Monday, 22 October 2007

Fool for Love

Love makes me treat you the way that I do,
Gee baby, ain't I good to you?
There's nothing in this world too good
For a girl so good and true.
Gee baby, ain't I good to you?

From the song, Gee Baby, Ain't I Good To You? (Don Redman, Andy Razaf, 1929)

What role do visual fictions play in our consciousness? How do we respond to enacted images of happiness on billboards, sadness in television melodramas, or fear in horror movies? Do we rush to emotionally embrace each unfolding narrative, fooled every time as it were, empathizing with people who act out our daydreams and nightmares? Some suggest that we have a unique ability to temporarily suspend disbelief, to empathize with pictures as if the narratives they describe were real, and then to cleanly disengage as the credits roll and we turn the page. Can we maintain objective distance, and release only a fraction of our potential emotional response for fictions, reserving real empathy for real people and real events?1

The ability to discriminate between real and manufactured emotion is a talent individuals possess in varying measures. Yet our ability to negotiate the emotional power of fictional imagery may  be compromised by sheer volume. Everyday life is saturated by the proliferation of fantasy-based advertising imagery, coupled increasingly with an omnipresent popular culture of superheroes and supermodels that enact fantasies of prowess and attraction. Many times a day, we are seduced by images of wish fulfillment. Many times a day, we are invited to consider the disappointments of our own lives.

Vancouver artist Susan Bozic’s Dating Portfolio is a series of fifteen photographs that describe the iconic moments of the modern dating ritual as staged by the artist and a male store window mannequin she calls Carl. Through the series of images, the two unlikely lovebirds enact simple pleasures, from sharing a coffee in a cafĂ© or enjoying a picnic, to more glamourous dates such as yachting and drinking champagne on a private jet. Taken as a whole, the dream-like images tell a story of the progressive staging of declarations of love, from casual meetings in public places to increasingly elaborate, formal dates. The narrative describes a modern dating ritual that is both humorous and psychologically complex, revealing dating as a socially constructed behaviour. The Dating Portfolio is a series of projections from the point of view of the female subject who is the active agent in the creation of every scene. Bozic’s store-window mannequin brings into relief the fantasy driving these images and defines an empty space of desire within the perfected image of relational happiness. The empty space, or the lack, represented by the male mannequin in Bozic’s images, functions as an ironic site of unrequited longing.

Bozic’s images combine the aesthetic values of commercial photography – contrived, tightly composed scenes, highly focused and controlled lighting, extensively refinished surfaces in post-production – with scenarios derived from romance literature and illustrated consumer advertising. The enacted photograph, the stock-in-trade of commercial photography, is a medium ideally suited for the visual realization of a contemporary idea of classical perfection. Conventionally used to sell hair and skin care products, make-up, spring wardrobes and automobiles, commercial photography is in the business of spinning dreams. Other-worldly glamour is lent to people and things through staged scenes of luxury and comfort that arephotographed in highly controlled lighting and polished through post-production photographic manipulation.2 Bodies can be toned and slimmed, images of food can be made to seem more appetizing than in real life, interior design and gardens can be rendered as small corners of heaven. In the enacted photograph and in the photographic still-life, every visible detail can be controlled and perfected, every gesture and nuance can be scripted. Life can be messy. Photographs can be perfect.

* * *

Eating popcorn and smiling a big, cover-girl smile, a young woman sits in a movie theatre curled under the arm of a store-window mannequin. The contrast of that smile and that stiff embrace is simultaneously humourous and disconcerting. Bozic calls the image He let me pick the movie – the “He” being, of course, her imaginary boyfriend Carl, the male mannequin with whom she sits in the cinema. The couple in the movie theatre is an icon of happiness and as such, He let me pick the movie doesn’t fail to charm. It is an image that generously communicates a flush of warm thoughts: the pleasure of human sociability, the warmth of companionship, the social approval of a public relationship and the thrill of romantic love. The movie theatre is a democratic space – indifferent to class or wealth. They eat popcorn – so we know it’s a light comedy or a popular  film, a passing diversion – neither high art nor serious documentary. Between them, there is no question of status or power or money. The charm of the image is in the absence of guile: the couple is there for no other reason than they simply enjoy each other’s company.

The charming images depicting simple shared pleasures in the Dating Portfolio eventually give way to an escalating fantasy of devotion and adoration. This is the fantasy of “Carl’s girlfriend.” Every activity is imagined from the point of view of her desire. The titles of the photographs name the things that Carl has done for her: He let me pick the movie; Carl takes me to the nicest places; He surprised me with a romantic getaway; He remembered our anniversary. Her imaginary boyfriend is so good in fact, that he is able to anticipate her needs in images such as All I said was my feet were a little sore, and He’s so thoughtful, it wasn’t even my birthday. Each consecutive image in The Dating Portfolio builds toward the inevitable emotional crescendo of the white wedding, a fantasy of mutual adoration codified in popular women’s literature, music and cinema.

