images: (L) Tubes & Wires
(Patient No.21) ; (M) Street Sleeper (Traffic) ; (R) Guns (Gas Attack)
Through Mark Laliberte's eye we come face to face with the vitality and bloom of youth as an ambient emptiness. We are compelled to visualize the young as obscurely, dubiously whole beneath their outward allure. Even up in age toward twenty-five, they're fresh for the world, though most have spent a good decade adapting to its rules of intercourse and commerce, translating an inchoate self into a stylized persona.
These issues are given enigmatic and eerie treatment in Laliberte's Pillow Scenes, a continuing project begun in 1996 and now in its sixth cycle. The current version, installed under the subtitle Labyrinth, is once more centered on photographs of male and female models posed in a state of sleep, each individualized portrait [more about the inadequacy of this term later] matched with a short sound composition playing through a speaker embedded into the surface of a pillow. Speaker and pillow are placed at floor level, atop a short platform that conceals a small tape / CD machine and runs a wire up and under the framed photo on the wall. The wire establishes visual linkage between image and sound source, but is in fact non-functional. Deceptively placed, it signals that this one-to-one relationship of the two components is open to interpretation rather than being one of total consonance. The orchestration of each track as well as the play of sounds across the spaces of the exhibit reinforces this point. Laliberte has not composed melodies or beat-driven rhythms, but brooding synthetic sequences punctuated by vocal fragments and the creepy hiss of human blowing and breathing.
In an open gallery setting, as the viewer shifts from work to work, these effects intermix and underscore what is already esoteric and elusive in the images themselves. Whether or not a given ensemble is flanked by dividing walls, as in this sixth exhibit, the audio-visual interplay draws the viewer into a space of perplexity, haunted by piecemeal meanings and ambiguous associations. The audio portion of a Pillow Scenes show drones on mysteriously; it loops and babbles away, and we wonder if here are clues to the unconscious life pulsing on ominously, absurdly, behind the eyes of the portrayed characters. The answer is 'no', that is, everything is intended to remain allusive; the faces that hold our gaze express nothing very definite, enclose nothing as coherent as a personality. The audio repeats, drones on mysteriously; it babbles away; potential meaning reverberates all around and suffuses the pictures, which perpetuate the same false possibilities in reverse, back along the phony wires. The circularity is pointless but endlessly mystifying. In Furnace (Dada Chemical, 1970), Laliberte himself hints at the conditions under which we hopelessly try to assemble meaning: "a blind man navigates through fog."
When whole clauses wash up out of the sound mix, the secret meaning of the images, whatever it could be, grows more undefinably complicated. The Bee Queen (In the Hive of Life) track, for example, emits three-and-a-half minutes of buzzy swirling static twice interrupted by a text taken from an oriental health elixir box -- "Royal Jelly is the milk-like glandular secretion of bees. Its composition is complex, and by using it the queen bees are able to survive a long period of time, about twenty times longer than worker bees" -- and resolves nothing in regard to the image of a supine female head drenched in a fluent material that resembles semen but is actually honey. It's the same with the many other particles of voice and sound in the show; suggestive clues never add up to the coherent narrative coding of an image, and often function according to a logic of reversibility such as Freud identified in the dream-work. So it is in Bee Queen (In the Hive of Life): a gash-like band across the neck, probably applied with lipstick or crayon, is in cosmetic contradiction of a text extolling the holistic, life-enhancing powers of a traditional Asian elixir.
Laliberte's use of black-and-white film and matte black frames intensifies the air of estrangement he concocts with his models. They are photographed with their eyes shut, faces angled away from the picture plane in most instances. Their gaze seems to have been sucked under, into the confused, uncanny life lived within. The atmosphere is edged with aberration, morbidity, the promise of dark eroticism. Most of the models are in their early twenties, the artist's long-time friends or semi-strangers that have caught his eye; people met in cafes, at dance clubs and art parties. Laliberte has acted the part of a faux fashion photographer who raids the venues where a generation holds its rites and lures away favoured candidates that willingly subject themselves to the narcotic powers of his camera. I see, among the many prints, some familiar faces, pulled from the social circuit and put under a peculiar spell.
