As part of the Courtauld Institute MA in the History of Art students are required to sit ‘Methodologies’, a course that addresses theoretical themes related to art history. This week’s theme of reproduction considered how various texts, including Walter Benjamin’s The Work of Art in the Age of its Technological Reproducibility, connected to images within our specific course sections. Benjamin writes about the loss of the aura, or the embodiment of the originality and authenticity of a work of art through its mechanical reproduction, namely photography. For Benjamin a painting has an aura because it is utterly original however a photograph does not as it is a reproduced image of an image. Whilst studying this text I began to consider how this played out in relation to the topic of my undergraduate dissertation, the Louis Vuitton and Yayoi Kusama collaboration (2012).
The collaboration was a huge global project for both the artist and the brand, which lead to seven concept stores being set up and windows in existing stores being overtaken by Kusama’s polka dotted sculptures and products for the collaboration. Kusama’s polka dot and the Vuitton monogram are pertinent to consider when considering the theme of reproduction. According to creative director at the time, Marc Jacobs, the ‘logos’ are similar in spirit as: ‘they are endless, timeless and forever’. Within the collaboration space the signs had no end point, they were serially copied to cover both surfaces and bodies. The polka-dotted and Vuitton logoed products became vehicles through which Kusama’s motif travels within the fashion world. This led me to consider how the mass-produced Kusama x Vuitton items of dress were reproduced in contemporary fashion and art photographs, and therefore connect to the idea of Benjamin’s aura.
Two images that were pertinent to this discussion were by fashion photographer Viviane Sassen, and artist Jordan Donner. Sassen’s image originates from a series for Pop Magazine based on the collaboration (2012), and Donner’s is from his Revolution Series (2014), for which he exploded Louis Vuitton collaboration bags. The process that was taken to achieve these images support Benjamin’s quote: ‘the work reproduced becomes the reproduction of a work designed for reproducibility’. Both images were eventually displayed in solo gallery exhibitions, yet featured mechanical reproductions of Kusama and Vuitton collaboration pieces, which were made purely for the store space. In these images the mass-produced handbags, essentially wearable copies of Kusama’s artworks, subsumed by continually reproduced polka dots, were taken out of the manufactured context and presented as unique artworks; thus gaining their own individual aura through gallery display. The layered process of production and reproduction to create these images shows how items of dress can be displaced and reproduced to create an artwork in their own right.
I met with Eugénie Shinkle, Reader in Photography in the School of Media, Arts and Design at the University of Westminster in London, to ask her about her current research on fashion photography, focusing on what she has coined, ‘the feminine awkward.’
How would you define your concept of the ‘the feminine awkward’?
It’s a way of thinking through changing representations of the female body and femininity as these are linked to shifts and developments in the creation and sharing of images.
Does it relate to specific fashion imagery?
Yes, certainly. It relates to contemporary fashion imagery, work of roughly the last ten years where you’ll see a shift from images that specifically try to deal with grace and beauty, to images that try to deal with discomfort, awkward angles, a fragmentation of the body, what you might call gracelessness. It is different from the sort of alternative photography that was going on in the 1990s: Corinne Day’s images for example, images of real people in sometimes quite down-market surroundings. That was about a certain type of lifestyle. The newer work that I am thinking about is very much focused on individual bodies. So I am thinking of Synchrodogs, Hart+Leshkina, Ren Hang to a certain extent. And certainly someone like Viviane Sassen.
How do these images affect the relationship between the viewer’s body and the model’s body?
This is where it’s really interesting to start looking at models from the point of view of neuroscience, in which the basic idea is that what we experience visually is not just about vision, but that vision has various tactile stimuli incorporated into it. It’s about something called ‘sensory crossover’ and the fact that none of our sensory inputs are experienced in isolation. The one area that interests me a lot is ‘mirror neuron theory,’ which is the idea that when you look at an image of pain, the same neurons in your brain are firing as if you were actually experiencing pain. It’s the foundation of human empathetic response.
Sensory crossover is a fact of all image perception, but it’s particularly pronounced in fashion imagery, which incorporates sensations of touch, movement, and pose. Images that are ‘awkward’ are those that grab you, that give rise to a certain visceral response quite quickly. It’s a different way of catching and holding a viewer’s attention than, say, ‘shocking’ imagery.
Can they be seen as reaction to the idealized beauty of traditional fashion photography?
I don’t like to see them simply as a reaction to conventional fashion photography because a lot of it has to do with technology as well. It has to do with the speed at which images of the body are disseminated, the rapidity with which they are received, the relationship that we have with images of our own bodies and other bodies. Part of this idea of awkwardness is not just a rejection of beauty it is an acknowledgement of the relationship between bodies, observers and images. That relationship is changing quite profoundly. I certainly see it as something that belongs to more than the limited contexts of fashion.
How do they affect notions of femininity? In Viviane Sassen’s work for example, there is something very liberating in the fact that the bodies do not bear the conventional attributes of femininity; the body is made into a prop and becomes part of a broader formal experimentation.
There is a kind of subversion of feminine identity through purposeful awkwardness, through the making of the body into featureless blobs. I agree with the idea that you can look at them as liberating because all the signifiers of femininity that fashion photography has traditionally exaggerated and made the essence of the feminine are made into something else in quite a humorous way. You can also see how this could be problematic, however. Erasing it, making it invisible is not necessarily a constructive way of challenging notions of femininity.
Dutch fashion photographer Viviane Sassen (b. 1972) presents a decade of her editorial fashion campaigns, blown up large in vibrant full-colour and striking monochrome images, in a continuously moving stream of projections looped in 45 minute durations onto the walls and floor of Level 5 of The Photographers Gallery. This sculptural installation disturbs the viewer’s expectations, and toys with notions of reality and fantasy through the use of cleverly-angled mirrors, lighting, unusual viewpoints and repetitive music, all of which unnerve our habituated sense of being in the world. This is fitting for the title, Analemma, an astronomical term that denotes a figure eight-shaped curve used to map the shifting position of the celestial sun in the sky at the same every day from the terrestrial Earth.
The 350 playful, inventive and enigmatic images bring fashion photography back down to earth by employing a series of barely-concealed tricks (at odds with the extensive post-production prevalent in much 21st century fashion advertising) – a limb out of place, a short depth of field, a filter over the lens, a splash of unexpected body paint – to render the human form unusual, but unequivocally human. This is an interesting point to remember in light of many of Sassen’s fashion photographs, such as her 2008 series Flamboya, which captured models and subjects from Ghana, Tanzania, Uganda and Zambia. As a white Dutch-born photographer, who spent much of her childhood in Kenya, it might be easy to read into these images a power imbalance that bears the spectre of colonial legacies. Yet a closer look at Sassen’s images easily evades such a simplistic narrative. There are too many visual nuances (in the forms and shapes that conceal, reveal and demand interaction from the viewer) and collaborative elements with the subjects (in the unexpected layering of bodies, gestures, expressions and textures) to qualify any restrictive categorisations of her work. Analemma is a must see show that highlights the liberating ways in which fashion photography constructs fantasies, plays with our expectations and re-thinks physical expression across the globe.