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March 02 2012

Paradise in the shade: Thomas Ruff's Nudes

Some of Ruff's blurred Nudes, gleaned from pornographic websites, impart a lyricism to the images. Others lay bare the nastiness of the industry

In the mid-1960s when Philip Larkin saw a couple of kids and guessed "he's fucking her and she's / Taking pills or wearing a diaphragm", he knew this was the "paradise / Everyone old has dreamed of all their lives". It was a paradise that turned out – isn't that the way with any paradise? – to be transitory, from which we were expelled with the advent of Aids and the comeback of the presumed-obsolete condom. Then a substitute paradise came along, one in which the idea of expulsion and exclusion was not imminent but immanent: online porn.

I didn't see real porn of any kind until I was 34, when I stumbled on it by accident on TV in a hotel in Belgrade. I'd been told that porn was woman-hatred, but it didn't seem hateful or hate-filled. What it looked like was people having sex. Camerawork and lighting were devoid of subtlety but the fact that the film showed people actually having sex rather than resorting to cloying visual euphemisms and discreet elisions gave it the quality of a revelation. Despite the aesthetic shortcomings it was a glimpse of crudely illuminated bliss. This was in 1992; nowadays it is almost inconceivable that a man could have reached that ripe old age without having encountered porn via its latest online mode of distribution and consumption.

Porn can be all things to all men. Whatever one's desires, porn will already be alert to them, will pander to them – and, by pandering, shape, mould and form. In some ways it is better than real life – an essential characteristic of any kind of paradise. In a well-known essay Martin Amis asks John Stagliano, a pornographer, about "the truly incredible emphasis on anal sex" in his work. Good question – the key question, in fact, since in some ways anal sex can be seen a metonym for porn itself.

Anal sex tends to be better or, at the very least, less hassle in porn than it is in real life (didn't Amis's friend the late Christopher Hitchens include anal sex – along with champagne and a couple of other things I can no longer recall – among life's four most over-rated pleasures?). At the risk of sounding like a killjoy, it bears emphasising that the anus is designed primarily for shitting. Not that you would ever guess this from porn; the asshole, in the overwhelming mass of pornography, is hairless, odourless and shitless. Whereas DH Lawrence famously took exception to Swift's appalled realisation about Celia – "Oh! Celia, Celia, Celia shits!" – porn takes the modern Swift as its ideal client and delivers numerous and gorgeous anti-Celias. In similar fashion, male teenagers today, whose sexual expectations have been formed by the waxed, depilated and shaved horny angels of porn, might turn out to be as devastated as Ruskin by the discovery that women have pubic hair. Or do they? I ran this little Ruskin comparison by a 25-year-old, who pointed out that increasing numbers of young women are hairless, shaved, waxed and so forth because – to repeat – porn does not just respond to the world, it shapes it; it creates demand in the process of satisfying desire; it doesn't just read our minds, it washes them too.

Except as a spurious and implausible inducement or plot device, the idea of shame is anathema to porn. In The Unbearable Lightness of Being Milan Kundera considers the theological debate as to whether Adam and Eve had sexual intercourse or defecated in paradise. He concludes that without shit (and the attendant sense of shame) there would be no excitement and "no sexual love", that the three things – shit, shame and sex – were all products of the fall. That may be true in the real world – but not in the shameless and shitless (and loveless?) free-for-all that is porno-paradise regained.

Porn is overwhelmingly visual. People in pornoland do the things they do, in the demanding positions they assume, for one reason only: so that we can see what they're up to. Even as we acknowledge that shadows and glimpses, the unseen and unseeable, are key components of any erotic narrative, that narrative is propelled, in part, by the desire to see more and more: with less shadow, in closer close-up, in sharper focus, in HD. At some point, however, it can all get too close and clear, whereupon, as Slavoj Žižek points out, "erotic fascination turns into disgust at the Real of the bare flesh". (Swift comes to mind again, when Gulliver is exposed to the gigantic blackheads and gaping pores of women's bodies in Brobdingnag.)