Soft Coffin (The Small Death) shows Marko, dramatically altered from how I know him in daily life as a solid six-foot mix of Nordic and Balkan bloods, a shaved scalp surmounted by a cap of the kind Jughead wears in the Archie comics. He appears, instead, as if in the grip of a sexual trance, laid out like a Goth leather-boy on the bier of his debaucheries, with a few toy skulls to keep him company. In Smudge (How to Write at the End of the Century), I see Gus, a writer and editor, against a backstack of books, leaning his head out of a deep shadow that has also invaded his eye sockets. He is presented, as a character, whose features are scrawled over with words applied in eyeliner, and three of his fingers rest on a manual typewriter from a time long ago. In Summer Heat (A Moment of Sadness), I recognize Nadia. She who usually radiates shapely health and stands elevated on trendy thick-soled shoes, here reclines in a bath of humid contemplation, head tilted forward over a breast covered with gauze. And then there's Katherine, whose taste is for svelte black fashions, but in Number Virus (Red Zone Measurements) may be seen in serene repose amidst light-coloured tulle. Her persona is unconscious of the digits dotting her skin, symptoms, as one would guess from the soundtrack, of a repressed wish to parade her measurements and play the role of a conquering whore.
I am fascinated by these pictures of my friends and acquaintances, how unusual they've become, and scan the photographs as a child tilts a card now one way now the other, discovering that two different images can lurk on the same plane and displace each other. There's a phrase for what Laliberte has accomplished: decomposing the portrait. None of the faces, not even those I identify, convey the distinct personality traits or project the intense selfhood that an open-eyed traditional sitter may be expected to communicate. They are rather masks for people posed and executed, served up as a series of deanimated heads. This metaphor is carried further in those works where the models are actually masked or bandaged up, such as Manifest (Transmitted Ghost Whispers), Tubes and Wires (Patient No. 21), and Slow Leak (Return To Balloon Factory). Such images implicate the photographer in a thematics of sex and suffering that is otherwise imputed to the fictional personalities within the pictures. The signal image of this is Undertechno (Industry Loop), with a speaker wired into the mouth of a model and the head placed against a bicycle sprocket and circuit board. The artist has reflexively played his hand. Here and in those other images of wrapped heads and concealed features we are given candid evidence of the photographer's sado-masochistic relationship to the faces that captivate him enough to be remade as art.
Since each model is shot in close-up, with no name listed, featuring bizarre make-up and odd props, it would appear that Laliberte is constructing fantasized portraits of the inner self. The spacey sometimes fluent sometimes joggled audio accompaniment would seem to be the equivalent of an interior life, moods and consciousness pieced out as sounds. But portraiture, whether literally visual or evocatively aural, is an inexact concept even though the term remains duly serviceable. The models are not in any sense sitters and in fact model nothing so much as their own mortified presence. And yet this presence is effectively an absence, a state of anonymity, unknown identity, offset by shadowy signs of subcultural affiliation and designed lifestyles.
Laliberte has served up a gallery of youthful specimens from the theatre of contemporary urban culture. He wants us to see them, each one, as an effigy of individuality. And it is on this point, on the question of a given someone's singularity, that he casts a critical glance. We are amiss to think that a deep stream of selfhood is gurgling along behind the closed lids. If the counterfeiting of portraiture hasn't made this point clearly enough, there's the audio component that Laliberte has devised after the shooting of a given model: an electronic soundscape looping in frequent intervals, and punctured, as already noted, with text samplings, distorted buzzings, muffled groans, whispers, amplified aspiration.
Shifting from sound to image and back again, I perceive the former, in its disembodied rattle and hum, as a gloss on the contexts that affect the psychology of contemporary youth. In the wired / wireless world of multimedia and the accelerated environments of urban life, everyone must somehow align to the totalitarian pressures of communication and consumption. Everyone must construct a viable self to cope with such an environment and satisfy essential human aspirations. Self-fashioning is an inescapable demand issued by the market. The young are targeted by advertisers from early adolescence, recruited by various popular forms and discourses [musical culture; debates in teen magazines on dating, sex, drugs, etc.] that attach to and expand their budding desires. The situation persists into early adulthood with appropriate modulation of issues. There's little chance of holding oneself aloof from the pervasive demands of styling that the market insinuates into all corners of life and psyche. The darkness of Laliberte's vision, so manifestly theatrical, relates to these public facts just as so many of us piece out alternative or individually tailored 'lifestyles' from the established paradigms of fashion and taste. To be young is to be goaded on by voices and visual stimulants, coming from within and without: to be goaded toward congealing out of the existential turmoil some core of imaginary wholeness, something to call one's own, let's say a 'soul'.
