"Masculine Body of Work"

By Kaja Pawełek

Originally published in the exhibition catalogue Karol Radziszewski. Backstage, The Bunkier Sztuki Contemporary Art Gallery, Krakow, 2011.

"It’s a contract that what’s is happening ‘now’ is art, that art is happening at exactly this moment." [1]

The MARIOS DIK series of photographs was created in 2009 as a result of co-operation between the artist and professional fashion designers as a specific campaign advertising a collection of clothes. The shots employ an advertising idiom, although they transform it in a somewhat perverse way. As is common in contemporary fashion photographs, they marginalise the object of the advertising itself and instead focus on something completely different – on an association, a surprise, a specific image, and – above all – on sensuality as such; on the transference or association of a desire for an object of little intrinsic value with carnal lust. The style attracts attention – most of these images have about them a sense of a déjà vu; we seem to know them from somewhere – perhaps from other photographs, or video frames. The black-and-white images are reminiscent of the performance art of the 60s and 70s or, for those unfamiliar with the history of contemporary art, they just look old (or stylised as such). The pictures show solitary young men, usually completely naked, performing strange activities or rituals using simple props such as strings, candles or scarves.

An important change took place in fashion photography and the photography of lifestyle magazines in the latter part of the 90s: a minimalist approach, abandoning glamour for para-documentary aesthetics, blurring the boundaries between professional photography and street photography. The former eradicates all imperfections, and is associated with models photographed in a studio and with covers of glossy mags. The latter, rather than duplicating an existing canon of beauty, seeks that which is unposed, hidden, weird – both in the imagery and in the faces and bodies themselves. During that period, for the first time, after decades of clearly defined fashions and designs which had ruled until the 80s, trends became more egalitarian, and so ended the dictatorship of uniformity, manifested by the faces of one model after another becoming icons of popculture. Instead of the statuesque bodies and classical, although recognisable, features, strange and affected images appeared, suspended between the mundane, known and imperfect – and exaggerated characteristics. On the one hand, fashion photography employed the new trend of presenting from the inside a particular, and often insular world – intimate images recorded not by objective observers, but by participants in the events presented, validating the recorded reality by who they are. On the other hand, there appeared those who would construct this reality in a very visible and cinematic way, using visual cliches and tricks, or creating suspense, architecture and a design space as well as a narrative. However, the subjective-documentary photography and the staged photography – undoubtedly firmly rooted in photography as a vital part of the visual arts of the late 70s and the 80s – stem from changes which began at least a decade earlier. As André Rouillé notes, ‘with the advent of conceptual art, land art and body art, the role and the visibility of photography have undergone a profound transformation. All these trends made it possible for photography to enter the zone designated contemporary art. Only rarely, however, has this applied to photography alone, as frequently para-photographic elements are involved – such as maps, text, schemas or objects. The subordinate role accorded to photography has caused it to be treated, in its material, technical and artistic dimension, as recording of fact, pure and simple, or as a documentary; and at other times, as a neutral carrier or automatic record. In any event, photography is most commonly perceived as something banal, one of many, as a mere instrument or a vector (...)’. By that token, photography plays the part of a supposedly neutral intermediate, being a transparent medium, neutral in terms of the concept of art and one which does not affect its key characteristics; an automatic recording without any intrinsic value (which is not without significance in the context of the prevalence of institutional criticism); photography is devoid of market value and it fails as an object of desire, unlike a dead and fetishised gallery exhibit.

