Under Your Skin

That the American photographer Richard Kern shoots porn to pay the rent is evident from his exhibition at Catalyst Arts, Belfast. Exhibiting alongside former prostitute and porn actress turned artist Annie Sprinkle, the work is described by the gallery as “an investigation of the conventions surrounding notions of sex, sexuality, place and space”. While Sprinkle’s film footage and photography does perhaps have something fresh to say about these issues, and might even deserve the title ‘post-modern porn’, Kern’s does not.

Far from being ground breaking, there is nothing subversive about Kern’s photographs in the true sense of the word. Sure, most of the subjects are female and naked, but they’re also young (some very), good looking and slim. Far from being controversial, his exhibition is, conversely, a celebration of the existing gender order and all the conservatism that characterises it. In fact, it looks a whole lot like bog standard, maybe slightly ‘arty’ porn, the sort produced by men for men everyday.

The not so subtle subtext is violence

In keeping with this, many of the women depicted are not only naked but also look defenceless. One photo shows a dishevelled young woman, crouching on the ground like an animal. Her facial expression is anxious, fearful; she almost seems to be trembling. Another has young women holding a lump of raw steak to her eye, blood trickling down her fingers. The not so subtle subtext is violence, perpetrated on the women by some unseen man. See it, and try to tell me this doesn’t look suspiciously like part of some elaborate rape fantasy of Kern’s.

It’s interesting to contrast this depiction of women with that in Sprinkle’s photographs. They are pretty much on a par as regards explicitness, but her women appear to have depth – they’re not simply blank canvases onto which men project their fantasies. To claim that they seriously undermine traditional conceptions of sex and gender is probably an overstatement, – Madonna did that much better ten years ago. However, these women are not victims. Although they are presented in overtly sexual poses, these are tempered with a humour and humanity that is missing from Kern’s work.

Men are behind the camera, directing the action

Kern’s subjects are vulnerable, less the masters of their own fate. This is not to say that every photo is infused with violence – the two women reclining, legs splayed, on a bed appear pretty content – but the vast majority are nudes (tellingly, Kern seems particularly fond of the traditional topless shot). No men are depicted, and are made all the more powerful by their absence. Men are behind the camera, directing the action. Of course, the female nude has, throughout history, been a popular subject for artists, and this arguably has more to do with women’s subordinate position in society than it has to do with aesthetics. There is some sense in which being naked renders us powerless, and this is especially the case with Kern’s work. The photo that I found most indicative of this was of a young women (again, – most look barely early 20s) leaning against a sink in a public toilet. Her clothes are pulled aside to expose her breasts and genitals, and her head hangs down, as if in shame. Behind her lie what appears to be a school satchel and a pile of books. To suggest this image, of a passive and naked child-woman, is in some way defying sexual conventions is probably a bit of a push.

Once again we are confronted with good old-fashioned sexual exploitation

Kern displays the attitude that shapes his photography in a recent interview, accessible at www.kulture-void.com/ecg/kern.html. “I wanted to get to a point where I could have people come over, girls mainly, that drop their clothes when they come into my house, and that’s pretty much what happened. Not to brag, it’s just what I do.”

On my way out of the gallery a male staff member said to me, “It’s good to see this kind of stuff in Belfast”, as if this exhibition is in some way a sign of a more liberated moral climate. However, my own response was disappointment and a stifled yawn. Once again we are confronted with good old-fashioned sexual exploitation masquerading as a serious attempt to challenge the sexual status quo. I found it difficult to discern what Kern’s concept was; if indeed there is anything deeper there than a bit of mild titillation (yes, the obligatory faux-lesbian scenes are included) along the usual masculinist lines. Nothing particularly new there, and probably nothing you wouldn’t see in Razzle, only with better lighting.

Check out www.richardkern.com to make up your own mind.