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Bonnard goes bondage
Once, for a couple of days, I shared a flat in Barcelona with a man about whom I did not know much: he was rather reserved and about to undergo the arduous process of a sex change. A warm night, we met at the bathroom door: he had taken a cooling shower and was on his way out, while I was coming in with the same intention. Certain he was the only one awake, he had just a very small towel to cover himself. “Oh!”, he exclaimed, and hid his sex with the towel. I stared at a couple of hormonally enhanced female breasts. He saw my glance: “Oh!” ... and he moved the towel up to his breasts. Simultaneously, my gaze dropped to his now exposed member ... “Oh!”. We stood thus for a couple of seconds: his towel and my gaze in a dance, switching between breasts, member, breasts, member...

The marrow of this episode is not the same old fascination for the crossing-over of boundaries between genders, as expressed, for instance, in the holy hermaphrodite of Fellini’s Satyricon, or in the manga culture’s popular chix-with-dix. (That kind of fascination would have been better mobilized without the small towel’s obstinate intervention.) No, what the reiteration of interrupted exposures (not unlike those of a camera’s shutter, when it captures and isolates a section of reality) pointed at instead, was the double binding (bondage, if you wish) existing between the coveted object and the desiring fantasy which is fascinated by it; a relationship usually described as fetishism.

Far from having its theoretical origin in, or being limited to, “the sexual”, the dynamics of fetishism may be explained as the belief that there is, in an object, something more than the object itself, a surplus or accrued value which is perceived as a warranty for enjoyment/satisfaction/perfection and, thus, motivates the desire/fascination/adoration. It is, though, as Slavoj Žižek has pointed out, a belief we do not “believe in”, but nonetheless devotedly practise, a belief completely “in practice” and never “in theory”. Accordingly, we know very well, with our reason, that a coin is just a piece of metal, but handle it as if it were possessed by a mystical worth (and it is this handling itself that constitutes its whole value). We know, of course, that the high heels straining the calves are just a kind of footwear, but look at them as if they were hosts to a secret pleasure. Seen this way, the image is undoubtedly the most widespread and archetypal of fetishes: we know very well that the photograph of a loved one is just a piece of paper, but preserve it fondly as if something of the loved one existed in it; we are fully aware that Caspar David Friedrich’s romantic landscapes are just paint smeared on canvas, but we are filled with feelings in front of them as if we stood in front of some actual ruins in the moonlight. Thus, the special condensation characterizing the image compared to other surfaces: we “believe”, but only in practice, that it contains more than itself.

Compared to the drastic material mixtures characterizing Alba’s collages from the early eighties, the painting he practises today is a refinement of the means of expression, as well as an intensification of painting’s basic ambiguousness between paint and representation. Colour and line are presented in a straightforward way, precisely as paintwork. They bear traces of the friction of the canvas and the gloss of the oil, the run-up, hesitation and veering of the brush. A meticulous and weighed drawing is the basis for the composition of the canvas and for the balance of the, to say the least, unorthodox colour combinations. Because it is colour, indeed, which rules Alba’s imagery. Paradoxically, during the nineties, his colour palette has loosened while, in another sense, it has become more controlled. Every separate colour seems to hold a kind of sovereign self-determination, but this autonomy is precisely related to the same freedom in the other colours. Thus, they rear against each other, attracted and harnessed - simultaneously wild and tame. They jump into very questionable relationships without a trace of shame, with - in the colleague Ib Monrad Hansen’s words - “a self-evidentness, as if a sickly, splashed greenish-yellow had never been in better company than that of a more impasto-like bluish-brown.”

Among the modern pioneers, Alba is usually compared to Bonnard. Myself, I certainly see Kirchner too, in the simultaneous contrasts and the combination of primary and tertiary colours, or a late Munch, in the authoritarian lightness of the hand. But, surely, Bonnard! It is only that Bonnard filled his colour-flushed bourgeois interiors with flower-vases, fruit-bowls and ladies in bathtubs. In Alba’s imagery, on the contrary, these interiors have been invaded by women engaged in sado-masochistic bondage with handcuffs and whips, gags and forced body stances. In merry colours, they tighten a knot or have their heads pressed backwards. There is an everyday kindness in these home interiors, and I cannot decide whether the private environments signal tenderness or violence. The paintings’ indisputable beauty stands in equivocal relation to what they depict, and catch the fantasy in precisely the paradox of what is called pleasure in pain.

