Images becoming Flesh
By Michael Petry
Per Christian Brown has long been transfixed by the inherent power imbalances of a phallocentric patriarchal society so it did not surprise me that he would be asked, much less agree to photograph members of the Norwegian Army in their training camp.
On one level the images he generated come as no surprise in that they are stunning, yet I could never have imagined how powerfully incisive they would be. I imagine him wafting about the barracks with a long flowing scarf and his long flowing locks in high contrast to the cropped youth he was observing and who no doubt looked back at his gaze. In my mind’s eye I can see him directing the young men to engage in a pillow fight or play games. I can see him invisible in the woods recording the coming into being of the camouflaged soldiers. I can see him tell the gilded youth to relieve himself in the snow, or to place their hand ever so slightly to the left or the right until they were perfectly silhouetted in light, yet their identity blanked by the dark, by the uniform and by the Army. In Per Christian Brown’s images we see the fiction of power, the fiction of strength and youth and the slippery space between his staging of their masculinity and the Army’s. Who is the better generator of images?
Per Christian Brown does not try to compete with the power structure that he finds himself in, he simply becomes an observer of the machine, like the inspector at the factory, Per Christian Brown is watching, measuring, evaluating and making his own assessments of what it is to be there, for he is also aware that his own presence alters the behaviour of the subjects of his gaze. They are all young, and used to obeying orders, so they do what he says, but is Per Christian Brown doing what the Army says? It is hard to tell as an outside observer what they made of his arresting images but their eventual placement around the camp itself might leave us some clues.
Forest Scene (2006, 300 x 450 cm) is an adult Manneken Pis seen from the rear. This young man might be relieving himself in the snow, or not, but his stance would suggest it, perhaps he is masturbating, it is possible. Those of us from warmer climes have no idea how bodily functions are dealt with in the snow. Is this image a directorial set up, or photo documentation? Privacy in any army is next to non-existent. Men (and women) sleep in rows of bunk beds – or at least they do in the movies, and they defecate in similar rows of open toilets or so we are lead to believe. Per Christian Brown somehow seemed able to refrain from such documentation so we do not know the reality of the toilet arrangements. But if we recall movies like Birdy (Alan Parker 1984), or Full Metal Jacket (Stanley Kubrick, 1987) white porcelain sits next to white porcelain like snow on snow, they too are also extremely homoerotic views of army life. So what is this youth doing in the snow? He seems to be relieving himself of some bodily fluid, or is it just a stance Per Christian Brown has asked him to take? Whatever the truth of the scenario (if there are any truths) the image has been reproduced at heroic scale by the Army, 3m x 4.5m! Where has such a huge image been placed? I am informed it is in the swimming hall and was thought by some to be the perfect image for such an environment to prevent swimmers urinating in the pool. The conflation of bathing, urination, barely clad youth and in the context of such homoerotic confines as the Army, one’s thoughts are also led to gay bathhouses and anonymous sex.
In Alan Hollinghurst’s The Swimming Pool Library a story that is situated in such environs over decades of sexual encounters has a character warn the young protagonist “Hold on to them, William, hold on to them!’ he warned. “Never destroy a photograph, William: it is a bit of life sealed in forever…” (1) And so it is with Per Christian Brown’s images, they are life sealed into his or the Army’s own fictions, fictions that reveal the real. For me this is most apparent in the series called Nature/Vanitas. Per Christian Brown went on maneuvers with young men trying out for the Special Forces. They were set a series of difficult trials including putting on camouflage make-up. In these images Per Christian Brown simply documents the action. He is there as a partial observer, he is imbedded with them. In Nature/Vanitas 2 (2005, 140 x 120 cm) we see in the foreground a tall handsome slightly older blond, his strong fingers slide black and green make-up onto his thick throat. Is he the Lieutenant, the instructor? Is he in charge? He seems to have natural authority, and seems very competent at applying make-up – he is almost done, while his fresh-faced charge, with lovely brown hair and an innocent look, gazes into the mirror of a compact. Is this military issue? He has only a bit of green and black on his face, his fingers dip into the make-up and his pinkie finger is held aloft. He is taking the procedure very seriously but his body language speaks volumes, as does that of the couple seen to the rear of them, where two young men gently touch the face of the other, their pinkies aloft as well. They look a similar age and do not seem all that at ease with touching the face of another man. To the right of the main couple a cropped blond youth is smearing black make-up onto his eyelid he looks like the son of a farmer or maybe a butcher’s lad. He too holds a compact. I am sure the military has a name for this piece of masculine equipment but I am at a loss for it.
