In her notorious essay “Against Interpretation,” Susan Sontag writes: “In place of a hermeneutics, we need an erotics of art.” The photographic work of Robert Mapplethorpe currently being exhibited at the MBAM certainly embodies the idea of an “erotics of art;” equal parts scintillating, scandalizing, sordid, and sensual, these works demand that you feel something.
Mapplethorpe’s highly aestheticized style enthralled me from the first time I saw it. The first work of his I’d seen was Melody, a signature silver gelatin print of Mapplethorpe’s. It is commanded by a singular stiletto-donning foot. The reflective vinyl straps and pointed toe contrast the matte nylon flesh, and the way it stands apart from the assumed other foot instills a sense of someone putting their foot down firmly; of highly-stylized, attention-grabbing defiance.
As an artist, Mapplethorpe was much of the same. These same photos being exhibited right now were the locus for a battle on censorship and the public funding of the arts in 1989, when they were first shown at the Institute of Contemporary Arts of Philadelphia in the exhibition The Perfect Moment. A few mere months after his death from AIDS-related complications, the outcry from both sides of this issue had crafted Robert’s legacy into one of breaking barriers and questioning norms.
The way this exhibition is set up speaks to this legacy. The first room is dedicated to Robert himself and details his career as an artist trying to find his voice and his medium. It has a strip of white carpet dividing the room in half, and stepping over it feels like crossing the threshold of the mind behind the madness.
Room by room, his life’s work unfolds in phases and his photographic style refines itself. You begin with his celebrity portraits: Debbie Harry, Cindy Sherman, Andy Warhol, Yoko Ono, and his muse/lover/partner Patti Smith, amongst many others. They’re glamorous and candid at the same time, often posed but effortlessly capturing who the person was. (My personal favourite is Debbie’s. Her pout, her stance, her gaze – a rebellious HBIC immortalized.) Two sets of partitions are found within the room: one is transparent and used as a screen for film projections, and the other is a sort of cage containing Mapplethorpe’s early polaroids.
The use of walls complements the exhibition space for the first room, but in the next room they define it. Where his notorious X Portfolio is displayed, there shines a bright “Viewer’s Discretion” advisory sign before entering. On either side of this room’s walls is the side of Robert that made people cringe and writhe – the side that has him posed, looking straight back at you with one assless-chaps-bearing leg lifted and a bull whip up where the sun don’t shine. A path cut down the middle is lined by simple black-and-white still-lifes on one side, but almost nothing down the other, aside from some text right at the beginning and my beloved Melody at the end.
In this room, the walls work as a sort of Mapplethorpian metaphor. You can cut right down the middle, sure – but you’d be ignoring so much that is crucial to who Robert was as a person and the community he identified with. The wall of still-lifes is transparent, so viewers can get a peek of the naughtier pictures if they feel so bold as to do so. If they feel like that may be too much, that these photographs are not worth considering - they can turn around and be faced with literally nothing other than his “best hit” Melody. This room, in a sense, begs you not to be so close-minded and ignorant – the same aesthetic obsession that resulted in his impeccable still-lifes is found in his wonderfully kinky X Portfolio. So go ahead and visually appreciate that bowl of fruit with the same gusto as you should that picture of a dom and her inverted sub. Hell, go right ahead and stand in the middle if you want to compare them side-by-side.
The next room is a love letter. It is a testament to loving beauty and Robert’s quest to photograph it. It rediscovers and celebrates the fine idyllic qualities of orchids, muscles, buttcheeks, statues, and bodies of all types. Be it the trans body of Lydia Cheng or the muscular cis body of Lisa Lyons, Robert clearly loves finding the aesthetic perfection of them with his camera. One of my favourite motifs that he employs is his use of classical imagery, notably that of the depiction of Gods. By using this motif in his highly-stylized photographs of bodies deemed not beautiful by Western society for centuries, Mapplethorpe gives the Western tradition the finger. These bodies - black, trans, gender non-conforming - are just as beautiful as Hermes, the Graces, and Aphrodite whether you like it or not.
The final room documents the happenings of 1989 and the walls are covered in political cartoons mocking the situation. (How do we make sense of issues we can’t fully understand? We mock them, duh.) There are three screens playing footage of the protests begging to keep the show going on and to keep the arts publicly funded, even if they’re deemed obscene.
Admittedly, part of me had a giggle in the gift shop when I saw ceramic plates with Mapplethorpe’s orchids on them being sold only a few feet away from artisanal ceramic buttplugs. That same part of me giggled when I saw cute leather pouches with Mapplethorpe’s works printed on them being sold only a few feet away from a leather daddy starter kit.
But more importantly, part of me wants to break into the display box in that last room and steal that shirt that says “Censorship is Obscene.”
Because it is.
Embrace the discomfort the X Portfolio brings you. Don’t question what parts lay between the legs of his models.
The focus of Mapplethorpe’s work was visual perfection, and that is what need be focussed on when visiting this exhibit. You can leave your qualms at the door.