The Oberlin Review
<< Front page Arts February 24, 2006

Pinhole Photos Offer Surprising Perspective
Vaginal Visions and Chest Confessions Make Gender Art

Melsen Carlsen’s senior show, which opened in Fisher Hall last Saturday, is mostly comprised of a collection of porthole-shaped portraits of Oberlin students not posed in any particular way. The viewer can discern a white-draped background, a dash of light and a slight blurriness that indicates the artist used a pinhole camera, a device that uses a tiny hole instead of a lens to create a photographic image.

What is not apparent from viewing the work, however, is that the camera is Carlsen’s body.

For this series, his Vaginal Pinhole Project, Carlsen made use of a pinhole camera with a flash to photograph his subjects from his vagina. Learning this important fact is startling, but as one assimilates it and continues to engage with the work, a thoughtful artistic agenda begins to unfold.

Carlsen, who identifies as male, has often addressed his struggle with gender in his work. In doing so, he raises a number of other complex issues that challenge traditional notions of gender as well as presumptions about art and artistic relationships.

Each color photograph features a friend or an acquaintance of Carlsen’s in an undirected posture. In these images, Carlsen seems to confront aspects of his sexual identity by asking others to confront them with him. What is recorded, then, is the subject’s reaction to and interaction with Carlsen, and the situation he has set up for both of them. The artist’s models thus have a significant impact on the form and meaning of the work.

In an interview, Carlsen stressed his subjects’ contributions to the finished pieces. A lot of pressure was placed on these friends and acquaintances to interact with Carlsen and his unusual technique — they were “caught in the headlights,” as Carlsen described it. Where is the viewer’s gaze directed, and what might this indicate about the individual or the project?

“The model is looking at you, and looking at you as if you are the vagina,” Carlsen said.One model avoided the quand-ary of “how to look” altogether by covering his eyes with his hands. This reaction displays both a self-consciousness and a consciousness of relationships. The subject is in fact Pipo Nguyen, Carlsen’s photography professor. Thus, he further complicates the issue of the gaze by refusing to participate in it.

The photograph also calls attention to the taboo that exists in student/teacher relationships, in addition to the already complex relationship between artist and subject. Carlsen’s subversion of these relationships leaves the viewer on uncertain artistic ground.

Typically, portrait photography has been thought to contain an element of the voyeuristic: the photographer, and later the viewer, seem to peer in on the subject’s private life. Here the relationship has been very much reversed, with the subject asked to play the part of voyeur.

Assuming the role of viewer, one is also quite re-moved from fam-iliar territory, as one occupies neither the subject’s nor the artist’s perspective. What we are seeing comes from Melsen, but it is not his perspective; in this sense, the image emanates from his body, not from more typical origins of artistic work.

“I’m really trying to think of my body as an integrated whole, and not think of my mind as being separate or my gaze as being limited to my eyes,” Carlsen said.

This effort to lessen the disjunction between body and mind comes through powerfully in the other series at the exhibition.

Curtained off in another portion of Fisher hides another photo series. Chest Surgery, for which a close friend of Carlsen’s followed him around as documentarian. It depicts Carlsen with close friends and family throughout the periods before, during and after his recent double mastectomy.

While the images were captured by someone else, they were edited, chosen and installed by Carlsen.

Just as the Vaginal Pinhole Project shows that there is more to Carlsen than his outward appearance, this highly personal documentation of the artist insists that more is at work than the outsides of things.

The emotional and physical pain that register on Melsen’s face throughout the series attest to the fact that coming to terms with one’s identity cannot be as simple as cosmetic surgery. Carlsen, who is friendly and open, speaks cheerfully about the difficult experiences that the series depicts.

“I was much more vulnerable than I was having my genitals exposed [in the Vaginal Pinhole Project], because I actually identify with this, as opposed to with my genitals.”

He laughed at the apparent strangeness of the idea. Carlsen feels that this vulnerability stands as an “offering” to the viewer, since the discomfort of the complementary Vaginal Pinhole Project rests mostly with the subject and viewer, rather than the artist.

The last image of this series features both a smiling Carlsen and a conspicuous bandage, just placed over his still-healing nipple.

This seems to suggest that there’s more to the story than we can see, that the struggle for identity can’t be reduced to a single event.

Carlsen said, “It’s not a closed narrative. And it’s not like the surgery made me whole. It definitely helped me to realize my body, sure, but it’s not like it was without sacrifices.”


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