Saturday, 26 May 2012

Reblogging of Caryn Franklin's essay

Yesterday Marie Schuller emailed me a link to a very thought provoking essay written by Caryn Franklin as a commentary to Visiting Hour the fashion/fetish film we did together.

I am reproducing Caryn's article here adding a few of my comments. You can access the original here. Caryn Franklin is a fashion commentator, best known for presenting the BBC Clothes Show.

Caryn Franklin (Google Images)

Essay: Age


Why is adult female sexuality threatening? Why does the mind and spirit of a full-grown woman need restraining? Why does our media condemn women to appear as sexualised girls? And why, the one I ask most frequently...Why does the fashion industry prioritise the infantilised form?

Purists might offer John Sutcliffe as a master of designer bondage wear, but I’ll take mine with the sensual flourish that a liberal application of fashion can provide, courtesy of Rick Owens, Thierry Mugler or even Dior. I get my kicks where I can.

Hard-core fetish clothing is graceless, sweaty and unflattering and the accompanying imagery even more so. But when fashion leverages the trappings of sex play to re-frame the narrative around power, domination and submission...well then it’s more to my liking. Two pairs of vintage Westwood McLaren Seditionaries’ strides and a whole load of black leather in my wardrobe are testament to that.

But our industry’s default setting for showcasing design ideas on an angular teenage model makes for awkward viewing of any new fetish inspired trend. In tightly bound leather, corsetry and spike heels, the passivity and naivety of the girl within the clothes is amplified more than usual. Those familiar with my stance, will know this continuous broadcast of undeveloped femininity as a vehicle for all fashion promotion delivers short - not because I am against the intoxicating beauty of youth – but, put simply: I’d like some occasional diversity.

Marie Schuller’s film ‘Visiting Hour’, channels a slow and flavorsome eroticism that comes much closer to the magic that fetish and fashion seeks to evoke. In casting a woman not a girl as the central figure, she adds much more bite.

We first see model Alex B at the end of a long dark corridor; her body and skin seasoned through age. And as she engages with the sensuality of her flesh enclosed in latex, reveling in her own metamorphosis, she is thoughtful, pre-occupied and awaiting a lover.

We are reminded that desire unlike lust, is a complex alchemy of thought and feeling, requiring a fuller and deeper connection with authenticity. Our wish to be spell-bound by the power of sex and transported from the every day is strong. We can feel it as we watch. Good fetishwear evokes the sexual sorceress in us all.

The film takes us quickly to an altered state where we can, if we are willing, leave everything behind, including repressive media constructions of femininity. These preconceptions are something many fashion activists are actively challenging by calling for a wider promotion of body and beauty ideals from within our own industry, but more about that later.

When the film leads us into a room of fragmented mirrors, each reflecting the long grey hair of a woman who is many things including sexually liberated now that she is older and released from the demands of child rearing, we are asked to open our minds to unknown possibilities. The music is shadowy, even sinister, telling us that the journey on any adventure into a deeper meaning is not often well lit. Questions emerge and answers elude us.

Why is adult female sexuality threatening? Why does the mind and spirit of a full-grown woman need restraining? Why does our media condemn women to appear as sexualised girls? And why, the one I ask most frequently...Why does the fashion industry prioritise the infantilised form?

The answer perhaps lies in our collective perception of femininity informed by our past. What is it that older women can teach by being given a voice? A presence?

Christianity has struggled with the omnipotence of women for its entirety. Broadcasting through its own godly channels, a 2000-year programme of distrust and rejection. Female intellect and achievement could always be undermined, just as as it is today.

Why not read the story for yourself! Ecclesiastical reports on the holy war against women can be found everywhere documenting the battle of Father, Son and Holy Ghost as they wrestled power from the pre- Christian Divine Goddess. Scholarly texts recount how Christian pulpits allover Europe earnestly dispatched husbands to beat their wives ‘out of concern for her soul,’ before handing her over for torture and a roasting at the stake, if she would not submit to male rule.

Older women, by reason of intellectual development were more equipped to resist, and therefore especially vulnerable to condemnation. 500 years of female genocide sanctioned by holy men from the 1200’s onwards to quell the uprising, is well documented in fairy tales and feminist texts. Witchcraft was merely an annihilation of womancraft. Ancient woman must shrink herself to fit the mould of patriarchy, just as contemporary women tailor their bodies, appetites and aspirations to fit the modern ideal.

