Some years ago I was at a friend’s home in Sydney’s inner western suburb of Petersham. He had a flatmate, a young woman in her late 20s. She was, it turned out, a dominatrix. I knew that because she told me so, and sure enough, that Sunday afternoon, one of her customers arrived, an unexceptional looking man in his 50s, apparently married, and she led him upstairs. While my friend and I sat downstairs talking and drinking tea I wondered what was going on in that little room at the top of the stairs. Well not terribly long afterwards she reappeared downstairs, staying with us for a time and saying very little before going back to finish whatever it was that she’d begun.
I was curious, of course, and titillated, but unconvinced, and if I dared to imagine that I was suddenly privy to the inner workings of the BDSM scene I couldn’t have been more wrong. More likely is that she’d seen the opportunity for some easy money, carrying as she did the usual hallmarks of disadvantage- minimal education, social isolation, poor communication skills, and a low self esteem. Apparently she was handsomely rewarded, without having to sleep with him, without a hand being laid on her, and maybe that was the entirety of her interest in the whole affair. It’s easy to be misled.
Even the term “dominatrix” is one unfavoured by the real practitioners of the disciplinary arts. Of the participants in this latest exhibition by Simon Bernhardt, the descriptor more commonly used was “dom” or “pro-dom”. “Dominatrix” is the vanilla world’s take on the role, a term that now seems oddly quaint, and perhaps even newspaper-novelish.
Of course there has been a rather successful novel of late, it needs no more publicity here, that has genuinely raised the ire of all those persons represented in this exhibition. Dismissed as a poorly written historical novel (a “hysterical” novel!), it has been both wildly popular and wildly unrepresentative of the people and culture of BDSM.
Repeatedly, during the photo shoot and interviews that followed, I was told that if you were to isolate the one thing that separates pop-cultural representations from the reality of BDSM, it would be this……Consent. In fact, the three words that came up most often during those interviews were “consent”, “respect”, and “community”. And for a newcomer like me that was eye-opening. Perhaps it was advantageous to have a guy like me, with little knowledge of the scene, interview these people whose portraits adorn the walls of the gallery, the pages of this book, and to have my preconceptions challenged, one by one, by the reality I witnessed with my own eyes. I recall one of the young women being ceremonially bound by her partner, and being struck by the attentiveness, the thoroughness, the care and trust between them. In the precision of the rope placement, and in the practiced artfulness of their assemblage was a kind of meditation, and a kind of devotion. The tenderness between them was obvious. I was quietly moved by it.
Not for a minute do I think that all “play” is as gentle or tame as that, and it is the issue of pain and inflicting pain that is so divisive in the broader community. Within the BDSM community there are regulatory controls on the infliction of pain. Again, it gets down to consent. Consent may be established between two people, or a group of people, prior to any activity occurring. There can be discussions on what type of play will occur, how far to take it, and safe words are usually established. More regular partners may not feel the need to adopt such prescriptive methods, having worked out each others needs and wants over time. Many clubs and organized parties will have their own “house rules” to provide another level of safety for people playing there.
Internationally, there has been a diversity of responses to the issue of consensual pain and resulting injury. I usually think of the Scandinavians countries as being open-minded and progressive. Courts in Norway have ruled that BDSM play not be subject to criminal prosecution. Other European countries have set different standards. Austria, for example, is concerned only with serious injury or death, but in the difficult task of adjudicating on the specifics of “serious injury”, they legislated a 24 day period for impairment of one’s health. However in many places the line between criminality and legality is indistinct.
In Australia that lack of distinction is still present, and (consent notwithstanding), bruises, cuts and abrasions can still attract criminal charges. But it must be realised that there is a world of difference between a reddened buttock and a broken bone. In a country where the level of domestic violence is shamefully high, frankly we should be directing our outrage more thoughtfully. And it is for this reason that the participants in this project uniformly lauded it as an important one, and a necessary one, to ignite intelligent debate in the community, and to remove the stigma attached to the practice of BDSM.
In this sense, Simon Bernhardt has again demonstrated his willingness as an artist to challenge the stereotypes and prejudices of popular culture. His last book, “Gateway”, sought to devolve the antiquated depictions of cannabis users as lazy, useless stoners and 70s era layabouts, and agitated for debate on the burning issue of medical cannabis at a time when the mainstream press were just beginning to report on the great advances and possibilities that it offered. That debate continues, and so too does the promise of relief for the many sufferers of epilepsy, autism and cancer for whom cannabis oil is often their only affordable or successful respite.
