Reflections on Mid-Point Review

Giving the Model a Voice - Confronting the Gaze

I have reflected upon the comments made on Skype as well as in my own recording of the Crit session in our Camberwell studio. I have also reviewed this blog in a meeting with my life model, Vanessa as I wanted to include her views before publishing it. It is interesting that she could not see why there was such controversy about the possibility of touching her nude image. It did not present a problem to her. She questioned why I had stepped back and made the touching element only the base of a sculpture or the digitally printed image of her face and shoulders. I will also be reviewing this work with Prof Stephen Farthing in the near future and will post his views in a future blog.

It was not until Jonathan invited closing remarks from my fellow students during the crit that David commented ‘perhaps Terry was questioning the spectator in the work’ that I felt anyone really ‘got’ the main point of it. This is why I have given an explanation below. I was also grateful that Philip understood that the piece was experimental and that was the reason I was trying as many devices as possible so that I could get a view on what worked and what did not. Donald was right in saying that by going beyond presenting each element of my work separately and putting them together in a controversial piece, that the work itself would get very little airtime. The discussion would focus on the controversial. And it did. I expected that to some extent but not to almost the exclusion of everything else.

I had assumed that most were already familiar with the ‘Concept of the Gaze’ in fine art theory but given some of the questions I think that this idea needed to be re-iterated in my presentation (although it was in my longer version in my last blog). Then it would have been apparent why the life model was female, and that I as a male ‘Confronting the Gaze’ was meant to be even more powerful than if a female (making a feminist point) were doing so.

Perhaps I should have just called the piece ‘Confronting the Gaze’ as ‘Giving the Model a Voice’ and ‘Touch’ by the spectator were the means by which this could be achieved.

The model could thus engage with the work and present herself as a human being rather than as a sexualualised object. The spectator, through touch, could personally and directly express their wish to do so (or not) by humanising the model and not viewing her just as a sexual object. To answer Katerina’s question, touch deliberately raised sexuality as a question. From the outset, the piece was understood by the artist and the model to be controversial, with the aim that it would engage the audience in heated debate. And it did, as the Crit went on for 25 minutes rather than the planned 10 to 15.

In my slides I stated several times that I was NOT the curator of the work, my model Vanessa was. Yet this was questioned. Vanessa freely chose the pose, had complete control to choose whether to be touched and if so where it was permitted to do so, as well as to make and chose her own narratives. Perhaps I should have emphasised this in my own voice during the presentation.

Interestingly, towards the end of the crit Jonathan said that he found the content of Vanessa’s narrative very interesting and commented that this was not talked about at all.  After the crit Jonathan even suggesting to me that the work could be Vanessa’s voice alone without any images or touching.

GIVING THE MODEL A VOICE – Confronting the Gaze

‘In a World ordered by sexual imbalance, pleasure in looking has been split between active/male and passive/female. The determining male gaze projects its fantasy onto the female figure, which is styled accordingly. In their traditional exhibitionist role women are simultaneously looked at and displayed, with their appearance coded for strong visual and erotic impact so that they can be said to connote to-be-looked-at-ness’ (Laura Mulvey, ‘Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema’, from Visual and Other Pleasures, P19)

The ‘Concept of the Gaze’ in academic fine art theory is primarily concerned with a man’s gaze at a woman. That is the reason, as the title suggests, that for this artwork I chose a woman as a life model and not a man (or even myself as some suggested).

This work is therefore and necessarily a joint collaboration between myself and my model Vanessa Abreu, an MA trained contemporary dancer, choreographer and life model for the Royal Drawing School. It is obvious from her pose that she is a dancer. This is important as I hope to bring this aspect into later works where dance performance and digital technology interact.

My practice began as life drawing and my primary objective here is not to treat the life model solely as an object in the work but to bring their humanity into it: In this case to express Vanessa’s feelings through her own reflective narrative so as to engage the viewer in a way that respects her as a human being and not just a beautiful female nude to gaze at.

Vanessa chose her own pose, and in the final work curated the choice of images and her narratives. She also chose whether to give the viewer permission to touch and determined any limits she wanted to impose. This has to be if I, the artist, am truly going to give the model her own voice and not my own, and to respect her personal space and feelings.

The gaze in this context seems somewhat impersonal to me and to confront it I needed the viewer to directly interact with the work. If they do not then they are playing out their role exactly as the concept of the gaze espouses.

However, if they do interact, the artwork expands to reveal the model’s personality, hopes, feelings and fears. She is not just a naked model to gaze at and walk impersonally by. The viewer can now see the model as Vanessa and is moved to concentrate on her as a person and to understand something of her inner self. The viewer’s thoughts will now not just focus on her image.

The decision to engage the viewer by touching Vanessa’s digitally printed image or sculpture was a difficult one. Something which caused a lot of discussion among my art mentors, colleagues and friends. There were some who were strongly opposed and others who felt exactly the opposite.

The act of touching a person could be said to cross current social boundaries and to even make a viewer react as if they were not treating the model with respect. But it is not her actual body that is touched (as is the case with some other controversially exhibited works) but an image (as Philip pointed out). And if that engages viewers in heated debate about the issues Vanessa and I have raised, then we the collaborating artists feel that is a price worth paying.

My aim here is not to objectify women which I hope engages today’s modern man (and woman) in a positive way, and to respect women as they would want to be respected themselves. I have Vanessa to thank for her vital involvement in this work.

For the present I have decided not to retreat to a non controversial presentation of my work. It will be interesting to see how it develops and the future reactions I get from my fellow students, tutors, and visiting artists.



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