life Clerambault is rumoured to have taken something approaching 40,000 photographs of Moroccan women. a small number of which are now at the French Institute.
Part ofwhat makes the pictures fascinating. and a bit eerie, is the story behind them. But there is also something bizarre in the way in which the women are made to assume unnatural, biology textbook poses. Their faces are almost never to be seen, their arms are held up awkwardly to the sides. These two aspects of the pictures — unnatural poses and faceless bodies — fall into the list of complaints that campaigners regularly rally against pornography, which is interesting, considering that there isn’t a whiff of nudity anywhere to be seen.
Clermabault once claimed that ‘the contact of the fabric with any part ofthe skin, a light touch and no crease, is sufficient to produce an orgasm’. He seems particularly to have derived a sexual thrill from imagining what the bodies he photographed might be like underneath their billowing drapes. It seems appropriate that the Festival’s two shows on eroticism should be so opposite: one leaves nothing to the imagination, the other everything.
14 The List 21 — 27 August 1992