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w201 © 1999 R.C. Hörsch / Eroto~


Fighting the Anesthetic:

Foreplay with R. C. Hörsch

By A.D. Coleman

Part One of a two part essay on the life and work of R.C. Hörsch.


The late literary critic Kenneth Burke usefully proposed a definition of the term aesthetic premised on its etymological origins in Greek, wherein it derived from words relating to sensation. The aesthetic, Burke suggested, identifies emotionalized perception; it shocks, provokes, and challenges our established reference points. Its opposite, then, is not the ugly but the anesthetic — that which soothes, numbs, and corroborates our belief system.[1]

Burke didn’t suggest these as judgments, merely as descriptors of positions on a sliding scale. Some art sets out to disturb, he explained, while other art has calmative or reassuring motives. Both have their places, their legitimate roles to play in our lives. 

To complicate this further, I’d amplify Burke’s idea by noting that our individual and collective relation to any given artwork changes over time, so that, for example, what even some knowledgeable art aficionados and music lovers once found disruptive about Picasso’s cubism or Schönberg’s atonality – two intentional challenges to the conventions of their respective mediums – has either expanded our perceptual and conceptual systems or else been tamed and domesticated by us. Or both; in any case, we’ve absorbed their radicalism to the point that they cause us no notable unease. Add to that yet another factor — the diversity of the potential audience for any work of art. Viewers come to works of art with varying degrees of experience, sophistication, tolerance, and knowledge. Some listeners immediately loved Stravinsky’s Rites of Spring, some took delight in William Burroughs’s Naked Lunch when it first came out; others thought these spelled the end of western civilization and sought to ban or burn them. Cultural differences come into play here as well. In brief, what shocks and offends one person can please, amuse, or even bore another. 

Taking all of that into account, it seems reasonable to propose that we’d have to position a considerable amount of the sexual photography of R. C. Hörsch well toward the aesthetic end of Burke’s spectrum — at least for the present. This artist insists that his work has as its primary purpose testing the present limits of the permissible, implying that any work that fails to do so doesn’t make the grade. Perversely, however — and perversely is a key word here — Hörsch stands this proposition on its head in his current project, an unusual trilogy that comprises an extended set of photographs and a film. This combination of still and kinetic images, in turn, takes two forms: a two-volume set of books accompanied by a film, and a three-part exhibition/installation involving the same images and film. What you hold in your hands at the moment is the book version of Part One of this opus. 

In both instances Hörsch has arranged these photographs, and those in the sequel (volume two of the set, if you will), in a sequence that, by his own measure, moves from the least offensive to the most disturbing, with the film (simply titled Slaves) as the culmination of his statement. And he invites you, the viewer, to decide where in this progression you draw the line, to determine at what exact point Hörsch and his accomplices in these works step — in your opinion — from the acceptable into the transgressive and taboo. 

What could seem more democratic? We all get to vote according to the boundaries of our tolerance for the sexually unconventional. Presumably the ballot count could provide some useful feedback from the citizenry on where we stand in relation to libertinage at the outset of the 21st century. Something a bit like the experiment a few years back of Russian emigrés Komar & Melamid, who hired a noted pollster to determine what kinds of paintings people in the U.S. liked most and least, and proceeded on that basis to create one of each.[2]

One joke buried here — and there’s a great deal of humor, much of it black, woven through Hörsch’s work — resides in the fact that the line we draw, individually and collectively, has just the opposite function for him that it does for us. Whatever we would keep he would discard; what we can live with comfortably proves itself, by definition, insufficiently insufferable by Hörsch’s standards. What we edit in he will edit out. 

* * * * * 

Let me say at the outset that I’ve no desire to influence your vote. The invitation to participate in this project offered me carte blanche, including permission to argue with and even reject part or all of the work. As you may realize, that’s unusual in a commission of this sort, the standard obligation of which is to provide a supportive accompaniment to the work, roughly analogous to the pianist backing a solo singer or choir. The opportunity to debate with the work, even to say no to it if that’s where my responses led me, proved irresistible. Seductive. I understand writing as, among other things, a sexual act, and for a writer free rein serves as a pheromonal lure. I chose not to resist. 

