“To be nude is to be seen naked by others and yet not recognised for oneself. A naked body has to be seen as an object in order to become a nude. Nakedness reveals itself. Nudity is placed on display.”1 – John Berger
The process of looking at and interpreting imagery has been one of my primary focuses during my studies. The ideas of art critic and historian James Elkins, particularly in The Object Stares Back, have been a consistent source of interest. It is Elkins’ descriptions of the factors which complicate looking and interpretation which interest me most, and these ideas—alongside notions of the gaze as an active, transformative, and gendered action, as advocated by Jean Gagnon in The Assumption of the Visible, and John Berger in Ways of Seeing, amongst others—constituted a major research focus for my dissertation, Interpreting Charged Imagery.
When we interpret artworks it is desirable that we approach the work with at least an attempt at objectivity, in an effort to form a balanced interpretation, and in order to understand our subjective reactions. However, with so many factors influencing and complicating our interpretations, and with these factors being difficult to control in such an innately subjective field, I find myself more interested in finding ways of drawing people outside this comfort zone of objectivity, using tension to draw attention to the processes of depicting and consuming the nude female form.
Boundaries is the evolutionary fruit of a number of other works featuring my partner Katrina. Since we met in 2009 she has become the dominant subject of my personal work, and has also featured in a number of formal projects over the course of my degree studies. At Level 1 she featured as the female focal point in a project exploring a sexualised and misogynistic internet subculture, and she was also the consistent element in a project that documented the reactions of fellow students to her nude presence in the studio at Level 2. My current work addresses the continued breaking down of boundaries between Katrina and myself, between art and the erotic, and between still and moving imagery.
Although presented as moving image, the production of the work is influenced by and critiques traditions and conventions within photography, and also other still media such as painting and life drawing. Depicting the female nude is amongst the oldest of traditions, and is therefore often undertaken within the framework of certain conventions. As Marita Sturken and Lisa Cartwright note in Practices of Looking, “there is a long tradition in art of understanding the female nude as the project and possession of the male artist”2. This possession manifests itself primarily through conventions of the gaze, in an uneven power structure in which the nude model is presented as an object with a passive gaze, meeting the active and conventionally male-gendered gaze of the spectator.
Whist initially working with still images, and using camera movements to focus viewers’ gazes and attentions, I decided, after revisiting Martin Arnold’s somewhat disconcerting work Alone, that moving image would be a more effective medium for my purposes. In Alone, Arnold uses repetition and manipulation of speed as devices to create sexual tension in an otherwise innocuous piece of found footage. In Boundaries II, deliberate objectification of Katrina conveyed via the gradual manipulation and slowing of time within the video sequence allows me to exaggerate tensions and anticipation in a much more direct and arresting manner than my previous endeavours with still imagery, whilst retaining many elements from my earlier work with stills: the neutral grey studio setting, the absence of props or sound, the even lighting, the ‘portrait’ orientation, and the piece’s physical presence as a mounted work within a gallery context.
The act of undressing creates strong and often overt sexual overtones, and yet a model must undress in order to become a nude. It is accepted that nude models are allowed a private space in which to derobe, and rightly so, out of respect for the model; yet nudes are often depicted in states of partial undress, both within the context of the fine arts (Delacroix’s Liberty Leading the People, for example), and to the point of saturation in contemporary advertising and fashion photography. In other examples, such as in one of Peter Lely’s prominent portraits of King Charles II’s mistress Nell Gwynne, the subject is depicted through classical allegories and symbology, such as that of Venus and Cupid.
In order to maintain critical distance and appreciation when viewing nudes in an art context, and regardless of the presence or absence of symbology and convention, we frequently suppress our baser and more instinctive reactions in an effort to form a more cultured interpretation. Yet interpretation of nudes is complicated by innumerable factors, including cultural and societal values, personal and universalised human experiences, issues of representation and objectification, taboo, and personal sexual attitudes. The mixture of these influences—alongside other, less predictable factors—is unique to each spectator, and will evolve over time as he or she is exposed to new sights and experiences. The variance in our reactions when our expectations and comfort with the female nude are challenged are beautifully illustrated by Jemima Stehli in her series Strip, in which she invited male curators, art dealers, writers, and critics to choose the moment that a photograph was captured as Jemima undressed for them.
In The Object Stares Back, James Elkins asserts that “Seeing is self definition. Objects look back, and their incoming gaze tells me what I am.”3 In Boundaries II, by unnaturally manipulating the temporality of the transition between dressed female and female nude, I hope to draw attention to the factors which attract us, repel us, and complicate our interpretations.