As with his previous exhibition, the images here are not timid. No one is hiding in the shadows. Each portrait shows a direct gaze and a self-assuredness that is part realism and part fantasy. The cerebral dimension of sexual experience is celebrated in these images. The largest sexual organ, the brain, is what finally holds sway over the accoutrement of play. If beauty can be in the beholder’s eye, so too can fear, excitement, arousal, apprehension. For all the boobs on display, it’s the eyes that I can’t ignore. There is confidence there, and honesty, brazenness and perhaps a wicked sense of humour.
There is no doubt that the images in this book are confronting. They are intended to be. But they are intended to confront our suburban slumber too, and our delicate sensibilities can take it, I’m sure. The truth is that there will be people out there who are more frightened by the sight of a burqa than by anything on offer here!
Other cultures, older by far than our own, have a long history of BDSM. Japan is such a one, and yet has the lowest incidence of sexual crimes of all industrialised nations, alongside a long tradition of bondage pornography.
Australia is such a young country, and like a gangly youth we are growing too fast for the likes of some people. I tell my 5yo daughter that I’d prefer that she stop growing, that she’s as cute as a button, and that I like her just as she is. She replies, of course, that she can’t stop even if she wanted to! She’s right, and so I hope instead that she’ll have the kind of life that I can’t begin to dream of for her at this point in time.
The times are a-changing man, and there’s no turning back. Marriage equality is on the table. In the US it’s already legal. You’d imagine that it is a matter of time before we follow their lead. Same sex unions are already afforded a de facto status, and a plebiscite on the issue is due some time in 2016. Meanwhile Uruguay was the first country to legalise marijuana in 2012. This month the world woke to the news of the Paris Climate Change Agreement. The Cold War ended. The wall came down. Australia had our first ever female Prime Minister, and America it’s first black president. Things that seemed impossible……. happened. To decriminalise certain behaviours that are the domain of BDSM seems like the natural path for a progressive liberal democracy such as ours. And why not?
We are all constantly revising our idea of “normal”. BDSM may not be mainstream, but don’t doubt that so-called “vanilla” sex has elements of domination and submission too. Creative play is central to all good sex, and role play is a legitimate sexual activity. No evidence exists to support the idea that it encourages violence, domestic or otherwise, and some commentators have remarked that the level and sophistication of communication inside a BDSM relationship actually proved beneficial. To draw spurious conclusions about the character of participants in the BDSM scene is to engage in a fight to deny people the right to practice safe sex in the privacy of their own space, in the company of like-minded people, with that most important of provisos……consent.
Foreword by: Ian Murdoch
Reading through Time magazine’s list of the world’s 100 most influential people this week, I came upon an unfamiliar name. One Jose Mujica. He’s not a Latino pop star, or a film actor, or a major player on the international stage. But Jose “Pepe” Mujica has done something remarkable. This ruffled, somewhat Bohemian man famously eschews the luxury and privilege one would normally associate with his high office, as the President of Uruguay, and, like so many other South American leaders, he has struggled with the social consequences of an entrenched drug culture. Well, last year he did what no other national leader has been game to do. He signed a new law making it legal to produce and sell marijuana.
His motives may be more complicated than we will ever know. Undoubtedly the economic benefits of a regulated industry are substantial (witness the tobacco industry), and the drug barons may well resort to different kinds of mischief. But what is certain is that, with a piece of legal prestidigitation, what was illegal yesterday is legal today.
Presto! Just like that.
It is difficult to foretell what changes the country will oversee as a result of this groundbreaking legislation. Will Uruguay become the Latin version of Amsterdam- a mecca for drug tourism, that brings it’s own attendant virtues and vices? What regional tensions are probable? And how will it be greeted by the population? The range of jurisdictional problems would seem be to be imposing, and yet in an effort to combat the criminal culture in his country he chose to act decisively. The world watches.
The topic of marijuana and its place in western society has been much debated. My own introduction to the subject came from a wildly hysterical account in one of our country’s major women’s magazines, that read like a lurid piece of 1930s propaganda. 24 hours of psychological torment! Satanic visions! Nudity! Reefer Madness! Even in the 1970s this flummery seemed improbable to me.
The overnight change in marijuana’s status in Uruguay does little to diminish what is fundamentally a philosophical divide. There are those people who will never concede that it is anything but harmful, pernicious, insidious and plain wrong. And there is scientific research that endorses such thinking- even allowing for a divide in the scientific community itself. But evidence is not that hard to find when one is convinced by one’s own argument, and so the debate rages……
Typically though, and this is the point, the theory is advanced that marijuana leads to harder drugs- that it is a “gateway” drug. And we all know what “harder drugs” means. Heroin. Ice. Ecstasy. Amphetamines. The headline grabbers.
But is marijuana really a “gateway” drug?
In this collection of photographs Simon Bernhardt is asking us to contemplate that simple statement, and all the hyperbole, hysteria and brouhaha that attends it.
