Thursday, November 7, 2013

Joseph Maida, New Natives (Hawai'i)

Years ago at the Swann auction house I looked through an album that came from a Duke's castle in England. The album came with an embossed view of the Duke's estate, representing his title and his property, which was impressive enough for its exoticism in mercantile New York, although the contents of the album were what drew me to it: dozens of images of Sicilian youths by Wilhelm von Gloeden. Gorgeous peasant youths in classical and not-so-classical tableaux, semi-nude or nude, erotic but just enough within a refined aristocratic European sensibility to hold onto the edges of acceptable culture. In contemporary terms this would be for a "niche market" enterprise for men who wanted to look at other men, and the archaic tableaux would be a kind of drag contrivance of art: shabby, maudlin, a masquerade which shows its obvious seams. This was for "them" meaning "us" - meaning it's just for us and as such it is still marginalized in a broader ostensibly asexual i.e. heteronormative social sphere, which isn't necessarily all bad.

Looking through the Duke's album, the last pages do a curious shift, from the antique pastiche of von Gloeden, the last pages were a collection of black-&-white ethnographic images of men in Africa, which could pass for early National Geographic images, artless, images used as identification, for classification. 

The marvelousness of the Duke's album is that it links two intense bogeys that can be found in photography: a move towards an excess of fantasy and sexuality, along with a colonizing need to classify and in effect control the scope of the subject. The camera is not an innocent technology: it limits the scope of our perceptions with neat bifurcations between fantasy and reality, enforcing techno-cratic limits to each, along with its flattening of the subject into identifiable terms. This is this. That is that. 

The queasiness of photography as a technological phantasm-cum-order comes to mind in looking at Joseph Maida's photographs titled New Natives (Hawai'i). The texts from Maida's website and from his gallery show lay out a neutral scenario: The men in the images are models in Hawai'i, contacted through social media, who pose for the the photographer in their own chosen way, so there is a collaboration rather than an imposed tableau or role for the model. 

While I would not dispute this scenario at all, I think that part of the uncanny richness of Maida's images is its connection to the weirdness of photography, which can be embodied in fetishism (the fetishism of physicality, of race), and the difference between photographer and subject. The most direct correlation between ethnography and these images is in the captions which list the many mixed races of the models ("Hawaiian, Chinese, Spanish, Portuguese, Filipino"etc.). Maida brings up a potential sea-change for hegemonic White America in the election of Barack Obama as indicative of a blurring of ethnic identity, and without saying so directly, the hybridity of new generations born after the passing of legalities regarding miscegenation. In Maida's photographs there is a tension between the idea of a portrait (what the ruling classes use to represent themselves, as a fully embodied presence) and classification (what happens to everyone else). 

The neat sociological explanations of the project, if anything, underscore the semiotic excess of the images. In Flesh of My Flesh Kaja Silverman makes reference to an imaginary camera that exists for us now, for which we comport ourselves, as if for the world. Or in contradistinction to the Decadent paradox of a mask that tells the truth, we now have masks which present masks, and there is nothing else. These are very lush images, with very interesting looking boys in them, yet if I had to locate what it is that moves me in them, it is not as an apotheosis of my sexual urges but a weird twilight instead. The landscape seems like the end of a world somehow, a liminal place. Hawaii looks kind of cold even when it reads simultaneously as a great place with a laundry list of great things to be found. Arcadia looks like an artificial backdrop. The cool tone to the images pushes them out of any easy reading towards questions - the enterprise of photography, the looking at others, sex, self-presentation, self-perception - which gives them a curious existential presence.