By Gareth Evans

x-is-y-richard-kern-2.jpgX Is Y, Richard Kern, 1991

Richard Kern, the cinema of transgression and the pornography of capital

If anyone was in any doubt that the pornographic impulse is now central to contemporary culture, then the scopophilic vilification of the contestants in the latest instalment of Big Brother should put such uncertainties to rest. A self-serving collusion between producers and media, it’s the clearest recent example of the shift in what is meant by such a contested term. Where once the pornographic delineated the various actions portrayed, it is now more accurately applied to the quality of the gaze that consumes those acts. This ranging, lusty eye, occasionally covert or sideways-glancing, but increasingly unashamed to dilate in public, most frequently directs its attention towards the sexual but is not averse to consideration of the violent, atrocious (in the original sense), disastrous, despairing and ‘scandalous’. In short, to the pivotal moments of any news broadcast. That this is played out primarily in the visual media is hardly a revelation, but the dominance of sight does mark a significant displacement of the word’s etymological root – the Greek-derived ‘writing of harlots’.

Again no points for noting the move from word to image in contemporary society but as a result, it could be argued that, following this lead, presentation has replaced imagination, product has ousted prompt.

How then does one manufacture skin shock or carnal furore when collective vision is hungry for (increasingly) hardcore hits on its (already) jaded retina? Where does this leave the well-intentioned provocateur, the lens-lothario calculating outrage on every click of the shutter, every exposed reel of film?

With a dealer, a gallery and a show in both media at London’s ICA this summer gone, it seems, if you are New York film-maker/photographer Richard Kern. That’s not to say, however. That his journey from the Manhattan underground towards the bright lights of international retrospectives could have been considered as a given trajectory when the anarcho-artist started out in the early 80s.

x-is-y-richard-kern.jpgX Is Y, Richard Kern, 1991

As a key player in NYC’s post-punk Cinema of Transgression, Richard Kern was making his defiantly no-budget, trash-Warholian, genre-twisting, sexually conflictual and darkly humorous shorts at a time of deep conservatism in US public life. Working at the other end of the spectrum from Reagan’s America, and with similarly-minded collaborators like Nick Zedd, Lydia Lunch and the core of the music underground (Sonic Youth, The Butthole Surfers), the work often operated beyond the threshold of acceptability, subverting while celebrating the tropes of the American Dream. Kern’s photography is less controversial but still courts disquiet with its fetishised nudes and S/M iconography. He’s published now by hardcore hardback outfit Taschen, where his scantily (if at all) clad nymphets find imaginative places to store candles.

However, as Polissons et Galipettes, the Cannes-premiered compilation of vintage French porn films showed, little has changed in both bedrooms and mind. There’s a finite number of options available and any desirability (or not) lies in the detail. In this respect Kern is certainly perversely creative when he sets his mind to it, stretching underwear almost to shreds with a system of cables in The Evil Cameraman (1986-90) or forcing sex and death to an extreme conclusion in Manhattan Love Suicides (1985). Indeed, the films (two dozen and counting) still deliver a visceral jolt that’s hard to ignore. The raw motion seems harder to sanitise, to archive in the image-bank as a frame-able, reducible quantity.

He is at his earliest and often dirtiest in the 80s selection. Crucial collaborator Lydia Lunch leads off with the grainy, acquisitive groping of Right Side of My Brain (1984) while performance players Karen Finlay and the late, great David Wojnarowicz go dinner-table dysfunctional with You Killed Me First (1985). Submit to Me Now (1985) – sexual fantasies turn quickly violent in some major mutilation sequences.

fingered-richard-kern.jpgFingered, Richard Kern, 1986

This sexualised assault continues with Kern’s most notorious film, Fingered (1986), in John Waters’ words “the best hillbilly-punk-art-porno movie in the world”. It’s hardcore, hard-talking sex for starters, a sure influence on Natural Born Killers, and its rough road rampage still disturbs. Meanwhile, Bitches (1992) turns the standard skinflick threesome on its head with some dildo-assisted gender reversals, and Kern himself appears in My Nightmare (1993), working off to a model fantasy that doesn’t quite turn out as planned.

On one profound level of course, the work, especially the photographic, is far from radical, not just within the visual standards of the moment, but when taken in light of male portrayals of the female in Western art history. Where once hair was brushed in boudoirs, and cherubs consorted around undressed mirrors, now girls employ eye-drops, attack each other in the bath with dental floss or, relaxing in unkempt beds, engage with coloured pleasure toys. That said, the exhibition title, Artist-Model (shared with Fergus Greer’s images of the late Leigh Bowery), suggests a balanced exchange and indeed, there remains a notable absence of awkwardness, unease or discomfort, with the sitters (or squatters) equally vigorous partners towards a ‘democratic’ result.

As to its erotic or even simply ‘suggestive’ aspirations, what the series underlines is that any frisson or charge comes not from acts done and gestures made, but from the intention behind them. The implicit gift of capitalism is that it will bring you closer to the desired ‘other’, but not so close that your appetite is sated. The true voyeur is both the exemplar of these subliminal goals and its worst nightmare, in that commercial exchange is anathema to such a pro. The genuine window-watcher thrives on glimpsing the unstaged, where the business briefly witnessed has, as it were, spilled accidentally into wider attention. He becomes the consumer beyond reach to a machine packaging ‘forbidden’ sight on a 24 hour basis. Ubiquitous and sold, flesh – celebrity or otherwise – is now no more subversive than a spliff on Saturday night or a teenage tattoo. Kern’s work, like all such projects, cannot help but fall into such a position. That his eponymous website feels like a digital shop window helps the analogy along, but there’s no real need. As the markets belly up and property soars out of reach, stick to the known: try shares in skin. Pornographic pension funds, anyone?

Gareth Evans is a writer and independent film programmer.