The Innocence Project

Solo Exhibition By Liana Yang

2 - 25 August 2013

The Innocence Project considers the schoolgirl as viewed through the lens of popular culture. Is this young girl the wide-eyed ingenue she appears or a cunning siren fully aware of her power and allure? Yang's work addresses the struggle to control female subjectivity in contemporary mass media and questions whether women today are truly liberated or simply confusing sexuality with pornography.

Yang combines photography and installation work to investigate various sociological and psychological relationships. Her recent work involves experimentation with sexual references and objectifications, a process she hopes will offer a different perspective in understanding societal views. Yang has been shortlisted for the ICON de Martell Cordon Bleu Photography Awards 2013. She resides and works in Singapore.

CONSEQUENCES OF FALLING: PHOTOGRAPHY AND THE UNCERTAIN SEDUCTION OF GIRLS

By Dr Adele Tan

There is no mistaking the sexual potency of the objects in Liana Yang’s photographs.  A single erect stick of sweet coral lipstick in gold casing is perched on a couch looking like discharged ammunition, and in the next, an unwrapped lollipop of the same colour rests ever so gingerly on top of a slight bulge of fabric. The same lollipop reappears in a large close-up of a female mouth, a mouth that is repeated in a several more shots, with flesh-pink lips parted and tongue in suspended motion. In another photograph, an opened bottle of red glossy nail varnish has its brush applicator out by its side like an alibi, glistening with liquid enamel as if it were drawing blood.  And we are equally tantalized by the low-hanging fruit of a ripe fuzzy peach writ large, which shape suggests every bit of a firm derriere even when stripped of its chromatic vibrancy. The feminine appears strangely virile here, brimming with latent forcefulness.

And here lies the rub – Yang’s current oeuvre is verily titled “The Innocence Project”, and yet is imparting the obvious sense that innocence can only be a managed project, or by extension, a projection. The feminine, the childish and the child-like can swiftly turn on itself, becoming portentous and alerting us to all the other clues to its insidious context. This is the functionality of her shot of an empty children’s playground, leached of its hues and contrasts; the image of the playground only sets the scene for something else and something bad to take place. At every point we are asked to read, and mostly led to over-read the pictorial circumstances.  We are cynics on a knife-edge.

Yet these are only accomplices to the real subjects in this project – the adolescent female, the almost woman, a just-graduated baby. Yang is here in this process not so much a photographer as she is an adroit Photoshop assemblagist.  Her culls are from readymade images proliferating through cyberspace and the proof of genius lies in how well she selects, manipulates and re-orientates her images (and viewers) through the prism of art photography. Like the careful crafting of the scenography for her objects on display, Yang’s adolescent subjects are also equally skilled in crafting their bodies, accouterments and gestures.  One can say that the girls are like the objects themselves – objectified – but they have also a strange mesmeric power invested in them, like fetishistic totems.  This is in no small part due to Yang’s choice of repeatedly salacious images.  Two large prints hold assortments of a number of smaller images that are conventionally known as “upskirt shots” and have specifically been chosen because they featured Japanese schoolgirl uniforms.  Viewers are on the one hand cued to think that such pictures were lewd shots preying on unsuspecting innocent girls, yet on the other the relative ease of the composition and the girls’ predilection for the shortest of skirts yield us to believe that most of these young women were informed and playing to the conventional diegesis of the “upskirt and panties” plot. Who’s the one to be duped here?

As a female Asian photographer in her mid-thirties, Yang is a shade off the female demographic represented in the images but she is able to wade more surreptitiously, if not comfortably, into a territory that is potentially and exponentially more explosive for the male photographer, and deploy her female eye to complicate the co-ordinates within which the public views the distinguishing line between pornography and art, between exploitation and effective agency, and ultimately the determinants of sexuality and desire.  In an age of the hypersexualisation of mass visual culture (people will read sexual signs regardless of authorial intentions) where ethical arguments are waged over how young models and pageant contestants are allowed to be and what is the appropriate dress for this liminal generation, these arguments are regularly moot and disregarded when profits, publicity and political leverage can be gained from either being the puritanical guardian or the shrewd marketer. But let us first not have the hypocrisy of outrage overtake a better analytic of the dialectic between image and desire, where photography for sure participates in the creation of voyeurism and fantasy but only later becomes mired in moral opinions.

 And one wants to know this: is Yang merely complicit with the capitalisation of the bodies of young females, or does she invariably expose and articulate what is culturally unacknowledged and submerged in the recesses of consciousness and conversations? By trawling the internet for sexually solicitous shots of girls in Japanese school uniforms, does she inhabit the same position as that of the presumed male consumer/voyeur? For the artist, surfacing the power of girl sexuality, even if manufactured and the girls remain nameless, is of the most interest. It matters that in her reconstitution of the web-gleaned girl shots, Yang maintains the uncertainty principle that dogs the status of the pictures and she puts the enigma back in these images, rephrasing Sigmund Freud’s famous question as “what does (a young) woman want”? This central question splinters off into yet more critical probes and unstable positions: who commands the controls – the female posturing for the camera, the photographer or the viewer? And whose desire is ultimately articulated and aroused, the girls’ or the viewers’?

