Lieux de mémoire drague

Carlos’s work is both sexy and serious. Sexy because it deals with the theatrics of gay desire. Serious because it deploys conceptual strategies for its investigation. Take, for instance, his two works about cruising, that gay ritual which the French call draguer and the Spanish ligar. Here are some instructions on how to cruise, for the benefit of readers who unacquainted with such an edifying activity. First, consult a well-respected web guide, like Type in your country and state, your region, province, or departement. A few clicks of the mouse will provide you with a comprehensive list of the many places you can visit in order to meet other guys: you can choose among parks and back alleys, boulevards and shopping malls, swimming pools and even subway stations. (There is even a gay cruising area, the website informs us, in a public toilet at the Vatican: habemus cacam!) Next, put on your sexiest clothes – tank top, leather jacket, shorts or even hotpants if you have the legs for it – and head towards the place of your choice. Once there you must observe a few simple rules: first, no talking. Cruising is best done in total silence. If you like another guy, make eye contact and concentrate on telepathically transmitting your innermost desires and fantasies. If he looks down or turns away, you’re out of luck. Keep walking and try again until your gaze locks with someone else’s. The final step is quite simple: take a few steps towards him – remember: no talking – and once your bodies have touched your innermost instincts, honed by five billion years of evolution, will automatically guide your movements. You will need no further instructions to enjoy the age-old ritual that has been celebrated by Proust and Gide, by Genet and Sarduy, by Barthes and Foucault, by Guillaume Dustan and Benoît Duteurtre.

(Critical parentheses: In an article on Carlos Aires (Camera Austria No. 88, 2004, p. 38), Slovenian critic Marina Grzinic writes about the artist’s representation of gay cruising areas. “So what are the possible stories of gay cruising parks in general?” she asks, rhetorically, before answering her own question: “They are part of a certain evacuation in our imagination about what is going on there. They are like voids in the structures of the city. So real and horrific in everyday life, but negated within the social imaginary of the city as well as negated by us viewers.” 

Evacuated imagination? Voids in the structures of the city? Real and horrific? It sounds like Miss Grzinic has never been to a gay cruising area, and in an effort to enlighten her, I offer to accompany her on a guided tour of the cruising parks in Lubjliana, where she lives, or New York, where I live. Although some guys might run away in terror upon discovering that Ms. Grzinic possesses what psychoanalysts like Slavoj Zizek call “partial objects” (i.e. breasts), I do believe such a visit would be a most edifying experience for her: she will learn, for example, that the only “evacuation” performed in such sites concerns bodily fluids; that the activities performed in these spaces involve not “voids” but orifices; and that these places are not as “horrific” as she fears, even if one does run the risk of brushing up against the occasional troll.  

End of critical parentheses).

And now back to Carlos Aires. Carlos has represented gay cruising areas in two of his works: The Enchanted Woods (2004) and Mister Hyde I (Dark Room, 2003). The first deals with a cruisy park in Antwerp; the second, with the “dark room” in the bowels of a gay disco.

The Enchanted Woods consists of a series of digital prints depicting nocturnal landscapes: postcard-perfect compositions featuring dimly lit trees and lakes, crepuscular bushes and pathways. These scenes could not be more idyllic: they evoke the peace and quiet that so many Romantic poets found in nature, and they bring to mind words like beauty, stillness, harmony, even transcendence. There are no people to be seen, and the viewer has absolutely no idea that these idyllic landscapes are actually the scenario for the wildest, kinkiest forms of gay sex. Here we find a postmodern form of trompe l’œil, except what is being trompé is not the eye but our way of reading photographs. 

Mister Hyde is the perfect companion piece to The Enchanted Woods, although the artist does not always show them together. This video was taken in a gay disco, inside what is known as a “dark room.” The dark room (also known as a “back room”) was a revolutionary invention allowing even those urbanites living far away from parks and enchanted woods to enjoy the pleasures of cruising. Making a dark room is extremely simple: take a crowded bar or disco with an exclusively gay clientele; open the door leading to the basement and turn of all the lights down there. In a few minutes the basement will be jam packed with guys making the most imaginative uses of every nook and cranny. A dark room can be the best antidote against the ravages of old age: are you fat and balding, wrinkled and grey? Come right in, for all of these imperfections will be charitably obscured. Love is blind, they say, but here sex is blind and darkness conquers all!

