This is Nathan Lam Vuongs photograph which is part of a series of works he had on exhibit in one of the galleries I visited at CAL Arts two weeks ago. I would like to start by giving my apologies to the artist and to you guys, as this is such an awful reproduction of the actual photograph! I had my shitty camera with me and believe me, it really is shitty! You can check out a better reproduction of Vuongs work here at Flickr and the complete series this photograph is a part of.
Vuong is an interesting man to look at. He wears brightly coloured socks which match brightly coloured '80's inspired jumpers that look like they are made lovingly by someones grandma. He is the son of Vietnamese refugees and is coming to the end of his MFA program at CAL Arts here in Los Angeles. His website called 'nails by asians', totally reflects his humorous attitude towards his cultural heritage. Vuong works in photography, karaoke-works, performances, watercolors, and installations dealing with his own issues within the Asian American culture and the nuances of longing, loneliness, and confusion in dating.
The work above has a working title; thus Untitled (Male Gaze) followed by 'working title'. There were four photographs in total, all exhibited with the same 'streamer' background and all taken from the waist up. The differences between the way these men were presented to us was in the choice of coloured background and the choice of coloured streamers; soft pink, blue, green and yellow reflected a colour range normally associated with a babies room. These streamers reacted subtly to the movements of the viewers bodies as they walked by each one, creating a physical relationship between the viewer and the viewed.
Before you begin to read any further, I invite you to take a moment and scroll down to watch the video documentation I took of this work hanging in the gallery space. As you have seen in the video below, there is a creepiness to these works. This series of works by Vuong follows a tradition that began in painting (famously known with the Mona Lisa) where the sitter's eyes seem to follow you as you walk past the work. This optical illusion in paintings and photographs is created by having the sitter look straight into the camera lens or directly at the painter. Our brain then tricks us into thinking the eyes are following us, when the reality is they cannot. As I did my research on this post, I came across Fong, an art collaboration group lead by Golan Levin. Fong created Opto-Isolator, which is a mechanical eye that follows you as you walk on by, even blinking as you blink. A very different experience to that of Vuong's work, but I did find it to be a nice contrast.
The men in this series of works by Vuong are his silent crushes, who he asked to pose for these photographs without telling them what the relationship between them was. Once printed on paper, these photographs go through a seemingly violent, yet planned and detailed transformation. Vuong pulls out a scalpel and with careful incisions, cuts the eyes out of his crushes. By performing this 'surgery', these men are forced to look at him but there seems to be a feeling of revenge on these men for Vuongs unrequainted silent crush. They would be more passive in their gaze had he not cut their eyes out. It reminds us of our own desperate attempts in the past to receive the gaze of our own silent crushes.
Walking past four of these photographs made me feel very uncomfortable. It was as if I was forcing these men to look at me. To be gazed upon or to not be gazed? That is the question Vuong asks through this series of works, creating an uncomfortable revisit back to our own adolescent years when our desire to be gazed upon may have seemed to be a much more intense and desperate experience than it has become as an adult (or so we hope!).