The eskimos are popularly said to have dozens of words for snow, and in our own culture it is difficult to think of another natural product that goes by so many names…. Spliff. Pot. Weed. Mary Jane. Cannabis. Dope. Grass. Wacky Weed. Ganja. Hemp. Skafe. Joint. Kif. Bhang. Durban Poison,Maui Wowie and Mullumbimby Madness – and all this attests much to the ubiquity of its use, its historical longevity, and pertinently, to the range of attitudes to this much maligned plant. But in this respect it is far from alone.
In 1879 cocaine was used to treat morphine addiction. In 1884 the Germans were using it as a local anaesthetic. The following year it was certainly for sale in numerous forms in the United States. It was famously used by Ernest Shackleton on his Antarctic expedition, and the fictional Sherlock Holmes similarly enjoyed its salve. The famous urban myth that holds that cocaine was, in fact, an ingredient in the original Coca Cola turns out to be true. But within a decade or so there was a serious legislative push for the supply of cocaine to be regulated, and the age of prohibition had begun. Interestingly, around the turn of the century, most users were middle class professionals. Only later was it commonly associated with the young, the marginalised or the criminal underclass. The inadequacy of sweeping generalisations was already apparent.
Similarly, alcohol endured its own fall from favour, most notably during the period of Prohibition in the USA in the 1920s and beyond, although the public’s thirst was as before. And in contemporary Sydney, Australia, the spectre of alcohol abuse and violence has played out prominently in the press, leading to major policy backflips in the notorious strip of Kings Cross. But in Western society generally, of course, alcohol is synonymous with the celebration of major milestones in one’s life: birthdays, marriages and personal successes. And pretty much any other time. Put simply, it’s not going away any time soon. But in the USA the age of legal consumption of alcohol is 21, whereas here in Australia it is 18. (It seems an arbitrary choice.) In other cultures it remains a complete taboo. So having the same drink in three select countries can lead to imprisonment in one, death, a beating in another, or a slap on the back and a hearty well done in the next. Go figure.
Pot smokers experience a similar situation.
Legal once, illegal now. This much for personal use, that much a trafficable quantity. Laws differ from state to state, and the police enforce those laws with levels of zeal largely determined by the government of the time. In 1976 Premier Joh Bjelke-Petersen ordered a raid on a small commune in far north Queensland. The raid was pure theatre for the media, and used to demonstrate a tough stance on drugs. But only a small amount of marijuana was found, and the show brought little joy for the hippies they found there, whose homes were shamefully burned to the ground. Similar raids were conducted around Nimbin in NSW. This 1970s melodrama seems to have resonated puzzlingly through the years, and seems to have typecast the image of cannabis users in a manner that is woefully misinformed.
“Gateway” is a new work from Bernhardt that seeks to address this issue in a contemporary context, well away from the hysteria that has characterised past decades. Given the growing support for the decriminalisation of cannabis for medical purposes, it is a timely review. Late last month the NSW Premier Mike Baird was considering a private member’s bill that looks to do exactly that.
These images are obviously very striking. But what do we know about these people other than what we presume? The images are large, unavoidable, and stark. The lighting is harsh, deliberately so, and unflattering. We are not being romanced here. Clearly, the objective is not the creation of “wallpaper art”. Instead this is about art engaging with society in a debate of some significance.
This is art with precious little artifice.
In each instance the gaze is direct, unflinching and confronting, like the whole issue of marijuana itself, but also ambiguous, mysterious, and in a way, unhelpful. It gives us little to go on. It begs the question (the same question that “Gateway” proposes)…..Who are these people? What is their life about? Surely not just drugs? What jobs do they have? In the same way that Mona Lisa’s enigmatic smile beguiles and intrigues, and is maddeningly elusive, the same intent is evident here.
The people who agreed to be a part of this exhibition come from a range of backgrounds. There are labourers, students, blue collar workers and skilled professionals. They live in the inner west, the eastern suburbs, the western suburbs, the northern beaches, and they live in houses like yours. They are someone’s brother, sister, husband, wife, son and daughter. Some have been using marijuana for all of their adult life, and some have just begun. They may smoke daily, or nightly, on weekends, or on holidays. Alone. With their partner. Before sex, or sleep. They smoke to relax. To relieve the boredom perhaps. Or for reasons unknown. But to group them all together, as “pot smokers” is to ignore the many real differences between them. The 70s stereotype is redundant, and the zeitgeist has moved on. The Furry Freak Brothers* are dead.
More people are smoking pot now than ever before, across all demographic boundaries. The use of hard drugs is not on the same scale. The government’s own research bears witness to this. And yet the perception becomes the reality. The only way to dismantle this furphy is to loudly and continually dispute its credibility. Social experiments like those in Uruguay (and some states of America) provide a unique opportunity to revisit the issue calmly, scientifically, with a measurable sample population. Clearly, the relevant authorities in Uruguay and the USA are hopeful of positive outcomes. As I said, the world watches.
