ABOUT THE SEVEN INCHES BY MARC SIEGELPola Sieverding likes to look at men. Many of her works on video focus either on groups of men together in public spaces or individual men isolated from their environment. Her steady gaze on the band and audience at a heavy metal concert in 'To the Crowned and Conquering Child' (2007) turns white boyish masculinity into a series of expressive abstract movements. Slowing down the image, for instance, Sieverding transforms head banging into gorgeous brushstrokes in time, colorful traces of movement across the frame. By alternating slow-motion and real time footage, she seems to move between an affectionate fascination for the boys’ energy and a critical parody of their animalistic ritual. The slowed down sound translates the singers’ voices into the grunts and primal roars of odd creatures.
'In Nocturne Arabesque' (2009), another video contemplating a group of men–in this case, a group dancing together in the open air in Palestine–Sieverding’s use of slow motion seems less a function of abstraction or criticality than a means of relishing in the proximity of men’s bodies. Lingering over the slowly moving images of the jubilant men laughing, jumping, and dancing arm in arm, one contemplates not only their intimacy but also their relationship to the woman observing them. Likewise, Belgian-Arabic singer Natascha Atlas’s version of James Brown’s male-chauvinist classic, “It's a Man's Man's Man's World,” on the soundtrack thematizes not only the masculinity on display in front of the camera, but also “the woman or a girl” behind it.
This gendered relationship between observer and observed comes to the fore in Sieverding’s studies of individual men. Her videos 'Work in Progress #1' (2009) and 'Work in Progress #2' (2010) focus on LINK, a handsome person of color whose face is framed in extreme close-ups. In both works, grainy, nostalgic Super 8 film footage (black and white in #1 and color in #2) is juxtaposed with brief moments of crisp, contemporary video material. Always returning the camera’s stare, LINK appears seductive, pensive or playful, yet ever at ease under Sieverding’s watchful eye. The intimacy between the two of them ensures that the sudden interruption of images of LINK with glistening lipstick and false eyelashes does not come across as shocking or exploitative. The images function rather as sympathetic variations on LINK's gender presentation, variations on ways of being a man.
With two new videos, 'Make Up' and the two channel installation 'Face to Face' (both 2010), Sieverding’s investigation of gender presentation takes on a newfound gravity. 'Make Up' is a durational piece of observation and self-criticism. For the first time, the artist presents an unedited, approximately thirty-minute study of LINK’s face while he applies and removes make-up, a Bindi, and a wig. The camera serves as his cosmetic mirror. For the first two-thirds of the tape, LINK displays the warm, friendly, and confident face we have come to know from Sieverding’s other work. He seems to enjoy and almost revel in the transformation of his masculine attributes into a convincing femininity. However,
his comfort with his appearance and the situation seems to shift abruptly as he decisively outlines his mouth with red lipstick, ever widening the circles so as to cover much of his face with red. Staring at the camera/mirror, looking no longer beautiful, but confused or insulted, LINK then proceeds to remove his make-up. He takes time, presenting his defiant face at each stage of decomposition. As part of Sieverding’s ongoing study of LINK, 'Make Up' introduces doubts about the self-assured gender performance that marked 'Work in Progress 1 & 2'.
In 'Face to Face' the artist extracts moments of drama and suspense out of a choreography of glances and a relay between camera and body movements. The two channel video installation, shot on Super 8 color film, provides glimpses of a white, middle-aged man (the actor Mex Schluepfer, another frequent Sieverding collaborator) in moments of reflection. The images presented side by side alternate between extreme close-ups of the man’s expressive face (typically on the right side) and full body shots that reveal a park setting. Tension arises when introspection shifts suddenly to extrospection. An early sequence juxtaposes the slow revelation of Schluepfer’s face and his slightly disdainful stare at the camera on the left side with his persistently contemplative face looking downward on the right. Soon, Schluepfer’s eyes move ever so slightly to return the camera’s gaze. This penetrating image of his intense stare weighs heavily on the right side while the medium shot on the left flickers and disappears. Through this synchronization of looks with body and camera movements, Face to Face develops into an elegant investigation of the rhythms, moods, and poses of its male subject.
Sieverding presents these two new works under the unexpected motto of a typically risqué Mae West saying: “Never mind about the six feet. Let’s talk about the seven inches.” West’s witty, disarming reduction of a strapping man to his purported penis challenges normative gender and sexual roles. With West, there is no question about who objectifies whom. Sieverding on the other hand doesn’t reduce her male subjects to their genitals. Nevertheless, her invocation of West might be taken as a hint that the two women share an aesthetic and political project, namely a contemplation of the constituents of masculinity and a reorientation of the power dynamics between observer and observed, between woman and man.