“I’m looking for things I’ve never seen before,” Robert Mapplethorpe once infamously said, uncannily condensing his entire art practice and being in one sentence. Photographer, queer icon, or enfant terrible: Mapplethorpe is as much a shape-shifting enigma as he is an artist defined by uncompromising curiosity. In his work, the human shape transcends surface physicality to enter a realm where shadow and light play a game of honesty and eroticism. Naturally, the American artist’s provocative oeuvre has carved its own distinctive path in both art history and common discourse—numerous creatives and gallery spaces have paid homage to Mapplethorpe over the years after his death of AIDS in the late ‘80s.
Next Tuesday, June 18, Amsterdam’s Melkweg presents Eyes on Robert—a collaboration between Melkweg Expo and Holland Festival that reinterprets Mapplethorpe’s work and reflects upon the ways in which sexuality is represented in contemporary visual culture. Inviting 8 photographers to produce original work inspired by their iconic predecessor, co-curators Fleurie Kloostra and Tjade Bouma wish to explore the extent to which Mapplethrope’s work holds relevant to discussions around eroticism, sexuality, and the human body today.
Among the diverse selection of artists (some of which are Glamcult-favourites Ari Versluis and Dustin Thierry), photographer Ferry van der Nat’s work caught our thirsty attention. Starring Gus Drake and emanating signature Van der Nat eroticism, the original work we’ll see presented by the Dutch photographer is at once a nude archetype and a challenge to paradigmatic masculinity. “A new masculinity is rising,” van der Nat proclaims, and his sex-infused yet dreamy Polaroids embody this new direction in which today’s representation of the body form is headed. In anticipation of Eyes on Robert, we caught up with Ferry van der Nat to find out more about the new work, his muses and social media’s influence on sexuality.
Hey, Ferry! Eyes on Robert opens next Tuesday, tell us a bit about your role in the exhibition.
Well, I’m just part of a group of talented artists, invited and curated by Fleurie [Kloostra] and Tjade [Bouma]. I do have my own wall and I shot 4 men with Mapplethorpe in the back of my mind. Sometimes literally, sometimes with just a layer on it, but the overarching idea is to show masculine beauty and sexuality. In my case, this is more of an outside-in perspective, as opposed to Mapplethorpe, who also lived the lifestyle he shot and portrayed.
In what ways is Robert Mapplethorpe’s work, and presence as a queer individual, of importance today?
Robert Mapplethorpe will be as important today and in the future to come as he was 30 years ago. Although the shock value nowadays is, of course, less evident, by just looking at the pictures it’s painfully clear in what era he lived. The unapologetic way he presented his work as well as himself as a person and a gay rights fighter; he beautified and normalised the obscure. Even though newer generations might take it for granted, there’s always that moment in time when you must realise where it all came from.
The exhibition will present your work in the setting of a gallery space. How does that space differ from exhibiting your work on Instagram, or an art book?
In this setting it’s quite different, since it’s commissioned by the curators. So, it’d be interesting to see what they see in my work as well as it being a cohesive exhibtion overall.
I did have 2 solo exhibitions before, curated by Jasper [Bode] and myself at The Ravestijn Gallery, and that was a changing moment; seeing all those pictures on the wall and noticing the common factor in the work was eye-opening and really the reason for me to go on with photography.
You’re the biggest fan of Polaroid. How did that relationship begin?
My obsession with Polaroid began when I was a makeup artist, many moons ago. In fact, I always loved the Polaroids so much more than the original shots. They were just so fluid, so forgiving, so dreamy…
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One way to describe your work would be “homo-erotic”. How does this translate to the working environment in which the works are created?
That’s always so alien to me. If I only shot women, I’d say you wouldn’t call it “homo-erotic”. This being said, I do look differently at female beauty, in a more admirational, goddess-like manner; less sexual perhaps, but I do love the feminine shape as much as I admire the masculine one. And in an unexpected way, that can also translate to a deeper connection on another level. As for the working environment with men in the studio, it’s a playful manor, a lot of fun with cookies and tea.
What makes someone your muse?
Sometimes, there’s that instant connection and mutual understanding that makes it a special day. And I really admire such connection with other people, so it always stays in my heart. Once a muse, always a muse.
If there’s someone from the past he could revive and work with, who would it be?
I’m forever obsessed with Richy Gallo and Tony Ward. And, of course, my all time muse, Mr. Joe Dallessandro.
Back to erotics, what’s your opinion on the ways sexuality is represented in contemporary visual culture?
That’s a difficult subject, since it seems we’re censored and “protected” by social media, but otherwise we somehow remain so dangerous and cruel.
Has social media shifted the ways we perceive sexuality, the nude and erotics too?
Erotic beauty is much more hidden it seems, yet sexuality is also constantly in your face. Even if you just wander about in Amsterdam, ancient art nudity is all over the city’s buildings. All around the world, in museums and beyond them, adoration of the nude form is beyond-believe and people travel all over the globe see that beauty. In a way, it’s a world upside down.
What about concepts of masculinity? Are there any developments of the concept that you’ve noticed recently?
Very much so! A new masculinity is rising: muscles, body hair, sultry smiles and jawlines are no longer hidden in the ‘80s, but are marching up in the fashion world again.Brands like MSGM, Jacquemus and Ludovic de Saint Sernin, for instance, are so wonderful in showcasing this new male erotism.