Schuller rallies against the marginalisation of older women in sexual erotica by delivering beauty and later, a raw predatory sexuality, which because of its scarcity is confrontational not just for those who are challenged by female power but for the rest of us who think we are enlightened!

This natural climax in the hard-core fetishwear I profess to dislike, is unsettling. But it takes place as a necessary reminder of the wholeness of femininity and the complexity of what we actually are. And this is the point.

More complexity, not less is needed in our media. Because more examples of individuality, and of the achievements, accomplishments and representations of women, would project a bigger, fuller, riper story, than the narrow view we currently have. This might also tackle epidemic insecurity levels around identity and body image for those who cannot fit the cultural straight-jacket determined by contemporary expectations for appearance and behaviour .

We experience complexity in Schuller’s film and we can believe that there is always more in store for us not less. Just as we are passive, we can be aggressive... Just as we are nurturing, we can be exploitative. Just as we are contained, we can be expansive. Just as we are small we can be big. Just as we are young we will be old...and so the list goes on.

Fashion research by Tegan Amos

I really like this, it is a very thoughtful essay. I have occasionally broached the topic of mature sexuality in my blog posts see for example Sex after 50 but never so eloquently. Anne Enke featured me and Unbearable Lightness in Ageless Fabulosity in December 2011, again reappraising a mature sensuality.

As to the point Caryn raises about the hard core fetish I too will confess I had a moment's hesitation when Marie suggested those scenes. But I could see why she wanted them and I agreed. I was actually dancing with my eyes closed and was not able to see myself which is why the movement flowed naturally and without impediments.

Thanks Marie for the wonderful opportunity and thank you Caryn for this very incisive essay.

Saturday, 19 May 2012

Between abjection and fetishism

Photographer: Nagib El-Desouky

Recently, I have been somewhat preoccupied with exploring the notion of abjection in relation to fetishism and  fetishistic images.
What started it all off was my reading of a paper by Yuh-yi Tan about a film I greatly admire, In the Mood for Love. Yuh-yi wonders whether "the issue of abjection can shed light on our understanding of Mrs. Chen’s fetishistic desire toward the inanimate objects of chipaos, shoes, and cigarettes, and the reified traits, namely cultural constructs of nostalgia and mimetic performativity of an abject self".  Having been model/actress for Marie Schuller's fashion/fetish film, Visiting Hoursuch reflections  concern me.
For those unfamiliar with the much acclaimed film made in 2000 by Wong Kar Wai below is a video clip. The film is about an unconsummated love affair between Mrs Chen and Mr Chow in 1960's Hong Kong. Chipaos, cigarettes and high heeled shoes are the fetishistic elements of the film. "The chipao" says Yuh-yi "is an integral part of the fetishistic sexuality, decorates the female body for an erotic spectacle".
Photographer: David Nuttal

The notion of abjection was put forward by Julia Kristeva, the French psychoanalyst, literary critic, feminist and now novelist who discussed it at length in her Powers of horror (1982). She opens her essay with these evocative words: “There comes within abjection one of those violent,dark revolts of being directed against a threat that seems to emanate from anexorbitant outside or inside ejected beyond the scope of the possible, thetolerable, the thinkable”. Thus abjection, says Kristeva, is our reaction to a threatened breakdown in meaning caused by the loss of the distinction between subject and object and it is an experience in our psychosexual development preceding the "mirror stage" which is to do with the establishment of boundaries between self and others. She also associates the abject with the maternal: abjecting the mother is necessary to the formation of our subjectivity. Further in the essay Kristeva discusses the relationship of abjection to art and religion "The various means of purifying the abject—the various catharses—make up the history of religions, and end up with that catharsis par excellence called art, both on the far and near side of religion".

Fetishism, as we know, was discussed by Freud who linked it with the male child's discovery of the absence of penis in the mother, believed to have been castrated, which leads to her "disavowal" and substitution by an object. Feminist psychoanalytic and cultural theories have reprised the concept and lifted it from an entirely male domain to make it more applicable to female desire beyond the confines of heteronormativity. It was Laura Mulvey that brought attention to the fetishisation of the female body as an element of film - and photographic - narratives, in her now famous discussion of scopophilia (the gaze) in 1975. Later Mulvey broadened that concept to incorporate at least the possibility of a female gaze (1996).