They all are in the process of becoming soldiers right before our eyes, before Per Christian Brown’s eyes. He is watching them with eyes wide open.. The only one left with an identity is Per Christian Brown.
These images are not only highly homoerotic; they are filled with the construction of masculinity. These men are in the actual process of performing their masculinity as Judith Butler has posited. “The performance of drag plays upon the distinction between the anatomy of the performer and the gender that is being performed. But we are actually in the presence of three contingent dimensions of significant corporeality: anatomical sex, gender identity, and gender performance.” (2) She sees the application of the make-up of male drag performers as subversive to standard heteronormative constructs of masculinity. I long for her to see these images. These young men are training to be soldiers, they are building up a masculine trope, they are practicing to kill, they are learning to hide, they are being made up. Making-up into the image of a soldier is the first step into actually turning them into a soldier. Why are no women in this trial? There certainly are women at the camp as soldiers, as I will come to later, but not in this hyper masculine group of extra fit men who want to belong in an even more extreme soldierly group, an elite.
In the American services the Marines hold this position, and in my own relatively small sample, I have found they most are bottoms, they take orders extremely well and they have a fragile sense of what it is to be a man. I am not complaining, simply documenting my own experience, and it is my experience that leads me to further look into this photo (as an artist, as a curator and simply as a gay man) for further up the hill I see a lone youth, who I think is the gay one. He is all by himself, having finished the task of making up, he is perhaps too competent with the face paint, he has sequestered himself from the others. He sits on the hill alone, perhaps lonely, waiting, perhaps aware of his own erotic pull, yet unaware of how to deal with it. Like most European armies, Norway’s allows openly gay men and lesbians to fulfill their responsibility to the state by openly serving in the armed services. Should they choose not to join the Army they must do public service (3). The UK army is voluntary and until recently did not allow openly gay soldiers (2000) (4). I wonder if the boy on the hill is gay, and if he is, I wonder if he knows he is gay, it often takes times for people to come to accept themselves even in relatively accommodating cultures like Norway’s. In America homophobia is constantly being whipped up by politicians as in the 2008 California Proposition 8 initiative to ban gays and lesbians from marrying (sadly this passed in the same vote that saw Obama made the first black president) It is still a dismissible offense to be openly gay in the US Army, so a similar young man might be trying even harder to suppress the feelings that might be coming to the foreground in such a masculine environment, even in the forests of Norway.
In the other images of this series handsome young men are all seen preening as they make themselves into soldiers who will hide in the forest and will blend in with their surroundings. It is hard to tell if they are aware of how they look to an outsider or to Per Christian Brown and how hard they are trying to make themselves look good, for the Army. Their natural beauty shines through and if I did not know better I would have thought that Per Christian Brown had cast Abercrombie and Fitch models for this shoot. Are all young Norwegian men so handsome or only the ones that fall under the photographer’s gaze? I hope it is the former.
It is perhaps the innocence of all youth that draws us to these images, or at least the idea or ideal of uncorrupted youth, youth untouched by pernicious religion, untouched by corrupt political thought, untouched by time, and possibly only touched by another youth, male or female, but of someone their own age who is also pure and possibly naïve. This is of course the Victorian dream of a Classical age, none of it every having been real or true but certainly mythic. Nordic myths melt into Aegean ones, the purity and beauty of young men merge into reality and the fictions Per Christian Brown sets up as a lens to see these myths with modern eyes. In the series Pillow Fight 1-6 (2006) we see a group of skin headed army lads in what appears to be a barracks or a hangar or even a photo studio, all kitted out in their green army fatigues. They all have white down feathered pillows to hit each other about their persons, and they do. As the series develops we see these boys, for Per Christian Brown has not only given them back their youth but stolen from the Army their very personalities and given them back to these boys who are free to play, and they do.