For those whose moral panic buttons have been pushed right now, Yang’s “The Innocence Project” is not a wayward act of self-gratification but can be seen as falling in line with a developed history of critical and aesthetic inquiry into female adolescence and young womanhood since the 1990s.[i] But the spectre of child pornography, when raised, is often that which leads inquiry towards the court of condemnation. The American photographer Sally Mann was castigated for featuring her three children in the nude in her 1992 photobook Immediate Family.  In wishing to show her children through the authentic, candid eye of the mother rather than from the conventional perception of childhood goodness and innocence, Mann had endeavoured to capture on camera a full range of emotional and physical states, dipping at times into darker themes, where the mortality, faith and desire of the children are never denied. In Mann’s Candy Cigarette (1989), the stick in hand poses the visual trick of deciding if the girl is indeed on the right side of 21 and not 12. She had earlier published At Twelve: Portraits of Young Womenin 1988, a book of 37 photographs of 12 year-old girls (daughters of friends and relatives), and elicited similar responses though on a smaller scale. It features no nudity but girls on the verge of entering womanhood, where even a casual slink of the body against an adult male can already suggest the onset of impending sexual relations. This opening and reorganisation of teenage psychic structures means a period not only of puberty but also of identity transformation and undecidability, a contributive factor to the umbrage that was taken when Brooke Shields appeared in the nude (with masked breasts and genitalia) in the 1980 film Blue Lagoon.  We just do not yet know how to look at and comprehend the sexuality of children who could also be adults.

If Blue Lagoon had the buffer of a remote paradisiacal island to put the sexual relations of Shields and Christopher Atkins under a romantic haze, where at least the love is pure, Yang’s images of teenage or young adult women are the exact opposite. They are the very fodder of a burgeoning Asian softcore porn industry. In fact, where in the American instance the unadulterated gloss of youth is feared to be overtaken by sordid grown-up acts, the Asian one stands in contradistinction – the glimmer of youth and its attendant charm can be easily got hold of through the ruse of costumes, make up, poses and props. A woman in her mid-thirties could still pass as a schoolgirl if she possesses the correct get-up. This is because it isn’t really her that the porn consumer wants but what she the schoolgirl represents and activates.  But make no mistake: the sensuality of Shields in Blue Lagoon and the allure of Japanese schoolgirl are equally manufactured although the former appears primevally sanctioned by nature even when the hand of Hollywood is in the fray.  Like Mann’s candour towards her photographic subjects, Yang is ready to show her girl subjects as already more knowing about their own dispositions, unsentimental in the realization that what they do occur in urban situations of high capitalism, blessed by youth-driven big business and unfettered by lofty emotions.  For Yang, the pooled-together images of porn from the internet is but a catalogue of learnt positions and postures, and to go seeking for the visage of adolescent eroticism there is equivalent to looking for the karma sutra in the Yellow Pages.

And if Mann’s photographs were initially misunderstood as examples of excessive intimacy and had her expressive artistry dismissed out of hand by critics, we should take this as a signal to pay even more heed to how Yang construes her visual codes and the difference her images bring to the discourse of adolescent desire and appeal.  In the wake of third-wave feminism that started in the 1990s, greater acknowledgement has been given to the specific contours of female sexuality, which is no longer assumed to be delimited by age and as more passive and less libidinally intense than the males’, though as a subject it still manages to provoke shame, discomfort and denial when raised. In the ensuing reclamation projects by female artists of undervalued areas of study and focus, many were interested in going into themselves, the community and onto the sidewalks to discover and then show how women and girls were involved in the entire redesigning of their minds and bodies. They were unafraid to strut with their boobs and bums out as part of their resistance, or in other words, to be bad girls.  Yang’s sweet and cute girls, however, flaunt something else. Theirs is a uniform of virtue that could be put on and taken off (even when flashing their underwear) whenever it suits. It is where identities shift and morph from the promise of unconquered virgin terrain to that of the practiced inveterate cockteaser.   Smaller pictures of nudie pin-up poses are serially replicated as a set of image tiles to form even larger portraits of saccharinely smiling schoolgirl goddesses, a giant façade hiding the more outré images. 

Unlike other photographers who sought to investigate and register a wider spectrum of characteristics and experiences that make an adolescent, Yang’s project is to reveal the surface codification of contrived adolescence (itself a business of fictional but effective allure), and as dispassionately as possible. She is an external agent looking in, taking no part in their life world but is rather more invested in the understanding of the methods of picture-making-as seduction via the superficial values of iterated and gendered signs, colours, textures and contrasts. The formal juxtapositions of prim frocks and pastel tints with exposed body parts (just enough to titillate but not enough to be censored as nude) can be learnt equally by operators in the porn industry, the girls/models in the photographs and the artist-photographers. But before anyone gets onto another ethical high horse, we should start entertaining the thought that the girls in the pictures might really, really like it, and so do we as voyeurs. And so yes, innocence is often perverse.

[i] A significant and recent book to consult for a critical historiography of adolescent girls in art is Lori Waxman and Catherine Grant (eds), Girls! Girls! Girls! : In Contemporary Art, (Bristol: Intellect Books, 2011)

Dr Adele Tan is Curator at the National Art Gallery, Singapore

Artist:

  • Liana Yang