Friday, May 23, 2008
jessie mann interview, part 5
part five of Seven Questions for Jessie Mann. the gay part.
Subjectify: Self Possessed definitely tackles ideas of gender and performance, and the subject or muse as a feminine archetype. Do you subvert that dynamic in your role as the conscious subject? The characters you portray in Self Possessed include Mapplethorpe and Warhol. I imagine that their queerness helped them disrupt the traditional barrier between subject and artist in their work. How does that function in your project ? Does Len Prince’s sexuality, or yours, have an impact on your work together to question the role of the subject?
Jessie Mann: This one is my favorite question! I like your use of the word queer—it is my favorite for such discussions, and so I will stick with it. For ease, I will once again break this question down into two broad topics: the first, being the idea of gender and its relationship to the subject in art and culture. The second being the role of sexuality in this collaborative project and others. To start, I do try to subvert a few ideas. One of them being that women in art are silent objects. Another, that women in collaborations were inevitably exploited or in someway manipulated into acts of self exposure. And still another, the idea that it is women who have exclusively populated the role of muse and/or artistic object. By speaking about my role, from my position, I am able to at least assert that one woman was not silent—is not silent, was not exploited, will not be exploited. That it is possible for the muse or the subject to bring artistic action to a collaboration. I try to get people to question the assumptions we make about women in art, and the subject in general. I am often asked why I didn’t “just take self portraits?” But a very important part of this project is to assert that the act of collaborating with the artist is artistic, that what women have been doing for so long, is “enough”—I don’t have to take the pictures myself; I can even pose nude for a man (gasp) and it can still be me making art. Additionally, by portraying Warhol, Dali, Mapplethorpe, and Beuys I am reminding people that the use of the self, the body, and one’s character in art is not something reserved for women, while at the same time giving a nod to the fellows that gave me the precedence to take on this theme.
It seems to me that both queers and women are particularly appreciative of the distinction between self and character. Here I would reference Wilde as a prime example of this self aware posing that is widely practiced by queers and perfected by the all-too-rare brave woman. Why this talent is most frequently, or even exclusively, developed by queers and women, is perhaps another chicken or egg question. Do women and queers feel the social need to separate identity from character, is the external flamboyance assigned to women and adopted by queers a result of social roles/pressures or is a certain amount of flair and show simply a part of the wonderful nature of said human beings? This is maybe another question I don’t really have the answer for, but I do love the discussion.
And though the overlap between queer culture and the cultural identities of women is infinitely interesting to me, I would like to take this opportunity to turn the question around. Why don’t straight men make characters of themselves? Why is it that queers and women share this trait but straight men don’t? Is it that they think of themselves or are seen as the fallback position—no need to define yourself when you are vanilla—everyone else has to add flavor, or is the straight male identity lacking in character? A notable exception to the rule that ‘the straight man’ doesn’t make a character of himself are writers. Hemmingway, Hunter S. Thompson, and Phillip Roth with his alter ego Zimmerman, all made characters of themselves as much as they wrote new ones into existence. Perhaps, something of it has to do with the position of the observer. From that stance, the outside, the viewer develops a sense of the play of it all. Or, maybe, the artistic spirit can, in fact, be channeled into ‘character making’ as a medium, and ‘outsiders’ simply tend to make good artists.
Finally, on the point of sexuality—I think it is relevant to this project that Len and Jason Paulson, who did a majority of the make up and styling on these photographs, are partners. I think that is a cog in the dynamics of this project that people are not generally aware of when they are introduced to this work. One blogger, reviewing the work, wrote that it was just another example of the dirty old man looking at the young girl posing. Just more of the male gaze. I found this hilarious. Definitely not for the first time, but maybe for the first time since people have been allowed to be open about their sexuality, we have been openly documenting an archetypal love—the queen for the queer and vice versa. I wonder how many collaborations of this kind have gone down to history in silence. The sexual dynamics of our team also allows the character I make of myself freedom from just that male gaze. In might be that the absence of a sexualized air, a familial environment (if you will) allows me to fully integrate my character as a woman—self possessed—sexual yet not objectified—a character—yet one who writes her own dialog. When I asked Len about this question, he said that gay men get this work better; they are looking for the nuances of meaning in a dialog that uses their language, in short, they are not distracted by the tits. I don’t know if that is really true, but there is so much of this work that speaks to queer identity and the many suits (of armor perhaps) that women wear. Someone once said that Monroe flirted with the camera, Len and I might just be pulling a ‘deadpan camp’ right back at the camera— itself known for its pregnant silences and contrived blankness.