The sheer joy on their faces as pillows explode and feathers fly disrupts all previous training which exists in every army to make them merely, solely soldiers, for only a soldier can simply follow orders. Soldiers are trained NOT to question orders. A man or even a boy might ask why? Why should I shoot this child in the head, why should I burn this house, or bomb this road or blow up this hospital with a rocket, how have they harmed me? Only soldiers, even Israeli ones, simply follow orders and the blood of children flows, and because they have been made up into soldiers, they no longer ask why. In stripping away the training in giving them back their identities, they become human again, and they laugh, they play and in image 6 they even give up, they plead for even this mock war, this fictive violence to end. And it does, and the feathers float harmlessly to the ground like snow, not like the dust that settles from an explosion. Per Christian Brown gives this back to all the viewers, and the army in its own helpful way has placed these images in a large recreational area.
In Army Play 1-8 Per Christian Brown merges the observed and the staged, as two young soldiers are in camouflage make-up yet are obviously inside a hall playing with small plastic soldiers, tanks and helicopters. The army green is evident everywhere, also in the coupled photos of the Rena Military Camp where trees and snow are mixed in with huge barracks and tiny figures of men and women moving about the camp. The boys play and eventually wrestle and grab each other laughing, at the scenario, each other, Per Christian Brown and the viewer. We are outside the action yet its erotic pull draws us in. Per Christian Brown’s gaze is such that ours too is drawn to the erotics of the whole situation. These are not boys they are young men, cropped and skinned and marched until they are fit. The smell of testosterone ekes out of the frame, out of the computer screen, and the blown up images that are placed in the Tutorial Halls where more learning to be soldiers is done. It is an amusing if deadly game. It is not for me to say that a defensive army is an unwelcome thing, or that no one has the right to defend their fatherland, their heimat, but in a world of first strikes, unilateral preemptive wars and jihad, everyone’s blood should go as cold as the snow in these images when we train our young to kill, for whatever reason.
And so to the last series Eclipse 1-6 one image of which was so corrupting to the ideal the army had of itself that at first they did not want to hang it up. The series was meant to be displayed together but was eventually split up into pairs that were seemingly less disturbing for their charges. Eclipse 1 sees a single blond male soldier, again aggressively handsome, sitting dejectedly on some crates in an empty room. One hand covers his face as if he were caught mid-sob in grief. Is he crying, is he exhausted is he defeated…? For “the sacred tears of the heterosexual man: rare and precious liquor whose properties, we are led to believe, are rivaled only by the lacrimae Christi whose secretion is such a specialty of religious kitsch.“ (5) This image of intense privacy, the hand covering the eyes, creating a private space for contemplation was also seen as a possible advertisement for self-harm. A rope lays by his feet and the army thought it might suggest suicide, but the rope and all the boxes and military equipment were simply what was to be found in the space. Per Christian Brown did not add the rope, but then again neither did he take it away. This image is meant to be sited next to Eclipse 2 with its disturbing pink light shining in the forest, amidst the snow – no one is visible, the scene is desolate, cold.
Eclipse 3 sees the only female soldier in any of Per Christian Brown’s images and she too holds a pose of despair as she leans against a huge green tank, again with her hand covering her face to block out the harsh light flooding into the dark room. She almost looks as if she has been interrogated. Has she done something wrong or has she had something wrong done to her? Here amongst the beautiful boys is the sole girl, like Pfc. Lynndie England at Abu Ghraib smoking cigarettes and pointing at the genitals of naked prisoners as she makes them masturbate for her and her criminal colleagues (6). So depraved are the photographic images released by the US government that it is hard to imagine these scenes post Holocaust, but there they are. One has to ask how little Lynndie grew up to be a torturer, what or who made her into a war criminal? We now know that in 2002 Donald Rumsfeld wrote a notorious torture memo describing 18 new enhanced interrogation techniques that would be allowed (7) and this of course lead to the abuses, yet only the actual soldiers have been tried. No senior Army officials or politicians have been held responsible for their actions, yet. What training has the young woman in Eclipse 3 had, how would or will she behave, or for that matter how would each of us act? The question hangs silently in the air. Per Christian Brown does not insinuate that the depicted woman has done anything wrong, but she stands out from the men under his gaze as much as England does from her colleagues. Perhaps we expect the worst from men, perhaps we hope that women will be better than men, and when they are not we are doubly terrified and repulsed. In a patriarchal society where women are often seen as Madonnas or whores when they cross gender boundaries and become beasts, like men, they bring home the all too obvious truth, that we are all beasts at core, mammals who behave like a pack, often no better than wolves. It is only the veneer of society, the agreement we make with each other not to be beasts that allows us to sleep at night.
