When I saw the images from Chadwick Tyler’s Tiberius gallery exhibition, I was speechless. They were far outside of anything I’d come to expect from a fashion editorial (which is what I first thought it was); I loved them simply because they felt new. The second time I went through them, I was slightly disgusted. My only frame of reference for the stark images of madness and hysteria were holocaust victims, abused women, and the hopeless inmates of Victorian asylums. The gritty black and white shots of gaunt, half-naked and vulnerable women became brutal and exploitative. The third time I went through them they led me to three revelations.
There has always been a lot of discussion around the WORN table about the monster known as Mainstream Fashion. Its visual cues seep into every aspect of media culture, from music videos to detergent ads, an homogenous human landscape of the pale and thin. We absorb more images in a day than our brains could ever consciously process, and we internalize them without analysis. But what are we really looking at? What are the messages underneath the bright clothes and perfect skin?
My First Big Idea
Trying to put Tyler’s exhibit into the context of fashion is both simple and disconcerting. I looked at the images and asked myself, “What do these pictures have in common with fashion photography?” The answer is everything – except the soft sell. The girls are young and beautiful, but instead of placid expressions and flattering glow they stand half-dressed and covered in grime, harsh overhead lighting accenting every bone and angle. They aren’t thinner than other models (indeed, they are models and representative of the industry) but they look painfully gaunt. Vulnerability that, in another context, would pass as limpid or passive is suddenly tinged with madness and desperation. Common poses that might be hidden by couture and setting suddenly seem brutal, insect-like. I caught my breath: Was this fashion’s Dorian Gray portrait? Is this what every shoot would be if we took away the Pretty?
I immediate went searching for more information about Tiberius. I wanted to know what Tyler had to say, but could find nothing. I went looking for critical reviews but, outside of a fairly mindless press release and some very ass-kissy raves from the usual fashion suspects, I had no luck there either. All I had left was Tiberius himself.
My Second Big Idea
I am not an historian. Outside of a few juicy bits here and there, I admit I’m not that interested. As a result, I apologize in advance for my lack of vocabulary and understanding on points of ancient Roman politics. What I managed to read was hard slogging, and what I took away from it could be totally wrong. Nevertheless, this is what I think I found out: Tiberius was the second Emperor of Rome (14 – 37 AD) and he didn’t want to be in charge. After almost a decade in authority, his growing disenchantment with Rome and politics led him to absent himself almost completely, leaving his friend and ally in charge. This man would eventually betray Tiberius by trying to seize power and the emperor, already isolated and angry, fell headlong into a spiral of madness, executing anyone he suspected had plotted behind his back. The Roman historian Tacitus describes the bloody purges:
There lay, singly or in heaps, the unnumbered dead, of every age and sex, the illustrious with the obscure…Spies were set round them, who noted the sorrow of each mourner and followed the rotting corpse…The force of terror had utterly extinguished the sense of human fellowship, and… pity was thrust aside.
Roman historian Suetonius describes Tiberius as paranoid and perverse, fearful and rapacious.
I caught my breath again. Could it be that Tyler was not only mirroring the madness of the emperor, but shadowing the emotion of a man who finds himself in a position he cannot abide? Could Tiberius be a commentary on the photographer’s own disenchantment?
My Third Big Idea
Of course this is all one girl’s train of thought and it could all be nonsense. It may be that Chadwick Tyler didn’t think about any of these things – or anything at all. Perhaps Tiberius is an ode to misogyny or, as one WORN editor wryly suggested, Holocaust Chic. But the thing about this exhibit is that it made me think.
All day long we suck the world into our eyes, we question so little. I do it all the time, flicking through magazines or clicking from site to site: Like. Don’t like. Next. How many things do I simply internalize, never asking why or how it will affect my view of the world or even myself? The fashion industry does a whole lot of dictating, quantifying what is beautiful or desirable. On the other end, fashion critics demonize media images as tyrannical, damaging to our collective self esteem. But I have responsibility in all this, too. Ultimately, my choice to question or not controls both desire and damage.
Tiberius reminded me that I ought to be seeing instead of just looking. That’s what art (and whatever the Canada Arts Council thinks, fashion is most definitely art) should do.
After all my mental gymnastics, I found Chadwick Tyler’s artist statement with a rather vague and disappointing reference to “the juxtaposition of the meticulous and the disheveled” and “farm kids”, along with this anticlimactic explanation of the title:
Tiberius. Could be a place, a clan, a harem, a community, a gloomy Roman emperor. I can’t say. I like the word.
Hee hee. So maybe I overshot my mark.
You can find the full statement here.