‘It is possible to form an impression that the object is to emphasise that the point of the work lies elsewhere; that photography is only something additional, and even unimportant, and certainly not that which matters the most. Taking into account its light and fragile material structure, as well as the limited possibilities for any manual interference with its structure and moving the subject away to the background, photography in a sense complements a basic art phenomenon, which involves getting away from the object in favour of processes and taking up attitudes (The exhibitions When Attitudes Become Form and Happening & Fluxus, organised in Bern and Cologne by Harald Szeemann in 1969 and 1970 acquire a symbolic significance in this respect)’. [2]

In such a context, contemporary references to the aesthetics of the art of the 60s and 70s expose the systematisation by canon of the avant-garde and emphasise the paradoxical dependency (belying the original critical impulse) on the institutionalised world of art and on the codification of the history of contemporary art. Dematerialisation and conceptualisation of art and artistic work turn into a pastiche of themselves. Activities assumed to be mere sidelines (such as documentary photography) and secondary in terms of the crux of artistic activity, remain as the only visual records and – as images which create a particular aesthetics – determine the shape of memory and its place in history. And, even though many of the most important works of the second part of the 20th century are only suitable for being narrated or described, musealisation demands a visual form. Hence, archive fever – and the almost knee-jerk interest in specific props and formats, which is very much reminiscent of the return of vintage fashion and popculture, where the familiar aesthetics are processed and recycled time and again.

The aesthetics of the second avant-garde has become a quality in its own right, placing emphasis on the authorship and the analogue format, which exposes the working, and which in a way acts as an intermediate conduit for the author, and not merely for the producer, who often has nothing in common with the author.

However, all this is very telling as regards the formalist approach of contemporary criticism which, since conceptualism, has found itself applying more and more wobbly judgements and criteria of quality, and which still has a problem with finding new, stable orientation points and value systems.

Apart from its purely documentary function, photography gains significance when artists perform for the camera, where the physical audience disappears, and what matters is that artistic activity is framed so as to direct our gaze at the artist’s body. Such is the case with Bruce Nauman’s Self-Portrait as a Fountain (1967), travestied by Radziszewski. Employing icons of performance art, body art and conceptualism, the artist reproduces the formal structures of the originals while simultaneously appropriating them and changing their convention. Radziszewski undermines the artistic contract which directs the spectator’s gaze further away, obliging him to employ culture in order to filter the image so as to arrive at an intellectual construct. However, our final conclusion shouldn’t be merely the banal observation that ‘the emperor has no clothes’; that, in fact, a guy who really is naked is performing some strange activities, in public, to boot, and art is his only alibi. After all, the artist does not leave the body completely devoid of any convention – he places it at the backstage of another, complex, cultural and artistic narration which relates to nudity, just as models wait backstage before they come out onto the catwalk.

Life drawing is a finite convention, confined and much more secure than the broader category of nudity and nakedness. Life drawing is also a passive convention, based on exposing one’s own or someone else’s body. Taking as his starting point the performance tradition, where the body become a material to be worked with in physical terms and to be subjected to various (including extreme) treatments, Karol Radziszewski has made relative the one-way relation between the viewer and the viewee; the invisible observer versus the naked model. He uses the process and the working convention as one uses a sketch; as auxiliary documentation – the difference being that the ‘proper’ culmination never takes place. The model is waiting to get going on the catwalk, adopts yet another pose, plays with yet another prop, has a rest – and this situation becomes the main theme. But this does not mean that it does not have its form. The form results from an overlay of various conventions: fashion photography, documentation of contemporary art and photography as a resource for painting. In Radziszewski’s film Study, the life model is mobile, at all times he is on the verge of adopting a pose – in fact, he never gets round to posing. He is attempting to carry out the suggestions of the director, yet simultaneously, in spite of his passive role – not to allow himself to be objectivised. This is of course reminiscent of Warhol’s Screen Tests, suspended between photography and film. Warhol’s film contains an incredibly important element – real time, time of real presence, a moment of actual existence of the body, in the hugely stretched exposure time. We also have here a prolonged gaze, a fulfilment of the dream to have a pretext so as not to be obliged to take our eyes off the object, to prolong the situation of (self) exposure and to continue filming so as to reach a purely symbolic, agreed dimension. The medium is the alibi. Art is a pretext for physical proximity to another’s body, for a sensual relation based on a real-time here and now; an erotic situation insofar as the physicality of a young, beautiful body can be seductive.

