My immediate reaction is a gut-wrenching, petrified revulsion.
The photo portrays an attractive redhead in her fifties, naked except for a pair of garters and stockings, looking directly, intensely, into the camera.
But it wasn’t just the stark nakedness or the sexually provocative posture that shocked me. What was haunting was the caption “mum” juxtaposed against the imagery of lingerie, sagging breasts, pink skin against blue-toned backdrop and a pair of suggestive, demanding eyes. It was like having just drunk sour milk too quickly and being unable to spit. To what have I just subjected my eyes – and my mind?
Yet, fascinated by the obvious abomination, I couldn’t look away.
This image is from a collection of more discerning photographs published in 2008 in a book titled, Pretend You’re Actually Alive by an artist named Leigh Ledare. The model is his mother. At fifty, Tina Peterson’s natural beauty is intensified by an ageing elegance and astuteness. The album captured her in a myriad of postures: trying on clothes at a thrift shop, posing as a corpse, styling her hair half-naked, doing the missionary…
On the other side of the camera is thirty-seven-year-old Leigh Ledare. Born in Seattle, Ledare is an artist and a teacher. As discomforting as the photos are to a layperson, it is unimaginable what it must be like for Ledare. What could have been his motivations in the beginning? What kept it going for eight years? I mean c’mon, did he not think it’s weird?
Asked how he felt shooting the series by The Guardian, Ledare replied: “I moved between different feelings – uncomfortable, absurd, funny.”
Sitting in Starbucks, my face purple with embarrassment, my curiosity is at its peak. What is it that turns my stomach but simultaneously causes me to take sneak peaks for more photos? Am I as sick as these “artists” must be?
It might be easy to dismiss this as a simple case of artistically licensed insanity: an Oedipus exploration gone too far. Getting over the initial shock, I began to feel a sense of admiration and increased curiosity. The purpose of “shock art” is to challenge taboos and commonly accepted notions through images that are discerning and provocative. Hence the big questions: what is the message here, and can this be considered art?
The book is a narrative of Tina’s struggles and vulnerabilities with life and aging documented through her sexual prowess over a period of eight years. Beneath the obvious absurdity are strangely and truly beautiful images showing her vulnerable, confused, poignant, mourning, and inevitably, orgasmic. To Ledare, it must be a daunting, though initially terrifying, realization that Tina Peterson wasn’t just his mother. She was also a ballet dancer, featured in seventeen magazines.
A stripper. A sexual being. A vulnerable woman fearing ageing and menopause. For Tina, the amount of courage it must have took to be stripped bare, naked in emotion and weakness, for her son to witness and analyze.
Having grown up in a very conservative Asian family who never even calls sex by its name, Ledare’s world is an alternate universe from mine. When I was fourteen, while looking for a pair of pantyhose in my mother’s nightstand, I found a pack of Trojans. My reaction was utter denial. I’ve never opened a drawer since. When parents cross that asexual boundary, there is just no turning back. The fear isn’t just sex itself. The fear is that our parents are neither asexual nor perfect. They are human, with their own set of flaws, failures, prejudices and needs.
With all genres of art, there are good and bad. Successful “shock art” not only disturbs the eye, but also generates discussion by questioning the norm. Ledare’s series of images wasn’t simply sensational. Sure, the idea of a son photographing his mother having sex has a gripping, abominable dimension. But shock isn’t all – there are depths to his art that can withstand some critical thinking and pondering by any average audience. At least for me, I haven’t been able to keep it off my mind.