Impressions on Masculinity

Thomas Christiansen and I spent some time together while I showed him photographs from Mas(k)culinities. Upon my request to write down some of his observations… he graced me this essay!

“The most powerful element to the craft of maskulinity, for me, is its ability to render very different experiences depending on the proximity and focus through which people examine the images. I will talk about these in turn, and what they imply about how the audience will perceive the project:

Detail: Joshua McKain

1. Proximity: First and foremost, the use of hyper-real images, especially if presented through both the miniature and the wandering projection, forces the viewer to contemplate the image from multiple degrees of depth—whether holistically at a distance or with great granularity but at the expense of seeing it all at once.* This experience, then, imitates the process of intimacy that we all experience when we encounter and then become familiar with the other. We first “see” the other as a legible, coherent person—we see the whole picture. But then some event forces us to gaze, uncomfortably, at the minute details of some particular aspect of that person. Zooming in, whether it be on a freckle or a wart, forces us to reject the convenient, total image we had constructed of that person—we have seen one aspect of his or her particular reality, and we can never reduce them to legibility again. In short, a confrontation with the hyper-real forces us to more honestly confront the real.

2. Focus: By forcing us to focus in on the details of the model and contemplate his particular emotional and physical state, we begin to realize the intricacy of particular people. At the same time, however, this focused perspective also reveals the illusory component of this work of art—we stare not at “real” reality, but at a constructed one—one that does not blur our sensory perceptions, but actually sharpens them to the point that they make us over-conscious, over-scrutinizing, overly-familiar. This, I think, is the triumph of your work—it forces us to realize that masculinity is a construct, but not one that blurs our vision (as most sociologists or feminists would have us believe), but rather amplifies it too the point that we see too much. What do I mean by this? Shared social definitions—such as the meaning of masculinity—provide glasses through which we see other people. Those glasses surely distort the image, forcing us the see with hyper-accuracy the intricacies of some components of the other person, forcing us to not see other components. But what the glasses do not do, at least always, is muddle or blur our vision. I think that many people argue that, were we to only remove the glasses of these shared identities, then we could finally see the real person. But all of us are blind to some degree—we need the glasses to render meaningful what we see. In this way, then, seeing others through the lens of masculinity does not leave us perceiving things as less real than they are, but more real—hyper-real.

One last thought: by incorporating the (edited) interview transcripts into the piece, you also remind us that perceptions of masculinity are a dialogue between ourselves and others and between ourselves and ourselves. Other individuals have influence over the specific contours of the glasses we wear—how I approach you, for example, as a male has been shaped by every other man (and probably every woman) I have ever met. What does that imply for how we see ourselves? Do we dialogue with ourselves about our own masculinity? I think, sadly, often not—whereas we treat all others as both the subject and the object of a dialogue (which is to say that we see people through our perceptions but also allow our perceptions to change as a result of seeing them), we often treat ourselves as only the object, and we do not allow ourselves to change our feelings toward ourselves. In this way, then, these constructs become self-inflicted prisons. By including the dialogue you remind us of the struggle within the self over the identity and destiny of the self. I think that you should do a self-portrait. Otherwise you will never be able to fully explore this component of the project.

Anyways, I hope this helps! Thanks again for hosting me, and sorry it took me so long to reply.


*As an aside, I think the really smart thing about hyperrealism broadly, and particularly how you employ it, is that it forces the viewer to reflect on the limits of our own sensory experiences, and especially how we process those experiences. Specifically, it forces us to realize the decisions and the sacrifices that we make, often subconsciously, as our eyes (or ears or nostrils…) pan over some external sensation—we see the vividness of his eyes, but not the nose hairs, we hear the voice of our father but not the vroom of the vehicles. We foreground and background in order to make sense of what we are experiencing, but in the process we necessarily delete facts that might challenge our perceptions and give us a more complete, whole, and real understanding of the perceived object.

Your art, then, forces the viewer to contemplate all aspects of the hyper-real image because you yourself (largely) refuse to background any of the particularities that each person presents—you keep the pimples and the individual hairs and the slight percolations of sweat. We cannot ignore the overwhelming degree of detail.

And yet you also make decisions about what to foreground and background—in short, you as an artist are not a reporter but a commentator; you are necessarily political. That really engages me because it subverts, at least partially, the entire project, and reminds the audience that artists necessarily engage them in a political dialogue—even an attitude of complete openness has its limits, as when it confronts closeness.

Thomas Christiansen is a student at Oxford University and currently doing his Masters in Global Governance.

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