Even so, in Karol Radziszewski’s works presentation of the naked male body is devoid of a context of intimate history; it does not create a – factual or fictitious – narration, which so intrigues the spectator, as is the case with the intimate visual diaries constructed by the classics of the genre (Larry Clark, Nan Goldin or Wolfgang Tillmans). This illusionary mundanity of every day reality (perhaps most often affected in contemporary photography) is a part of the post-countercultural mythology of extreme choices (with its indispensable background of all possible addictions, a plethora of sexual varieties etc) made by the taboo-breaking social outsiders. A subjective story about people and relations between them is created in the space between involvement and participation and the distanced eye; an eye capable of capturing an exceptional frame, a frame both saturated with emotional density and formally intriguing. Anyway, certain visual propinquities and the use of the same props (such as a gun, to recall Clark’s Tulsa, or to go even further, in quite a loose association, even Chris Burden’s performance Shoot), reveal the shift of the centre of gravity to the situation and its relation with the process of visualising it, rather than dwelling on factual engagement in staging and design. What remains on the surface – rather than playful fun, dressing up or posing – is a layer of exchanged glances, a slight tension and uncertainty.

It is difficult to find in these photographs even a whiff of history or the staging of any edgy lifestyle. What comes over more strongly is an impression of intensified gazing at the exposed body (and this by a spectator who isn’t necessarily easy to define). While not negating the possibility of an interpretation based predominantly on a homosexual gaze/imagery/viewing, it is impossible to exclude other interpretations (which, interestingly, both cut across and are superimposed on such an interpretation), for instance, the gaze of a heterosexual male at another heterosexual male, filmed via a non-heterosexual eye. In a similar way, in this context, it is also interesting to note the marginalisation of a female gaze at the male body, although it often mirrors the homosexual gaze (the editors of Playgirl magazine, an equivalent of Playboy, but directed at a female audience, admit that probably half of its readership are gay men). More important than the narration or a defined history is the duality: of a live, naked flesh per se and the canon of its presentation and numerous allusions to the history of art and the convention of life-drawing models (from the standard set in the antiquity via various classicisms to the new icons of the 20th century). On the basis of the art contract, the spectator can gaze at an appealing, naked man and feel justified. Simultaneously, the viewer should be aware of the dubious quality of such an alibi to justify the vantage point. In this context, there is more kinship with the photographs of Robert Mapplethorpe, fascinated above all by classical representations of the male body, but employing the familiar, formal conventions to introduce new elements – black models or sadomasochistic iconography. Mapplethorpe’s photographs – in spite of their direct self-identification and the artist’s participation in the world presented – are permeated by a formal detachment and characterised by a strictly defined compositional framework.

Radziszewski looks at his models and he preserves their physical presence via the gaze of someone who instinctively seeks a composition, while at the same time trying to free himself of it in order to access pure sensuality, rejecting all pretexts for gazing and for averting the gaze and disposing of the all-too-sentimental anecdotes and storylines.

If one looks for the other polarity of the gazing situation, of being looked at, of being with someone, but always in the presence of the camera; of being close, yet always at a distance, with the convention maintained of the ever-changing filters and lenses, perhaps a candy wrapped in shiny paper would suffice: I’m giving you this sugary thing; you put it in your mouth and you suck on someone’s else body. And in this way, my work becomes part of so many other people’s bodies. It’s very hot. For just a few seconds, I have put something sweet in someone’s mouth and that is very sexy. [3]

1 Karol Radziszewski in conversation with Kaja Pawełek [in:] Karol Radziszewski MARIOS DIK 2009, Warsaw 2009.
2 André Rouillé, Fotografia. Między dokumentem a sztuką współczesną (Between a documentary and contemporary art), Kraków 2007, p. 358.
3 Felix Gonzalez-Torres, as quoted in Nancy Spector, Felix Gonzalez-Torres, The Solomon R. Guggenheim Foundation, New York, 1995, 2007, p. 150.