Degree Critical, Fall 2016

Tuesday 11/22/2016


Gender Studies

by Cynthia Cruz (Class of 2015)

The word “sexy” has never made sense to me. Or, rather, the way it is popularly used and what it seems to stand for: always something obvious, like a woman in a low cut dress showing too much cleavage. As a woman, I have never found such images interesting or intriguing, and I imagine this is directly connected to the fact that for me, that word “sexy” has always been connected to the white, straight, male gaze, and its inherent desire for what I understand to be the fetishized female body.

What’s missing from such images is aura, that which cannot be put into words, the unnamable thing that draws one person to another, that animal magnetism. If the word “sexy” connotes artifice, superficial, it stops at the top layer of the quality we are attempting to capture.

What it is, then, that makes photographer Bettina Rheims’s work so vibrant and alivesexy as I wish it was understood is its animation. By animation, I refer to the verb “to animate” —from anima, “life, breath”—which means “to fill with boldness or courage,” “to give breath to,” and also “to endow with a particular spirit, to give courage to.”

Another word often connected to “sexy” is “erotic,” and like “sexy,” erotic can suffer from a similar series of cliches. But as Georges Bataille writes in Eroticism, Death, & Sensuality, “Eroticism, it may be said, is assenting to life up to the point of death,” a definition closer to how Rheims describes her own process:

I usually shoot following my instinct and trying to get something personal from my model. I think that’s what makes my image(s) “sexual.” I don’t think that “sexual” means “erotic,” but it’s like you’re reaching something deep, unknown and secret in someone {…} (Photo Whoa)

What Rheims describes as “something deep, unknown and secret in someone,” seems, then, to be similar, in a sense, to what Bataille describes in his description of the erotic. What both describe is not a superficial description of the erotic (how one looks) but, rather, this move toward the unknown.

I first came across Bettina Rheim’s work via a postcard I found and bought at the Ludwig Museum in Köln, Germany. Titled “Karen Mulder With A Very Small Chanel Bra,” the photograph is of the model, Karen Mulder, presumably in post-op following plastic surgery. I have held onto this postcard for several years and, in fact, have had the postcard on my wall ever since. At first glance, it appears as if the image is venerating the act of plastic surgery and thus the need for women to alter themselves in the relentless aim of perfection and beauty. And yet the camera’s gaze says something else. As with all of her work, this photograph is charged with empathy—an inmate understanding, and thus, compassion, for the subject and her situation. In this case, the subject, the model Karen Mulder, is looking directly through the camera at Rheims—the result of which is vulnerability. That Mulder’s gaze is directed into the ”eye” of the camera positions her in a place of mastery of/over herself and her image rather than merely as object.

Bettina Rheims. Dafné C. II, juin 2011, Paris (2011); from the series Gender Studies. © Bettina Rheims. Courtesy Xippas Galleries.

Here, in this photograph, then, the gaze, is equal. Because the women are looking at one another, we too look at the subject with empathy. As a result, the image seems to be asking us viewers: What does beauty actually mean? Where does it exist? And how precisely does it translate between women? It isn't that Rheims is necessarily advocating plastic surgery or the drastic altering of one’s face to adhere to beauty standards but instead, is using the image as a site of query. This is, I think, why I have been holding onto the image for so long. What does beauty truly look like, and where does it exist? What does that word mean, and who decides what it is and who has it?

“Beauty” is typically connected to the female, and there exists an expectation that women ought to be beautiful: this is at the core of Rheims’s work. From the 1980s up until her 2014 project, Gender Studies, Rheims has investigated gender, androgyny, beauty, and objectification. Female Trouble (first published in 1989), a series of mostly black and white portraits of women in various poses and in various states of dress and undress was followed by Modern Lovers (1989–1990), a series of black and white photographs that explicitly examined issues of gender and androgyny. In an educational supplement to the exhibit, the project is described as:

The idea for Modern Lovers took form when a young woman appeared in Rheims’s studio with the face of a boy. Rheims spent the next two years searching for suitable models, becoming fascinated by the sense of sexual ambiguity in young people—not so much for an exploration of sexuality, but of the meanings and definitions of gender.

The compelling images deal with sexual ambiguity by dramatizing trans-gender tensions. The works ask us to consider the instability of gender identity in a diverse group of young adults, and in turn question how identity is socially determined, how it is constructed and experienced.

Rheim’s most recent project, Gender Studies, a series that, according to Hamiltons Gallery where the works were exhibited, “depicts transsexuals, women that have become men, men that have become women and a third gender; those that preferred not to choose a sex and exist as both, adopting a dual identity.” The project was the result of a request for Rheims to republish Modern Lovers. Instead, Rheims decided to revisit the project, taking the project one step further. While the photographs in Modern Lovers were black and white, Gender Studies consists of color photographs. In addition, the images of the latter are slicker, sleeker, as if from the pages of fashion magazines. And yet in both projects, the gaze remains the same: aligned with the sitter. Akin to the work of Nan Goldin, for example, the subjects in Rheims’ photographs present themselves as opposed to being presented. It is as though each photograph is a portrait rather than a window through which we are looking. The photographs are windows from which lights shines, much like the halo of light that awaits a performer onstage.

 Bettina Rheims. Leslie. Octobre 1989, Paris (1989); from the series Modern Lovers. © Bettina Rheims. Courtesy Xippas Galleries.

Rheims, herself a model until her mid-twenties, has done something wonderful with her own personal experience. As the former object of the photographer’s gaze, she understands and has the desire to portray not the woman as object but the woman as master of her own image, of her own power and beauty, and above all else, master of her own body and how she desires to be seen and consumed. This move in itself, of Rheims’ camera or gaze meeting the gaze of the women she photographs creates, possesses its own intimacy and eroticism, one not contingent on the viewer, male or female, but instead, on an energy or aura that moves from the women photographed by Rheims and given to her, and to the viewers, within the parameters of the woman being photographed. This energy, this aura, then is ultimately the eroticism and so-called sexiness that one encounters when viewing the works of Bettina Rheims.