ARENA BY KEN PRATTFor those who think they are familiar with the work of Pola Sieverding, her most recent body of work may come as a shock. But for those who have spent time reflecting on her earlier work, these arresting new works may surprise or be somewhat unexpected, and yet it is also clear how they connect with strands and concerns that have always been pressing in her work.
For example, the early work that Sieverding’s precocious talent produced was always acutely informed about the theoretical debates surrounding the nature and ‘validity’ of the image in general and of photography in particular. Liberated from the need to fight old fights or revisit arguments already successfully concluded about the role of photography in ‘fine art’ by preceding generations, instead, Pola Sieverding has always used photography as a means of bringing new facets to the discussion; new insights into how an artist might successfully deploy photography.
And, if the apparent documentary and overt classicism of these new works at first seems incongruent or out-of-character with much of her preceding work, that is because her deft construction and sleight-of-hand use of photography as an artistic medium has avoided being obvious. It is not because the underlying concerns of her work have been abandoned. On the contrary, they have been refined and found new territories to explore.
If we were expecting something with more of a faux-documentary expressionistic impressionism or a louche cat amongst the pigeons after Relational Aesthetics, then it says more about what we remember of her previous successful strategies than anything meaningful about these works. For, aesthetics – or more accurately, playing with aesthetics or interrogating them- has always been one of the strongest tools in Pola Sieverding’s arsenal. Furthermore, is easily argued that this ability has never been more confidently applied nor used to develop such complex meanings as it has with this new body of work.
Here, Pola Sieverding offers us images of male wrestlers. The black that dominates these larger works does many things. For example, it immediately suggests sports photography; an aesthetic that dominates in the world of award-winning commercial sports photojournalism in which all blemishes – and more importantly real crowds with real faces- are Photoshopped into a black background. Of course, even in that world, the result is a form of theatre. The same black curtains used on stage to throw performers into relief are achieved digitally in what we are told is ‘documentary’ photography of real, live sport. One can almost sense a smile on Pola Sieverding’s lips as she gleefully draws it to our attention; pulls down the black theatrical curtain by creating one.
But of course, these are not a series of shots captured at high-speed and presented as a contact sheet in the order in which they were taken, the choice of which one to print left to the editor. As always, Sieverding’s selection of exact imagery heightens impact. In this case it pulls us towards theatre; both to see its presence and to simultaneously enter into it. It drags us undeniably towards an aesthetic of ideal male beauty that has been with us since the civilisations of ancient Greece and which has been regularly re-asserted in the art movements of the millennia since then.
In fact, in these particular images of combatants in the arena, it is impossible to tell what level of documentation has taken place. Were they painstakingly staged over days to give the very precise, focussed notion of cinematography that emerges? Or are we looking at something that was created, in fact, by a fairly traditional photojournalistic method and then given an entirely more complex meaning by the artistic selection of very specific images?
Even if the artist were to tell, it probably doesn’t make any difference. Sieverding’s consummate decisions about which images we see in juxtaposition create realities that we cannot escape. We cannot avoid seeing images of two male wrestlers in the Ancient Greek tradition of the pankration that has been passed down through the millennia by art history and western cultural sensibilities with its (homo)erotic connotations fully intact. This aspect is further heightened by the presence of a small number of polaroids focussing on the male torso that additionally allude to something about photography’s own history more specifically; an aside about the way in which 19th century photography looked to the world of classical painting and sculpture as a means of validating itself as an art form. And yet here, they also act as a kind of alienation device. They deliver a sharp slap of verfremdungseffekt to remind us that what we are looking at is not that which it at first appears to be.
Then there is the absurd. A number of the works show us men looking silly. With that icy objectivity that Sieverding often brings to her subjects, it is impossible to tell whether we are witnessing the ‘documentary’ reality of male combatants in motion or another subtle comment on photography’s history. It is notable, for example, that ever since its advent, when enthusiasts of male body culture – whether in the form of sport or sublimated sexuality- try to use the camera as a means of elevating or even expressing their lofty ideals about male beauty, the results have often proven comic. Whether the closeted homoerotic offerings of Bob Mizer’s mid-twentieth century Athletic Model Guild cheescake mags of yong men flexing their muscles draped in togas or archive pre-WW1 photographs of Czeh wrestler and strongman Gustav Fristensky and his brother Frantisek showing off their Greco-Roman style combat on a 19th century Persian rug, men, it seems, often end up creating the most absurd images of themselves when earnestly trying to make the most robust or profound statements about male identity.
