Jose Da Silva

Unter Mannern

It’s not every day you can walk into an exhibition and literally picture yourself fucking the artist. Jose Da Silva’s Unter Männern offers the viewer just that experience. Via the reproduction of a series of intimate self-portraits taken while having sex with his partner, Da Silva manages to present a penetrating (no pun intended) insight into gay male subjectivity. However, there is nothing shocking about these works, nothing scandalous or pornographic. The exhibition is a much more cerebral affair than a physical one, and operates on a very different level from that implied by its subject matter.

The work functions most effectively as a gentle persuasion, an easily digested sequence of quite beautiful images informed more by aesthetics than gay porn that, through their intimacy and subtlety, succeed in opening up a space for pondering the bigger questions that lie just beneath—or in front of—the surface of the images. By not being graphic, aggressive or intentionally ‘shocking’, the images manage to enact a far more difficult objective—that of really engaging the viewer. Instead of lecturing heterosexuals on gay sexual identity, Da Silva invites us to share his insecurities, uncertainties and vulnerabilities, and to question the ways in which sexual identity is formulated and expressed, not only from a gay perspective but also from a heterosexual one. It is this breaking down of difference that is the true triumph of this exhibition.

This probing inquisitiveness (beyond sexual curiosity) is persistent enough to dominate the sexual content. It is a deeper, searching quality regarding questions of subjectivity and identification. The way this happens is as complex and confusing as the formulation of sexual identity itself. In the photographs Da Silva subverts typical power relationships (whereby the photographer exerts power over the subject), by turning the camera on himself. Who has the power in these photos? Is Da Silva the submissive subject of his partner’s gaze, embodied by the camera, or the active agent exerting his authority over himself? Does the artist have more control, more power, than the unseen participant? The viewer, who aligns themselves with that gaze, is ineluctably subjected to this power-play as well. If this constitutes an act of aggression it is more of a subtle coercion than an act of violence. While coercion and aggression may be bed partners, there is a difference between duress and manipulation. Da Silva actively works on the viewer to make them want to occupy that position and to take into account the subjectivity that goes along with it.

As viewers we gradually cease to be the ones in control—either externally as observer or internally as the ‘other half’ of the activity we are witnessing—and become instead the subject of Da Silva’s gaze and ultimately of the work as a whole. Just as Da Silva reverses the role of photographer/photographed, so too is the viewer transferred from a position of scrutinising to a position of being scrutinised, by themselves as much as others. As a ‘mirror’ of the artist, the self-portrait performs the same operation on the spectator, reflecting their image back in an inversion whereby Da Silva is suddenly on top while we look vulnerably back up at him and out from the image.

This mental projection facilitates not only an analysis of gay male subjectivity, but also an analysis of the way every sexual identity is formed. That this ‘mental exercise’ is a significant function of the work is reinforced by the blurry focus and repetition of the photographs and video work. These characteristics deflect attention away from the ‘objectness’ of the images and the depicted physical activity and push our focus into an abstract mental register. (They also imply a dreamlike state—at once hinting at the exhaustions of extended lovemaking and a faraway, orgasmic delirium, but also of being elsewhere, nowhere, lost in pleasure, pain or thought) By subtly manipulating the roles of giver and receiver, subject and object, seer and seen, Unter Männern sketches a new subjectivity, one that thoughtfully questions the formulation of identity in an inclusive way, highlighting universal concerns of how we perceive ourselves and how others see us.