Tina Chanter argues that abjection is the "unthought ground" of fetishistic theories (2008).

Yuh-yi Tan raises an interesting question "Even though abjection has been a relatively unexplored
aspect of fetishistic theories, its association with excluded otherness, the logic of
disavowal, and the horror of castration not only is basic aspect to fetishism, but also depolarizes categories of sexuality and gender".
I can only welcome this critique grounded in Kristeva's 'space of abjection', with all its ambiguity and murkiness.  It  is a very useful lens to understand  fetishistic art. As I continue my exploration of the theory of abjection and its impact  on media I will pick up this thread again in my posts.

(All photos modelled by Alex B)

Sunday, 13 May 2012

DMSO: healer or killer?

Dancers in rehearsal III. Photographer: me
This is a different post as I am trying to find out more about DMSO and its medicinal use, thus I would welcome opinions and the sharing of information from anyone that has had any experience of it.
Briefly, I developed a bone spur as a result of wearing tight shoes. The pain has gone but the bone spur is still there, on the top surface of my foot. I wanted to find a way to get rid of it without having recourse to surgery. I did some research and found out about the DMSO gel. It seems that it helps in getting rid of bone spurs. I ordered it from Amazon and thought no more about it. Then I got the gel, odourless and colourless. But I was intrigued to read that it was to be used only as a solvent and it should not come into contact with the skin. Then of course I realised why. The gel came from the US and  FDA has not approved the human use of DMSO. But veterinarians use it for the treatment of horse injuries and unofficially DMSO gel is the "secret" remedy used by athletes in case of sprains and various muscle pains.
I was very torn and did not know what to do. I decided to try it on the bone spur. I am still alive, I dont smell of garlic and after three days of topical application the bone spur seems to have shrunk in size. It just feels different when I touch it. So far so good.

Photographer: DG
Then two days ago while rehearsing in the studio  I pulled my hamstring.  Nothing major really, I have had this before. I treated the injury the usual way and decided to get some rest.  But the pain has not gone and today I had to forego a technique class because I am rehearsing tomorrow and have to allow my injury to heal.

I felt tempted to use DMSO gel on my thigh where the pain is more acute but after reading all the negative reports I am not sure. Should I or should I not? DMSO supporters claim that the FDA is biased and that one of the problems - according to Maya Muir, writing in support of DMSO use - is that "no company could acquire an exclusive patent for DMSO, a major consideration when the clinical testing required to win FDA approval for a drug routinely runs into millions of dollars.". DMSO is however approved for use in Canada and Europe: in Europe, write McKim and Strub "there are several topical products in which DMSO acts as an excipient. One of these uses an antiviral (idoxuridine) in the treatment of herpes zoster...In Germany, DMSO was approved on an over-the-counter basis for sports-related injuries as Dolicur (Schering AG) and provisions exist in the Russian republics that allow for DMSO selfmedication".

If my pain persists I will try DMSO, at my peril. But I would like to hear from people that have used it.

Photographer: David Nuttall

(All photos modelled by Alex B unless otherwise stated)

Friday, 11 May 2012

Dancing nude in public is not against the law

I was invited to a site specific performance taking place on the lawn of a London college. The performer was known to me through her modelling work. I did not know she was also a dancer. Choreographed by a young woman currently studying for a master degree, the piece was very interesting as it tackled the question of heritage through a fertility rite, hence the nudity. The audience was scarce. It was a very moving performance, the dancer is to be congratulated for being so unselfconscious and so attuned to the surroundings. A lovely piece, I thought.

After the performance I began to chat to the choreographer's tutors, to find out a little more about the college and the degrees offered. Suddenly, a very officious looking woman from some administrative department approached us saying there had been reports of a girl dancing naked on the lawn. The tutor confirmed there had been a performance but it was now over. "Do you know that being naked in a public space is illegal?" continued the officious looking woman."I will pretend this has not happened since it is now over and I cannot see anyone but please remember this for future reference"
"Actually being naked in a public place is not illegal" I ventured. "Not in the UK, not yet". I felt put on the spot, really. I was wearing clothes and was not there as a model, but I do model nude and  attitudes to nudity do concern me.

