Paul Knight: Intimacy Issues - Art Collector

Issue 52, April - June 2010

Despite first appearances, Paul Knight’s photographs of couples trade in anything but intimacy. Instead, they are ambiguous, unsettling and redolent with emotional detachment writes Edward Colless.

“Glasgow has a hard edge to it,” reflects Paul Knight, “with a tough working class atmosphere from the dockyards which goes somehow, oddly enough, with a puritanical Calvinist morality.” Since choosing to use his Samstag Scholarship to get there, Knight has been resident in Glasgow for over two years; and with his Masters from Glasgow School of Art now well completed, it looks like he’s staying on. The place must agree with him. “People do things against the social norms,” he continues, “but they wouldn’t admit to it in public. But I love Glasgow because it is socially tortured in this way. So my kind of photographic work here has been … enjoyably problematic.”

What makes Knight’s photography problematic – let’s say, perhaps insolent or barbed – isn’t so much the explicit sex that we saw in his R-rated room in the Australian Centre for Contemporary Art’s NEW08 exhibition. It is the implicit sex. In that 2008 work, produced during the start of his Glasgow residency, Knight had photographed naked couples, straight and gay, in sexual embraces from directly overhead. Through that bird’s eye angle, and saturated with a shadowless cold light, the white sheets of the bed shifted orientation to become white walls over which the couples appeared to be climbing up or tumbling down as they interlocked. To get these shots with a high-resolution large format camera (Knight’s preferred technique), which had to be mounted on a rig overhead, would have taken almost as much set-up time as a on movie shoot. In these circumstances the intimacy in the scenarios is hardly improvisatory or unrehearsed; it’s acted out. The casualness and authenticity felt in these shots is due to an enthusiastic embrace by the couples of the camera apparatus with its silent gaze and its fastidious demands on lighting and focus.

The intimacy between the couple and the camera – in fact, this weird arithmetic of relationships, coupling in a threesome – is the really potent erotic zone of Knight’s photography. Knight speaks about his photographs causing a “sense of confusion in the logistics of intimacy” and a “calm sense of disorientation felt even by monogamous couples”. We might say that the intrusion of an observer into those private spaces which are claimed between bodies – particularly bodies of lovers forging familial and enigmatic bonds – destabilises their exclusivity. In an image from 2007, a woman in a long black dress sits on a toilet, her black knickers visible around her ankles, while a naked man kneels between her open legs. They both seem captured in a pose halfway to an embrace, or perhaps disengaging from one. Whatever the act is, it is paradoxically both objectified and yet inscrutable. The boudoir becomes a type of clinical stage, like the operating theatres used for demonstration purposes in medical schools. Each of the works in the NEW08 show was titled by the length of time the couple claimed to have been in a relationship: 11 months, 17 days. These were piquant testaments of the couple; but also test results, as if there was an implied part of a laboratory label that read: “Subjects’ behaviour at 11 months, 17 days.”

There’s no spontaneous participation by the camera permitted in this directorial procedure – no reportage. Knight’s style is at the polar opposite of that lush grunge of photographic investigative diarists like Nan Goldin or Antoine d’Agata, fuelled by darkly abusive and self-abusive temperaments. Throughout his work, Knight’s sympathetic attention to what he describes as nonconformist relationships – of S&M couples, masters and slaves, of swingers – oddly conveys no traces of anything lurid or even voyeuristic. As in all his work, the negotiations for consensual participation take months of diplomacy to arrange. Even if he recruits some of his models through swingers websites, there’s little sense of impulsive celebration or sexual liberty or humanistic heroism in the mise-en-scène. These scenarios can take a lengthy time to develop, derived often from a litter of amateur material posted on personal websites that Knight routinely trawls. The puzzling geometry of intrigue and emotional detachment in a work from 2006 places a nudist couple in their spotlessly tidy, spacious suburban kitchen. In the foreground, the man slumps uncomfortably in his chair as if half way through a heart attack or stroke. Behind him, unaccountably, a woman on the cold tiled floor disinterestedly leans against the wall. But there is no drama here: rather, a type of topographical survey of the scene. A scene, Knight explains, that was motivated by a photograph he’d found on the web, taken in New Orleans in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, of a legless man in a wheelchair with an exhausted woman collapsed nearby.

Knight’s sensibility as an artist emerges in this passage from pathos to erotic captivation. There has to be a degree of cruelty in transposing an image of catastrophic dispossession into a middle class domestic – if impenetrable – sex scene. But what is seductively cruel here is the cold passion of masochism, of enjoyably subjugating oneself worked out through a complex contractual relationship. A young man, naked but for a white bra and knickers, hangs inertly from a backyard tree in the night. The ad hoc noose is fashioned from a long sleeved shirt. Is this a suicide – the despairing outcome of suffering from a furtive desire that is stigmatised as perversion? Or is it, instead, the simulation of suicide as a stage for wilfully pronounced masochistic pleasure, arranged for the artist and the model together? It’s not so ambiguous. In all of Knight’s work what is truly perverse is not any particular mode of pleasure, not any candid sexuality, but the consensual attachment of bodies that perform their affections to his camera.

Most recently Knight has produced photographs of couples lying wrapped up together in post-coital indolence in bed. But the axis on which they join – along the length of their bodies – is folded over in a bizarrely coy, self-censoring pleat. The embrace is hidden in the fold, which hinges as well as splits the couple and makes a puzzle out of what fits where. A hand, for instance, appears doubled on one belly. Limbs don’t quite align. This is like lovers’ tussles over who has to have the fourth arm that doesn’t fit into the sleepy clinch, squashed under a shoulder or flung above the pillow and that goes numb because nothing can be done with it. The fourth arm is the price someone has to pay – as a simulated amputation – for the embrace. It’s what we cannot see in a relationship, even when we see the most explicit intimacies. This may sound slight but it’s the perverse secret of a relationship. And it’s the secret space of coupling that holds Knight’s photographic eye enthralled. The place between bodies where someone must surrender.

Melbourne’s Neon Parc will exhibit Paul Knight’s work in the Open Space section of Art Cologne, Germany from 21 to 25 April 2010.

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