It is the job of any army to train humans to be beasts. Hopefully beasts under control, but you cannot tame a wolf. You might think you have but turn the wrong way, make the wrong move and the wolf will strike and swallow you up like Little Red Riding Hood’s grandmother. Of course the inherent violence of this children’s story is doubly troubling for it posits that the wolf inside can be released, for it is Little Red Riding Hood – a mere girl – who murders the murder. She is set as an example to little boys that women are to be feared, they too possess the wolf inside and at all cost she must never get the upper hand. Boys are taught to fear girls, and men fear women, whether they are in the army or not. It is not for me to guess at Per Christian Brown’s attitude to women, but I think from the lack of other images we can guess that they do not hold as much photographic charm for him. Yet he does not take away the dignity of this young woman; that is the job of the army, and society as a whole. While I also understand that the job of the army is to break down the will of the soldiers and then supposedly build them up into fine disciplined fighting machines, you cannot get the beast so easily back into Pandora’s box once the lid has been lifted. It should come as no surprise that any one of us might go feral.
Perhaps it is that we all know how easily we too might lose control, how quickly we too can become the beast, the wolf. Another fairy tale that society likes is that of the good mother who would strike out at any man who would harm her child, yet sadly there are all too many examples in the newspapers across the globe that lay bare this lie. Women, mothers, can be wolves too, and that terrifies us. Per Christian Brown whether he realizes it or not has hit upon that terror in this single image, that it is the only image of a woman strengthens its impact. I am sure that neither he nor I would suggest that all women (or men) in any army are being trained to be torturers (though sadly some are as we now know from released US documents), or that armies are sadly not needed. It is just that he has somehow glimpsed through the mirror and has been what lies beyond and has brought quite a bit of that terror back into his images. That is their power, their ability to make us afraid, all the more so by using images of only the freshest, most handsome, most beautiful of soldiers to do so. We want to like these kids, we might even want to make love to these young men and women, Per Christian Brown brings their desirability to the fore, and yet, in the slippage we see what they, and we could become.
Images in the 21st century fly across the word in nano seconds, no one should take photos or videos of themselves or others that they are not willing to explain in the full glare of the media. These images have a way of escaping even prisons and torture chambers. They find the light, like the last soldier boy in Per Christian Brown’s armory of deconstruction. Eclipse 5 shows the dream of youth awakened, a lad so fresh and pure of complexion that the snow he stands in reflects his glow, the rose in his milky white cheek, the pink of his lips, the closed eyes as if he were lost and thinking what to do next, the outstretched fingers all depict a little boy in daddy’s clothes. The huge white winter camouflage suit he wears over his cold combating attire swamps him; he is up to his knees in it, in snow. His strong neck is exposed to us like a puppy presenting to an older dog, or the lover of a vampire awaiting the kiss of eternal life. Per Christian Brown presents this purity as a possibility of paradise regained, lessons learned or maybe just an erotic object choice and we are left to read into it all those things we want when we think of one thing eclipsing another, a new moon crossing an old sun, bringing darkness yet the promise of new light.
(1) Alan Hollinghurst, The Swimming Pool Library, Chatto & Windus, London, 1988, page 43
(2) Judith Butler, Gender Trouble, Routledge, New York and London, 1990, page175)
(3) Per Christian Brown chose to do public service and was assigned to develop and print photographs of crime scenes with the police. So brutal and graphic were the crimes he was forced to deal with that after less than 2 weeks he was invalided out of service. The doctor said his constitution was considered too delicate for further service.
(5) Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick, The Epistemology of the Closet, University of California Press, Berkely, 1990, page 145/6
(6) http://www.salon.com/news/abu_ghraib/2006/03/14/chapter_6/index.html This link goes to a site which has all 279 photographs currently released by the US government of the torture and degradation of prisoners and is not edited, therefore it is strongly suggested that looking at the site one be prepared for such violent gruesome scenes.
(7) Philippe Sands, Torture Team: Rumsfeld’s Memo and the Betrayal of American Values, Penguin, London, 2008