Part of: Tessa
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Essay

Essay: The Photo of a Girl

by Carrie Scott on 30 June 2019

Carrie Scott discusses the power of perspective in image making and how artist Tessa Kuragi has shifted viewers' pre-conceived notions on sexuality and agency through her series, Tessa.

Carrie Scott discusses the power of perspective in image making and how artist Tessa Kuragi has shifted viewers' pre-conceived notions on sexuality and agency through her series, Tessa.

The photograph is of a woman. She is tied to the loader on the front of a JCB bulldozer/backhoe. There are ropes holding her legs akimbo, while her arms are wrapped around her back. The knots that hold her in place look professional and immediately reference bondage. But the woman’s body is covered. Completely. She’s dressed in a masculine looking grey suit, not cut for hips and breasts. Her shirt is buttoned to her neck. The woman is pristine against the dirty patina of the digger: her hair is perfectly in place and controlled; despite she being almost turned upside-down, her face is calm, serene even. It’s a composition full of contradictions, not necessarily that easy to look at. At least, initially, it wasn’t for me. None of the works in this series are.

​Conceived of by Tessa Kuragi and shot by Nick Knight – with whom, I should disclose, I’ve worked for a long time – the compositions in the series Tessa include images that see Kuragi bound, gagged, pained, and twisted. She has a prosthetic penis in one image. Her tongue is being pulled and pinched by a clothespin, in another. Kuragi is dressed in men’s clothing, despite being the embodiment of curvy femininity. The soft hues of her perfect skin, glowing angelically from image to image, and the expressions on her face, remaining tranquil even in the most extreme situations, give the pictures some normal gentleness.

​So, why are these images potentially problematic? Why can’t I look at them as I do the rest of Knight’s work, with an unwavering appreciation for form, light and composition. Why do I need to think about them? I’m not a huge Nobuyoshi Araki fan – the Japanese photographer known for his images of women bound and undressed – but that is probably because I’ve never wanted or, actually, desired, to be bonded, and therefore I find it hard to identify with the images. I am never sure when I look at his photographs whether the women in his compositions do either.  It turns out, some of them don’t; the #metoomovement unearthed some voices in that particular story just last year.

But these images of Kuragi are different, and I know that. Knight isn’t forcing his aesthetic desires on the model. In fact, it is very much the other way around. When I recently interviewed Kuragi, I discovered a woman who knows herself, her desires, and what she is doing. Most importantly, Kuragi doesn’t see the pictures taken of her as belonging to Knight or the photographer in general, she sees them as part of her body of work and she refers to them accordingly. All of her work is, in her own words, 'erotic and explores bondage and her sadomasochistic tendencies'. She sees the work as a way to explore her own sexuality and a way 'of mastering [her] sexuality….and it gives [her] a power.’ These are her words, not mine. And Knight, who wants his studio to be a place to allow people to 'become somebody', allowed her to freely express her vision and simply suggested she dresses in men’s clothing – a direct reference to the 1968 satirical novel by Gore Vidal Myra Breckinridge which touches on feminism, transsexuality, and The Patriarchy -  to make the images more relevant. This brilliant choice of men’s clothing further disrupts normal expectations and allows Kuragi to not be immediately coded for objectification. So, once I know all this, when I discover that Kuragi is the author and in control of the images, why do I still struggle with them?

The issues at play here are big and complex. I’m not the only person to waiver. The compositions were intended to fill the pages of a major magazine. Once submitted, they were rejected by the editor. In fact, this is the third story by Kuragi that has been rejected. Magazines often run stories about Araki exhibitions or Helmut Newton’s larger than life nudes. What makes these images different? Maybe it’s because the relationship between photographer and subject/model is being called into question at the moment - cue Mario Testino, Terry Richardson, Bruce Weber – and the tendency is now to shy away from any blatant sexuality; or is it because the images are actually authored by a woman and Kuragi wants to see herself this way; or maybe it is actually because Kuragi isn’t dressed as a typical sex object, but rather as part male and female?

Ultimately the images are a blatant spectacle of a stereotypically objectified and submissive femaleness, which is immediately provocative to viewers familiar with feminist strategies attempting to destabilise the socially constructed ideal of the feminine sex. But because these representations are solicited by a young, female artist, we aren't sure what purpose they serve. We, as viewers, know we shouldn’t allow ourselves to play the voyeur, but we want to watch because they are beautiful and powerful images. This means, ultimately, that this work complicates our understanding of where the feminist and the female notion of female sexuality and related imagery are now. Within the full context of feminism, and after a little digging, I believe the images present a new paradigm; one that shakes us out of a world in which we have to be either for the patriarchy, or against it; a world where we might not have to be so debilitatingly black or white.