Taken from porn sites, Thomas Ruff's ongoing series Nudes thwarts the urge to see more and more – and by so doing brings us back to our senses. I mean that literally – to the blurry imprecision of the senses. Several contradictory things go on depending on which photographs you are looking at (or even while looking at the same picture). Porn takes the universal desire to have sex and delivers it and improves on it: perfect bodies, no disease or impotence (as suffered by the porn-addicted Michael Fassbender in Steve McQueen's film Shame), no heartbreak, no regrets, no consequences. But by blurring these images Ruff improves them in the opposite direction. They acquire the uncertainty of memory, the imprecision of unenacted fantasy, the unfocusable swirl of the unconscious, of dreams. Or nightmares in which the idyll becomes either leeringly horrible or ludicrous and laughable. Though they are arranged with only one thing in mind, the original lighting is coaxed into gorgeous subtleties; colours become nuanced, delicate, or expressionistically garish. Acts and actors become more intimate than – and more remote from – the way they appeared on screen. The photographs impart a lyricism to the source material; or, particularly in the recent work, they lay bare the ghastliness and vulgarity of an industry that aims to service desire so thoroughly, so instantly. Hence the poignancy of the moment in Amis's Money when John Self wonders why, with all the hookers and porn available, he still feels the compulsion to jerk off. It's because, he concludes, he needs the human touch.

When I was a teenager masturbation was always and only a substitute for sex with someone. Porn aims to make us forget this, to convince us that masturbation is sex. In the past withdrawing prior to ejaculation was an inefficient and entirely frustrating form of birth control. Now withdrawing and coming over the woman's face – stemming, again, from the pornographic obligation for everything to be on view – is the climactic part of the sex act. A few years back the Guardian columnist Marina Hyde observed that some young men do this – without so much as a by-your-leave – because they think this is how sex is supposed to end. Even the most basic biological urges, it turns out, are extraordinarily susceptible to cultural modification. The line between natural and unnatural behaviour is constantly shifting and changing.

I am ignorant of the process by which Ruff makes his Nudes but more than a few of them – particularly older ones from the series – are reminiscent of paintings Gerhard Richter derived from photographs. Given the shared smudge and smear and a similarly slurred palette, this is hardly surprising. What was surprising, as I looked at some of these nudes, was that I found myself thinking not just of Richter's pictures of people but of his landscapes. And then I remembered Alberto Moravia's suggestion that a woman's body might be all that modern man any longer possesses of nature. (Perhaps there is a link here with Flaubert's astonished observation about "the horror of nature" in Sade: "There isn't a single tree in Sade, or a single animal.") Ruff's pictures seem both to endorse Moravia's idea and to take it a step further: what if the woman's body is itself so divorced from nature (from shit) that it becomes entirely non-corporeal and untouchable, nothing but image?

Ruff's decision to call these pictures Nudes encourages us to see them as part of – conceivably as culmination of and commentary on – a major tradition in western art that has cloaked itself in any number of religious, mythological, aesthetic and moral guises. As John Berger pointed out in Ways of Seeing in 1972, you paint a naked woman looking in a mirror so that you can see her tits and ass – and then you call it "Vanity". So, from a feminist perspective, these pictures are a final insult and injury, which perhaps has the redeeming virtue of honesty. On the other hand, let's not forget that when Berger left school and went to art college he was possessed by a single idea: "I wanted to draw naked women. All day long." In this light the long history of the changing pictorial conventions of the representation of the nude expresses an unchangeable desire of men to look at naked woman and – extrapolating from there – to have sex with them. Berger is looking back to what he felt as a teenager but, as you get older and wiser, you realise that the times when these desires were realised were the very best moments in your life. (John Updike's late novel Villages was a prolonged meditation on and recapitulation of exactly these moments.) Ruff's Nudes show part of the process by which these most intimate moments – longed for, remembered or imagined – are preserved and warped. But it's more complicated than that. Remember the scene in Blade Runner when Rachael the replicant shows Deckard her little collection of snaps which authenticate her memories and prove that she's human? They're not your memories, Deckard tells her. They're just … implants. Something similar happens here. These are not our memories – or if they are they are entirely impersonal ones. And at some level – one inscribed in the process of their creation – these images are not Ruff's either. That's what makes them instantly recognisable as his, and his alone.

The same could be said of the photographs in this exhibition derived from data beamed back from Mars. And there is perhaps another connection between images of flesh and shots of the surface of another planet. I remember an episode from the sci fi series UFO, back in the 1970s, when an unmanned probe sent back images of the planet from which an alien threat was thought to emanate. These images provided vital information in unprecedented detail. But an oversight meant that there was no scale and this, a technician claimed, rendered them useless. To illustrate his point, he projected a picture of what seemed to be a horizon. Except when he zoomed outwards it was revealed that this planet was in fact the gentle curve of a young woman's thigh. So could these views of whorls, craters and meteorite-pocked surface actually be extreme, Gulliveresque close-ups of skin, flesh? Either way, the challenge of these photographs is that we don't know quite what we are looking at – or for.

