I am what I am
I’m made that way
What more do you want
What do you want from me
Jacques Prévert

And God created woman…

She was the one who bit the forbidden fruit and, in classical Greek mythology, the one who brought death and evils to the world by opening the Pandora’s box.

Demon, seductress with a manipulating morality, she embodies temptation and deception.

Look at me if you dare!

Five domestic helpers and five models, all based in Hong Kong, sit on Franklin’s grandmother’s neoclassical chair with a white and neutral background. They stare at you fiercely and return defiantly the look of the camera: look at me if you dare! Their body is partially recovered by dark ink veils scattered with graphic patches.

With this new collaborative series, photographer Vanessa Franklin continues to engage in a critical practice of representation, playing with the cultural codes of femininity in order to develop a sustained critique of the immutable objectification of women. For his part, ink artist Nicolas Lefeuvre explores further the conversation between abstract ink and reality, opposing sensual but organized texture to the smooth curves of women bodies.

Both share a vision that creates a cohesive art language to embody the complexity of identity’s representation.

The postures which Franklin adopts, and which she imposes on her models bear striking similarities to those in classical academic paintings of the late 18th century and 19th century: her models recall Madame Récamier posing for Jacques-Louis David or Madame Moitessier painted by Ingres. The photographer works on the legacy of a long art history when painters glorified together women and Beauty following very conventional codes. Their bourgeois portraits celebrated the aristocracy and the represented women were often idealized, promoting lineage and power authority.

By appropriating these heavily romanticized visions of women, Franklin magnifies her models and highlights their beauty. But the artist knows that these conventions simultaneously trigger emancipation and belittling: while they empower women, they trap them and reduce them with stereotypes. Beauty has an irreducible social dimension. All feminist movements denounced its dictatorial and subjective power.

Franklin’s models are not fooled. Like Paul Gauguin’s Hannah The Javanese painted in same posture and who stares at the viewers with voluptuousness, languid and serene, they challenge the audience to fit them in any box and claim their freedom.

These ten women offer themselves to the viewers but remain indeed protected by the artificial medium of photography and by ink layers applied by Nicolas Lefeuvre. The artist covered indeed certain parts of the photographs with large ink imprints, increasing the distance between the models and the viewers. His intervention gives substance to the concept of the series as it highlights misperception and the gap between the visible and what people actually see. His systematic gesture contrasts also with the singularity of each women while his attempt to appropriate their image through his physical gesture is impossible. The artist uses a simple visual language, working with graphic elements such as X, 1 or + to express complexity and contradiction. Models are always working under the spotlights while helpers are, on the contrary, working in the shadow from a position of marginality. These additional screens paradoxically have the role of revealing the unseen, and by hiding parts of the subjects, they embody their invisible side. In seduction, hidden parts are the most exciting and thought provoking parts: Lefeuvre’s gesture operates as a double filter and expands the equivocality of the works.

Playing with these ambiguities and tensions, Franklin & Lefeuvre work on the fringe of beauty and fantasized abasement. Their images constantly oscillate between authenticity and disclosure, superficiality and deep reality.

The warmth of the light and the colourful shawls contrast with the figure’ apparent coldness and with the women’s static posture. However, the images are imbued with generosity as all these women accepted to expose their body to the public. The series suggests a vivid intimacy with its subject, though this intimacy might be illusory as it is part of the constructed seduction game. Their look is very powerful almost disruptive, yet nobody knows what the models truly think. Accepting to pose in front of a camera is already a strong statement: I do exist. But could you guess who I am?

The title “live and work in Hong Kong” refers to the usual and vague label found on artist’s short biography. These models could be anyone, extracted from their social background.

Immediately the series leads to confusion: why are the helpers dressed and why are the professional models naked? Who is playing whom? It is a game of musical chairs and all social codes are mixed up.

Franklin & Lefeuvre explore here the tenuous boundaries between aesthetic conventions, social construction and identity, and how body is perceived and objectified by the gaze and by the discourse of others. Helpers usually cannot afford to invest time, sacrifices and money to cultivate their bodies. Conversely, this cultivation is part of the work of the models, who, in turn, could be alienated by it. Eventually, for both social classes, body is a valued capital, a working tool as a vessel of grief and power.

Here, the helpers become possible sexual conquest, while the models exhibit their vulnerability. The categories of perception are blurred: the staging requires the viewers to take a fresh look on the women and the artist invites them to question their own positioning in relation to these female identities.

What would be the true image of these women? Would it be actually possible to represent a woman through a simple image, and to experience in a glance her beauty in the fullest sense?

Together, Franklin and Lefeuvre play with the modes of representation through the figure of the mise-en-abyme: what is behind the screen, behind the appearance, behind the flesh? How many layers should we lift, how many mysteries have to be unravelled before reaching a true identity? Like with Salomé dance of the Seven Veils, women are perhaps inaccessible: the veil always remains.

Caroline Ha Thuc
April 2015