Ryan McGinley will exhibit a new series of photographs titled Moonmilk next month at Alison Jacques Gallery in London. McGinley and a group of models/friends/collaborators went cave exploring aka spelunking in the nude (nudity is an essential aspect of McGinley’s approach to picture-making, so there’s nothing unusual about this aspect of the work). The resulting images are breathtakingly beautiful–Edenic, even, despite the underground setting–each of them classic McGinley in their portrayal of timeless youth, freedom and, importantly, in their emphasis on adventure. Indeed, when McGinley was interviewed by Bad At Sports, he spoke of the enduring influence of children’s books on his work, particularly those that feature brave young kids setting out to explore the unknown. (I’ve always loved those types of books, too; the Wizard of Oz series by L. Frank Baum being my all-time favorites–I still read them before going to sleep when I’m going through a particularly stressful time in my life).
Images from the Moonmilk series have been ping ponging around the Internet lately, and when I saw them I was immediately reminded of Miru Kim’s ongoing forays into various subterranean systems, including the Paris catacombs and the New York city subway. Kim’s images feature her own nude body as the lone figure in these landscapes. Usually, though not always, Kim goes into these places entirely on her own, without the use of an assistant.
McGinley’s photographs are more artfully composed than Kim’s are, more mysterious and more expansive in their evocation of a hidden world waiting to be explored. Overall, they’re just more “More.” Kim portrays little about these cryptic worlds as being magical, even when she’s posing in front of a modern-day “cave painting” of a starry night sky (one that’s most likely been painted by an otherwise homeless underground denizen). Instead, she’s interested in physically exploring an urban unconscious whose decrepit inhabitants and landscape have been “deleted,” as she’s put it, or otherwise repressed, like the scary monsters of childhood. Kim herself looks like a frightened animal in a lot of her shots: body crouched, clinging awkwardly against the wall as she painstakingly navigates these treacherous spaces.
The reasons why McGinley chooses to photograph his models nude is fairly obvious, given his overarching areas of interest; but Kim’s choice to represent herself this way is more puzzling and problematic. In interviews she’s explained that her use of nudity is an attempt to make her image less time and culture-specific, but that kind of logic doesn’t really hold up given the loaded ways in which we already view the female nude in photography and elsewhere. For me, her decision to pose nude only makes sense when the photographs are viewed as a kind of performative image-making à la the work of Ana Mendieta.
Despite their shortcomings, there is something deeply powerful about Kim’s underground explorations that makes them more provocative and ultimately of greater interest to me than McGinley’s undeniably lovely ones. For one thing, there’s an actual story behind each of Kim’s images to be unearthed in the history of the place she’s temporarily inhabiting. McGinley’s are suggestive in regards to narrative, but their impact is largely mythic and iconic in nature. They’re about FREEDOM, ADVENTURE and BEAUTY as they apply to those slim-limbed Caucasian twentysomethings who still have the time to travel around with and participate in McGinley’s undoubtedly life-affirming projects. But even more compelling is the matter of the sheer guts it takes for a woman (or anyone, really) to explore such places on her own, never mind the nude part.
McGinley’s photographs do inspire a certain sense of yearning, but for me, that desire feels uncomfortably similar to the kind that makes me want to go out and buy stuff to make my life (and me) look better. It’s a desire that will always be unfulfilled. Kim’s photographs, despite their sometimes clumsy literalism, make me think about the truly mind-expanding things that can happen when a shy young woman chooses to go out adventuring all on her own, into exactly those types of deep, dark, fairytale-type places that everyone is always telling you not to go into, or else.
Or else what?