The history of painting seems to move logically and inevitably towards abstraction; with photography there is, at the very least, something counterintuitive or even illogical about abstraction. But another world – Mars in this instance – represents the possibility of indexical abstraction. As such, these pictures depict radically new topography: a new and distant frontier in landscape photography, broadening our idea of what to expect – what to look for – in photographs. In 1830 the astronomer John Herschel advised someone who was unable to decipher the solar images projected through his prism that a distinction should be made between "not knowing how to see" things and "any deficiency in the organ of vision". In this regard Ruff is offering training of a kind similar to that of Herschel when he reassured his frustrated companion that he could "instruct you how to see them".

Another connection between the two halves of this exhibition is, of course, that Mars has long been the default site of sci-fi fantasy. Our ideas, desires and hopes for what another life-supporting planet might be like have been projected on to Mars, the red planet, which, in these false-colour images tends to be anything but red. Ruff, in these pictures, seems to be setting Mars free from a long history of earthy extrapolation. There are echoes and suggestions of some of the more inhospitable realms of our own planet – Siberia? Sahara? South Pole? – but perhaps the pictures' success is measured by the extent to which their serene, translucent and milky beauty manages to distance itself from earthly notions of the sublime and beautiful.

• Thomas Ruff's ma.r.s is showing at the Gagosian Gallery, Britannia St, London WC1X 9JD from 8 March-14 April © 2012 Guardian News and Media Limited or its affiliated companies. All rights reserved. | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

January 04 2012

Porn yesterday: Roman brothel tokens and early erotic art

Bronze discs depicting sex acts, like the one discovered in London, were used to hire prostitutes – and directly led to the birth of pornography during the Renaissance

One of the oldest pieces of British pornographic art has just been discovered beside the river Thames. At first sight, the bronze disc found near Putney Bridge in London looks like an old coin – until you notice that it depicts a sex scene.

This type of bronze token with its erotic imagery was specially made to spend in ancient Roman brothels. The example found near Putney Bridge and given to the Museum of London is evidence that brothels in Roman Londinium were just as busy as they were in ancient Pompeii, where brothels and their lewd wall paintings are among the well-preserved everyday shops of a Roman town.

Yet this is not just a hint of life in Roman Britain. It is also a glimpse of a hidden art history. These Roman tokens, with their detailed depictions of sex acts, had a dramatic influence on the birth of modern pornography. While the Putney token has been hailed as a rare discovery from Roman Britain, such artefacts showing similar scenes were actually well known in Renaissance Italy. Scholars in the 16th century didn't know what they were – maybe something to do with the reputed excesses of the emperor Tiberius? – but they did leap on evidence of ancient Roman erotic art. Anything from antiquity was considered noble in the Renaissance, so these "coins" (as they were misnamed) licensed saucy 16th-century art, including Giulio Romano's famous series of pornographic illustrations I Modi.

It's easy to see how these classical erotic images by Romano, engraved by Marcantonio Raimondi, emulate the images on tokens like the one from Roman London. In turn I Modi, in its printed form with pornographic poems added, became a bestseller all over Europe and returned to the London of Shakespeare. It set the style for a new erotic art.

As for Roman Britain, those invaders from the shores of the Mediterranean probably needed every reminder of home they could get. I spent an afternoon in the Christmas holidays looking at the ruins of a Roman bath in north Wales. Like the brothel token from Londinium, it shows how the Romans recreated the same way of life everywhere they went: here, Romans could sit in a heated bathhouse in the middle of what to them must have seemed an incredibly cold and bleak Welsh wilderness, and feel the warmth of the Mediterranean for a moment. The site hereabouts has only been partly excavated. Who knows – perhaps the bathers in wild Wales clutched brothel tokens of their own. © 2012 Guardian News and Media Limited or its affiliated companies. All rights reserved. | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

August 16 2010

A picture of ourselves offended

In his Edinburgh festival show, the comedian provocatively uses a picture of an art work that has been condemned as child pornography. Is standup the right arena for such a debate?