Later I did some research. Being naked in a public space is not illegal. However, using nudity to "harass, alarm or distress" others is an offence against the Public Order Act of 1986. And this is the crux of the matter. If someone feels offended by the nudity then it becomes illegal.

In this instance it all blew over because the performance lasted a short time and there was no evidence of anything ever taking place - dance is ephemeral.

Dancing nude in a public space is not illegal but it could be if people object to it.

Once again all I can say is "What is wrong with nudity?" But I know the question will fall on deaf ears.

(All photos in this post are stills from Marie Schuller's film "Visiting Hour", modelled by Alex B.)

Sunday, 6 May 2012

Visiting Hour

'Visiting Hour' is the central piece in Marie Schuller's trio of films, SHOWstudio.

SHOWstudio: Fashion Fetish - 'Visiting Hour' by Marie Schuller from SHOWstudio on Vimeo.

The work references themes of age, memory and fantasy.With exquisite styling by Tamara Rothstein and art direction from Marlon Rueberg, this beautiful film is subtle yet sensual. Deliberately combating the under-representation of mature women in sexual imagery, the film delivers a pointed depiction of older females as sexual, beautiful and powerful beings.

Direction: Marie Schuller

Art Direction: Marlon Rueberg

Model: Alex B

Styling: Tamara Rothstein

Set Design: Alice Kirkpatrick

Hair: Soichi Inagaki using Aveda

Make Up: Claudine Blythman using Nars

Nails: WAH Nail

Music Direction: Mimi Xu

Steadicam Operation: James Layton

Focus Pull: Bruno Chiecco

Assistant Direction: Sandra Leko

Set Assistance: Alex Williams

Fashion Assistance: Louby McLoughlin and Lucy Wright

Production Assistance: Gibran Ramos

Ageing in today's world

Photographer: David Nuttall
The other day News had a feature about three legendary models: Carmen dell' Orefice, Pat Cleveland and Estelle Lefebure. All very different but what they had in common was their staying power as well as their beauty.  I found Carmen's and Pat' words inspiring, less so Estelle's who  bemoaned the good old days but said relatively little else.
 I have long been an admirer of Carmen. With model turned photographer Suzy Conway I did a shoot last year in which she asked me to replicate Carmen's look and attitude. It was a magical moment, as the MUA really managed to make me look like Carmen!

Photographer: Suzy Conway
 It was good to see that feature on a prominent model site, an acknowledgement of ageless beauty.
I have ranted against ageism in general , not just in modelling, but I can see that slowly, very slowly, it is being eradicated. Talking again of models, it is not uncommon to see older models  in magazines - Pam Lucas, 62,  often appears in the Guardian supplement. Recently, upcoming fashion designer Olivia Ann May presented her collection for seniors. Pam Lucas, and two other veteran models, Daphne Selfe,83 and Jan de Villeneuve, 68 wore her designs on the catwalk.
I am also delighted to see that older dancers are now performing fairly frequently. Even more than fashion, dance has always embraced ageism, justifying it with the argument that  the body gets frailer as you become older and thus it's not able to sustain the rigour of a gruelling practice routine.
Feeling inspired, I too decided to perform again and will be dancing in a site specific dance production called The Bridge which will take place at the Millenium Bridge in June. I applied to take part feeling somewhat hesitant, but I was welcomed and to my delight I found out that another older dancer was going to be part of the team.
Photographer: David Nuttall
When I was in my twenties, age was a criterion for many awards,  fellowships  and grants - you could not apply if you were over a certain age. At least that has now disappeared, even though the bias may still exist.
The reality of getting older is that you need to adapt and accept that you cannot do things as you did when you were younger. You just do them in a different way. I have recently had another birthday, inevitably this brought home to me that I continue to get older, as everyone does.

But, says Carmen:

"How do people think about themselves? You don’t want people thinking of themselves as ageing into decay. How do you marry the product, the image and get the message out there that life is full of living and you can continue to achieve? I am there representing that life is worth living and I work very hard at what I love. "

Words of wisdom.

(All photos modelled by Alex B)