FOREVER YOUNG! ON RYAN MCGINLEY’S WORK
[…] But muter humanity calmly bleeds in a dark cave. […]
To the Muted (1913)
Over the past ten years, American photographer Ryan McGinley (*1977, Ramsey, NJ) has become known as the chronicler of youth embarking on the road trip of their lives, far from the strictures of the genteel, middle-class work ethic. Their departure from the constraints of society (if only for a short time) and the ‘outsider’ stance they cultivated in doing so have become a leitmotif of McGinley’s work. These works place McGinley firmly in the tradition of American photographers such as Nan Goldin and Larry Clark, who documented their own generation and environment. In McGinley’s case, the outsider stance is evident both in his approach to landscape – he seeks out places without defining contours, rather than the popular motifs of the Rocky Mountains or Death Valley that epitomise America – and also in his portrayal of flawless young bodies. These bodies, many of them nude, many of them in motion, casual and carefree, are presented in sweeping landscapes. In this respect, McGinley not only upholds the art historical tradition of a variety of genres from portraiture to landscape, but also adopts such established topoi as the relationship between artist and model, and the perceived eroticism between them that has been a thorny issue throughout the history of painting and photography. The fact that the human body has always been a central figure in the history of western art, whether as an anatomical study or as a vehicle of metaphor, needs no further analysis here. What is more, given the time-consuming nature of McGinley’s approach – his road trips often take several months – aspects of performance art also play an important role in his work, taking a form akin to that of highly organised ‘improvised theatre’ from the period of the travelling theatre. McGinley invariably also creates a sense of tension in his photographs. On the one hand, there is the youthful declaration of independence from a regulated lifestyle while, on the other, the view from within the structured life of an achievement-oriented, neoliberalist society that is constantly striving for this youthful raw material and the image of the young, hedonistic body.
McGinley’s latest series, Moonmilk (2008-2009), also features youthful bodies, albeit in entirely different surroundings. Here, the wide-open spaces of the landscape have given way to the confined enclosure of the cave; accordingly, the tonality of the photographs has shifted towards a darker mode. There are few group compositions; instead, the predominant image is that of the naked individual in the dark nothingness of the cave. The caves, with their craggily amorphous interiors and magnificent stalactite formations, become a fascinating haven of shelter for the lone, vulnerable body. In view of the fact that McGinley’s previous groups of images were played out under clear summer skies, this change of scenery calls for a narrative reading as a sequel. It seems only logical to read this series as a reaction to the exploration of youthful freedom, as a withdrawal from the open spaces of the unknown. It is as though the road trip has become an inner journey in which the quest for freedom has been replaced by introspection and wishful thinking. Such an interpretation might even be extended to include the broader political context of the worldwide economic crisis. Globalisation, the internet revolution and the resultant potential for communication spawned a new sociological trend around the turn of the millennium that might be described as a withdrawal from civil society and the public eye – a trend generally termed as ‘cocooning’. In McGinley’s photographs, however, this cocooning does not occur within the private domestic sphere of the individual (in the sense of a return to neo-Biedermeier values) but is placed in the far more archaic and metaphorical setting of the cave. Caves feature widely in mythology, dreams and fairytales. According to C.G. Jung’s analytical psychology, the cave is a specific form of the maternal archetype. The figures wander through the cavernous setting on their nostalgia-driven quest. In this way, McGinley also reflects on the cultic function of the cave as ‘locus’. Art historians have long debated whether cave paintings can be interpreted in the spirit of classic academic art. What is undisputed, however, is that prehistoric cave paintings allow us to draw certain conclusions about the beliefs, lifestyle and values of the people who created them – the cave has been a place of reflection since the dawn of civilisation.
More strongly than in his earlier works, McGinley guides the spectator’s view to the extrapolated individual body, thereby raising still more questions about its origins and meaning than the outdoor group images, which tend, for the most part, to have more narrative traits. Although McGinley holds auditions to select the individual models for his lavish productions, the role they play might arguably be described as that of an extra. For the young people he selects are rated particularly on the basis of their looks, attitude and their youth, so that they are in the first instance neutral entities onto which ideas can be projected. In other words, they are a kind of dispositif, or apparatus of reality, staged by McGinley. Applying a sociological concept like this, the role of the models during the shoot corresponds to the role they play in reality, breaking with the concept of the ‘role of actor’. Instead, what emerges is an extra, a walk-on figure, defined more by belonging to a certain social group than by any specific individual traits (which they do, of course, possess). At the same time, however, in contrast to, say, Nan Goldin, McGinley takes the stance of observer and, to some extent, director. He creates an environment in which the bodies he selects ‘are’, and he documents this. These extras can thus be described in terms of both symptom and effect: they are both ‘themselves’ and subtly ‘staged’ at one and the same time. They can also be regarded in a socio-political context.
This opens up broader parameters with reference to a power mechanism that has been the subject of heated debate for several years. In his seminal study The Will to Knowledge, Michel Foucault introduced the concept of bio-politics and bio-power. These terms refer to the tendency within the modern state to exert increasing power over the human body, viewing it as an important resource and source of wealth, managing reproduction and hygiene accordingly. Sex turned into a ‘matter of police’, negotiated and regulated with rules by authorities. These authorities address the problematic issue of the modern human subject, given the systemic power mechanisms that govern the social body, the individual and life itself. According to Foucault, this tendency has been gaining momentum since the seventeenth century at the turn to modernity, when the focus shifted from death to life, from the sovereign right to ‘make live and let die’ to the bio-political right to ‘let live and make die’. Bio-politics is a technique of using life to enhance production in order to promote, regulate and ultimately exploit life all the more. According to the linguist Michael Hardt and the political scientist Antonio Negri, who have elaborated this concept in their studies, bio-politics also marks a new relationship between nature and culture and a blurring of the boundaries between them. In his work, McGinley succeeds in constructing an ambiguous portrayal based on this specific theme – oscillating between affirmation and critique – in a subtle and thought-provoking role play.