Burning Down the House (Alexander McQueen & Isabella Blow) (1996)
22 November 2011 – 26 February 2012
Opening hours: Monday – Sunday, 11:00-19:00
Admission: 13,000 won
By Andy St. Louis
David LaChapelle. The name doesn’t trigger the same immediate reaction that others–say, Annie Liebovitz, Juergen Teller, Baron Wolman, or even Terry Richardson–might. David LaChapelle. To some, portraits of rock stars and celebrities on hte cover of Rolling Stone may come to mind. To others,the more fashion-oriented covers of Vogue and Vanity Fair. To few does high-concept/socially critical photography come to mind (if, indeed, anything comes to mind at all). And yet, this photographer, who is still very much in mid-career (he is 48), is gaining renewed insternational respect as more than a one-trick pony with an eye for best-selling magazine cover shoots. “David LaChapelle in Seoul” at Seoul Arts Center is a veritable trove of of visual delights—at nearly 200 works, it is the most comprehensive selection of the prolific photographer’s work ever seen in Asia—revealing the astounding ways in which LaChapelle’s visual output has transformed since he became a professional photographer while still in high school.
The themes and subject matter in LaChapelle’s work have changed considerably over the years, from his early work shown at galleries in New York’s East Village in the 1980s, to his cover and editorial work for fashion and lifestyle magazines, and more recently, work that resonates with the artist’s withdrawal from the “world” and subsequent retreat to his current residence in a cabin in the rainforest. Despite the radical turns LaChapelle’s career has taken over the past two and a half decades, the threads running through his enormous catalogue of images remain true to his own deeply personal worldview. The work that results inevitably falls into one of these four broad categories: mass consumption, fame, religion and the human form.
Death by Hamburger (2002), from the ‘Inflatables’ series
While still in high school, a teenage LaChapelle was “discovered” by Andy Warhol who offered him a job taking photos for Interview magazine. One can only imagine the profound influence that the so-called “father of pop art” must have had on the up-and-coming photographer, and it is no surprise that much of LaChapelle’s work examines the material culture that was at the center of Warhol’s own artistic practice. With a constant eye toward society’s excessive consumption, LaChapelle wields both humor and gravity to injurious effect in his oblique criticisms of human nature, subverting social conventions by placing his subjects in fabricated surreal environments. His Inflatables series (2002) adopts a humorous tack in its variation on the USA’s bigger is better mentality, marooning fashion models in the grips of super sized household products seeking vengance on their consumers. Other images appropriate disaster and devastation to reflect a converse approach to the topic of consumerism, such as LaChapelle’s Destructions series (2005), where haute couture is stripped of its visual appeal by scenes of death and tragedy.
The artist’s disdain for consumerism is no doubt wrapped up in the subject matter that dominated his early career. Indeed, the work he is perhaps most widely known for is his celebrity portrait portfolio—characterized by its images’ shock value, aesthetic intrigue and a hint of voyeurism—plays directly into the mass market for which it was produced. Eminem, Britney Spears, Madonna, Tupak Shakur, Lil’ Kim, Naomi Campbell, David Bowie, Drew Barrymore, Angelina Jolie, and Lady Gaga have all been received the “LaChapelle treatment” over the years, and the photographer’s primary focus on this subject matter for so much of his career had a direct effect on the way he looked at the world. Society’s fascination with—and interconnected reverence for—celebrity evoked by these defining images must have struck a discordant note in the photographer’s perception of humanity, evidenced by his gradual departure from this line of work and turn to a more critical line of inquiry.
The House at the End of the World (2005), from the ‘Destructions’ series
LaChapelle frequently mobilizes religious imagery in his later work, mining its vast repository of ready-made mise–en–scènes for their characteristic formal qualities. This body of work, which largely dates from 2006 onward, abandons LaChapelle’s standard mode of social critique in favor of a much more subtle treatment of the issues revolving around veneration and piety. By appropriating ubiquitous religious motifs and reframing them in a modern context—Michelangelo’s Pietà, for instance, set in an archetypal children’s playroom, Courtney Love assuming the persona of the Virgin Mary (Heaven to Hell, 2006)—the photographer communicates a pervasive sense of not-quite-right-ness indicative of his own loss of faith in humankind itself. Though celebrity figures such as Love occasionally appear in these images, they serve only to underline the artist’s concern with the power of images and the currency they exert over society. Interestingly, the figures that occupy these works are much more gestural than those of LaChapelle’s earlier days, hinting at an aesthetic maturity and return to nature. Nude, contorted, and imbued with either unrestrained pathos or absolute tranquility, they signal a sea change in the photographer’s artistic motivation and intellectual investment in his work.
Of course, it is the body itself to which this visionary photographer has unremittingly devoted his lifework, and it is this most empathetic of all possible subject matter that has given the most back in return. LaChapelle’s understanding of the human form and eye for capturing it at its most superlative—sensuous, grotesque, endearing, menacing, and all manner of emotional states—will always be his trademark. He is not merely an image-maker, documenting the human condition through his unique perspective, he is a purveyor of desire itself. The photographs are just the tools; we, the very consumers of these images, are the true objects of the photographer’s manipulation. This creator-consumer interaction is rare in its reciprocity; the audience is at once a third-party observer as well as the very apotheosis of LaChapelle’s ideological questioning. The result is an ongoing dialogue between the images (and by extension, the artist himself) and their audience that give this gargantuan exhibition its essential intimacy.