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Wednesday, June 11, 2003  
An Angel Weeping Over Your Carnal Beauty: Guy Bourdin's Cool Erotics

And yet the beautiful woman up there does not interest me, for I am enamored of another. My love is quite without hope, and I am far more miserable than the Knight of Toggenburg or the Chevalier in Manon Lescaut: my beloved is made of stone.
Leopold von Sacher-Masoch

What exact response do you have to the women in Guy Bourdin's Vogue photo shoots and Charles Jourdan shoe adverts? Sadism or masochism, elements of which each appear only in Bourdin's visions and methods and in the desire-struck submission of his models, although both are implicated separately in your gaze? Or something more refracted, more refined and more residual, and, in a large way too, more debased: the gaze that wanders over and then dives into these static, gaudy, cruel and sexually charged scenes with both a tyrannical violence and an abject subjection, crucified by contempt, lust, fear, and domination (of the image)? What exactly is the nature of this sexual charge so removed from the healthy norms or perverse cliches of eroticism? Not purely sadistic, or purely masochistic, not reduced to the spent imagery of erotic play and symbolism, and not twisted or contorted by the random imagery of the surreal.

This is more to do with blank and obtuse visual dynamics, the awkward and cruel pose of bodies, the sheen of skin glossed into a plastic (fetishist) desire, the sharp colours and angles of concrete curves and corners, corrugated iron doors, road signs, and the discreet order of rock formations (Bourdin's early photos of cliffs and granite structures, and his Kodak slides of LA buildings and road patterns set up the visual lexicon of his fashion photographs - a tactile and textural language is worked out before and directly informs these pictures). Bourdin creates an impersonal visual world (coldness and cruelty) that remains glacial and grotesque in its distance and distortion, and is therefore necessarily and inescapably seductive. A cold eroticism that freezes LA sun.

These pictures lack rapture, sensuality, the throes of ecstasy, physical chemistry: desire is fixed solely in the relation between the impersonal distance of the image and the violence and static brilliance of the erotic gaze, and the spatial and psychological play of power implicated in this relation (which can antagonise, challenge and seduce all at once). Bourdin is obsessed with the double image of woman, and in his magazine and advert photo shoots he deploys it in a way that conjures the dual phantasies of lesbianism and narcissism: in terms of the male gaze this conjures both terror and fascination (i.e. heavy erotic overtones), in terms of the female gaze it is altogether more urgent and profound, not to say ironic and spiteful. These are, after all, fashion items destined for women's magazines, and the ideals of beauty that adorn these magazines conform to an image of the self and a focus of desire. Bourdin makes this explicit and twists it, a cruel revelation, and a sadistic switch that nevertheless turns more savagely erotic in this very unveiling of Vogue-codes.

But it is all, purely, desire of the image, desire of AN image of woman, and this is the core of the seductive charge of Bourdin's pictures: the reduction to type, the cruel distortion of type, the frigid untouchable perfection of type. There are no women in Bourdin's photos, and in a way no Ideal Woman, but a profusion of reducible (but distinct) stony/plastic types (stone and plastic play complementary roles in these photos, as a phantasmic fixation of the female, desire and territory) that contort and glide through depopulated landscapes, claustrophobic rooms charged with terror and violence, disturbing locations like murder scenes, grimy alleys, dingy bathrooms, dark rooms with flickering TVs. You can't just see these photos within the narrow terms by which they are praised and rejected (misogyny, sexual violence, and death), and they cannot just be read as a series of literary motifs; there is a general and certain resistance to metaphor, and each photo challenges and exceeds theatrical representation. Unlike Helmet Newton, Bourdin didn't fabricate storylines for his magazine shoots, but arranged singular and ambiguous scenes, distinct, distinctive moments: in this sense one set of Vogue pictures has a cumulative effect, a heterogenous group of images that nevertheless share an atmosphere, an arrangement, a concept, or an obsession. No Court or novelistic narrative or structure, but poetic fragments, particles of desire, diffusion of desire, profusion of lust, its reversals (disgust), its channels and obscure byways, imperatives, and instincts. Each picture is an arrangement, a dissection and a divination of desire: desire turning into violence, cruelty, contempt; desire frozen, displaced, intensified, neutralised; desire caught in fixation, obsession, narcissism.

The fetish is not a symbol at all, but as it were a frozen, arrested, two-dimensional image, a photograph to which one returns repeatedly to exorcise the dangerous consequences of movement, the harmful discoveries that result from exploration; it represents the last point at which it is possible to believe...
Gilles Deleuze

Just one more thing (no, there's more, but for now...): physical obsessions and tactile impression in Bourdin, women in a petrification of plastic capture, hard angles, colour and material, and the fetish object, i.e. in his Charles Jourdan adverts, shoes substitute not just the penis, but love itself, the Ideal. In these adverts the woman is obscured, immolated, or murdered. One of his most famous photographs depicts the scene of a sidewalk murder, blood splattered around the chalk outline of an absent female body, two pink high heel shoes thrown along the concrete, but placed so deliberately that they obscure the central focus, which is the empty centre of the chalk outline (Charles Jourdan, Spring 1975). In these adverts pink, red, green and blue shoes dominate the gaze with a violent insistence as the female body is obscured, violated or totally removed, as if the image of woman cannot be tolerated, only sublimated in the erotic fetish object of the shoe. Which is one of the most beautiful and disturbing depictions of the erotics and semiotics of consumerism that I have ever seen: you know your response is corrupt, abject, dangerous, and you know that resistance or defiance is hypocrisy and resentment. The consumer object (the consumer's desire) is not vacuous and not reductive but full of subterranean, unconscious significance (signification), and perfectly captures the distant, erotic passion of capitalist desire (which, as Lyotard points out, resides in all of us, even and especially in Marx).

10:06 AM

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