The debate will go on, of course, as it has been going on for as long as I can remember. Art is part of the debate, and Bernhardt is bravely participating in it. Better known for his strangely beautiful depictions of urban environments, this work constitutes a departure from his usual motifs. Beautiful things have their place, of course, and Lord knows the world needs more beauty. But truth and freedom are beautiful too. We are blessed in this country to have access to both. And if the role of art is to fill a dead corner, and match the sofa, then the whole of society suffers.
Touchy subjects are grist to the mill for artists. Why, every day the daily newspaper’s cartoonists poke fun at the pompous and profane. It’s the Australian way. We are a nation of shit-stirrers. We are suspicious of unfettered power, and rightly so. We like to keep the bastards honest, because we know what happens if we don’t. And we know that a well placed boot can be used to great effect.
A bill to decriminalise the use of marijuana for medical reasons may be some way off, but Nationals MP Kevin Anderson, who has proposed the bill, has apparently found a sympathetic ally in the Premier. Given the profound success of cannabis oil in treating nausea experienced by the terminally ill and those going through chemotherapy, and also sufferers of epilepsy, the stakes are high, if you will excuse the pun.
I’ve been blessed to have worked with Simon on his other projects and books, and this certainly continues his development as an artist. It’s a welcome development, and one that I applaud. It is also wonderful to have the participation of Black Eye Gallery as a partner in this exhibition, and to see the role of a gallery being redefined, to an extent, to include this kind of social advocacy.
Foreword by: Ian Andersen
* 1970s comic book stoners
“Square Scapes” is photographer Simon Bernhardt’s latest offering, following on from his previous publication, “Polaroid Holiday”, and continues to explore his fascination with the minutiae of the urban wilderness. A willingness to search for beauty in the most unlikely places is demonstrative of a resolutely determined aesthete and his work is openly referential towards the great Australian painter to whom this volume is reverently dedicated.
Like Jeffrey Smart, Bernhardt’s subjects are the overlooked, the commonplace, the bog ordinary, that come to life, assume a life, under the stringent interpretation of the artist’s gaze. The desire to make us see what is in front of us, properly and for the first time, is surely the yardstick by which to measure true artistic temperament and is transparently this photographer’s raison d’être.
What is obvious about these photographs, subject matter aside, is the rigour and precision with which they were created. There is, in their realisation, evidence of a strong desire to make sense of the world, to create order in the midst of disorder, and to share that vision.
Here is Bernhardt’s own personality announcing itself: a perfectionist, almost mathematically so, by his own admission, an uncompromising didact – but a gifted and industrious one none-the-less.
His output in many fields of photography has been prolific, but here is a heartfelt and idiosyncratic offering. From a man driven to create, by the internal machinations that define him, comes this…. a collection of images – bitter, sweet, strangely familiar, and as nourishing to the palate vernacular as a pizza after a dozen beers.
As with any physical accomplishment or sporting prowess, ease of execution is a myth, and one that belies the painstaking application that is required to achieve success. Bernhardt’s subjects are meticulously sought out and researched. The ordinary-ness requires a patience and determination that is anything but that. Extraneous details are eschewed. Framing is exacting. Proportion and scale become subjects in themselves. Colour and lighting become sympathetic allies in the revealing of the spirit of things. It’s about what to leave out, as much as what to leave in.
For a serious man, there is though, it must be said, an abundance of whimsy in these images and I often found myself laughing quietly while preparing this book. A car park? A street sign? A factory wall? Who else but monsieur Bernhardt….?
To regard these images, these visual bon mots, and to find delight therein (as I have) is a satisfying, demanding, and provocative journey of discovery.
If you feel the inclination to pick up your own camera after viewing this book, and with a fresh perspective on the world around you, seek out the beauty you find there, then Bernhardt’s task will have been much rewarded.
Foreword by: Ian Murdoch
Simon Bernhardt’s fascination with the Polaroid began as a small child and has developed into a spectacular creative obsession.
The Polaroid camera is the photographic equivalent of brick-sized mobile phones.
These cameras conjure up distant memories of poorly focused banal happy snaps of slightly inebriated relatives in silly hats at family celebrations or while on holidays, but emphatically not leading edge creativity.
Through astute modification, Bernhardt has transformed it into a contemporary tool, capable of conveying subtlety of mood and texture.
This photographic odyssey captures rhythm and energy which transforms the everyday into beautiful nuanced images.
They range from scenes of central Europe in winter, to studies of stark urban alienation.
Foreword by: Greg Keane
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