Art in Chains
This short piece was written at the request of Rafale von Uslar for two of his exhibitions – a third was written for his exhibtion Blondies and Brownies in Munich, 2000. It was placed with other essays in a beermat in the Koln leather bar Chains, in a exhibition of drawings, photographs, neons and other works, that was hung simply in the available light of the bar – even in the darkroom.
How is the experience of the gallery different from the experience of the bar, why should it be so? After all, men cruise men in National Galleries the world over, though such institutions probably never have a darkroom, or at least one intended for that purpose. And men cruise men in bars. But, of course, they seldom look at art there. So how do you feel in bars and galleries, how do these feelings intertwine? Imagine the Villa Borghese, in Rome, a few gay men amidst the hordes of tourists, a fewer still are leathermen amongst these gays. And you come to a painting by Titian, let’s say Venus binding the Eyes of Cupid, an image that looks like nothing more or less the ur-myth of heterosexual passion, a vanilla paradise; and then look again into its overwhelming pink. More than a tone, a net of graded crimsons from the colour of thin-spilled drying blood to the beginning blush of a human skin, merging the folds of sky and skin together. The baby cupid, to the centre, buries his eyes in Venus’s lap as she knots a thick, silken blindfold round his head. Behind him, to the right, two attendant goddesses watch and wait, offering the bow and quiver full of arrows, their lips half open, uncertain, the breath sharp drawn in expectation of the chaos to be released in the world of humans, their expressions half between ecstasy and and ecstasy’s anticipation, while Venus herself looks away from them, listening to their fears but as if indifferent to what will happen. Sex is a mechanism, a mechanism of chance, of fear, of order; of intention and inattention, of indifference and passion. It pushes and distorts the surface of the canvas at the same time making it absolutely desirable, making over absolute uncertainty itself into the object of desire. It is public, out in the open in the ritual guise of painting. So too if you go to London’s National Gallery, and cruise the sombre, grey-brown Christ tied to the column after the flagellation. A child kneeling to the right and an angel watch the figure of Jesus seated with his back to them, hands tied to the column by a thin rope, a thicker one trails from his neck, a fine dribble of blood escapes from his loin cloth, and the instruments of his passion, twigs and a rope whip, lie broken and used up next to him. His eyes raised as if in prayer echo the broken exhaustion of the instruments themselves, and then, uncannily, the tragedy is nothing but a masquerade for transcendent satisfaction. The painting tests a limit, a limit between pain and pleasure, between the spirit and the flesh, between what can and cannot be said aloud. You should recognise the gesture in the painting, the disturbance, these strange borderlands of the licit and the illicit in the conventional order of the gallery. Cruise art in Chains, by all means. But remember to enchain yourself to art, in these dark, inner rooms of public life.