Bozic’s staging of the Dating Portfolio recalls the highly aestheticized narratives of traditional romance fiction.  In its styling, the portfolio reprises the cover illustrations of the so-called “marriage” sub-genre of romance fiction, where marriage is the ultimate goal and the story-line traces a growing but somewhat dispassionate love. Marriage romances typically featured illustrations of attractive, well-groomed couples decorously, if stiffly, embracing.3 The lack of passion in this genre may account for the crucial role of the mannequin in Bozic’s restaging of the fantasy. However, she has updated the genre in many ways. The sketchy pastel renderings of the traditional romance covers are replaced here by saturated hues, satiny shimmer and the sharp-focus gleam of polished surfaces. In the image The picnic was his idea, the budding romance takes place under a clear blue sky and beneath falling cherry blossoms. In He remembered our anniversary, there is little left to chance in the wardrobe or setting. Carl’s girlfriend meets him at the door in pearls, embroidered satin skirt and matching satin shoes.

In Carl takes me to the nicest places the pair are out on the town in matching black. The marriage fantasy in the images is strongly equated with a fundamental materialist ethos. Make-up, hair and wardrobe are always fresh and perfect for the occasion. Deeper passion is equated with greater expense and better clothes. There is little that is spontaneous or left to chance in The Dating Portfolio.  In her aestheticizing of the dating ritual, Bozic describes for us a  culture in which the material qualities of life trump life itself.

If consumerism may be a characteristic particular to our time, commercial photography has lent itself well to the promotion of consumer values. In the Dating Portfolio, Bozic has referenced the photographic advertising conventions of magazine and billboard advertisements for jewellery, liquor, clothing and tourist destinations. Her actors enact their devotions to each other on a conventional stage, facing an unseen audience. Glamour is the focus of every shot, whether  it is mountains, pearls, champagne or apparel. Bozic moves beyond the conventions of commercial still photography in Bedroom, however, where the mannequin’s back to the camera recalls the conventional and economical staging of the daytime soap opera. Little is expended here in terms of adornment, the focus being on the anticipation of sex. Images such as Photo Booth and All I said was my feet were a bit sore point to a greater naturalism – seemingly referencing spontaneous photo booth sessions or casual snapshots. Yet even these apparently spontaneously captured moments have been codified, conventionalized, and marketed as signifiers of “unaffected” charm and affection.

The marketing of images of affection in cinema, television, and publicity plays on the inherent voyeurism of people and the Dating Portfolio images work within this convention. We have become accustomed to living vicariously through the emotional lives of celebrities and actors. The viewer of popular media functions as a fly on the wall, unseen by the actors who pretend to be in intimate situations and who behave as if there was no one watching, making the viewer's experience akin to that of a peeping-tom. Each episode produces a frisson of excitement similar to the feeling we get from looking through someone else’s private photos, or coming across someone's discarded photo-booth pictures, where we are afforded a fraction of a second of someone else's interior life.

The fantasy of Carl’s girlfriend’s that Bozic describes is clearly as hollow as Carl. While we are charmed by these images of simple affection and by the more elaborate displays of devotion, and drawn to the aura of glamour each image holds, there is a hole in the centre of  the picture. Carl’s girlfriend seems not to notice that her dream date is a dud. His perfect hair and rugged jaw line are only a cartoon fantasy of maleness. The viewer can’t help but laugh – perhaps at her naivetĂ©, perhaps at our own. Is the joke on us? The empty space, or the lack, represented by the male mannequin in Bozic’s images is ironic, making reference to desire through the absence of its object.  The enacted scenes are expressions of Carl’s girlfriend’s need for approval and for displays of affection and of her desire for unconditional love. One criticism of romance fiction is that such fantasy becomes a substitute for agency in women. To quote Germaine Greer, “This is the hero that women have chosen for themselves. The traits invented for him have been invented by women cherishing the chains of their bondage.”4  

In Susan Bozic’s the Dating Portfolio, the emperor has no clothes. The imprisoning agent of her heroine’s desire is revealed as an empty shell. The artist mocks the fantasy of prince charming, and the contemporary culture of materialism associated with it, ironically asserting the emptiness of that dream. With the Dating Portfolio, Bozic directs our attention to the difficulties of establishing and maintaining meaningful relationships in a world of increasing atomization, digitization, and materialism, where face-to-face contact seems increasingly elusive. But the dream persists, even if the centre is hollow. Desire, that need for physical and emotional completion, persists even after we think we have deconstructed its political biases. We desire a connection to someone who listens to us, understands us, protects us and adores us. The possibility and promise of human connection suggest that with it, everything is beautiful and everything is possible. Instead, the desire for human completion remains chimerical – its emotional consolation a sterile and destructive dream of limitless consumption.

1. Cf. Naomi Rosenblum, who suggests that, “Camera images have been able to make invented ‘realities’ seem not at all fraudulent and have permitted viewers to suspend disbelief while remaining aware that the scene has been contrived.” Naomi Rosenblum, A World History of Photography, 1984, p. 495.

2. Historically, photographic retouching was done using the airbrush. Contemporary photographic manipulation is now primarily digital, involving computer programs – the most popular being Photoshop.

3. Jennifer McKnight-Trontz, The Look of Love: The Art of the Romance Novel (New York: Princeton Architectural Press, 2002), 35.

4. Germain Greer, The Female Eunuch (New York: McGraw-Hill, 1971), p. 176.

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