Project White

This project involved reading an essay White  by Richard Dyer (Evans et al, pp 457) which is about the illusive nature of  ‘Whiteness’. Dyer is a Professor of Film Studies at Kings College London and as such his discussions take films as his texts. The project then required me to watch at least two films: Simba  which is British film from the mid 1950s which is a colonial adventure film centred on the Mau Mau uprising in Kenya; and The Battle of Algiers  which is an award winning Italian film by director Gillo Pontecorvo which is about events during the 1954-1962 Algerian War against French Rule.

Simba  is organised around a rigid opposition of white  and black with white standing for modernity, rationality, order and stability and black for backwardness, irrationality, chaos and violence. Dyer demonstrates how this is played out through the film’s mis-en-scene. Emphasis in the film is on this division which is depicted as visual and bounded. Everything about the native black people is visually  primitive, dark and threatening, whereas the white characters are generally depicted as reasonable and conciliatory. The film could be seen as an endorsement of the moral superiority of the white values but also suggests a lack of confidence in whether this will prevail. The Mau Mau uprising is represented as an unstoppable dark force.

The Battle of Algiers is altogether a different kettle of fish. To begin with it is a much better film. Simba is predictable and amateurish. The Battle of Algiers is intriguing and moving. The latter is in black and  white which gives it a sense of gravitas, almost like one is looking at newsreels from the time.

The Battle of Algiers takes a completely different slant on the issue of whiteness. White in the form of the French are presented as the barbaric oppressors. Black in the form of the Algerian revolutionary movement the FLN is represented as the wrongly oppressed. The French gendarmerie are depicted as racist, sexist bigots and the Algerians as devout, law abiding Muslims. In order to put down the guerilla forces of the FLN the French bring in the paratroopers under a commander Mathieu. Mathieu uses a range of oppressive measures to root out the leaders of the FLN, including curfews, bombing and  torture . Mathieu is also shown manipulating the media to mobilise public opinion in favour of his actions. Towards the end of the film he appears to have suppressed the uprising, when all of the leaders have been captured or killed. However there is an interesting postscript which shows the mass public protests which took place two years later. These eventually lead to the Algerian independance. So once again the inevitability of the eventual collapse of colonialism is represented. Curiously this postscript reminded me of the recent uprisings during the Arab Spring which of course were directed at oppressors in the form of corrupt dictators and military juntas.

Evans J. & Hall S (eds) (1999) Visual Culture: the reader  London: Sage


Project Women artists

This project is specifically about British artist Sarah Lucas and involves annotating images of four of her works and relating them to the ‘isms’ so far discussed on the course.

The first work is ‘Au Naturel 1994 Mattress, water bucket, melons, oranges and cucumber’:

Au Naturel 1994 Mattress, water bucket, melons, oranges and cucumber by Sarah Lucas

What this work depicts is pretty transparent. The sexual organs of both the woman and the man are constructed out of fruit and a copper bucket and these are placed on a bare mattress which is lying on the floor. The work is a sculpture of a man and a woman lying in bed naked and ready for sex – ‘au naturel’ as it were…The top of the mattress is bent and leans against  a wall. The use of everyday objects to construct the sexual organs, such as the melons for the woman’s breasts,  references the use of such words in popular slang. In this way Lucas is showing how sexuality is embedded in language through association with everyday objects. Arguably this could also be taken as an illustration of how the roles of men and women are culturally determined and patriarchal society is perpetuated. This idea is further reinforced by the fact the fact that the woman is lying on her back with her sexual organs available to the rampant male by her side, which parodies the role of the woman as presented in popular culture. Placing a man and a woman side by side in a work of art also hints at the question of the role of both sexes in art and perhaps more relevantly the role of women in art (or the lack of recognition of such).

The second work is Human Toilet 1997. This is a self portrait photograph. She appears to be naked and is sitting on a toilet. She is holding the cistern in her hands.

