Thursday, 24 April 2014

On the Gimp

Gary Needham has recently published an article on the gimp as an image of SM in popular culture very much in the spirit of Gayle Rubin’s work in seeking to understand why sex is so terrifying for mainstream culture. The article appears in Fashion Theory Vol.18 No.2

The article investigates the cultural power associated with the gimp and the gimp mask. The gimp is a clothed or costumed SM body, frequently a submissive that often wears a leather or rubber costume that covers and effectuates the entire body including the face. The gimp is also a representation of SM that circulates throughout fashion and film and other forms of popular culture. Since the gimp’s first public outing and naming in the Quentin Tarantino film Pulp Fiction it has become the byword for the head-to-toe leather SM look that has been appropriated by a number of designers as way of exploring and exploiting the relationship between fashion, fetishism, and transgression. As a counterpoint to the popular image of SM in fashion and popular film, the article also explores how the artists Catherine Opie and Robert Mapplethorpe have represented the gimp, not as an index of horror or transgressive style rather as an affirmative image of their own SM communities that, while still intended to shock and confront, is a defiant attempt to rescue or reclaim the gimp from its negative associations.

Here’s an extract from the article on Catherine Opie’s iconic work Self-Portrait/Pervert (1994):

[…] In contradistinction to Pulp Fiction and the gimp monsters of popular culture and the horror film, in the same year as Pulp Fiction photographer Catherine Opie produced a self-portrait of herself in a gimp mask called Self-Portrait/Pervert (1994). In the self-portrait Opie is sitting in front of chintzy brocade wallpaper, lettering freshly cut in to her bleeding skin which reads ‘pervert’, and she is pierced along each arm with forty-six evenly spaced temporary needles; at the time Opie belonged to the San Francisco SM community. Why would Opie make an image that is so difficult to look at? Why would anyone do that to their body? Why would a self-portrait deny access to the artist’s face? These are important questions the work provokes. In Self-Portrait/Pervert Opie recalls that she ‘wanted to push the whole realm of beauty and elegance, but also to make people scared out of their wits’ (Ferguson 2008: 106). Unlike the scare tactics of Pulp Fiction Opie’s intentions are altogether different. Self-Portrait/Pervert also challenges the conventions of portraiture by having Opie’s head covered by a gimp mask so that the viewer has no access to her face - she denies them a way to access her identity and instead evokes a confrontation with SM and pain and the questions posed above. Indirectly Self-Portrait/Pervert responds to the politics of Pulp Fiction that invokes a popular culture version of SM by making the gimp on/scene, while concurrently the real queers and SM subculture remain obscene, off stage, silenced, censored. Opie in Self-Portrait/Pervert and related works from around this period challenged the ongoing demonization of SM and the censoring of transgressive queer art which includes hostility from ‘normalized’ gays and lesbians. Self-Portrait/Pervert symbolizes the silences and the obliteration of identity that queers experience by heteronormative culture and other gays and lesbians; it is a work born out of the AIDS epidemic, which turns the pain associated with SM into a political statement to the point where the images test the limits of legibility, both in the extremity of the image of cutting and piercing and the gimp mask’s erasure of the face as a point of identification. Opie explains the impetus behind the self-portrait:

‘Perverts’ [sic] is a very angry piece. I was pissed off. I really wanted to make that piece because of what was happening culturally in the US: the [NEA] censorship, the fuss around the Mapplethorpe show and what was happening in mainstream gay culture. All of a sudden mainstream gays and lesbians were calling themselves ‘normal’ and yet a lot of communities were being pushed further and further out in a certain way.’ (Blessing 2008: 16)

Opie also goes on to describe Self-Portrait/Pervert as ‘a decorative image of pride; for people outside that subculture, it is a challenge, a gauntlet thrown down’ (2008: 16) and she means those normalized gays and lesbians as much as the assumed audiences for Pulp Fiction. Despite an obvious delineation of these two texts, Pulp Fiction and Self-Portrait/Pervert, nonetheless get yoked together in reference to Mapplethorpe’s SM pictures as Stockton remarks in her analysis of Pulp Fiction’s black and queer debasement and shaming that ‘Tarantino's film puts into motion images reminiscent of Mapplethorpe's photography' (2006: 104).  Mapplethorpe and the discourses around his photographs of gay leathermen and SM is a thread that links many of the ideas raised in this article about representation, the reification and reception of SM in culture as something risky and to be feared, horror being continually evoked but also as a source of pride and defiance. […]


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