Ghosts in a ghost’s place

by bjmuirhead

A lot of my recent thinking about the nude has revolved around naked children in art photography, at least partially because these are the most contentious nudes produced in the contemporary world. All of the negative thoughts people entertain about the nude are intensified when the subject is a (naked) child.

What is at issue is not merely hysteria about paedophilia, but the Judaeo-Christian ethical tradition in which nakedness cannot be disconnected from sex and sexuality. In this tradition nakedness operates as a euphemism for sex. A naked body, therefore, automatically is sexual, and nakedness often is understood in terms of forbidden forms of sexuality. (Cover, 2003, pp. 55–56)

In a society which largely denies childhood sexuality (often with the sophistic claim that children are not sexual because they don’t know that what they are doing and enjoying is sexual) in preference for the claim that children are “innocent”, and in a society which is returning to the tradition of seeing the naked body as purely sexual, (Cover, 2003, p. 65) a naked (child’s) body can be understood only as an invitation to sex with that body. Just as important as this is the modern idea that meaning is produced in the act of looking (reading), in the relationship between the photograph (text)and the viewer (reader). (Cover, 2003, p. 65) This leads us to the awkward situation described by James Kincaid (2000):

Since it is what is outside the frame (the intention of the photographer, the reaction of the viewer) that counts legally, we are actually encouraged to fantasize an action in order to determine whether or not this is child pornography.
Every photo must pass this test: Can we create a sexual fantasy that includes it? Such directives seem an efficient means for manufacturing a whole nation of paedophiles.

If Kincaid is correct in suggesting that this is how we determine what unacceptable images of a naked child are, and I believe he is, then it seems to me to be impossible to look at any photograph of any child with a clear conscience—it always is possible to create a sexual story/interpretation of any image, especially in a society which is obsessed by the bodies of children, and in which nearly everyone is imagined to be driven wild by the sight of a child. (see Kincaid, 1998; Kincaid, 2000)

Bearing this in mind, I want too look at the following photograph by Alfonso de Castro.

 ghosts in a ghost's place, Guiyang

Alfonso de Castro, Ghosts in a ghost’s place, Guiyang

It always has struck me as odd that people prefer an “interpretation” over a period of consistent looking, but for many, an interpretation is all that there is. If we take the approach Kincaid mentioned, we are in the territory of the obscene immediately. The girls, quite obviously, are “tarted up” with piercings and lipstick, and while the girl on the left has painted fingernails, the one on the right has a small dog collar style necklace. Deviant sexuality is rampant throughout the image, if that is what we want to see. For many the foregoing, not entirely accurate, description would be enough, but if you wanted to do so you also could mention the curve of the girl’s abdomen on the left, how it draws one to the (hidden) pubic area, how their lower bodies are pressed (suggestively?) together…

I could go on and create an even more sexual interpretation, but such an interpretation would not tell us a great deal about this photo, which I chose to talk about for two reasons: (a) I think it is a brilliant photograph. The composition, the expressions, the mood of the image all work together exceptionally well. An analysis of the structural lines and their rhythms show how we are drawn to the faces and then back down to the bodies, how we see the specific within the dark, and how this draws us into a contemplation of the humanity on show. (b) It is a photograph which I find difficult to explain and which I cannot see sexually. The body decoration, to me, simply highlights the essential humanity of the people shown and without it, there would be less human effect.

The girl on the right appears to be comforting or protecting the girl on the left, who seems very hard, drawn back into herself; drawing away from an intrusion and preparing her fist for attack? or defence? But these words do not accurately reflect what I am seeing. The more I look at the photo, the more difficult I find the discovery of appropriate words—a description also is an interpretation, and I find that my descriptions are not matching the tacit knowledge engendered by looking. Indeed, every step toward explicit interpretation or description takes me further away from what I know tacitly about this image.

This doesn’t entail that no one can put these issues into words, it merely means that I cannot do so. Indeed, it was the inability of words to say clearly what an image can say with clarity that led me to take up visual art long ago.

An easier approach would be to use the title as a basis for an interpretation, (see Franklin et al., 1993) to try and answer questions such as Who or what are the ghosts? Have the girls seen a ghost or are they the ghosts? Where is a ghost’s place anyway? If the girls are ghosts, then what are they telling us?

The title suggests two things to me: childhood and death—the death of life, the death of childhood. The girl on the left has “demon eyes”, perhaps she is dead and the other girl?

An interpretation based on issues such as this makes much more sense than a specifically sexual interpretation, and draws out feelings one has about one’s own childhood, about childhoods one has encountered. It invites thoughts about childhood play and perhaps of the discomfort of being discovered playing in a way that you know your parents will frown on. This type of interpretation would have a lot of sense in an immediate fashion, especially for those, like me, who remember playing naked with other children, and the sheer joy of being naked and bumping into the body of one’s playmate—purposely, of course.

Another photograph of Ghosts in a ghost’s place (in the dark, outside? in our memory, half forgotten?) draws closer to the idea of childhood play, but perhaps this again is possible only for those who remember playing with a torch in the dark, and how quickly we would get naked because, as James T. Kirk said, It was fun…

two naked girls in the dark, chinese girls

Alphonso de Castro, Ghosts in a ghost’s place

What was so much fun about being naked as a child was the sense of freedom, the pleasure of being alive, “the embodied, creative impulse of humanity—mirroring the intimacies of the cosmos,” (Sohmer, 2015) a sense of transcendence merely from naked play with each other.

