Isn’t there just something so alluring about obsession? Our preeminent filth elder John Waters has staked his entire career on it. A vocal supporter and enabler of fellow maniacs, Waters made the distinction between good and bad obsessions in an interview with Rookie Magazine. He explains:
“Well, obsession can be good or bad. I mean obsession can be the reason you wake up every day and love your job because you love what you’re doing, if you’re an artist or if you’re into something. But then there’s bad obsession! Like if you’re a drug addict, I guess you’re obsessed with heroin, aren’t you? Or a bad love affair, you know, where you can’t get over somebody–much later in life hopefully you look back and say, ‘God, why was I thinking about that person?’ But you can use that. You can use all kinds of obsession. You can use obsession for humor, you can use it for style, you can use it for fashion. Obsession is great if it brings you pleasure and helps you make your living doing something great. It’s only bad if you make the same mistake over and over with some obsession that brings you unhappiness.”
But sometimes, doesn’t bad obsession just seem more fun? This division between good and bad obsession comes to the fore in the current exhibition My Dreamboat at Envoy Enterprises. Taking fixation as its muse, My Dreamboat focuses on the preoccupation with idealized masculinity. Featuring Nicolas Wagner, Prince R., Leni Riefenstahl, Donatien Veismann and Gary Indiana, who has previously narrated obsession in his writing as seen in his novel Horse Crazy, the exhibition takes this seemingly innocuous theme to darkly erotic and fetishized places.
Granted, the exhibition does suffer from an unfortunate press release opening line, which says, “Sensitive viewers be advised this exhibition contains images of men only.” Was that really necessary? With other exhibitions highlighting women looking at men, an exhibition of all-male imagery isn’t that unusual and it’s certainly not controversial either. It feels like the gallery was just taking a jab at the perceived humorlessness and loud-mouthed whining of feminists. How cliché!
Anyway, getting off my soapbox for now.
The exhibition’s title refers to a throwback of a term for an inordinately attractive man, which, I have to say, I don’t use near enough. The phrase conjures the image of teenage constant craving, bedrooms wallpapered in photos and Tiger Beat Magazine.
Not only just a heartthrob term, the exhibition also presents a literal dream boat with the inclusion of Nicolas Wagner’s photograph Untitled (My Dream). No stranger to obsession himself, Wagner is the editor-in-chief of CRUSHfanzine, which boasts a similar love of fanaticism. In spirit of full disclosure since we’re professionals here at Filthy Dreams, I have previously contributed to CRUSH, along with our intrepid Osman Can Yerebakan.
Wagner’s Untitled (My Dream) depicts a shiny and, at least from the looks of it, brand-spanking-new boat that is done up in a rather lovely and nauseating shade of coral. Even though the photograph is the only image in My Dreamboat without a male figure, the boat–with its almost eye-roll inducing name –portrays the ultimate male fantasy and mid-life crisis purchase.
With the exception of the boat, the other works in My Dreamboat capture men. And yet beyond discussions of the male gaze and homoeroticism, the show hinges on the blurred lines between dreams and obsessions. When does a seemingly harmless dream become a rabid obsession? When does it become dangerous or destructive?
This thin line can be seen almost immediately with the inclusion of Leni Riefenstahl’s timely photographs of the 1936 Olympics. Riefenstahl marks the only woman included in My Dreamboat. It might have been nice if the only woman wasn’t a propagandist for the Nazi’s but no matter, Riefenstahl’s work does fit rather nicely with the show’s depiction of the threatening undertones of bodily obsession.
Revealing the Nazi’s frenzied dedication to the perfect Aryan form, Riefenstahl’s photographs ooze virility, masculinity and flawless physicality. Even though they are throwing javelins or rowing, Riefenstahl’s subjects are completely sexualized, making some of their best “O” faces. Or maybe they’re just focused. There was always something weirdly sexual about the Nazi’s passion for the male form. Looking at Riefenstahl’s photographs in their horrifying historical context, the yearning for perceived physical perfection contains a very real possibility for violence.
The choice of Riefenstahl’s photographs hints at the darker nature in some of the other works. For example, Wagner’s Untitled (Bastien) presents a series of four close-up photographs of motorcycle boots. Reminding me of the criminally underseen Warhol film documenting Gerard Malanga licking Mary Woronov’s black leather boots, Untitled (Bastien) is a study in single-mindedness. Looking at the boots as if their wearer was walking–or running–away, the photograph appears as if it was taken by a foot fetishist stalker.
However, my absolute favorite work in the show comes from Prince R.–otherwise known as HRH PR. Prince R. presents a staggering wall of celebrity headshots, which all have been signed by the actors. From Denzel Washington to Brad Pitt and Ben Whishaw, the over forty images are overwhelming–the type of décor you might imagine in the house of a psycho–or a teenage girl.
The work is hilariously titled WTD2, which stands for “We Take Dumps Too,” bringing a true sense of stinking realism to this idealization. A debased version of “Stars, They’re Just Like Us,” the work, particularly in the context of the title, at once represents the sacredness of these celebrities and the down-and-dirty debased profane. Hot.
In addition to his promotional pic collection, HRH PR also represents when this celebrity obsession can turn dangerous with photographs that aestheticize the murders of Sal Mineo and Roman Novaro. As a fellow ghoul, I appreciate Prince R’s transformation of perversely paging through Wikipedia to read about famous deaths into art.
Of course, most art is about obsession. In order to create anything, I think you have to be a little bit obsessed. Otherwise, why bother? However it’s not usually so directly tied to fanaticism as the works in My Dreamboat, which might have some viewers considering applying for a restraining order after leaving. But as John Waters said, “Without obsession, life is nothing.”