The Stereoscopic Eye

Inessential views of art and photography.

Talking About Paying For Sex

Waterloo Road, Dublin

(Waterloo Road, Dublin from the Talking About Paying for Sex series by Irish artist Hugh McElveen.)

This weekend we visited Dublin to view PhotoIreland 2013 exhibitions. One of the most powerful and interesting exhibits was Hugh McElveen’s Talking about Paying for Sex at BIO.SPACE 033. As the title states, McEvleen’s work focuses on opening up a dialogue about the current debate in Ireland concerning the legislation and regulation of the sex industry.

To begin with, the location of the gallery itself lends to the discussion McElveen is seeking: it is located on Charles Street, just off of the commercial and tourist centres of Dublin in a somewhat run-down looking residential area. The point here is that it is difficult to notice or find without purposely looking for it. This theme is central then to the large images that fill the small exhibition space – surveillance-like panoramas of locations in the city where sex work occurs. The images are taken with a three-aperture pin-hole camera (designed by the artist himself) creating a strong sense of voyeurism. Multiple views of the same location converge to create a unique topography of these areas, mirroring McIlveen’s assertion that the debate around the sex industry in Ireland is itself multi-faceted.

Along with these large-scale photographs are a series of ‘peep-show’-like stereoscopic 3D images. These are also of locations in Dublin of the sex industry but are accompanied by audio recordings reflecting the public debate around the issue. The spectator is confronted by arguments for and against the sex industry, opposing views coming simultaneously at you from each ear. This clash of audible viewpoints confuses the spectator, reflecting the complexity of the sex industry debate, while at the same time contrasting with the sharper, 3D visual account presented through the stereoscope. The sum of this effect is powerful and a bit disorientating, and through it McElveen remains neutral on the subject, allowing the spectator to make their own decisions on the subject.

However, a fourth audio track also runs with one of the images which more clearly expresses McElveen’s personal view on the debate. This is made up of the artist himself reading out loud, verbatim, a series of punters’ reviews of sex workers found on Internet forums. The reviews are uncomfortable to listen to as they objectify female sex workers to the extreme. Bodies become commodities as sex workers are subjected to a scale of being good or bad value for money.

We were fortunate enough to have the artist in the gallery when we visited. Hugh McElveen was very friendly and open to discussion about the exhibition/sex industry debate and this added a great deal of context to the work. While this was a very positive element to the exhibit (for us), we do feel that more information could be given to the average viewer for times when the artist is not present. In the past year the Irish media has brought the sex industry issue into the public sphere, exposing viewers to different aspects of the debate. However, the explorative and ethnographic nature of McElveen’s project (it is part of his ongoing post-graduate academic work) remains somewhat hidden as the exhibition is now displayed. Context is required but somewhat lacking.  Furthermore, an explanation of his production and inquiry processes would add depth to the work. An example of this is the fact that the audio-visual ‘peep-show’ installation is mobile. McElveen explained this to us and that the purpose was to bring the installation into communities, on the street, in order to take the debate out of liberal-minded art and academic circles alone, but we would have not known this otherwise. More information signposted at the gallery would help.

These criticisms are slight, however, as the work is very potent and fosters the debate on the sex industry that McElveen is seeking. His images are also photographically very engaging and work alone, even on a purely aesthetic level. They are also innovative, especially his artist-made pin-hole panoramas and stereographs. These tap into the current public fascination with lomography aesthetics which pull the viewer/voyeur well in to the political and moral debate.

101_3257 101_3258For us, this was a highlight of PhotoIreland 2013.

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3 comments on “Talking About Paying For Sex

  1. My Desert Love
    September 26, 2015

    Wow. Sounds like an extraordinary exhibit. Photography has to be so much more? Do you think there would be any way for the work to speak for itself rather than all the additional? Sounds more like a learning rather than “art” exhibit. A lot of talking to instead of just absorbing. Or maybe it was a good balance? Artist interaction seems to be core to your experience. I am just rambling.

    So very unusual for me. It is very interesting to read and even though my mind wanders I will retain my judgement, because such experiences have to be made first-hand of course. Thanks so much for sharing.

    • northnomads
      September 26, 2015

      Thanks for your thoughtful comment. As far as I know, the artist wanted to get people to interact with the work as it is. I am not sure what you mean by all the additional. The way the photographs were presented mirrored the process of voyeurism, objectification and selection of sex customers, that is why I see the boxes not as something additional but as something core to the project. I like the idea of taking photography to the next level and explore its experiential qualities. This work certainly achieves it. The video projection next door was very intriguing too and offered additional context to the project. This project and the work of this artist is something that he would locate within the field of visual sociology, rather than of art photography. Thereby perhaps you feel it as unsual, but it is more common than what you might think. However, these kind of projects do not often find its way into art galleries. If you are interested in knowing more about visual sociology, have a look at this blog. https://visualsociologynuig.wordpress.com/ We use it in the class I teach at university and there are good student refelections in there about the point of visual sociology. Really happy to read your comment and to see that the post gave you some food for thought.

      • My Desert Love
        September 26, 2015

        “Visual Sociology” – Thank you for the reference. Will definitely explore. Yes, it does put this in a different context. I do believe in the value of photography as a significant craft. Where the challenge is to invoke an experience through a one-dimensional frame. Includes the technical expertise. Categorizing this as another type of installation or media experience does help define it more to me.

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