I recognize that I become thereby another of Hörsch’s accomplices, selected as yet another ingredient to enrich the cassoulet he cooks up in his life and work. Part of what intrigues me about this role is that he gravitates to strong flavors that both complicate and complexify the stew. So keep in mind that I’m hardly the typical audience member. I’m a cosmopolite, a world traveler, and a professional in the field of contemporary photographic imagery, with more than three decades of looking at photographs under my belt. Much of the work I’ve considered over those years addresses human sexuality in one way or another. I’ve come to take that for granted as an appropriate subject for photography, and bring to it — as a viewer, and as a critic — a fundamentally anti-censorious frame of mind. As a writer and as a citizen, I aspire to the generosity of the Roman playwright Terence, who wrote in 154 BCE, “I am a human being: nothing human is alien to me.” (Homo sum; nihil humani a me alienum puto.) And I have to assume that Hörsch chose me purposefully, and partly for those very reasons. 

So I’ll begin that process of making things difficult by casting my own vote openly: Nothing in this book unsettles me. In this set of pictures Hörsch doesn’t push the envelope of the form, but rather traces its outline from within. (Its companion volume, and the concluding film, are other cases entirely.) These images — beautifully rendered in all cases — grow out of and pay homage to the mainstream of contemporary erotic photography. The majority are nude studies, a small cluster of which even hark back to the classic tradition of an earlier era. Mixed in with these we find a few studio portraits of transvestites, hints of female masturbation, one or two scrutinies of people involved in leather scenarios, and a cluster of images of women variously bound and/or handcuffed. None of this is uncommon nowadays, nothing here goes beyond what Madonna achieved in her much-hyped mass-audience book Sex from the 1990’s. There’s hardly one of these that couldn’t run in some edgy newsstand fashion magazine, alongside the work of, say, Helmut Newton. 

Which doesn’t mean they’re not elegantly seen and sexually provocative, because they are. However, I use as one of my gauges for the transgression quotient of sexual material a thought experiment: Who can I imagine censoring this particular example? And while I know of many communities in the U.S. whose standards these images of Hörsch’s definitely violate, where this book couldn’t go on sale (at least not without the traditional plain brown paper wrapper), I have to say — and this surely constitutes a value judgment on my part — that I consider such enclaves benighted holdovers from the Victorian era fighting a losing battle against the emerging 21st century. If they respond with such fear and trembling to softcore, vanilla tantalizing of a kind many take for granted nowadays, how will they cope with what comes after it, ever hotter on its heels? 

Hard for me to imagine any present-day urban dweller who spends time periodically with contemporary art in various media finding this chunk of Hörsch’s work outré or dangerous. In relation to his larger body of work, this selection feels like an appetizer of sorts, a visual version of foreplay. Those who continue on into the second part of this project, and certainly those bold enough to confront and view the film, will look back on it as a prelude, and a deceptively mild, amiable introduction to both a mindset and a cast of characters. Be forewarned: That shift is abrupt, and dramatic. Hörsch has baited his hook here with the attractive and widely palatable. Once the hook gets set, the ride gets rough. 

If I’m accurate in positioning the work in your hands as mainstream, then we can take this particular book-length collection in two ways: as a loose, idiosyncratic survey of sexuality in the United States today, and as a contribution to the current visual dialogue about sex. 

You most likely wouldn’t instantly identify most of the people in these pictures as sexual experimenters from their outward appearance on the street. Nor would you assume, on meeting them, that they’d willingly pose for explicitly (or even implicitly) erotic images. Fact is, you can no longer tell a libertine by appearance alone. That executive with whom you’re meeting in his office may have pierced nipples and extensive tattoos;[3] the waitress in a choker bringing your lunch could also be wearing a harness with plugs beneath her uniform. He or she may well use photography as a sex toy, if only by bringing a Polaroid (or, now, a digital camera) to bed. 

But such pictures aren’t only made by amateurs, for personal consumption by their subjects and possibly private circulation among close, trusted friends. At the start of this new millennium they appear regularly in monographs and exhibitions such as this; they find outlets in commercial and not-for-profit photography and art galleries; they enter museum collections. So Hörsch participates in what now constitutes an international exploration of sexuality by photographers of many ages, races, genders, gender persuasions, and special inclinations; he represents a photographic tendency that has found an unprecedented level of support and sponsorship in many countries and among extremely diverse audiences. 

The current range of what commentator David Steinberg calls “sexual photography” and what I refer to as the photo-erotic has inarguably become broader than ever. By these related terms both Steinberg and I mean to identify work that doesn’t simply intend to eroticize (a broad category that would include much advertising and fashion photography), but a more narrow, specific genre of work — that which actually depicts, explicitly, human sexual behavior. 

At one pole of that investigation we have documentarians who provide us with plausible accounts of the ways that people today live their sexual lives: Barbara Nitke, Charles Gatewood, Nan Goldin, for instance. These photographers inevitably filter what they see through their own sensibilities, but they function as outside observers of our behaviors — sociologists, if you will — reporting on activities that would have taken place regardless of whether they and their cameras were present, and in which they’re not direct participants. 

