Bum Fights

by Kelly Klaasmeyer April 24, 2010

Stills from Laurel Nakadate’s Beg for Your Life, 2006

Bless her heart, that Laurel Nakadate just can’t help herself. She’s just cute as a button and old, weird guys flock to her. What’s a girl to do but exploit and mock them for her art? Nakadate does just that in her videos, some of which are on view as a part of the FotoFest exhibition “Medianation” at the Art League, Houston.

Am I just imagining this, or has a “Bum Fight” sensibility taken hold of our culture? All sorts of media types and wannabes are mocking and/or exploiting others for entertainment, from Howard Stern to reality TV to YouTube. I see this practice slowly seeping into the artworld and being perceived as “edgy.”

The message for artists seems to be, go ahead, take advantage of the unwitting, the poor, the desperate, the pathetic, the naïve. Hey it’s for YOUR ART! And aren’t you and your art, so much more important than these people?

I have bitched about Nakadate’s work before. In a nutshell, the artist finds these pathetic, lonely guys and convinces them to be involved in her videos. They’re so excited that a young attractive woman is paying attention to them, they’ll do whatever she says.

We get to see video of them in their crappy apartments pretending to beg for their lives as Nakadate points a toy gun at their heads. It’s awkward, stilted and uncomfortable playacting, supposedly part of the work’s point. Nakadate has said her “intention is to make work about being uncomfortable.”

I say, “Mission accomplished, hon’.”

But what I find disturbing is the way Nakadate is using other human beings. These guys are not “collaborating,” as equals. She is making the artworld equivalent of “bum fight movies,” those grotesque spectacles in which filmmakers induce homeless people to perform, beating themselves or each other up in exchange for food or booze. Nakadate’s “collaborators” are humilitating themselves before the camera because they are so desperate for female attention.

What would critics say if Nakadate were a man and the subjects were women? Imagine a young, good-looking guy getting lonely, dumpy, middleaged women to do his bidding just because they were so eager to have him pay attention to them. Imagine theses videos with women on their knees, pretending beg for their lives while some guy holds a toy gun to their heads

But, ooooo, isn’t Nakadate subverting traditional power roles?  No doubt, but guess what, sad, weird guys are human beings too.

Craig Mammano’s photos in the otherwise strong FotoFest exhibition, “Whatever was Splendid: New American Photographs” also raise a lot of unpleasant questions. Mammano’s images of residents of New Orleans’ 7th Ward, veer from workaday documentary photography like a street shot of a woman holding her baby and an image of a young couple in wedding attire to seriously exploitive work like the photographer’s series of nudes. Mammano’s images of women posing naked in 7th Ward homes are beyond problematic.

From Craig Mammano’s series, A Few Square Blocks

The most egregious photo shows a toothless middle-aged woman in a pin-up pose. It’s a disturbing image, not because the woman’s childbirth-stretchmarked body doesn’t fit popular ideas of beauty. It’s a disturbing image because the photo presents the woman as dehumanized and abject. Mammano didn’t just come across this scene, he’s not documenting something he found. He’s in what appears to be a private home. How did he come to take this image?

Mammano isn’t from this community, he moved to town post-Katrina. He’s from New Jersey. His family, if my admittedly fallible Google research is correct, appears to be affluent and white. What’s up with a seemingly privileged kid from New Jersey moving to New Orleans after a disaster to take naked shots of poor, disenfranchised women? Mammano is getting provocative work out of the deal, but what is the up side for these women? These photographs reek of exploitation.

I loved much of the work curator Aaron Shuman chose for this exhibition, but Mammano seems to be an extreme misstep. In his catalog essay Schuman says Mammano “employs a rawness in style and approach that shifts notions of sexualization and exploitation from the implicit to the explicit.” (Bum fights, too, are raw and make exploitation explicit.) Schuman goes on to quote Walker Evans, saying that both the photographs and the women possess a “’purity and a certain severity, rigor, simplicity, directness, clarity…without artistic pretension in a self-conscious sense of the word.’”

I’ll grant the lack of artistic pretension. But while FSA photographers like Walker Evans recorded abject poverty and the queen of the outsider image Diane Arbus photographed extreme personalities like transvestites and circus freaks, Evans’ and Arbus’s subjects were still presented with a self-possession that allowed us to connect to them with empathy and as other human beings. I don’t get that from Mammano’s nudes, a problem that is compounded by the fact that, unless he is just wandering into people’s homes and finding them naked, he is directly involved in staging images that present poor, mainly minority women in a denigrating way.

Look, I’m sorry if I sound like somebody’s buzz-kill parent. I’m just saying bum fights are sleazy and reprehensible. Art shouldn’t be exempt from basic human decency.

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