Did you know that in the late ‘60’s – early 70’s that if a man wore a blue hanky in his back pocket he was subliminally expressing that he was into ‘cock and ball torture’?
Nik Dimopoulous and John Tsiavis do. Together they have collaborated to produce slick, sexy and clever photographs exploring the ‘hanky codes’ via which gay men in the past communicated their sexual fetishes and desires.
The result is a sumptuously provocative body of work featuring hot bodies and party props that you’d never recognised as phallic until now. Opening night drew huge crowds, and justifiably so. Huge crowds of gay men, that is. Being neither gay nor male, I was nonetheless seduced by the portraits – by their La Chapelle-esque hyper-colour, props-on-steroids appeal, and undoubtedly by the subjects themselves.
On one wall, bubble-gum pink photos featured buff guys in mid-drifts posing before oversized nipple tapestries – apparently pink is the hanky code colour for ‘nipple play’. Opposite, by contrast, were life-sized torsos, muscles and hair glistening beneath a deep blue wash. One lithe guy faced the camera front on, kneeling among cobalt balloons while unzipping his fly. His flesh was covered in the blue ink of tattoos. Mirroring the unfurling lily that was tattooed on his sternum, the man’s body also unfurled. His head arched backwards, with mouth parted and eyelids heavy in a state of pre-orgasmic lust.
Speaking with Dimopoulous, he emphasised that the Trough X_hibition reflected not only the X-rated activities of his club in Melbourne, but more so the energy and playfulness of the complimentary ‘Trough Faggot Parties’. Hence all the party paraphernalia – balloons, ping-pong rackets, miniature cricket bats, popsicles, flags and plastic cups. ‘Everything’s transient in the photos’, said Dimopoulous. ‘The props will only last the duration of the party.’ Perhaps this reflects the temporal nature of fetishes, which seem to be comprised more of build-up than the act itself. After all, it could definitely be said that a sexual encounter in a club’s basement is about as permanent as a polystyrene cup at a party.
What made the images so intriguing was the interplay between party and reality, playfulness and seriousness, contemporary and classical. The skilful art-direction, composition and lighting of the works rendered them with an undeniably classical patina. Likening a tableau of bears in jock straps to Caravaggio’s ‘Martyrdom of Saint Matthew’ seems a stretch, but I’ll do it anyway. In a large, predominantly black photo, the bodies and faces of mostly naked men are lit by a strong white light from above. The men kneel before a silhouetted fence of sex toys protruding from shadow. In the middle ground, a muscular chest peeks through an oversized glory hole and adjacent sits a man in profile, clutching an erect novelty cricket bat. A bright burst of smoke fills the space, similar to the cloud swell in the Caravaggio. The effective use of chiaroscuro, combined with the depth and richness of the composition, which has been so intricately choreographed by Dimpopoulous and Tsiavis, made it an extremely arresting and powerful work of art.
The divide between fantasy and fetish was bridged in the works, and I wondered if this were deliberate on behalf of the artists. Fantasy alludes to a desire that is always just out of reach. A fetish, on the other hand, is a niche preference, and based on the success of the hanky codes, is very much achievable. Nearly all of the men on display in the photos were impeccable physical specimens. The portraits are, after all, promotional material for the Trough parties and the club, which explains their glossy, oozing-with-sexiness look. Despite being informed by Tsiavis that very few of the subjects used are models but are in fact those who attend the parties, I found it hard to believe that the partygoers were all of such a high physical calibre. This discrepancy highlights the pressure that many gay guys are under to look amazing – to be more buff, thinner, smoother, sexier, better.
On my way to the gallery, I saw a bald camp-looking man on Oxford Street wearing a T-shirt of an Hispanic Ken doll with a speech bubble that read: You had me at HOLA! I could see no resemblance between this man and the bulk of the guys in the portraits. Of course, it’s clever advertising because people will always be seduced by the beautiful, but to believe that it’s the norm is inherently problematic. I wondered how much the lustrous portraits were relatable to for gay men. I also wondered how much of the aesthetic appeal of the works was concomitant with their beautiful, sexy subjects. Had the men in the photos been less attractive, would their portraits too be less attractive?
Yet admittedly, against the glossiness of the prints was a rawness and sense of vulnerability that grounded the works. The men stare are the viewer knowingly, full of angst and desire. Even through props alone, this more sober side of the party scene is expressed. In one particular work, six plastic chairs have been overturned and mounted on each other. Flesh-coloured masks have been bound to them using medical gauze, their eyes and mouths opened, revealing little slits of darkness. With their human-like prosthetic faces and deliberate positioning, the chairs re-enact anal foreplay. But there is nothing pornographic about the scene; the inanimate orgy is as theatrical as it is ominous.
This marriage of wit and drama is elsewhere seen in the space, where a beige-coloured G-string suspends a rockmelon from the ceiling. Originally indicating a preference for ‘rimming’, the photographers have added their own semantic layers to the ‘beige hanky code’. This colour also evokes flesh, medical dressings and mannequins. Embellishing the set hanky codes expresses the artists’ belief that sexuality and sexual desires are so fluid and diverse that ultimately they cannot be codified.
Whether the portraits are meant to be read into or simply visually indulged in does not in any way detract from the impact and intrigue of the colourful prints. Ultimately, sexuality is explored above and beyond sex, injecting the work with personality and
removing it from the superficial realm of porn. In celebration of Mardi Gras or simply art-for-art’s sake, this stunning portrait series is definitely worth a look.
Trough X_hibition is on show until 6 March 2012 at the Gaffa Gallery, 281 Clarence Street, Sydney.