A Peeping Tom – someone who pries, who looks when it is inappropriate to do so, who is curious with a side of sleaze. It is a phrase with negative connotations and implications of unpleasantness and preying on the vulnerable. Is it a phrase we should use in the context of contemporary artists? Perhaps. Many are drawn to issues that make their viewers uncomfortable, and many look at the world in a way that the rest of us try to avoid. But do they look because they want to, or because we live in a culture so immune to images of sex and violence that the shock-factor is the only way to get their point across, or indeed to highlight how numb to these images we have become?
(Peeping Tom, installation view, Vegas Gallery, London.)
The artists exhibiting at the Vegas Gallery were asked to become peeping toms in order to draw comparisons between the 17th Century character in the story of Lady Godiva and the modern artist. It is an interesting concept and one that could have gone in any direction in terms of what or who was being pried upon. It could, for instance, have produced a tongue-in-cheek commentary on the culture of celebrity, where the media is encouraged to pry for the sake of publicity, or on the nanny state, where we often have no choice but to be pried upon. Instead, many of the artists involved have chosen the most predictable route by attempting to shock the viewer with images of sex and public urination.
I know sex sells. I understand that. I remember the Wonderbra billboards that caused car accidents. As a teenager I got lost on a school trip to Madrid because a friend and I got distracted by an enormous male Calvin Klein underwear advert and went to have a closer look. The technique is simple; if you can bring an element of sexuality to whichever product you want the public to buy, you have a significantly increased chance of them buying it. The sexualisation of art is long-established, and images designed to titillate the viewer are certainly not a new creation. But I find there is a great disparity between a 16th century nude of a reclining Venus and a photograph of someone’s testicles. And, honestly, I know which I would prefer to have hanging on my wall. It leads me to question--are these images art, or has the contemporary artist’s need to shock the public reached the point where he must frame pornography?
(Keith Tyson, courtesy of the artist.)
The exhibit’s premise is fairly broad in terms of who is peeping and what the object of their attention might be. When a woman is being watched, however, the viewpoint is predictably objectifying. One prominent sepia-tinted canvas demonstrates this; the shape of a woman is shown half in fog, as though being watched through a shower door, the only parts of her visible being her lips, breasts and hips. This, the painting says, is all there is to her. The artist followed the concept of the exhibit to the letter, but it would have been wonderful to see something a bit more original, funny or clever in its place.
To be fair, some of the artists exhibiting at the Vegas Gallery did choose a more alternative subject matter. There is, for instance, a wonderful miserly Scrooge-like figure created in paint so tactile you could almost reach out and touch the table at which he sits. The artist has turned the camera angle back on the voyeur himself, and it is a shame that because the works around it are so blatant in their content, pieces like this that demonstrate so much talent are rendered tame in comparison. Others, in contrast, have produced works which have seemingly no relation to the show’s concept. The only video piece shows a cowboy riding off into the sunset in the style of the old Marlborough adverts. Due to the lack of artist biographies or curatorial explanation, however, it is impossible to name and shame. The only two artists with distinguishable signatures are Gavin Turk and Tracey Emin; the former produced a diagram of an eye in exactly the same way we drew them in Biology, and the latter scrawled obscenities on a painted background.
The concept of Peeping Tom was brilliant; relevant, interesting and with a lot of potential for creativity. It is disappointing that the brief was interpreted so predictably by so many.
(top image: Joanna Kirk.)