While working on my Still Life project, the realisation that these vegetative surrogates’ lives uncannily mirrored my own caused me to meditate on the historical connection in the western imagination between form and formlessness and ideas about gender.
Fallen_19 Apollo & Dionysos
For the Greeks of 5th century bce Athens ideal beauty was epitomised by images of young men and gods whose bodies expressed ideas about proportion, ratio and harmony. Where women’s bodies were earth-bound and corrupt, Greek male bodies, in imagination and art if nowhere else, transcended the boundaries of materiality to symbolise the higher realm of reason or soul. The god Apollo sculpted in stone was perhaps the ultimate such image and represents the Platonic ideal: calm, rational, controlled and beautiful.
Classical statues of these gods and men are entirely self-contained; no openings or orifices exist through which their transcendent subjectivity might seep away. Smooth, unwrinkled, unaffected by the passage of time and incorruptible, the classical body is the antithesis of the rotting pumpkin and represents a fantasy of masculine potency and plenitude.
D_ 02 (ROCKS~BODY)
The western preoccupation with mastery, order, and systematising is as evident in Greek canons of beauty as it is in other social and cultural forms. Anything which threatens the systems we use to order our environment must be expelled; the polluted, the impure, the disorderly and the diseased all become heterogeneous abominations whose expulsion is necessary to maintain the order of the system. The anthropologist Mary Douglas has perceptively noted in her text Purity and Danger that so many ideas about power are based on an idea of society as a series of forms contrasted with surrounding non-form. There is power in the forms and other power in the inarticulate areas, margins, confused lines, and beyond external boundaries.
One such form-formlessness dichotomy is that between the individual, conceived of as a bounded kernel of self-contained subjectivity, and anything which threatens that subjectivity – disease, dissolution, and death, for example.
However, for the Greeks the bounded kernel of self-contained subjectivity that is masculinity was always under threat from its disorderly other, the femininity of fluidity and dissolution. Historically, as in Aristotle for example, the form/formlessness dichotomy has been divided along gender lines, with the male as the epitome of form and the female as matter, an undifferentiated heap upon which the male can act.
Fallen_20 Pumpkin, prickly pears & arm
From this concern with shoring up psychic and physical boundaries, we can conjecture that masculinity is not naturally given but a construction that must continuously be maintained lest the male subject collapse back into a state of primary undifferentiation which was for Aristotle the condition of women. The threats of the feminine to masculine psychic or bodily wholeness are evident in visions of the female body throughout western history as an object of abomination and pollution which threatens masculine selfhood.
Beliefs about gender which construct man as form, as active, as mind and woman as matter, as passive, as body are not simply quaint vestiges of our long dead past; they live on today in various guises.
In the contemporary grotesquerie of transformers, boy toys whose animalian forms transmute in an instant into hyper-phallic, heavily-muscled, pinheaded, fully-armed military maniacs, we can still see the ancient fear of attacks on masculine subjectivity from anything that might penetrate its defenses. Two versions of idealised masculinity – the muscular phallus-in-excess and the rational, self-controlled Greek demi-god – are paralleled by two versions of ideal femininity equally fantastical; Eve/Lilith the temptress (and her contemporary descendents) and the lovely Madonna who lives only for her child. All are fantasies, but fantasies which seem still to have a vise-grip on the popular imagination.
D_05 Stone Sculpture
If women are construed as nature, then what of nature itself?
Nature has historically been seen in western culture as virgin land to be deflowered. In The Magisterial Gaze Albert Boime argues that the paradigmatic image of nature in 19th century America was the landscape view from the heights, a view which sees nature as spread out below it, available for visual and economic consumption. That such a view is gendered, while unmentioned by Boime, cannot now be ignored. In a neo-Aristotelian view of landscape, nature is conceived of as crude material to be manipulated and given form by the artist and turned, literally, into gold.
D_20 Mountains, Male Nude, Pumpkins
The connection of women with matter and men with form has been an historical commonplace since Aristotle; hence, it should come as no surprise that nature becomes feminised and that the body of nature, like the bodies of women, is seen as available for the taking. Nature, like women, is something to be dominated and controlled, subjugated to the economic impulse of industrial capitalism.
Combining images drawn from western cultural history, British Columbia nature photography, bodybuilding magazines and still-life iconography, the works in Fallen are a visual meditation on our fantasies of human subjectivity.
My images attempt to subvert the dominant visual economy by combining photographs of ideal masculinity appropriated from bodybuilding magazines, images originally produced by men for men, with images of rotting fruits and vegetables, symbols of the abject that threatens masculine selfhood, and the fantasy wilderness of Super Natural British Columbia, ever-beautiful, ever-mysterious, and ever-available.
To view the installation of Fallen at the Alternator Gallery in Kelowna, click here.