Lives & Works in Hong Kong

Ink by Nicolas Lefeuvre

I am what I am

I’m made that way

What more do you want

What do you want from me

Jacques Prévert


And God created woman…

It was she who bit the forbidden fruit and, in classical Greek mythology, she brought evil and death and to the world by prising opening Pandora’s box. 

Demon, seductress with a manipulating morality, she embodies temptation and deception.

Look at me if you dare! 

Five domestic helpers and five models, all based in Hong Kong, sit on Franklin’s grandmother’s neoclassical chair against a neutral, white backdrop. They fiercely hold their gaze defiantly returning the look of the camera: look at me if you dare! Their bodies are partially covered by dark ink veils scattered with graphic patches smears.

With this new collaborative series, photographer Vanessa Franklin continues to engage in a critical practice of representation, playing with the cultural codes of femininity in order to develop a sustained critique of the immutable objectification of women. For his part, ink artist Nicolas Lefeuvre explores further the conversation between abstract ink and reality, opposing sensual but organized texture of the ink to the smooth curves of women’s bodies. 

Both share a vision that generates a cohesive artistic language to embody the complexity of the representation of human identity

The postures adopted by Franklin and which she imposes on her models bear striking similarities to those in classical academic paintings of the late 18th century and 19th centuries. They recall Madame Récamier sitting for Jacques-Louis David or Madame Moitessier as painted by Ingres. The photographer works with the legacy of a long art history in which painters glorified women and Beauty following very conventional visual codes. These portraits celebrate the aristocracy and represent women in an often often idealized manner, promoting lineage and authority.

By appropriating these heavily romanticized visions of womanhood, Franklin magnifies her models and highlights their beauty.Yet the artist is aware that whilst these conventions may trigger a sense of emancipation they simultaneously belittle and reduce their subjects; they empower women but also they entrap them within stereotypes. Beauty has an irreducible social dimension. All feminist movements denounced this dictatorial and subjective power.

Franklin’s models are not fooled. Like Paul Gauguin’s Hannah The Javanese who is portrayed in the same posture and who stares at the viewer with voluptuousness, languid and serene, these subjects challenge their audience to force them them into any kind of restricted category. They claim their own freedom.

These ten women offer themelves to the viewers but do remain protected by the artificial medium of photography and by Nicolas Lefeuvre’s applied ink layers.. The artist has covered certain parts of these photographic works with large ink imprints, increasing the distance between the model and the viewer. His intervention gives substance to the conceptual basis of the series as it highlights a certain mis-perception - the gap between the visible and what people actually see. His systematic gesture contrasts with the singularity of each individual woman and his attempt to appropriate their image through his physical gesture is impossible. The artist uses a simple visual language, working with graphic elements such as X, 1 or + to express complexity and contradiction. Models always work under the spotlights while helpers are, on the contrary, working in the shadow from a position of marginality. These additional screens paradoxically have the role of revealing the unseen, and by hiding parts of the subjects, they embody their invisible side. In seduction, the hidden is always the most exciting and thought-provoking: Lefeuvre’s gesture operates as a double filter and expands the equivocality of Franklin’s subjects.

Playing with these ambiguities and tensions, Franklin & Lefeuvre work on the fringe of beauty and fantasized abasement. Their images constantly oscillate between authenticity and disclosure, superficiality and deep reality. 

The warmth of the light and the colourful shawls contrast with the figure’s apparent coldness and with the women’s static posture. However, the images are imbued with generosity as all these women accepted to expose their body to a public gaze. The series suggests a vivid intimacy with its subject, though this intimacy might be illusory as it is part of the constructed seduction game. Their look is powerful, almost disruptive, yet nobody knows what the models truly think. Accepting to pose in front of a camera is already a powerful statement: I do exist. But could you guess who I am?

The title “Lives and Works in Hong Kong” refers to the usual and vague label found on artist’s short biography. These models could be anyone, extracted from their usual social background. 

This series leads immediately to kind of confusion: why are the helpers dressed and why are the professional models naked? Who is playing whom? It is a game of musical chairs in which social mores are blurred ?

Franklin & Lefeuvre explore here the tenuous boundaries between aesthetic conventions, social construction and identity, and how the body is perceived and objectified by the gaze and by the discourse of others. Helpers usually cannot afford to invest time and money to cultivate their bodies. Conversely, this cultivation is part of the work of the models, who, in turn, could be alienated by it. Eventually, for both social classes, body is a valued capital, a working tool as a vessel of grief and power.

Here, the helpers become possible sexual conquest, while the models exhibit their vulnerability. The categories of perception are blurred: the staging requires the viewers to take a fresh look on the women and the artist invites them to question their own positioning in relation to these female identities. 

What would the true image of these women be? Would it be actually possible to represent a woman through a simple image, and to experience in a glance her beauty in the fullest sense?

Together, Franklin and Lefeuvre play with the modes of representation through the figure of the mise-en-abyme: what is behind the screen, behind the appearance, behind the flesh? How many layers should we lift, how many mysteries have to be unraveled before reaching a true identity? Like Salomé’s dance of the Seven Veils, women are perhaps inaccessible: the veil ultimately always remains.

Caroline Ha Thuc

April, 2015