Photography and Feminism (here we go again)

If there’s one thing different kinds of feminism can agree upon is their will to “empower women”. But, that’s it; once we get started on the meaning of that “empowerment” the apparent cohesion starts to fall apart.

Some co-called feminists think about themselves in such a way because they applaud and promote women’s confidence towards their body. Maybe these so-called feminists go so far as to actively participate in helping certain women feel good “in their own skin”. I can see the importance of this, of course. No man will ever understand what it is to grow up surrounded by beauty stereotypes and how much it can impact your self-esteem – it’s the models in the magazines, the actresses on film, the pop stars and the barbie look, the tv hostesses, the female porn actresses and their big breasts. It’s overwhelming. Some people will consider that empowering women by helping them feel beautiful and sexy is to be a feminist. And, yes, I disagree 100%. I guess what makes this question so problematic is that one easily looses sight of what the feminist struggle is about and although it can be a lot of different things, what it must definitely is not is an individualist struggle that promotes cliches about the importance of owning one’s own sexuality. Feminism is always about the collective. It really can’t be any different. We fight for equality and my victories and losses will have a direct impact on other women and vice-versa.

Feminism is about inclusion, about gaining back women’s parity (yes, in the so called primitive era things were different, and not everything was worst). For that and many other reasons, in its core to be a feminist is to be anti-capitalist, for, in itself, capitalism promotes an economic treatment of everything and everyone and we know how women rank in that economy… (my) Feminism starts by questioning the dynamics of a society that is built upon a patriarchy. Classes, in such a society, will only survive if women continue to agree to be part of a specific sexual dynamic, namely a monogamist one, in which the man is usually the owner (of land and so forth). It’s understandable that these so-called feminist movements who empower women by helping them feel sexy forget that the very idea of what constitutes “sexy” is the doing of men: men who are stylists, men who work in advertisement, men who are writers, men who are directors, men who are photographers, etc. For many years these men have been responsible for objectifying women’s bodies, to a point that women now fail to understand what that objectification is like. One argument is recurrent in this discussion, namely that if women are in control of their body, one shouldn’t speak about objectification, but empowerment. I’m surprised how we still fall for such a false debate, for the question is definitely more complicated. How can one judge other’s information, knowledge, awareness or conscious in order to decide whether they are or are not in control of their bodies? And how do we then deal with sexual abuse if the “victim” is under-aged and willingly goes to her abuser? Recently, in Portugal, I came across a story in the newspaper about a 13 year old girl who went missing from her family for a week and was then found in a house with a sexual offender. They apparently met online, he seduced her and she went to him. He had done that before, meaning he has already abused young women. What is chocking in this story is that  99% of the online trolls were saying that this man had committed no crime, for she went to him of “her own free will”, because young girls “are not as naive as we think”, because “they know what they’re doing”. See the problem?

We could talk about Hollywood, how Scorsese has a lifetime of denigrating women on screen and still everyone loves him; or how the entertainment community legitimates sexual harassment, but what I think could help shine a light on this dilemma is if we consider the roles some women have been playing on screen and how off screen they consider themselves to be feminists, in the context of that very same idea of empowerment we were talking about – because they’re independent, they’re successful, they’re comfortable in their bodies and in control of their sexuality so on. If a female actress spends her years giving life to characters who are treated as objects in a men’s world, could we really consider such actress to be a feminist in her off-screen life? It’s not a tricky question, the answer is a clear no. The promotion of such dynamics between men and women not only legitimate the sort of abusive relations that describe this era of capitalism, but they also infect visual culture in a very profound way. In fact, one shouldn’t be surprised if a younger generation who only watches american entertainment (be it movies or tv series) had a completely distorted notion about what sex is like. For americans, apparently, it’s about 1 minute in bed and the man reaching an orgasm. The consequences of such a misogynist representation of sexual intimacy is unimaginable. Hopefully they’re still watching some “good porn”.

Often, when one discusses “the empowerment of women” one also comes across expressions such as “strong” and/or “fearless“. What these adjectives hide is that in the process of becoming “strong” and “fearless” one usually compromises one’s own femininity, in order to “be more like a man”, but with a skirt and preferably wearing high heels. There’s even a page on facebook called “Project strong Woman”. As expected, it is about empowering women to become their better selves and then go out and celebrate.