Laliberte's Pillow Scenes puts this goading process in abeyance, as if it were vain to expect that some concrete attainment of unity and depth should result from the continual flow of sounds and words passing in and out of our heads; or from the images we construct for ourselves in our mirror, hoping that one of these will possess us with the same fullness of being and beauty that we perceive desirously in others, a model in a magazine, a striking face glimpsed in the window of a passing subway car. How hard it is to locate ourselves at the centre of our own existence, to end with the shadow-shifting in the mirror, especially when you're young and have every reason to expect that biological endowments and facial beauty should be part of the formula of self-actualization.
As one might expect, a few of the works are focused exclusively on beauty as both business system and physical ideal. Laliberte is intrigued by beauty regimes and the widespread network of industries [modeling competitions, fashion journalism and publications, make-up trends, etc.] that profit from the pursuit of loveliness and sexual charisma. But instead of moralizing against capitalism and the quest it sanctions -- indeed, the dependencies that it intensifies with the yearly turn-over of products and styles -- Laliberte steers our attention toward the provisional autonomy that we attain in achieving beauty. The autonomy is provisional because bodies change and age, and because so much of it is maintained by cosmetic regimes. Moreover, the market, as just stated, sanctions a state of dependency and keeps rotating the ideals: even supermodels must pass from the scene before their youth is over or they are done being beautiful.
Thus, in his photographs, Laliberte will consistently corrupt the elements of glamour, shifting between the light touch and the metaphorically hard hit. The pretty girl in Powder Puff Facial (Condition & Response) [a mere fourteen years old] is softly spattered with baby powder and water, while her counterpart in Foundation (Pale Neutral 6) [early twenties] has been freshly exhumed from a dewy grave of cosmetic clays. On the one soundtrack, the glamourizing tricks of fashion photography are a cover for sexual exploitation; on the other, tips on the application of new, glittery make-ups are given in a bouncy voice that gaily dumbs-up the conceit of such self-ravishment: "Translucent powders, creams and polishes leave skin looking incandescent. These shimmery, metallic make-ups can be used all over the body to create highlights to give your skin some glow voltage...". In both works, the combination of image and audio exposes how the erotic interior of the subject is displaced onto the face, the absolute locus of beauty and individuality. Each model is presented as a character caught up in a mini-drama or a private moment when advertising and marketing reach out and seduce the self. We listen in on a process and scrutinize the outcome, visually stilled before us. The erotic personality -- that is, the depth-signature of one's sexual psyche -- has been liquidated and reappears as a set of surface-borne traces. Such is the meaning of the runny, sticky substances that Laliberte applies in disordered streaks. Whether or not a particular work is directly related to the topic, make-up is a persistent theme and signifier in Pillow Scenes. We see that the models have undergone palpable violations of the facial area, including neck and scalp, though these defilements are obviously cosmetic: poured honey, smeared shaving cream, sprinklings of water, slathered lotions, gels, condom lubricants, dustings of baby powder, and so on.
I watched the process unfold one rainy afternoon in May, with Laliberte and his model of the moment, a Polish-born girl named Marta, working up one of the new images for Pillow Scenes: Labyrinth. I had asked to observe the shoot, wanting to see how the self-declared artifice of the finished picture was assembled. Music made of synthetic beats and hollow, impressionistic squeaks played quietly as the pair got down to business. Marta was a tall fair-haired girl in white cargo pants cut off just below the knee. The upper body was clad in a simple tank-top [issued by Laliberte], an article that in '90s street slang is known as "a wife-beater," perhaps in reference to movie roles played by Marlon Brando or countless real-life versions of this same grunting type in low-end neighbourhoods across America. Hers is the casual, bare-shouldered confidence that so many young women exhibit in malls, streets, and classrooms everywhere. But she was soon immobilized, seated in a rigid lotus pose, with electrical cords and aquarium tubes attached to her braids. She made a few remarks about the pressures of the elastic fastenings on her scalp, though this was nothing painful enough to interrupt the session, which lasted little over an hour. Every once in a while, after a flurry of exposures was over [three rolls were used up], her eyes would open and a smile would blossom on a face that moments before had been overcast with ambiguous tranquillity.