Thinking far back to Laura Mulvey’s classic essay Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema, published in 1990, it is easy to outline how Kuragi might be performing within traditionally constructed gender roles, and to call her out for it. By drawing attention to the way classic Hollywood cinema promotes an unavoidably voyeuristic male gaze, Mulvey demonstrates how fetishist stereotypes of women are reproduced. Mulvey asserts, ‘the determining male gaze projects its phantasy 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’. In her essay, Mulvey illustrates this point by studying the relationship between film techniques, the audience or spectator, and the scopophilic interest or viewing pleasures that manifest themselves when watching a film – ‘the activity of looking at another as an erotic object.’ More importantly for our purposes, Mulvey also details the way that this gaze most commonly takes shape. The feminine desire to be looked at is manifest, she argues, by the female constantly diverting her own eyes from the camera. Women thus facilitate their status as the object to be looked at, versus being the subjects doing the looking. In most of the shots, Kuragi does just that. She looks away from the camera, or, she simply closes her eyes. She wants us to look. She is in control of our looking.

We are surveyors, watching Kuragi through Knight’s camera. We are not sutured, and because of this we cannot place ourselves in relation to the character, it being Kuragi.

More recent writers have expanded on Mulvey’s ideas and clarify how the lack of an exact authorial perspective might further obscure things. According to Margaret Olin, 'chief among them is the notion of ‘suture’…This term pertains to the way in which the audience is… unaware of the constructed quality of the gaze'. For example, when we look at a painting of a landscape we don’t question whose view of the landscape is depicted. We simply assume it belongs to the painter and adopt what they show us as our own point-of-view. In a film, however, we are likely to be told whose view or perspective we are looking through. ‘A long view of a landscape may close in at the beginning of a film as an ‘establishing’ shot, to reveal the characters. But in the middle of the film, at the height of [our] involvement, a view of the landscape is likely to be preceded by a close-up of a character who appears to be looking at something, which [we] then identify as the landscape. A second close-up may then confirm that [we are] looking through the eyes of a character in the film. [Our] own gaze is denied.’ In this series, we know that Knight took the shot, so it is his gaze we are looking through. As described by Olin we assume the author’s point of view. We are surveyors, watching Kuragi through Knight’s camera. We are not sutured, and because of this we cannot place ourselves in relation to the character, it being Kuragi. And yet, as soon as we realise that Knight was not, in fact, the author of these images, the point of view shifts, and we are in a strange no-man’s land of sorts, neither able to put ourselves in Knight’s position or Kuragi’s. Where it gets sticky is when we try to situate this work in the discourse of contemporary feminism, since we aren’t supposed to stand back and look at women this way anymore.

In an article published in a 1999 edition of Art Journal Mira Schor asked ten women artists and art historians to examine the effect of feminism on contemporary art practice, theory, and activism. Amelia Jones’ response to the set of questions posed by Schor is especially meaningful – and almost helpful – when looking at Kuragi’s work and trying to understand if we can position Tessa in a modern feminist discourse. Jones details the way that her own idealistic view of feminism, 'as a collective, supportive environment in which women could negotiate and exchange ideas,' has been wiped out. She paints a compelling picture of the state of contemporary feminist discourse. 'It’s as if we have theorised ourselves out on a limb and don’t know where to go next,' Jones writes. '…we’ve identified and excoriated the male gaze, [and] proposed various female gazes…we seem to have all the answers but none of the intellectual humility that is required to move us to a new place.

Sally Potter has beautifully argued that 'woman who use their bodies as the instrument of their work, constantly hover on the knife edge of the possibility of joining the spectacle of woman.' 'Women as entertainer [or performer] is a history of varying manifestations of female oppression, disguised, romanticised…The glittering phantom ballerina wilting in her lover’s arms…the singer crooning about unhappy love and her victim relationship to her lover’. Clearly what Kuragi does is different. She is no victim in these images. She is the master of her fate but her version of femininity almost fits into what a male might typically desire. She is very much on that knife edge. As I said at the outset, these images are complicated. And we, as a society, don’t do complicated that well. We like ‘is' or 'is not'. Ultimately, we don’t want to see Kuragi in this typically submissive role born from a patriarchal desire, because we want to believe she – and all women – have somehow been emancipated from a man’s vision of what a woman should be. That, I think, is naive. It is just another singular viewpoint that puts us straight back into a ghetto – albeit with a different kind of constraint - that we are trying to escape from; one where one thing is right and the other is wrong.

We need to allow for women to be the agents of their own imagery, as Knight has done here - no matter how difficult that might be – so that we can create images that are messy and complex and multiple, just as women are, and just as life is. If we free ourselves of one norm to then jump into another prescriptive set of rules, we are not really free. We are just trapped in more dogma. We, as women, should be allowed to sometimes rest inside a male gaze, and sometimes run around outside of it. Maybe images like this are exactly what Jones was hoping for, some of the intellectual humility that is required to move us to a new place. Difficult as they might be, they offer something new and with that newness comes a large amount of beauty.

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