Human Toilet 1997 C-print

The walls of the toilet are bare and the woman looks pale. She is averting her gaze looking down. This work seems to suggest that woman’s role in society is akin to that of a toilet. The implication is that women exist to serve the interests of  men however base these may be. Although the subject, Lucas,  is naked,  the image is not sexual. An alternative interpretation is that she is disgusted with herself. There is a second version of this photograph Human Toilet Revisited  in which she is sitting on a toilet smoking a cigarette. In this work she is wearing a tee shirt but with nothing covering her legs.

Human Toilet Revisited 1998

Here again she is averting her gaze with her eyes looking downwards. She has her knees bent and her feet on the toilet seat. The toilet seat is down. There is a narrow window with a rough wooded frame behind her. The reading for this second work could be taken as per the first except that in this second photograph she is less a part of the toilet – she is not holding the cistern. She seems to be comparing herself to a toilet, almost as if there is an element of self loathing. This could be associated with the smoking. Perhaps she considers that this habit relegates her to the status of a toilet. Both images are present depressing image of women. Perhaps this is how Lucas views the role of women in life and in art.

The final work  is ‘Self Portrait with a Mug of Tea’. This work is a collage of digital prints mounted on brown paper. Lucas sits with her legs wide. She is wearing blue jeans and a shirt. She is holding the mug of tea in her right hand and has a cigarette in her left. She is looking out beyond the viewer.

Self Portrait with Mug of Tea 1993

This quotation from an interview with Lucas sheds some light on her approach in this image ‘I suddenly could see the strength of the masculinity about it – the usefulness of it to the subject struck me at that point, and since then I’ve used that’ (Lucas quoted in Barber, p.16). Her aim here is to confront the ‘normal’ cultural roles of men and women in society. She is not dressed up for the voyeuristic scopophilic delight of males. She looks like a man. She is not modestly averting her gaze and taking delight in being seen. Rather she is ignoring and looking beyond the viewer. Her pose, the mug and her cigarette also represent her manly pose and her confrontation with gender stereotyping.

Lynn Barber, ‘Drag Queen’, Observer Magazine, London, 30 January 2000, pp.10-16

Project Gendering the gaze

The source material for this project is Laura Mulvey’s excellent essay Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema. Mulvey proposes that the western cinema has been structured along the lines of the patriarchal society that exists today. Films are made to satisfy the scopophilic urges of the dominant male. Women are presented in as passive objects to be seen. According the Mulvey the cinema goes “.. far beyond highlighting a woman’s to-be-looked-at-ness, cinema builds the way she is to be looked at into the spectacle itself.” The main thrust of her argument is about how men derive pleasure when watching films both from looking (voyeuristically) at the women characters and through identification the male characters,as ‘ideal ego’ role models.

I have also to watch Hitchcock’s Vertigo and comment on it. I have yet to obtain a copy of the film. I will post some comments on this at a later stage.

The project also asks how the portrayal of contemporary black music in video matches up to Mulvey’s insights. This image is typical of the way in which women are represented in these videos:

E! reality series “Candy Girls”

They are scantily clad. Their involvement is largely visual. The vocalist could be either male or female. In the case of a female star she too is likely to appear in provocative clothing. The videos are constructed to provide the (male) viewer with intimate views of the bodies of the female dancers. They satisfy the male scopophilic gaze. They most certainly turn the women’s to-be-looked-at-ness into a spectacle. The women also serve as Ideal-ego role models for female viewers. This is clearly evidenced in the mode of dress of young women at clubs, parties etc. They emulate the provocative poses of the role models in the videos.

The final part of this project involves annotating Manet’s Olympia in terms of the gaze and the various characters within and without the image.

Edouard Manet, Olympia, 1863
(Musee d’Orsay)

The form of this portrait reflects a classical representation of the reclining nude. What differentiates this painting is the nature and direction of the gaze.The nude female figure would normally be expected to avert her gaze  or cast her eyes down – not so in this painting. This is what made it so shocking at the time it went on show. The woman looks directly at the viewer. She is given a face and a personality.  Her gaze is confident, strong and uninhibited. She does not show modesty and she confronts the male viewer head on. This makes it difficult for the viewer (assumed to be male) to objectify the nude figure. In a way the confrontational gaze seems to deflect the male gaze, and to cause embarrassment to the male onlooker seeking scopophilic pleasure. The black servant also looks directly at the woman. She is holding flowers but the woman is ignoring her and looking straight at the viewer, without distraction.

