Robert Mapplethorpe Exhibition was at the Gallery of Photography, Dublin, Part I: December 1996, Part II: January 1997
Review by Kieran Owens
After many visits to both parts of this retrospective exhibition of photographic works by Robert Mapplethorpe, taken between 1970 and 1989, the words context and intention stand out as requiring some careful consideration. From the present vantage point of 1997, it is impossible for any viewing public to fully grasp the context within which these works were made. This is a problem that exists not only for this show but in fact for every show of any kind. It is hard for us now to believe that an exhibition of impressionist, surrealist, dadist, cubist or any other kind of art could have generated such storms of controversy in their day, but so they did. However, over the passage of time and through repeated exposure to these works they have become utterly familiar to us and we have become utterly comfortable with them, and any outrage expressed then seems now like the reaction of less cultured or less intelligent or less enlightened peoples. As with works from these great movements, the context within which Mapplethorpe's photographs were made is obscure and indefinable, for never will anyone be able to reconstruct the complex web of relationships and events, or of the social, political, religious and cultural mores, that interacted during his creative life and that lead to the production of these works.
With regards to intention, it is equally impossible to define truthfully what Mapplethorpe's intentions were when taking these photographs. Fame and fortune have always been the engines of profound revisionism in most artists lives, both from a personal and from an art historical or critical point of view. From one moment to the next the scripts can and are changed to serve various vested interests, whose continued success relies on the income generated by both controversy and celebrity. These are the value-added ingredients that collectors and curators relish, and the drive to achieve them, either by the artist or his/her representatives, can undermine and corrupt any genuine or original intentions with which the artist had set out.
So, if we can't understand the context and can't define the intention, what are we left with? Rooms full of photographs. And so, the works must speak for themselves. The real power and success of the show that has just graced the walls of the Gallery of Photography lies in each individual viewers reaction to it, and a reading of the comments book reveals the broadest spectrum of opinions and observations. These point to the most essential justification for putting the show on at all, that of allowing the public access to ideas that they would not, in the normal course of their daily lives, be exposed to. This access achieves one important goal. It makes people think. It awakens in them processes of inquiry and evaluation, that ideally result in contemplation and discussion, which eventually lead to an informed and intelligent understanding of the world in which we all live. The Gallery's only duty to the public is to present these works and stimulate these processes of inquiry in the best possible way it can.
And so what of the photographs? An interesting contrast of atmosphere was created between the two halves of this show. Prior to its opening, the Gallery was most concerned about the possible denunciations through outrage and disgust that certain sections of the public would voice, probably loudly, possible publicly through pickets and protests, but certainly and definitely. With this in mind, a selection of photographs were hung (the balance, with some judicious exclusions, to be seen one month later, due to the restricted wall area available), and as though to shield the passing public from the contents on display, the massive glass window that looks out onto Meetinghouse Square was covered over entirely, excluding almost all daylight from the space. The works on display were not well lit and the Gallery, with its window blocked and an admission charge at the door, took on a rather seedy, Soho peepshow atmosphere, which all conspired to make the work look dated, dull and dreary. On top of which, not many of the most powerful and potentially shocking photographs were on show, so there was also a feeling of being slightly ripped off. One month later, for the second half of the show, the window screens were removed, the whole show was superbly re-hung, the strongest most difficult pieces were juxtaposed with the most elegant and sublime ones, and the whole atmosphere was transformed. Light had been let in and the works were appropriately illuminated. And illuminating. And all the while there wasn't a peep of moral outrage. One conclusion can be drawn from this lack of response. Perhaps Ireland has grown up without anyone really noticing.
It matters not that Mapplethorpe was an artist, a photographer, or just a lucky guy with some powerful patrons who could use him to achieve their own aims. When faced by photographs of fist fucking, golden showers, penis mutilation, anal penetration with a bull whip, leather clad sadomasochistic poses, enormous black and white cocks, delicate flower arrangements, beautiful celebrity pictures and various self-portraits, all in the one show, questions of a quite profound nature do arise. This retrospective of Robert Mapplethorpe's pristine photography is like a roller coaster ride of emotional responses, and goes to underline that in every human life there are multi-layered agendas being attended to, some of which are impossible to understand, impossible to defend, impossible not to admire and love. It is good for our times that we have access to these works, so that we can search for and find some personal understanding, accommodation and confidence with which we can guide our individual lives. Whether these works are corrupting, obscene or immoral is for each viewer to decide. That is what living in a free society is all about. Eventually, already even, the images will be as familiar and as acceptable as any Monet or Van Gogh, any Dali or Picasso, and only the most diligent of art historians will have any sense of why they were at one time controversial. This is why the show works, and it is why we should never be afraid of such shows.
Images courtesy of the Estate of Robert Mapplethorpe.