So, Bonnard goes bondage. How should we, then, understand this meeting of beautiful painting and sexuality? Is this yet another “protest” against the famous bourgeois sexual hypocrisy? Is it yet another “subversive” fusion of High Art and Low Pornography, a provocative meeting between fine culture and forbidden desire? Today - not likely. S&M belongs, presently, to the more popular subjects for nice English TV documentaries. Alba’s paintings are, instead, the opposite of this, namely, the far more subversive combination of the completely ordinary pornographic image (taken from bondage magazines of the sixties) and the far more deeply fathoming desire invested in the art image.

The Enlightment culture formulated, with two neologisms - aesthetics (coined by Alexander Gottlieb Baumgarten) and fetish (by Charles de Brosses) - two different kinds of relationship between desire and object, and codified them as each other’s opposite. One was the idea of art as the exclusive business of the enlightened aesthetic contemplation in the “disinterested beholding” - i.e. a gaze quite emptied of subjective desire. The other one was comprised in the “unenlightened” projection of subjective desire on material objects. Thus, the confusion of object and subject characterizing (according to the time’s opinion) the primitive people’s adoration of their cult objects. Within this polarity, as William Reitz has pointed out, the value of the work of art, as art, appeared as directly proportional to the degree of subjective desire from which it had been cleansed. The aesthetic theory was, however, attended by the beginnings of that practice comprising all the variations of isolation, exposure, emphasis and concealment we find in the museum’s system of pedestals, lightning, alarms, guards, increase of economic value and social rituals, and which have made critical commentators to single out art per se as the fetish of modern epoch.

Back to Barcelona for a moment: to the contrary of what my flustered friend at the bathroom’s threshold assumed, it was not my glance which first appointed its desirable objects, which therefore must be protected by the towel’s concealing curtain. Instead, it was through the towel’s alternating isolation and exposure of them, that parts of my friend’s body were transformed into objects for the gaze’s desire. The gaze, my gaze, found itself in turn, by alternately being offered and withheld these objects, already defined as the fetishist gaze. In other words, this episode’s actual fetish - i.e. the phantasmatic object around which the whole scene spins, and which steers the towel’s ambivalent fluttering - is neither breast nor dick, but (the fantasy about) the desiring gaze itself. (It is superfluous to point out - but I do it, anyway - that the gaze is always a fantasy: nothing emanates out of the eye.)

When Manet, in 1863, with the painting Olympia, problematised the place of love in the modern city, the most provocative aspect of it was the fact that the woman’s gaze towards the beholder seemed to inscribe him (in this case, the masculine pronoun is probably adequate) in the role of a prostitute’s customer. He received back from Olympia his own gaze as, not the aesthetic, but the desiring gaze.

In Alba’s bondage images, however, the women’s gazes do not meet the beholder. Instead, they always seem either unknowing of his/her presence (and thus vulnerable), or to ignore it (and thus being out of the beholder’s reach). They take up an ambiguous status between object and autonomous active subject. On this, Ib Monrad Hansen has said that “the porno magazine’s objectivized human figures thus acquire their individuality [...] again”, “in Alba’s paintings, these sex-objects are re-subjectivized”. I like this thought, particularly the fantasy that, behind these strokes and fields of colour, there is “someone” who is given a voice, a gaze; becomes a subject. Nonetheless, in my opinion, it is rather the beholder in front of the image who is addressed. It is him/her; who, from the image (not from the women “in” it) gets his/her gaze returned - disinterested, but now bound to it by the dynamics of desire. At a moment when the world seems transformed into an endless sequence of images of itself, and when desire is systematically mediated through images, it is not Manet’s fallen woman who takes up the place as the desired object, but the image itself.

The transference of “the sexual” from the sex magazine’s arranged and “cool” photos to painting’s subjective domain should not, thus, be understood as the introduction of an alien, forbidden pleasure in art, but, on the contrary, a bringing to the fore (and ambiguous affirmation) of the larger desire which is already invested into this culture of the aesthetic image. Owing to the women in Alba’s painting so explicitly being these colour smears and brushstrokes, it is exactly in the presence of the aesthetic field’s most classic icon (the oil painting) - before which the beholder is traditionally expected to “sacrifice” or disregard his/her desire - that the beholder finds him or herself inscribed from the very start in the register of desire. The image presents itself to the beholder as the desired object, as an answer to his/her desire, and thus presupposes the existence of this desire. The image is an answer already waiting for the beholder’s question, anticipating his/her desire. Therefore, the image demands this desire from the beholder when he/she comes to the image. In other words, the beholder (or rather, the beholder’s gaze) itself becomes a desirable object, a fetish for the desire emanating towards him/her out of the image, out of the world of images.

Max Liljefors
Swedish artist and historian
lives and works in Lund, sweden.
Translated from Swedish by Alfredo Pernin