Mister Hyde shows a sequence of brief scenes filmed with an infrared camera inside a dark room: we catch glimpses of men having sex in couples, in threesomes, in large groups. These black-and-white images have been montaged with footing shot inside a fair’s haunted house showing a number of plastic monsters. Dark rooms and haunted houses turn out to be very similar spaces: dark, creepy, and full of scary sights. 

The Enchanted Woods and Mister Hyde are complementary works, like two sides of the same coin. Both series represent cruising areas in the dark, but aside from this one element in common they are mirror opposites: people are absent from the Enchanted Woods but they occupy center stage in Mister Hyde; the woods are beautiful, the back rooms squalid; one depicts the setting for a fairy tale, the other the scene of a nightmare; one is a landscape, the other a sociological document; one is seductive, the other repellent.

Though these pieces are so different, they were made by following the same strategy: introducing a camera into a place in which recording devices are not welcome. For The Enchanted Woods Carlos did not conceal his actions: he used a bulky Hasselblad camera on a tripod (to allow for the long exposures that give the light in these landscapes such an intense quality), an instrument that stuck out like a sore thumb. For Mister Hyde, in contrast, he entered the dark room with a compact infrared camera hanging from his neck. He circulated incognito through the pitch-dark spaces, guiding himself by touching the walls (and the odd body who happened to be in the way). No one saw his camera, and the artist had no idea what the footage looked like until he played it at home. 

In both cases, the act of taking a photograph becomes a transgression of unspoken taboos. These are public places, but the cruising that goes on in them is usually a private affair, a ritual reserved to the participants. By photographing these scenes, Carlos has made public the private behavior of cruisers and he has exposed the myriad private uses of public areas. This dialectic of the public and the private reminds me of something Vito Acconci once said in a lecture: the only difference between the public and the pubic (the privates) is the letter L, the letter of the Law (in English and in all Romance languages: Law, Lex, Loi, Ley, Legge). There is an irresistible human impulse to turn all public spaces into pubic spaces, and it is only the threat of the Law that keeps people from doing so. The Enchanted Woods and Mister Hyde show us spaces that have resisted the tyranny of the law, places in which the legal L has fallen out of the public to render it pubic: pubic parks and pubic discos. 

I could go on writing about cruising, were it not for space restrictions (another manifestation of the letter of the law), which limit my text to 7,000 characters. Since I’m at 6,670 and running dangerously close to the cutoff line, I’d better wrap up and say a few words about Carlos’s other work. I began this text by saying that most of his practice was about representing the body, the awkward body, the gay body, in relation to the gaze of others. Enchanted Woods and Mister Hyde zero in on the body of the gay cruiser, which enters into play with the body of the viewer: our gaze intrudes violently into these private scenes, uncovering the nudity, the imperfections of these bodies that had been protected by a shroud of darkness. 

Most of Carlos’s other work depicts bodies that, like the gay body, become deviant only when inserted into a context of difference: dwarves appear strange when surrounded by tall people, but they seem rather ordinary when living in a society of dwarves. Thus Carlos once made a dwarf bar (Alter Ego, 2004), whose diminutive scale forced taller people to experience the discomfort of being in a body that does not fit into the dominant scale. And his photographs of nuns, butchers, and Spanish soldiers show us bodies that seem utterly strange when shown in the United States or Northern Europe but which are entirely ordinary when surrounded by other nuns, other butchers, other soldiers. 

For his project at the Palais de Beaux Arts in Brussels, Carlos proposed filling a room with photos of smiling presidents rulers: a bright façade to hide the little shop of horrors contained in the adjoining room (a video of a Spanish drag queen singing Arab techno): another example of how bright, glossy appearances usually conceal an unsuspected and dark reality.

Rubén Gallo. 2006