To avoid becoming any more cynical, here’s a photographic approach that challenges the very idea of “the male gaze”.

© Petra Collins, from the project ‘The Teenage Gaze’, 2010-2015.
© Petra Collins, from the project ‘The Teenage Gaze’, 2010-2015.
© Petra Collins, from the project ‘The Teenage Gaze’, 2010-2015.
© Petra Collins, from the project ‘The Teenage Gaze’, 2010-2015.
© Petra Collins, from the project ‘The Teenage Gaze’, 2010-2015.
© Petra Collins, from the project ‘The Teenage Gaze’, 2010-2015.
© Petra Collins, from the project ‘The Teenage Gaze’, 2010-2015.
© Petra Collins, from the project ‘The Teenage Gaze’, 2010-2015.
© Petra Collins, from the project ‘The Teenage Gaze’, 2010-2015.
© Petra Collins, from the project ‘The Teenage Gaze’, 2010-2015.

On Ren Hang’s suicide: “Pain is pain, no matter how pretty”

A lot has been said about the value of Ren Hang‘s artwork following his recent death, at the age of 29. Hang committed suicide. From what I can understand, he jumped from a building in Berlin, last Friday. Author Wendy Syfret took the opportunity to talk about the myth that connects genius and madness (the title of this post is the sentence that finishes her article). Her premise was to “challenge ourselves to interrogate the way we weave mental health narratives into the stories of artists”.

So far, so good. Syfret claims that “[t]he image of the tortured artist is resilient, and all too often, romantic”, and she goes on to argue that pain and suffering should not be promoted as the source of the creative genius, even though there is scientific proof that links mental illnesses (such as schizophrenia and bipolar disorder) to a greater creativity

On the other hand, I find it a little problematic to reduce mental illnesses to a conversation about the pain and suffering they entail (and that we tend to romanticize). I couldn’t agree more with Syfret when she says that “the persistent idea that one must be unhappy to truly be open to absorbing and translating the human condition is both artificial and dangerous”, but a schizophrenic or a bipolar is not necessarily an unhappy person (one documentary by Stephen Fry is very enlightening regarding this, for he asks all the people interviewed whether they’d rather live without that condition). Should we really be stigmatized as happy or unhappy people? If so, I’m clearly an unhappy person and I’ve suffered from depression before. I’m also in the creative field. What does that make me? A ticking time bomb? Oh, the problem with over simplifying…

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© Ren Hang
ren-hang9
© Ren Hang
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© Ren Hang

Yes, there is obviously a lot of suffering involved in mental illnesses, but part of that suffering is definitely generated because of the clash between what is understood as normal and what is then labelled as abnormal. And, in that sense, any of us can easily end up in a situation of being marginalized, depending on the cultural context we’re in. What I want to say is that what the art market romanticizes is difference. Whether the artist is schizophrenic, alcoholic, an orphan or a dwarf, what is exploited is the concept of difference.  

Making art while going through deep and profound struggles is actually impossible. No one actually creates anything when suffocating in a deep black hole. More often than not, the making of the art happens in between stages. When one is in suffering, there’s no energy, but I think everyone can understand that when a person comes out of such a stage there’s a vitality, an energy that is singular and potentially very creative. As I’ve written here, in a recent article, to look for signs of mental distress in an artwork is not really the way to go about an artist individual history (unless we’re talking about cases such as that of Nebreda). Usually an artwork, if it succeeds in having a soul, also has dynamic and vitality. Isn’t the energy behind a good work of art not always an affirmative one? Doesn’t it trigger imagination, feelings, sensations, thoughts, etc.? How could it be something else? Might we be confusing suffering and pain with the anguish that is vital to the making of something truthful? Anguish is transformative; neurotic anguish, on the other hand, is toxic. Anyway, the point is that we shouldn’t replicate these dichotomies without questioning them.  

© Ren Hang
© Ren Hang
© Ren Hang
© Ren Hang

By romanticizing the link between suffering and art, Syfret fears one might be ignoring the real drama of depression. Couldn’t agree more. But things are not that simple. Even though the rhetoric around such a subject is potentially very dangerous (as all rhetoric is, right?) by now the linkage between mental illness and creativity is well attested. In my eyes, the discussion worth having is one that would consider artists having, in fact, a different frame of mind. Otherwise, how could he/she be original, create a singular language, find a style?

