BEIRUT: “Every man’s work,” Victorian novelist Samuel Butler once remarked, “whether it be literature, or music or pictures or architecture or anything else, is always a portrait of himself.”
Lebanese artist Rasha Kahil has been demonstrating for some years now that Butler’s observation applies equally to women’s work.
Though she mostly works behind a camera, Kahil’s visage has been strongly present in previous projects, foremost among them “In Your Home.” In this series of 36 photographs hung at Karantina’s Running Horse Contemporary Art Space in the summer of 2011, she took advantage of being left alone in other people’s houses to strip down and capture herself on camera.
Over the course of four years, the photographer took every opportunity to pose all but naked in a variety of positions and attitudes – crammed awkwardly under the sink, standing boldly on a stool, head outside the frame, lounging carelessly at a dining table, smoking a cigarette.
Kahil is back at the Running Horse with another solo exhibition, one that takes up a more unusual form of self-portrait. This time her flesh may not be laid bare, but she is still on show.
Not one of the seven photographs in “Between 11 and noon” frames Kahil. Instead, the poster-sized color images capture the artist’s male acquaintances, from co-workers to fellow artists to a waiter at a local coffee shop.
Kahil shot her subjects in her London studio in seven separate sittings, always between 11 a.m. and 12 p.m., when the light was best. The uniform lighting and setting – as well Kahil’s decision to capture her subjects with bare chests on show and her injunction not to look at the camera – reduce the men to little more than one in a number, stripped of their individuality and autonomy.
This impression is enforced by their physical similarities – most sport distinctive facial hair and an assortment of tattoos. When they smile, Kahil says, they tend to show their gums.
This is no coincidence.
“Whenever a photographer chooses someone to portray,” Kahil says, “there’s something about that person that attracted them ... I realized that they all had this same aura, which is men that attracted me in a certain way, maybe by their physical aspect, maybe by their confidence.”
Before each photograph is a pair of headphones through which Kahil’s voice can be heard, reciting a short text. It soon becomes clear that each of these texts recalls a moment of interaction between photographer and subject.
The short interchange, which the photographer feels sums up each relationship, in a sense, might have occurred when the two first met, during a charged moment as they struggled to establish a relationship dynamic or later, when a more comfortable equilibrium had been established.
What all these beautifully written texts have in common is their intensely personal tone. Each diary-like entry minutely charts her effect on, and response to, each man. These audio files transform “Between 11 and noon” from a series of portraits to a kind of avant-garde self-portrait, a snapshot not of Kahil’s body but her desires, insecurities, self-perception and view of those around her.
Though her past artistic projects include an erotic newspaper charting her sexual encounters over the course of 10 years, as well as the physically revealing “In Your Home,” Kahil says her latest series took the most courage.
“It follows all the work that I’ve been doing in the sense that I pick apart something that’s quite personal to me,” she explains. “I felt a bit more vulnerable with this one because I knew that it was much more revelatory about me, especially with regards to the men themselves, because they’re friends of mine.
“With the audio texts specifically I’m really opening myself up quite a lot,” she continues, “in contrast with the pictures in ‘In Your Home,’ where I have a sort of power over it, because they’re quite serialized and in a very straight setting.”
The interesting contrast between Kahil’s two most recent solo shows – both of which reveal a tendency toward exhibitionism, whether physical or emotional, and both of which derive impact from their unusual context – is exacerbated by a second dichotomy.
The men (who in the photographs are stripped of power, displayed in an alien context subject to Kahil’s control and vision) are not only brought back to life in the audio, but undergo an interesting role reversal. In the text it’s the men who are in a position of power, by virtue of having ignited a desire in Kahil – whether for comfort, reassurance, friendship or sexual validation – which they may or may not choose to acknowledge or fulfill.
This tension introduces an interesting sexual tension into a series that initially seems to be an exploration of the male form. In some ways this is more pronounced than in the nudity of “In Your Home,” in which Kahil’s body is revealed but always alone.
“Between and 11 and noon” builds a layered impression of Kahil’s interaction with the opposite gender, from feeling self-conscious as an attractive male colleague reviews photos of her naked form to worrying about the shape of her mouth as she drinks from a straw, to watching someone she admires unconsciously broadcast his attraction to another woman.
The sexual element is a by-product of the project rather than the aim.
“I guess there is some sort of sexual overtone,” Kahil admits, “because I’m a woman and these are men ... but I think what I wanted here was more sensual – they become like fantasies, almost otherworldly in a way, through the photography. The amalgamation of all the men would be maybe my ideal, but in a sense they’re just a representation of something that I’m looking for so it’s actually beyond them.
“The act of photographing is very intimate,” she adds. “So the process of photographing these men is just as important as the final picture or as the audio text ... You’re in the moment, this bubble, where it’s just you, the camera and that person and what happens there is kind of the core of the portraits – the experience itself.”
Rasha Kahil’s “Between 11 and noon” is up at Karantina’s Running Horse until March 16. For more information call 01-562-778.