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Through a Glass Darkly: Thomas Ruff’s Nudes

From 8th March – 21st April, the Gagsioan Gallery, London is showing two exhibitions of the works of German photographer Thomas Ruff.  One, at their Britannia Street venue is a collection of NASA images of Mars which have been altered by the photographer.  Contrastingly, the second, held at their Davies Street premises, contains Ruff’s Nudes series.  These works are created from internet pornography images which have been distorted through enlargement.  The result is that the pictures, many of which would fulfil familiar clichés of internet porn in their un-doctored state, become coated in a painterly haze which perhaps makes the pictures more accessible, or even acceptable, to viewers who would normally profess to be repelled by the genre.

This area of Ruff’s work easily engages with the murky discourse debating the difference between art and pornography and an exhibition of it is likely to trigger further discussion relevant to this.  Equally, his working practice is frequently critiqued by commentators debating whether harvesting images from the net and altering them can even be considered either photography or ‘art’.  Both of these questions are ultimately unanswerable, although the second has more of an aura of irrelevance about it that the first.  Perhaps, instead of focusing on the core acceptability of Ruff’s working practice or the categorisation of the finished product it would be interesting to consider the affect of the finished works on the viewer and how the act of distortion contributes to this.

Foremost, the distortion process creates a misty screen across the surface of each picture and this, aside from marginally hiding from the viewer what is actually taking place, completely removes all sense of flesh – real sticky, clammy, hairy flesh.  It has been argued that the porn in any state is devoid of this quality due to all its waxed artifice.  However, apart from body hair removal and other cosmetic practices like breast enlargement, the idea of bodies and skin –soft, hard, sticky – has to be present, otherwise it would not be arousing.  This is emphasised by stark lighting and direct camera angles which never, as is the case with Ruff’s images, attempt to hide anything from the viewer.  Indeed they do exactly the opposite.

Ruff’s distortion techniques veil the pornographic images and remove the visceral element from them and, contrary to the idea that seeing less is enticing, it actually makes them rather banal.  They are still internet porn which some viewer may find shocking in itself, but many will surely not given its massive availability and the amount of highly sexualised images used throughout advertising and art.  In fact, Ruff has removed the one quality which could have provoked a real reaction in the viewer: flesh.

In a culture in which (a version of) sex is ubiquitous, it could be said that what we are really afraid of is no longer the concept of sex but bodies themselves.  Consider the advertising of clothing company American Apparel.  In a description the adverts could be described as similar to a wealth of others: attractive, youthful model (usually female) modelling semi-revealing clothes in ‘provocative’ poses.  If we subscribe to the idea that advertising is over-sexualised, then that description should be counted as rather mundane.  However, the American Apparel adverts have surpassed other far more overtly sexualised adverts, such as those by lingerie company Agent Provocateur, in eliciting forceful responses.

This could, in part, be linked to the circulation of sleazy stories regarding the CEO of the company, Dov Charney, who designs much of the advertising himself.  However, most viewers are probably unaware of subplots of the tale when they view the adverts and therefore are reacting purely to what they see.  Whilst not endorsing the American Apparel adverts on either aesthetic or philosophical grounds, I would suggest that what many people find distasteful to the point of revulsion is not the inclusion of sex in advertising a product, but the absence of air brushing and inclusion of bright lighting and a direct camera approach (similar to that used in porn) which reveals the models to be real, mole-covered, freckly, gangly humans.  It is the sweaty suggestion of armpit stubble and the feeling that these Fresher-looking creatures probably wiff off last night’s vodka badly covered over with Palmolive deodorant that makes the images far coarser and rawer than most other advertisements.

For whilst we claim to be OK with sex (despite being English) and even profess to be tired of it due to media oversaturation, we are au fait only with a confined version of it.  Harriet Walker hit on this in an Elle April 2012 article evaluating last season’s seemingly sex-obsessed catwalk collections which included bondage-references, corsetry and lots of skin tight leather.  ‘When Fashion does Sex!…it’s an intellectual game, playing with aesthetics and references.’ Says Walker and ‘It’s never really about the old fashioned business of getting laid.’

This is similar to what Ruff’s images do.  In their distortion they intellectualise and play around with images of sex and in doing so remove it even further from actual sex and actual bodies. In this respect they represent how this society often views sex: through a veil of frosted glass.  Those people who wish to continue this practice should head to the Gagosian, where as anyone with a genuine interest in sex, flesh and the flabby or bony body should queue up for Lucian Freud at the National Portrait Gallery or study the works of other photographers such as Helmut Newton, Robert Mapplethorpe, Ellen Von Unwerth or Akari.