So, are we to take these images as a female (Pola’s?) point-of-view in which the laughable nature of exhibitions of masculine strength and skill are all too glaringly obvious? Probably not. Pola Siverding’s work seldom takes the easy way out and it would be foolhardy to read them as a simplistic feminist jibe, especially when the straightforward articulations of male physical beauty share space with them. Nonetheless, taken as a whole, these three simultaneously reiterated strands do tease out a new thematic in Sieverding’s work.
It would be inaccurate to say that sexuality has not been present in her work. On the contrary, a complex version of contemporary sexuality – a grown-up’s notion of metrosexuality, as it were- has always snaked through her work. But, hitherto, it has remained amorphous and resistant of commodification,; strongly aligned with the Berlin in which she lives and works and, indeed, one might say, exactly the slippery avoidance of a straightforward sexuality that would inevitably lead Americans to coin a neologism that might capture it.
Here, with the boys of the arena, male sexuality is literally brought into sharp focus in the photographs that depict it, almost as if the decision for high-contrast chiaroscuro with few fuzzy edges was making that point clear. Here, men grapple with each other in ways that suggest their heterosexual aggression demands an animalistic display for the female of the species or that it might actually be as pure in its Homeric love between men as we were once led to believe by ardent classicists. Here, men fight each other in a way that can only be homosexual in its intention and in the audience it hopes to attract. Sieverding makes visible male sexualities about which only men are supposed speak. And, in the subtle, clever way that she does it, she simultaneously manifests a new female perspective.
We are no longer looking at the stories that men tell about their sexuality, strength or physical beauty to each other and to women. Instead, we see something that a woman might see. It could be as easily intelligible as the way in which a woman might see both the sexual allure of male beauty and the simultaneous boyish silliness of even adult men. We could also take it as an acute observation of male vanity. Men frequently deny the idea that they like to be the focus of the gaze; objects of desire. Yet, from their ancient inception, all of the sports that like to align themselves with classicism share a need for an audience. The narcissism of sports that even have a need for an arena in which the participants can be observed by other (inactive) people is so implicit that it offers the perfect vehicle for Sieverding’s recurring questions about whether an image is depicting something that is ‘real’ or staged; authentic or simulated.
But, it could also be more complex still. In the age of the Internet, few people –both male and female- now reach adulthood without understanding the place of ‘porn lesbians’ in the canon of heterosexual male fantasies. Yet, at the very time that information is supposedly easier than ever to access – virtually impossible to avoid- the documented reality of some heterosexual women experiencing comparable sexual arousal when observing men engage in (sublimated) homosexual activity still comes as a shock to many. Or, even more problematic for its political incorrectness: some women are turned on by men being violent towards each other. Again, as with the method by which the works have been made, the particular permutations and possibilities are far less important than the reminder that male beauty or identity does not remain the domain of men.
These new works make transparent the ways in which women participate in all visual narratives – in this case narratives relating to ‘maleness’. They also reflect on how images of male identity constructed since the advent of photography have taken on a performative nature that persistently refers back to earlier male-generated mythologies, here most specifically those taken from classicism and classical male ideals. But they also take note that adherence to these narratives is not dominated by any one social class, sexuality or political position. Classicism’s attraction to political extremists and the far-right has been readily documented, as indeed, has its (related) consumption by gay (sub)cultures. But, as Pola Sieverding shows us with this new body of work, it is perhaps at its most relevant when we find it in the realms of suburban semi-pro wrestling, amateur high-school sports halls or good old staged entertainment for the masses. In such situations, precisely because it is rarely considered in a political, theoretical or analytically abstract way, men wearing lycra might reveal unexpected aspects of themselves and of those observing them.