Coinciding with the first edition of Curiosa—a new thematic section of international art fair Paris Photo, which focuses on the body, gender politics, and the question of eroticism—this new film from London-based director Stroma Cairns takes a sultry glance at the works on display, while getting the low-down from curator Martha Kirszenbaum. Rather than offering a straight-forward display of arousing snaps, the exhibition seeks to challenge our gaze around the fantasized and fetishicized body, tackling relations of power, domination, and gender. Archival and vernacular photographs share the walls with self-portraits, photomontage, and mise-en-scèneare from a truly historical sweep of image-makers, including the work of avant-garde feminist artists Natalia LL and Renate Bertimann.
Cairns’ film suggests that while photography has the capacity to empower—as with the homo-erotic portraits of Robert Mapplethorpe—it is also an inherently voyeuristic medium, where the lens and dark-room present naturally erotic metaphors for the making of images, which can also be easily disrupted. In this way, photography is about exposure. But then, so is sex itself.
Susan Sontag, oft cited when we talk about the art of images, saw photographers as “voyeuristic strollers who discover the city as a landscape of voluptuous extremes.” Many of the artists featured here lay claim to this sense of photography as being spatial; in so far as sexuality must always happen somewhere; from New York cold water apartments to the alleyways of Tokyo, the images remind us that the erotic always occurs amid the seemingly un-erotic, humdrum world around us, amplifying what is both risque and risky about capturing sexuality on film.
As Kirszenbaum explains, the film and exhibition challenge and disrupt what we think we know, and come to expect, about sexualized imagery. “Some male artists disclose a fragmented masculinity and a weakened male body, as in the works of Antoine d’Agata or Karoly Halasz [while others] redefine the presence of the body through the prism of gender and race. The work of British artist and musician Genesis P-Orridge, for instance, projects us in the representation of a sexually modified body and pandrogeny, while the practice of Paul Mpagi Sepuya brings together performance and homo-erotic aesthetics related to the body of color.”