The Girl in the Cupboard

Strange things are happening here. The first images we see a line of tiny dolls crawling on the naked torso of a woman towards an icon of the Christ, while one is breaking the line to suck on a nipple. A crude image, throwing sex, religion and motherhood all together. The image on the opposing page shows a body of a young woman, her face hidden be- hind a curtain of hair, spreading her arms, her body being lifted by a third arm belonging to someone we can’t see. Her body casts a thin, fine shadow on the wall behind, just enough to detach it ever so slightly from the background. Elsewhere we see bodies wrapped in plastic, hidden behind curtains or see-through fabrics, lurking bashfully in a corner or lying on a coach, their eyes still open but otherwise mo- tionless, their limbs often strangely twisted or their heads stuck somewhere between the wooden shelfs of a book- case or peeping out of a cupboard, etc. In all the images, the semi-nude female figures are immobile; frozen, passive objects, nothing more than puppets subjected to the whims of the photographer (or, so it seems).

Almost everything happens inside. Twice we’re taken out in the world, once at night and once during the day. In both instances we’re finding ourselves in a nondescript field, a seemingly isolated and abandoned place. Even if we’re out- side, we are never exposed to a world we share with other people. We are always left alone with the female subject, forever bound to the confines of the private sphere. This claustrophobic feeling is enhanced by closing all openings to the outside world. Even when there is a window visible, the blinds are pulled down so there is no visible contact with whatever is out there. Doors are sometimes open, but one bumps immediately into another obstacle, another shallow space that leads nowhere. The area sharply delineated by the borders of the image is closely watched and tightly con- trolled. We can’t see out in the world, and reversely no one on the outside is able to look inside. We’re the only ones looking, (un)willing participants in the piercing gaze of the photographer, forced to indulge in what he wants us to see.

And then there are the obvious effects of the flash, a cold and unforgiving light indiscriminately fired at the women in front of the lens. It not only captures and freezes them, but also robs them of their depth and volume, reducing them to a flattened surface. The bright light deprives them of all agency, turning them into anaemic creatures. A second effect of the flash is that it reinforces the bright colours, turning them into a gaudy spectacle – the phoney gold is sparkling, the pink is painfully flashy, the red is awfully pol- ished, etc. These tawdry surfaces are smooth, impenetra- ble: in the intense light of the flash nothing is held back, no hidden depths here.

The reduction of the female body to a lifeless object re- minds us of the glacial images of the late fashion pho- tographer Guy Bourdin (1928-1991). Using the same tools (a hard flash, tacky colours, strange postures) the French photographer turned his models into robotic mannequins or uncanny presences. But in the images of Naser Kianersi (°1985) something else is going on. The images presented in this book have nothing to do with fashion, they have nothing to sell, no clear message to convey. They seem to bask in their own shallowness. At least, until we start noticing the ‘flaws’ in the construction of the pictures. Let’s take for in- stance the image with a woman’s head popping out of a ver- dant green fabric, a golf ball and club placed right in front of it. An image full of sexual innuendo, so it seems at first sight, but this reading falls flat because of the clumsy hanging of the shoddy cloth. Suddenly, the whole staging collapses and with it whatever fantasy we projected on the image. The joke is (apparently) on us. In the end, these images play with the contradiction between the allure of the female body and the rather messy banality of the décor in which they are placed. By transforming the body into a paper-thin cut- out that can wander about and fill the domestic space in unexpected ways, the photographer creates a tension be- tween these homely places and the female figures who are ostensible out of place in these trite interiors. Their stiff- ness expressing a deeper state of unease, these creatures seem terrified by the experience of being transitory, unable to become real, living persons, unable to put down roots. They are not there to fulfil any male fantasy, but to mirror a deep yearning for persistence. They are stand-inns for the uprooted photographer himself, a former political refugee.

— Steven Humblet