“They’re being brave and so am I,” explains photographer/artist Amy Gwatkin in her impeccable Queen’s English, sat in her white walled studio, pretty much bent double in her chair with nerves.
We are watching unedited footage for her new film installation Risk Assessment, which opens tomorrow night in Dalston. On the screen, in black and white, a fleshy, pale, aged man’s shoulder twitches and shakes with an effort that can only be called self-explanatory. “We’re being brave together—the one cannot exist without the other, the voyeur needs the exhibitionist, the exhibitionist the voyeur.”
“I’m not exactly an artist,” she continues. “Most of the year I spend interviewing people about shoes… photoshoppping already beautiful teenagers…” The otherwise employed fashion photographer (whose work has recently appeared in Dazed & Confused, EXIT, and The Independent, among others) pauses, letting us acknowledge what looks a lot like the old man’s petite mort. “But for a month of two every year I have the chance to make something that isn’t for anyone else—and I keep on coming back to this project involving naked men. First of all photographing them, now filming them.”
In 2010, Gwatkin posted an ad in the notorious casual encounters section of Craigslist (the world’s favorite sexual sewer). It read, “Exhibitionists Wanted.” Out of over 90 responses, she picked out ten that didn’t immediately scream “murderer”—EXCESSIVE CAPS LOCK AND BAD SPELLING BEING THE DEAD GIVEAWAY THEIR (sic)—and set about photographing these masturbating strangers, at their homes, at her studio, and even in the bushes of Hampstead Heath.
She then spent weeks with the resulting images, “obsessively” photographing, zooming in, and reprogramming them, in a way she concedes was partly about distancing herself from the subject and the experience. “The effect it created was almost overwhelming, like a vortex. At some point all the men became an amorphous mass. It was difficult to differentiate between the bodies.”
The resulting “vortex”—144 black and white prints forming a large, neat rectangular collage—was titled Nothing Happened (an allusion to the kind of questions she was asked whenever she described her work-in-progress). When I first laid eyes on this unique, powerful work of art, at the private view two years ago, an enthralled crowd milled about beneath it all night long, as if it were a stained glass window in a cave.
Gwatkin considers Risk Assessment her most significant work since. If in Nothing Happened, the participants’ bodies and identities were smudged and even obliterated, here they are given much more autonomy. Gwatkin acknowledges that she in turn is no longer hiding from the experience, the taboo. Everything is, to put it mildly, a lot less oblique, though Risk Assessment never fails to still somehow straddle that not-famously-fine line between the beautiful and the grotesque.
Now you can enjoy the linked, well, “teaser,” exclusively prepared for Dangerous Minds. Be warned, it’s pretty strong stuff.
Risk Assement runs as part of the show “FOR” (also featuring the work of Bella Fenning and Anna Leader), at SixtySevenA, at City Studios, 67a Dalston Lane, London E8 2NG, Tuesday 12th March 6-9pm, and runs until 28th March. By appointment only.