Warning: this blog contains spoilers for Sanderson Jones's comedy show Taking Liberties

"Do you want to see the picture of a naked 10-year-old girl?" comic Sanderson Jones cries. Almost as one, we cheer our assent. Confronted by the sight of Brooke Shields as a child standing nude in a bath and wearing makeup, there is a stunned silence. The man directly behind blurts out: "Oiled." Everyone is thrown by this, including Jones.

We are not a paedophile ring comparing holiday snaps, but an Edinburgh fringe audience watching Jones's standup show Taking Liberties. Jones, formerly the hirsute face of Ikea UK, has assembled an entertaining hour that questions the nature of offence and its impact upon civil liberties, gradually building from petty irritations to jokes about his dead mother, the Jean Charles de Menezes killing, to Guardian readers' ill-informed opinions on Islam. With some live Chat Roulette.

The Shields image, which is unveiled during the closing section of the show, is in fact a copy of artist Richard Prince's work Spiritual America, a photograph of a photograph taken by Garry Gross in 1975 for Playboy with the consent of Shields's mother. Condemned by some as child pornography, the image was removed from London's Tate Modern in October last year after police warned the gallery it might be breaking obscenity laws.

Jones's show contends that Spiritual America is an appropriate image to use in comedy, a catalyst for a debate about freedom of expression. But is standup an appropriate medium to debate the subject in such graphic fashion? There is a warning about an unspecified image at the top of the show. Yet how many in that room felt free to express their unwillingness to see it, whatever it may have been? Jones couldn't reveal his set-piece without undermining its impact, and few people want to be seen walking out of a gig so early.

So much of standup relies upon surprising, sometimes shocking the audience – as in Kim Noble's staggering, shocking 2009 fringe show, in which he projected video of himself masturbating into jars of vaginal cream, which he then seemed to put back on the supermarket shelf.

Unlike an image hanging sedately in the Tate Modern, approached deliberately and contemplatively, live comedy retains that sudden, explosive power – that visceral punch. It provokes honest, instinctive reaction, be that laughter, revulsion or simply a man blurting out "oiled". That makes it the perfect art form to explore offence and freedom of expression without any pre-conceived agendas. I wasn't offended, I was shocked. But I'm grateful standup still affords me freedom to be offended if I choose.

And yes, you might find the number of spoilers in this post offensive. But you haven't seen what Jones does with the image yet. © Guardian News & Media Limited 2010 | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

May 29 2010

April 19 2010

Porno im Web 2.0

Die Niedersächsische Landesmedienanstalt hat letzte Woche eine neue Studie „Porno im Web 2.0. – Die Bedeutung sexualisierter Web-Inhalte in der Lebenswelt von Jugendlichen“ vorgestellt. Danach sei Internetpornografie aus Sicht von Jugendlichen völlig normal. Sie sei Bestandteil des alltäglichen Medienkonsums bei männlichen Jugendlichen.

Man liest nun ergänzend, dass für diese Studie immerhin 35 Jugendliche und 14 Experten befragt worden sind. Das klingt nach einem ergebnisorientierten Ansatz dem es an einem tragfähigen Fundament fehlt. Die Studie stellt u.a. fest, dass fast die Hälfte aller Jugendlichen schon einmal mit Pornografie im Internet in Berührung gekommen ist. Hätte man vor 20 Jahren Jugendliche gefragt, ob sie schon einmal einschlägige Heftchen oder Filme gesehen haben, wären die Ergebnisse vermutlich ähnlich ausgefallen.

Derartige Studien haben offenbar primär den Zweck, eine Begründung für ein Festhalten an einem verfehlten Konzept eines Jugendmedienschutzes zu liefern. Oder vielleicht gar für Access-Sperren?

Reposted bykrekkFreeminder23

December 15 2009

James Gillray cartoons discovered

• Rare volume by caricaturist found inside bin liner
• Art seized as pornography now donated to V&A

A rare volume of explicit Gillray cartoons, which sexually lampooned 18th-century establishment figures and were seized by a Victorian vice squad, has been handed to the Victoria & Albert museum after lying undiscovered in Home Office archives for more than a century.

The edition of the "Suppressed Plates", sold under the counter when published in the 1840s due to what the V&A called their "scurrilous" and "offensive" content for the period, was found bound in a bin liner and wedged between a cabinet and a desk as staff at the criminal law policy unit of the Ministry of Justice moved offices.

The folio of 40 caricatures will join an album acquired by the V&A in 1869 of 500 less controversial etchings by James Gillray, considered Britain's greatest genius of political caricature, who died, unmarried and insane, in 1815.