Looking at an artwork can create within the viewer this sense of transcendence, of timelessness, a sense of connection and perfection usually associated with mystical states which often are thought of in erotic terms. At the same time it is true that there are

sexual undercurrents of pleasure and desire that do, in fact, exist in non-sexual frameworks of naked behaviour—the pleasure of gazing and the desire to know, the pleasure of showing and the desire to be seen. (Cover, 2003, p. 67)

These very pleasures exist in art featuring the naked body, whether the body is a child or an adult, indeed, the pleasure of gazing and the desire to know are common to all art, but they are at a remove which enables the viewer to encounter what Rudolf Otto (1958) called the numinous.

The sense of the numinous cannot be transmitted from one person to another, but must be “awakened” from the spirit, (Otto, 1958, p. 60) and art is one of the means which can be used to achieve this end, whether by religious art decorating a church (the design of which is in itself intended to evoke the numinous) or in secular art. (see Otto, 1958, pp. 65–71 for his views on this.) Art, this is to say, leads us to experience the mysterium, tremendum et fascinans which Otto believed characterised the numinous.

It is true to say that contemporary society has difficulty in taking this type of view to the naked (child’s) body, but it seems to me, if we step outside of ourselves for a moment, that the images in art do indeed present us with something which is “wholly other” and so mysterious, that they also evoke the sense of awe that is the tremendum, and that they do (or can) bring a sense of wonder and grace which carry us far from mere physical sex, but which contain the simple pleasures of being human.

This idea has many versions. Sohmer, (2015) for example, talks of this type of experience as Holistic Sex, as something which can occur during physical sex of any variety. Unfortunately, when looking at a body, the erotic nature of the experience appears much more sexual than it is. Eros is the life force behind the creation of art, behind all expansion of life and into life. Only a very small aspect of this is sexual.

Although Otto may not have appreciated my characterisation, it seems to me that the experience of the numinous is an erotic experience, an experience of the non-rational factors of life which infiltrate every aspect of our lives even when we ignore them. To be attracted to someone is to experience the erotic, to gaze into their eyes is to encounter the numinous/erotic within and of that person, it is to share this with them in a manner which transcends there mere sexuality, no matter how sexual the two of you are with each other.

When I look at a photograph of a naked person, this is the realm I enter—a realm of transcendence where a timeless appreciation of the humanity of the person photographed becomes what I am experiencing. It is a realm where our experience connects with the deepest aspects of our humanity. It is this which prevents me from giving a sexual interpretation of either of de Castro’s images. I experience the visual pleasure of looking, but this pleasure takes me into the realm of the numinous where I experience what could be called the holy within the human. (Of course, it depends on the quality of the photograph, how well it has been conceived and taken. This also occurs in respect of paintings and drawings, but photography is somewhat more interesting due to it’s perceived nature as a copy of reality.)

Art, it has been said often, requires contemplation, a rather pale word for a process of entering into the experience of the mysterium, tremendum et fascinans that takes us into the otherness, the humanity, the eros that is humanity held at a visual distance.

This, at lest, is how I experience de Castro’s photographs, and many of those by Henson and Jock Sturges. If it is sexual, then it is so at a great distance from physical sexuality, from the visceral experiences which constitute sex. It is “only when the erotic breaks free from its sexual classifications, regimentations and codes” that it can be “acknowledged that the erotic is both pervasive and innocent.” (Cover, 2003, p. 69) But we cannot do this if we continue to tell stories about what we see in place of looking at what we see.

Years ago, when I had a library of books on “how to write,” one of them contained an exercise which consisted of writing a short story based on a photograph. In order to complete the exercise the “trainee author” needed to invent a story about what happened outside of the frame, both before and after the moment photographed.

What is inside the frame, what we are looking at, are two naked girls whose age is somewhat indeterminate. It is easy to imagine a story, before, after, and during, which would make the image totally paedosexual, but in order to do so, I necessarily must falsify the photograph, I must claim not only that there is more in it than there is, I also must claim to know the photographer’s purpose and the viewer’s paedosexual reaction.

The creation of such a story may well be a marvellous exercise in fiction, but it completely avoids the far more simple human reactions of pleasure in the eros of humanity, of a glimpse into the numinous human body.

With this in mind, it behoves us to remember Kincaid’s comment that

Admitting to an erotic attraction is not the same thing as admitting to rape or assault: We do not commonly attack what we love and we do not feel the need to act on every impulse. Finding something erotic does not drive us irresistibly to mount it. We could use more complexity in our thinking on this subject, more tolerance for difficulty. And a lot more honesty.

Cover 2003Cover, Rob, “The Naked Subject: Nudity, Context and Sexualization in Contemporary Culture”, Body and Society (2003), 53–72.
Franklin et al. 1993Franklin, Margary B and Becklin,Robert C and Doyle, Charlotte L, “The Influence of Titles on How Paintings Are Seen”, Leonardo (1993), 103–108.
Kincaid 1998James R. Kincaid, “Erotic Innocence: The Culture of Child Molesting”, Duke University Press, Durham and London (1998).
Kincaid 2000Kincaid, James R, “Is this child pornography?” (2000).
Otto 1958Otto, Rudolf, “The Idea of The Holy”, Oxford University Press (1958).
Sohmer 2015Sohmer, S. L., “Timeless Sex”, Unpublished article (2015).

Copyright © B.J. Muirhead2015.

All rights reserved

My thanks to Alfonso de Castro for permission to use these photographs.