Project Images of woman

For this project I had to review John Berger’s picture essay (Chapter 2 – Ways of Seeing) and watch episode 2 of his TV series Ways of Seeing. The first task following this was to prepare two collages of images from magazines and newspapers which illustrate two opposing views of the visualisation of women today.

Here is my first collage. It shows how women are represented (for the most part) in the popular press and men’s magazines. Essentially women are placed on show for the sexual gratification of men. They are objectified and are depicted as available. ‘Indulge your fantasies’ as the headline in the centre says.

Woman as sex object

The second set of images are images of women who are successful in politics and business. Here there is a curious mix of woman as nurturer (smiling, helpful), woman as role model (businesslike, successful, chic) and woman as castrator (bossy, dominating, powerful)….

Woman as role model, nurturer and castrator

The second part of this project involved collecting images of nakedness and the nude. Berger makes the distinction by saying that to be naked is to be oneself, but to be nude is to be seen naked by others and yet not recognised by others. The distinction if thus that the nude image is created specifically to be seen by others. The nude man/woman is on display. The subject is objectified.  Lord Clarke makes the distinction differently. He maintains that to be naked is to be simply without clothes, whereas the nude is a form of art. There is some overlap in these views as art is made to-be-seen. I decided to put in a google search first for ‘naked’ and to take the first few images and annotate  and classify them as nakedness or the nude. Then to repeat the process for a search based on ‘the nude’.

The first ‘naked’ image is a photograph by Spencer Tunick who makes series of photographs of people who are naked in public. Interestingly this image is intended as art – Tunick refers to his work in this way. And in fact this is how I interpret this image. The large numbers of people are indeed being offered up for display. They are presented anonymously. We seem to be being invited to imagine ourselves within this scene which can readily be interpreted as sexual.

Mexico City – Spencer Tunick

The second image is from a news report in the Guardian newspaper. It shows a naked cycle ride. The image on the face of it represents nakedness. It has not been made as art or to be seen by others. It is simply a news report.

York’s naked bike ride pedals into its seventh year – Guardian Newspaper

The third image is of a group of clowns posing for a photograph for a naked calendar. This is interesting because it could hardly be called art as Clarke would call it yet it is made specifically to-be-seen by others. A distinction here however is that the individuals are being themselves and are recognised as such. This is part of the fun of calendars such as these. So I would classify this image as depicting nakedness.

Members of San Francisco’s Clown Conservatory.
Photo © Naked Clown Calendar

The final image is a photograph of Mischa Barton which was on the cover of Cosmopolitan magazine in the UK. Here it seems to me she is presented as a nude to be seen by men for scopophilic pleasure and women as an Ideal-ego.

Mischa Barton – Cover Cosmopolitan UK

I next typed in the word ‘nude’. The first image is a rather strange image which presents a naked manikin who has her face and arm covered with what looks like ‘bondage’ clothing for sado-masochistic sexual acts – a gas mask and a curious contraption on her right arm. This for me is presented to be seen as an object – definitely a nude. But can a manikin be a nude?

Lucy in the Nude by Airbournevirus Deviant Art website

The next image is from an article called ‘a day out in the nude’ from the Olive Press website. It shows a naked woman diving to return a volley ball. Whilst this could be presented as an item of news, it can so easily also be seen as an image which objectifies the female form. The fact that the woman has an attractive figure readily supports this view. This brings into the debate the question of how the viewing context might change the interpretation of whether an image is simply a depiction of nakedness or the nude.

‘a day out in the nude’ from the Olive Press

My final image is a copy of a painting by Paul Desire Trouillebert – The Nude Snake Charmer. The for me definitely falls under the category of the nude. Why one wonders would a snake charmer wish to carry on her trade in the nude??

Paul Desire Trouillebert – The Nude Snake Charmer