Gillray, whose scathing satires of royalty, leading politicians and the French elite terrified his targets, was so politically influential that William Pitt the Younger attempted to buy him off with a £200-a-year pension. The Prince Regent, later George IV, tried to buy as many copies as possible to take them out of circulation.

Gillray was at his most productive between 1780 and 1810. His original plates, with their themes of venality, gluttony and sexual rapaciousness, were acquired in 1840 by the publisher Henry Bohn, who reissued the caricatures, both as single sheets and in large bound volumes.

However, the Suppressed Plates were not openly published and were only sold secretly to trusted customers.

Today few intact editions remain, the rest having been broken up and sold as single sheets. It is believed the album was later seized as pornographic material.

The etchings include Fashionable Contrasts; – or – The Duchess's Little Shoe Yielding to the Magnitude of the Duke's Foot, a ribald commentary on the physical differences between Prince Frederick, the second son of George III, and his uncomely and unpopular bride, Princess Frederica.

"The Duke of York was a very big man, with a reputation for being sexually rapacious," said Stephen Calloway, curator of prints at the V&A.

"The two shoes, one huge pair facing down, one tiny pair facing up, is an iconic image. And it has become artistic shorthand for sex ever since."

Another is called Ci-Devant Occupations; – or – Madame Talian and the Empress Josephine Dancing Naked Before Barras in the Winter of 1797 – a Fact. It shows the two women dancing in front of the French revolutionary Paul Barras, already intimate with Josephine, while an infatuated, midget Napoleon Bonaparte looks on.

"The idea was that French politicians and the ruling elite in Paris were so corrupt that their politicians would engage with naked ladies," explained Calloway.

He said Gillray's often scatological and explicit works, with his distinctive voluptuous women and spindly men, would have outraged the Victorians.

The volume was discovered by David Pearson, a senior policy adviser in pornography at the criminal law policy unit. He said: "I didn't know the artist's name, but I knew I knew the work and that they were important." Now nicknamed Indiana Jones within the unit, he researched the drawings on the web before the Ministry of Justice approached the V&A. "I could hardly sneak it out of the office unnoticed. It's quite a large volume," he said.

"We do find the odd thing lying around here and there. We sent some old obscene books seized years and years ago up to Cambridge University recently. Of course, they weren't anything like obscene by today's standards."

Handing over the Suppressed Plates to the V&A, Bridget Prentice, the justice minister, said: "This is the right place for it to be. I couldn't really see the prints hanging on a ministerial office wall."

Admitting, almost wistfully, that she had never herself been caricatured during her political career, Prentice said she was a fan of clever political cartoons, citing the Guardian's Steve Bell as one of her favourites. "But they have to be careful not to overstep to the point of cruelty. Even politicians have feelings," she said.

"Looking at Gillray's work, you can see the influence still today."

Gillray produced more than 600 satirical plates, with his favourite targets being George III, the Prince Regent, the Whig statesman Charles James Fox and his arch-rival, Pitt the Younger.

The most famous of his works is The Plumb-Pudding in Danger, showing the globe as a pudding from which Pitt and Napoleon carve off slices.

A brief history of British cartoonists

William Hogarth (1697-1764)

Painter and pictorial satirist whose work, which included comic strip-like series of pictures about what he called "modern moral subjects", poked fun at contemporary politics and inspired the description "Hogarthian" to sum up amoral urban decadence.

George Cruikshank (1792-1878)

Renowned for social caricatures of English life. He gained notoriety for political prints, including The Massacre of Peterloo, or Britons Strike Home, and reputedly received £100 from George IV not to depict him in any "immoral situation". His illustrations for Charles Dickens's books reached an international audience.

David Low (1891-1963)

Born in New Zealand, Low made his name in the 1930s and 40s with his Colonel Blimp character satirising the British establishment. His depictions of Hitler and Mussolini led to his work being banned in Italy and Germany.

Victor Weisz (Vicky) (1913-1966)

German-born Vicky became one of Britain's leading leftwing cartoonists, ridiculing Harold Macmillan as "Supermac", a spoof on the Superman comic, and producing memorable cartoons of Anthony Eden in his homburg hat.

Steve Bell (1951-)

Award-winning Guardian cartoonist best known for the If … strip, which has run since 1981, and for rendering John Major as a pair of grey underpants. Bell cites Gillray as one of his greatest influences. © Guardian News & Media Limited 2009 | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

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