The human body is both excessively revered and despised. We take so much pride in our bodies that we imagine God as having the same white, male form. We value certain bodies so much that we make them impossible standards. Bodies are used as symbols of power and beauty. And then bodies, most often non-white and/or female, are exploited, abused, and degraded. Human bodies are used, ironically, to dehumanize. And it's not that people are indecisive about the social and aesthetic value of the human body; it's just that some have great value and others have none.
The body in German photographer Wolfgang Tillmans' large chromogenic color print 'Dan' at the Baltimore Museum of Art is one that is assigned great value: an athletic young, white, male body, bent in a powerful position, like that of an ancient Greek or Roman statue of a discus thrower. With his left arm back and left leg presumably suspended behind his figure, invisible from the viewer, the young male leans his weight on his muscular right leg and right arm, grabbing a stone block as if to throw it. Though horizontally oriented, his body still feels bipedal, like he could step forward balanced on one hand and one leg. And though his body tips to one side, his limbs seem rooted into the ground. His face, also invisible to the viewer, faces the ground—in fact, the figure almost looks like a treelike form, pulling itself out from the hard concrete. The top of his head, completely covered by gold-red hair, aligns with the vertical center of the image. Freckles run over his shoulders and down his arms. As far as we can tell, he is nude, but no genitalia is visible. His pierced nipple aligns with the stone in his lowered hand. He stands in a corner made of flat concrete and rusted metal, sunlight glowing on his back.
Wolfgang Tillmans is the art world's crowned fine-art photographer. The snapshot aesthetic that made him famous in the late '90s and early '00s is now widely mimicked by amateur, fine art, and commercial photography, while he continuously reinvents his use and presentation of the photography medium. His work has spanned a wide range of subject matter, from youth culture to architecture to abstractions to still lifes to Lady Gaga. Even though his prints sell for thousands, he offers free downloads of his books on his website.
I encountered his 2008 photograph with the intention of visiting one of my favorite paintings in the Contemporary Wing, Alice Neel's 'Nancy and the Twins,' which, for some reason, 'Dan' has replaced. Instead of being confronted by the penetrating stare of a mother nursing two baby girls with one bare, veiny breast in a moment of vulnerable realness, I found myself dizzied and overwhelmed, almost weakened, by Tillman's male. And, as one of many who are bored and irritated by the incessant need of men to overpower, I was pissed. Fuck you, Dan.
But then, what's overpowering and beautiful about the figure was not its maleness, nor its whiteness or strength, nor any of the visible qualities that ascribe it to value (the body could easily be female or non-white and still feel powerful). Not even its reference to antique beauty. It's the ability for it to shake the viewer while revealing so little. Unlike the discus thrower, we can't move around this figure. We see only a pink, crescent sliver of a body in action, concealed, in part, by itself. But then the orientation of the space is unstable. At a second glance, it's unclear whether we are looking forward at the figure, who is bending down to the ground, or if we are actually looking down at a figure leaning forward against a wall. We are destabilized, while the figure remains grounded.
The photograph is erotic though not pornographic, potent though not overtly sexual. The sexuality exists in the instability of the space and in how little we see. We swing from one orientation to another, and yet we are bound to what little the photograph reveals. It's not that we're blocked from seeing his genitalia; it's that we’re spatially in motion but physically static. It's some kind of tease.
Though the figure is faceless and visually more structurelike than human, its effect of unease and tantalization humanizes us in its presence. And it's just that simple: The representation of human bodies should impart a sense of humanness, not divinity, self-aggrandizement, or callous utility.