Spir­ited away into a la­tex un­der­world

Mail & Guardian - - Lifestyle - Nicky Falkof

Spirit, a short-run art show at the Kalash­nikovv Gallery in Braam­fontein, Jo­han­nes­burg, is a some­times un­set­tling — some­times grotesque — of­ten touch­ing col­lab­o­ra­tion be­tween An­to­nia Steyn and Gill Rall.

Steyn is a Cape Town pho­tog­ra­pher who spe­cialises in por­trai­ture; Rall is a diesel me­chanic from Eden­vale, an ar­ti­san and a fetishist.

Rall styles him­self as South Africa’s only le­git­i­mate “rub­ber doll”, part of a global com­mu­nity of peo­ple who take plea­sure in dress­ing in spec­tac­u­lar, hand­made, full-body la­tex suits, of­ten de­signed to look like ide­alised women.

But Spirit is not just a show about one man’s at­tach­ment to la­tex. It’s about iden­tity, white­ness, mas­culin­ity and age­ing, all writ­ten on skin: both through Rall’s phys­i­cal body (he is 77) and the en­tic­ingly tac­tile la­tex suits he de­signs and makes for him­self when he dresses as Spirit, his rub­ber al­ter ego.

The ex­hi­bi­tion it­self is stark and mostly empty. Cu­ra­tor Roelof van Wyk makes the most of the Kalash­nikovv’s semi-in­dus - trial space. It re­mains white and echoey, aside from a few walls of sickly pink that re­call Rall’s own flesh, dis­played here in dis­con­cert­ing de­tail.

The walls hold a min­i­mal se­lec­tion of seven pho­to­graphs. In the first an­nexe, we en­counter a se­ries of three, pre­sum­ably of Rall in full rub­ber doll gear: a high-gloss black-on-black alien, a hair­less night­mare doll, a bright white corset close-up.

Th­ese preter­nat­u­rally glossy and hy­per­mod­ern im­ages thrillingly dis­play Steyn’s im­pres­sive tech­ni­cal skills.

How­ever, it is the other four pho­to­graphs that work on the gut. First, a trip­tych of Rall’s naked body dis­played full-length on a bed un­der a draped sheet of la­tex, look­ing like a shroud, a me­mento mori, ghost­like, al­most fad­ing into the ma­te­rial that cov­ers him.

And then a fi­nal im­age ma­rooned alone on a pink wall of Rall from be­hind, sit­ting on a bed un­der a piece of la­tex. His skin is painfully hu­man, sag­ging, sun-marked where it peeks out be­neath the per­fec­tion of the im­per­vi­ous rub- ber. This is white mas­culin­ity re­vealed as dam­aged, frail and age­ing.

It is not a de­pic­tion that we get to see of­ten in South Africa. Within our pa­tri­ar­chal and racially rigid cul­ture, male vul­ner­a­bil­ity is viewed as shame­ful, and we are far too quick to ac­cept white­ness’ own claims about its im­pen­e­tra­bil­ity.

Else­where in the first an­nexe is a se­ries of three masks Rall has made: two hu­man heads, one black and one pink, and a pony mask, which is the ex­hi­bi­tion’s most ob­vi­ous nod to the fetish aes­thetic that un­der­lies it.

In the cen­tre of the room is a sus­pended rail on which six of Rall’s full-body la­tex suits hang. One has fish scales, oth­ers are vary­ing shades of pink. The faux flesh on dis­play here is al­most al­ways “white”.

The suits look like they be­long in a dress­ing room, or a hor­ror film, or per­haps a Hierony­mus Bosch paint­ing.

Through the main room into a small dark space is where things re­ally get in­ter­est­ing.

Steyn and Van Wyk have set up a slide show — re­call­ing the work of artists like Nan Goldin and Wolf­gang Till­mans — that flicks through a se­ries of photo sto­ries of Rall as him­self, as Spirit and as mov­ing be­tween the two.

A se­ries of fast-cut shots of Rall dress­ing as Spirit in a bright red out­fit, forc­ing his body into the suit, lac­ing up his thigh-high boots, pulling on his full head mask and then re­lax­ing in an arm­chair in the in­con­gru­ous sur­rounds of what looks like a tacky ho­tel room. Rall as him­self: a close shot of a wrin­kled hand clutch­ing a burned-out cig­a­rette, a soli­tary fig­ure on a windswept beach.

An as­ton­ish­ing meta­mor­pho­sis features in which a bright yel­low Spirit is slowly peeled off in a bath­tub, the shock of old man’s feet hold­ing up her car­toon-perfect body, the ba­nal­ity of the Sun­light dish­wash­ing liq­uid Rall uses to peel him­self out of his other skin, his face sub­merged in bath wa­ter, the con­trast be­tween his two selves painfully stark.

The ex­hi­bi­tion’s open­ing night on Oc­to­ber 26 fea­tured a once-off live per­for­mance from Rall, in which an ini­tially be­mused and then in­creas­ingly en­thralled au­di­ence watched him trans­form into a pow­der-pink ver­sion of Spirit while an­swer­ing some mildly in­tru­sive ques­tions with gen­tle good hu­mour.

The pathos and vul­ner­a­bil­ity ex­posed by Steyn’s im­ages here be­came sub­sumed in Rall’s own vi­sion of him­self as a bold trans­gres­sor — as a per­son who has made and re­made his own self, as a sen­sual trav­eller within the realms of iden­tity.

Asked about the ap­peal of la­tex for him per­son­ally, Rall spoke about the pos­i­tive ef­fects of swad­dling on autis­tic in­fants — the fun­da­men­tal hu­man urge to be held, to be wrapped, as well as the erotic glee of be­ing trans­formed into what is, for him, an ul­ti­mate ob­ject of de­sire.

The per­for­mance came to a nat­u­ral cli­max when Spirit, now fully in­hab­ited, in­vited the au­di­ence to touch her body and was quickly sur­rounded by a swarm of art-scene cool kids, stroking her face like la­tex Je­sus.

Spirit is an un­usual and af­fect­ing ex­hi­bi­tion and a wel­come ad­di­tion to the rich field of South African vis­ual cul­ture.

For a sub­ject that could eas­ily be­come sen­sa­tional, pruri­ent or ex­ploita­tive, it han­dles its ma­te­rial thought­fully, al­low­ing equal space to Steyn and Rall with­out the stan­dard con­straints of “artist” and “sub­ject”.

As well as show­cas­ing the skills of the col­lab­o­ra­tors and of­fer­ing a peek into Rall’s hid­den world, it also sug­gests a nu­anced and con­tin­gent view of white mas­culin­ity, miles away from the vi­o­lent, en­ti­tled machismo that char­ac­terised the apartheid years and con­tin­ues to im­pact on our so­cial land­scape.

Rub­ber doll: One of pho­tog­ra­pher An­to­nia Steyn’s im­ages of la­tex fetishist Gill Rall

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