Laliberte and I talked on and off about the genesis of his visual ideas and their conversion into the final exhibit print. He showed me a small notebook of doodles and pointed to a couple of magazine clippings. I peered into a drawer of random objects that might serve as props and ornaments. We talked of the portraits of Dieter Appelt, the German photographer that Laliberte admires, and he expressed a liking for the images left behind by the Vienna Aktionists, the performance collective that operated in the late '60s. These are pictures of animal carcasses ripped open, their blood and organs poured over participants; of human genitals, buttocks and breasts, covered in feathers and floury pastes. I agreed on the appeal of these, seeing in them just what the artists and performers intended: a post-war outbreak of Expressionist anguish and ecstatic spiritual primitivism. Vienna is a geographic and cultural crossing point where the bourgeois daylight of Europe is like a tide coursing against the turbulent edge of the Slavic psyche. We need only consider the sorts of 'things' that have emerged from south-central Europe in the past century, many of these filtering through Vienna from surrounding regions and outlands: vampires, Freudian neurosis and dream interpretation, an Archduke assassinated in Sarajevo and Hitler and two world wars [and this without mentioning artists, writers, musicians, or movements].
There is no essential link between Pillow Scenes and the "Orgies and Mysteries Theatre" of the Aktionists, and one imagines that a context of more definitive affinity exists between Laliberte's work and Joel-Peter Witkin's; or Cindy Sherman's, whose influence has been so prevalent over the last fifteen years as to have become a widely assimilated way of seeing and thinking about the body, the self, gender and identity. There are also thematic connections between Pillow Scenes and the performances orchestrated by Vanessa Beecroft, where youthful women sit and stand around in panties and bras, in wigs and heels, like sexy mannequins disdaining to meet our interest and curiosity.
But it is Laliberte's taste for the visual record left behind by the Viennese group that holds a clue to what he's really after. While the Aktionists staged transgressive spectacles whose goal was the hardcore authenticity of visceral experience, Laliberte's interest lies elsewhere, in the symbolic flaying of the styled self. Imaginary brutalities have been whipped up out of powders and creams, and the placement of assorted objects; with the whole thing finally backed by passages of disjointed audio. What counts for the creator of Pillow Scenes is what the Aktionists have left behind as traces for popular culture and aesthetic conversion: ultimately, only the look [shock through signs] of their ritual activities, passing down to Laliberte's generation through Alice Cooper and Marilyn Manson; and the experimental street styles of the punk and post-punk era. As a declaration of subjectivity [seething] and a form of political nihilism, the visual aesthetics of punk consisted mostly, ingeniously, of stylistic self-flaying. And this look, too, was itself, in short time, backwashed into the broader culture and simulated in glossy fashion spreads.
The style markers of subcultural affiliation tend to get absorbed by the market and reappear, filtered and re-packaged, as costume options for the spectacle of postmodern life. The most toxic forms [punk, goth shock-rock, gangsta rap] of popular self-expression [mediated through clothing, music, body posture and behaviour] inevitably attain some degree of commercial legitimacy and become commodified options available to all. Think of a composite downtown type of the later '90s, whose mutilations are cosmetic [piercings, tattoos]; whose hair is buzzed down to micromillimetres or sprouts boldly in dyed tufts; whose Diesel jeans descend toward chunky footwear; whose gym-built torso fills out Hilfiger t-shirts; who knows how to "get a groove on," is pretty "cool," or maybe "shady," went last night to a club where the action's "off the hook," says "sup y'all?"
Working with twin media, Laliberte has conducted a sort of stylistic autopsy of those figures -- the young -- that can both initiate change as a subcultural minority and, in less than a generation, carry the process of commercial debasement forward as a mass-consuming majority. Yet his art is not at all of the empirical, anthropological sort. It is pure construction, in keeping with the electronic, digital milieu of his time. It starts with the occult 'feel' he gets from a face and is completed by a dissonant audio tapestry. He makes models over into characters with fictitious personalities. The soundscapes that accompany each image are monotonously repeating riddles -- peculiar, clue-laden, open-ended. The artist is in partnership with his models; he partakes of their visually replete and sonic culture; but he portrays them as beings of lack, selves unmade. They appear with their eyes shut or the whole head covered, redoubtably enclosed. We are cued to listen in on their dumb submission. He sounds out the murky, centreless labyrinth of their subjectivity. This is its resonance, a flow of unresolved information. By listening, we look deeper, with no prospect of comprehension, into the mask of flesh, the facades of beauty and individual identity.