CRITICS

Title: Marco Bolognesi and The Realm of Ambiguity
Author: Sue Hubbard
Year: 2008

Bologna is best known for its towers and its tortellini and it was here that Marco Bolognesi was born in 1974 into a prominent intellectual family. His grandfather was an artist and Marco graduated from Bologna University where he attended classes in drama, art and music. After a spell working on two award-wining video animations about terrorism for the national TV network the RAI, and a period as an assistant director at Cinecittà in Rome where, for a time he pursued his dreams of becoming a movie director, he came to London. Although his film years were seminal he felt that the cinema system in Italy was too creatively narrow. From then on he decided to render his personal vision in stills. For it was London with its vibrant art and fashion scene that was to lure him to come and work as a photographer. And London, with all its razzmatazz, its multiculturalism, its tolerance of gender bending and dressing up, and its wealth of demotic street style, is now where he lives and works.

Subcultures are, by definition, always in dispute with a society’s overlaying orthodoxy and style is the arena by which disputations with the mainstream are made manifest. As Dick Hebdige wrote in New Accents Subculture: The Meaning of Style “The cycle leading from opposition to effusion, from resistance to incorporation encloses each successive subculture.” By definition the style of a subculture defines not only its members but signifies its resistance so that the particular signs become emblematic of and synonymous with a particular subversive position. Through a complex articulation of specific codes and practises the fashion photograph, the advertisement and the porn shot all silently highlight the differences between ‘subculture’ and ‘normal’ styles.

Marco Bolognesi’s gorgeous girls are rendered speechless and sightless, turned into objects of desire with zippered eyelashes and lips or eyelids stapled with safety pins. Many have the delicate oriental faces of a geisha. They are beautiful and submissive but there is a twist, for here in this glamorous yet liminal world where Madame Butterfly meets punk fetishism, Bolognesi’s stylish women artfully confound our readings of what it means to be female. Are they compliant and submissive or mistresses of their own projections? Or perhaps they are simply mutations, cyborgs, willow-the- wisps of the imagination born from the fantasies of cyberspace, the internet and comic strips, taken from the catwalk or films such as Barbarella. Blindfolded and gagged, their faces made up with the artifice of a Pierrot doll, we are asked to attend to the surface, to their presentation and not to their inner worlds. Instead of speech, flowers sprout from their painted mouths rendering them inarticulate. Thus gagged they become asexual fantasies, objects of glamour and desire that feed into both male and lesbian sexual fantasies of submission as well heterosexual female fantasies of being in possession of the perfect face and body. What we do know is that their look is highly wrought, that it is fabricated and placed somewhere between the worlds of the ‘straight’ and the culturally ‘deviant’.

The radical aesthetic practices of Dada and Surrealism with their collages and ‘ready mades’ culled from the irrational world of dreams, from the abject dolls of Hans Bellmer to the fantastic hats and headdresses of Eileen Agar, are echoed in Bolognesi’s images. Surrealism and its bedfellow Dadaism mined the unconscious and set free the repressed sexual imagination from the confines of the 19th century drawing room. Its legacy in the late 20th century was punk with its zips and safety pins, its appropriated objects or bricolage and its illicit iconography of sexual fetishism. The appropriated rapist masks and rubber wear, the leather bodices, the fishnet stockings and extravagantly sharp stiletto heels, along with much of the paraphernalia of bondage, spoke of resistance to the mainstream. Illicit and subversive Punk, to which Bolognesi owes so much, became a badge of freedom from conventional mores.

There was a moment in the 80s when female sexual fetishism was seen as a mark of the liberated woman.
Those such as Madonna appropriated the imagery of S&M as a sign of empowerment and an act of female emancipation. It became permissible for women to admit that they found fetish clothing such as leather and rubber sexually exciting. Research shows that Skin Two magazine was bought by nearly as many women as men, while in the other camp feminists such as Andrea Dworkin argued that S&M outfits eroticised women’s oppression. Marco Bolognesi’s images confound these issues of female sexual freedom, for they have been taken by a man and are thus the result of the ‘historic’ male gaze upon the female subject. But Bolognesi is a man from a generation that presumably understands the signs of sexual politics so that these images take on a degree of irony and ambiguity.

The relationship between clothes, fashion and fetishism is complex. Clothes function as icons of commodity fetishism because consumerism uses sex and sexually charged codes to give fashion meaning. In the case of fashion direct sexual gratification is neither really the point nor the purpose. Fashion is about dreams, about what is unobtainable and, at a particular moment in time, what is considered erotic and visually pleasing. Fashion is aspirant. Bolognesi’s use of black and white is, here, not a sign of race or cultural interchange but of the visual gratification achieved visually when opposites are laid one beside another. Pleasure is also sought through the over-emphasis on a part of the body; a breast, an eye or mouth. Thus fragmented women become the ultimate postmodern sign.

Marco Bolognesi presents this dream world with perfect technical bravura. The classical perfectionism of Mapplethorpe comes to mind for, as with Mapplethorpe, Bolognesi’s images are impeccably flawless and perfectly honed specimens frozen in time. All the zips, pins and leaves on his models have been painstakingly added by hand. There is no digital manipulation or trickery involved. Again things are never quite what they seem. Bolognesi’s world is a place of beauty and youth, eroticism and freedom but also one where much is masked, hidden and rendered silent. Here baroque meets Punk and S& M confronts post-feminist critique as Marco Bolognesi exposes the soft-underbelly of our aspirations. Ambiguity reigns.

Sue Hubbard is an award-winning poet, novelist and freelance art critic who writes regularly for The Independent and The New Statesman.

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