It is my understanding, that the capitalist society, of which we are part of here in the UK, is dependent upon creating insecurities in people. This causes them to believe that they do not have enough, that they are not enough and can therefore never be content. We are compelled to keep striving for more, for better and the goalposts just keep moving. One such insecurity being self image; seeking to make two dimensional and superficial, something which is richly complex and multifaceted. The message we are given is that which matters most is what is on the outside; beauty is skin deep. There is an impetus to suppress individuality, as surely this would be a threat.
Hundreds of thousands in hard earned cash is spent on lotions and potions that promise to hold back time and camouflage our many shameful imperfections. The dream is of an idealised youth, flawless, symmetrical and unspoiled. Ageing is equated with invisibility. The value given to the lives of the ageing population has been placed in stark focus, during this time of pandemic as lives lost are reduced to mere statistics and one might cynically wonder if they are seen as purely collateral damage.
Somewhat ironically, in the real world, the so-called idealised youth are hidden in their bedrooms, sat before mirrors, deeply preoccupied by the demand to attain their place on the pedestal upon which they are unwilling captives. Selfie after selfie, is taken, then painstakingly edited, until what remains barely looks human, only then are these images deemed fit to share on social media. Regardless of how much money is spent, or how many pictures are taken, there is a sense of deep inadequacy and shame, often resulting in mental illness, due to a long forgotten sense of true self.
Prior to the pandemic, I was a keen attendee of life drawing classes. Within the room, the silent concentration upon the human form was so intense, it was palpable. Such was the wish to truly see and depict, without objectifying, the other. It felt a true privilege to spend these few hours of, what felt to be, a desire for true connection. It is encouraging, therefore, that such classes have become so increasingly popular.
I was interested to notice that, for me, it was not the trim, toned, painstakingly perfect bodies that spoke to me, but those that told a story of a life lived; every lump, bump, crease and blemish, representative of true humanity. This was something I felt I could relate to and somehow left me feeling less alone. It felt important , as an artist, to share this valuable experience of what is truly beautiful, who we really are; literally stripped bare.
In Bruce’s most recent project; ‘The Art of Ageing’, that same truth is shared about where true beauty is found. For it seems, perhaps, that as we age, the inner experience is worn more honestly, upon the surface, for others to see. If allowed, this is a gift that encourages us to reorganise our values, to look beyond the mirror and into the eyes of another, who has wisdom to share and a story to tell.
The camera sees all, through repeated exposures, capturing each precious moment that passes. Tracking the depth of contrast deepening, as the sun sets and fades. There is an air of self consciousness, as Bruce seeks to present himself as he hopes to be seen, while surrendering to the knowledge that he cannot hide and possibly no longer wishes to; a realisation dawning that he is comfortable with himself; in himself. His generosity is his preparedness to be seen as reassuringly imperfect; for this is the negative space where true beauty resides.
The sitters of ‘Drag Kings’ seek also to show something of their inner world; one that society has felt threatened by and sought to repress. This is achieved through highly individual and carefully chosen costume, props and lashings of theatrical make up. This is dressing up with an entirely different agenda; it is a reaction against our selfie obsessed culture, as conversations are raised here about the multiplicity of identity. There is no singular self, which can be pigeonholed, categorised and given validity (or not), but a rich tapestry of contradictions, which can sometimes be grotesque, while at other times, radiant. There is a refreshing integrity, therefore, to these images, which may be a performance, but this time a performance without pretence. These are, perhaps, more about performing to enunciate and not eradicate the self.
By Naomi Elfred-Ross