About the particular case of Red Hang, Syfret resumes:

“We don’t know if Ren Hang’s friends knew about his mental health struggles. Considering his work was a love letter to their lives and bodies, a celebration of their beauty presented as a balm to his own pain, one assumes they loved and supported him completely. But for many other creatives the signs of mental distress are too often ignored, or worse expected, by those around them. Their struggles become obscured by our own assumption over what is and isn’t normal and acceptable; and the collective impact of such reasoning is an under examination of endemic mental health and welfare issues within the arts in general.”

Although I empathize with her arguments, I fail to understand what is her point regarding Hang’s particular case of suffering and creativity. Should we deduce that those who where closer to him neglected his depressions because they might have considered it to be the fuel to his art-making and, in that sense, they might have given primacy to the art, instead of Hang’s health? Isn’t that a huge deduction? Isn’t it judgmental? I can say this with a certain amount of confidence: usually those who are closer are the ones who tend to be more paralyzed when confronted with the immanence of death. They see one wake up, eat, smile, read, talk, so they tend to consider basic functioning as a success. It’s actually even more complicated, for usually they also enter a sort of denial as if anticipating the complications of taking action and feeling the consequent guilt.

Hang’s suicide, tough, couldn’t have been a surprise. He had often written about the will to end his life. If we listen to what he had to say about depression we can imagine he would agree with Syfret, that we should obviously help people, choose humanity over art. Easier said than done, for that’s obviously not the dilemma. We just neglect and neglect and neglect. We choose life, over death and in that process we sort of erase all the mud in our path. We all do: fail to see, fail to act, fail to touch, fail to love…

In Hang’s words: “People suffering from depression may not exhibit any obvious symptoms, but if you find a friend down with depression, you need to spend more time with them and make the effort to call them more frequently, because you never know when it will strike.”

In American Suburb X, author Zoetica Ebb writes “[i]n the fine art environment [Red Hang’s] resistance to pretense could be considered a form of madness”. Yes, it’s true, not playing the game of the commercial circuit is not the norm, but that has little to do with the making of the art, per se.

© Ren Hang
© Ren Hang
© Ren Hang
© Ren Hang

The point I want to try to make here is that there’s a connecting between this abyss of presence and disappearance (where apparently Hang lived) and the way he photographed nudity. I don’t ignore his political context, but that’s certainly not the aesthetic core of his photographs. In the above video, for instances, Hang tells that in the context of an exhibition if an image is considered “porn” and censored from the show, he just exhibits the frame. That’s clearly a political statement, for it questions what is considered morally acceptable. 

Another author, namely Owen Campbell, writes that “[o]ften, in images with multiple subjects the bodies flow into each other but not like two people having sex, rather they exist as one holistic, non-normative unit.” It’s a beautiful statement, I find, it doesn’t ignore the fact that what is provocative in Hang’s images has little to do with pornography, per se. What is chocking is something as natural as nudity. But nudity is a hard subject and the delicate white bodies that invade Hang’s photographs can attest to that.

It’s risky to say that I understand the weight the clothes have in Hang’s world. Clothes are not only there to protect our bodies, it’s like they separate the world from reaching us, like they prevent relationships, love, sex, life. Their weight is not that of their fibers, instead, although absent from the photographs, they represent the heavy weight of social and cultural repression.

ren-hang-nss-maagzine-6
© Ren Hang

By addressing a sort of mythological narrative, we end up finding the principle of the idealization of madness, which itself admits a concept of normality. In such a context, madness is something that liberates the individual from the pre-established contract with the agents of corruption (civilization itself). Such an idealization tends to equate normality with falsification and the betrayal of the individual. On the other hand, when one romanticizes mental illnesses one thing that can be suggested is that somehow the maniac states guarantee a sort of supra-sensitive lucidity that act like a shield to everything inauthentic.

We live in a society that manages to ostracize and romanticize all at once. In fact, maybe what we, as a society, do, when we create fables, is to try and circumscribe our fear of the monster, being that the monster is whatever is morally considered different. Foucault once said that madness is trapped in a punitive system where the mad is undermine and madness is originally linked to error…