Using a different strategy, other photographers employ a directorial method, creating scenarios — sometimes quite elaborate — based on their own imaginings and/or the fantasies of their subjects. Gilles Berquet and Tony Ward exemplify this approach. The sex in these images is real, but the photographer has become something other than a detached translator of events external to his or her own psyche — a silent, behind-the-scenes partner in those acts, a facilitator at the very least, and sometimes their instigator. 

Sometimes, from either of these two directions, this slides into the autobiographical, as when Gatewood or Goldin photograph sexual passages in their own lives, or Pierre Molinier uses photocollage to probe his own narcissistic impulses. Increasingly, such work has turned into a revelatory form of self-portraiture. 

Hörsch brings both aspects of this to bear in his own work. His images are carefully staged, not “found”; yet, at the same time, they often describe his own erotic life. This recognition becomes inescapable in the second volume of this set and the latter half of the exhibition, wherein the cast of characters shrinks but consistently includes the photographer himself. And it forms the very premise of the film Slaves. Here, in this project’s opening movement, it merely nibbles at the edge of the viewer’s awareness, a periodic question as his camera drifts in and out of a variety of settings and the lives of others. 

If we consider this volume by itself, in cinematic or narrative terms, we find an extensive cast of characters, many of whom appear only once in seemingly bit parts. Though in some cases we see people (often faceless) engaging sexually with each other, often we find them alone, and the overall mood is one of expectancy, as if these protagonists were waiting for the action — whatever that might be — to start. We come across them in a bewildering diversity of indoor and outdoor settings: highways and country roads, rusted trucks and sleek limos, farms and offices, private bedrooms and cheap motels. It would appear that no space, public or private, is safe from libidinal impulse. 

However, Hörsch offers no story line, no version of what the film theorist Christian Metz calls a diegesis — the running thread that organizes a heap into a whole. More than anything else, Hörsch’s visual style alone holds this assortment together. Lyric, lush, sensuous, these pictures tease and entice, imply but rarely state. They make a controlled use of color — which predominates and is often saturated but never lurid — to give the sense of immediacy and fullness that color conveys. Interspersed with them we have occasional black & white images, which bring with them the connotation of classic documentary (though these photographs are anything but that). Taken altogether, they’re a plateful of delectable hors-d’oeuvres, but while you can make a delicious snack from them they don’t quite add up to a satisfying meal — at least from my perspective. If you truly want to feast, you’ll have to move on to Part Two and Three, the main courses. 

Who are the major characters and who the minor ones? What is eventful and what merely incidental? To what, if anything, do these clues and pointers lead? All of this remains unspecified here. So, for anyone who decides to stop at the end of this first half of the saga, it may seem unresolved, perhaps frustratingly so. Whether you end your stroll through Hörsch’s world here or simply pause before continuing on, think of this as a family album, a shoebox full of the pictures fit to show the neighbors (not just any neighbors, of course, but those you’ve gotten to know well, those of the enlightened variety). The real stuff — the ones you save for special friends — are yet to come. If the photographs that comprise the volume now in your hands represent Hörsch fighting the anesthetic, then the ones that constitute the second set show him coming out of it once and for all. And the movie, Slaves, lets you watch the operation, leaving you to determine whether it was a success and to ponder the possibility that, in any case, the patient may have died. 

          — A. D. Coleman 

* * * * * 

[1] Burke, Kenneth, “Semantic and Poetic Meaning,” in The Philosophy of Literary Form: Studies in Symbolic Action (New York: Vintage books, 1957), p. 130. Burke means this apposition to highlight the differences between emotionalized perception and “perception without feeling.” Subsequently, he proposes analgesic as a synonym for anesthetic. 

[2] The pollsters discovered that we favored representational painting in vivid colors that showed historical figures and natural settings, so Komar & Melamid gave us a bright landscape with mountains, trees, a lake, a deer, and George Washington. Our collective unfavorite was non-representational imagery in earth tones, so the team produced an exemplary muddy neo-Abstract Expressionist canvas. See “Painting by Numbers: The Search for a People’s Art,” a special issue of The Nation, Vol. 258, no. 10 (March 14, 1994). 

[3] One bit of sociological information that went unremarked in the aftermath of the destruction of the World Trade Center: A surprising number of the victims of that attack — according to the descriptions of them posted by friends and relatives — had one or more tattoos. 

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