CHICAGO — So you see an ad on Craigslist that goes like this:
I’m looking to hear from anyone (any gender, couples, singles) about their desires, fetishes, and why you are looking for that here. I also want a photo of your hands.
Please message me if you are sane and can carry a conversation.
If you tried to a) guess the gender of the person who posted that ad, and b) the predominant gender of the people who replied to it, what would you say? If you think that the answer at least to b) is “males,” you would be correct. The answer to a) is “female” — an artist named Marlo Koch, to be exact. In Both Sides of the Mirror, a show of video pieces and photographs at C33 Gallery, she presents the results of exposing herself to the world of mainly male desire in ways that are amused, satirical, and ultimately tenderhearted.
Most of the video pieces show Koch enacting specific acts chosen from the extensive catalogue of weird things that guys get turned on by: repeatedly stuffing a cushion up the front of her shirt so it bulges like she’s pregnant; slowly painting her toenails; letting honey drip from her heavily-rouged lips; tipping raspberries onto the floor and crushing them with her bare feet. “Imaginary Scalpel,” the most successful of the videos, shows the artist doing naked sit-ups in front of a hardcore porn movie, which is alternately obscured and revealed between each sit-up. It suggests someone who is doing a home workout routine after getting two different categories of calisthenics slightly confused. In contrast to the other videos, which have a flat, passive point of view and seem like quotations from other people’s work, the artist seems more engaged in this piece. Her apparent lack of care about the shtupping in the video she is watching throws the question back to us as viewers: are we watching the naked girl working out, or the half-glimpsed video of the couple going at it? And why?
More than half of the wall space is taken up by photos of hands that Koch received from people all over the world in response to that Craigslist ad. For every person who replied to the ad, the artist engaged in an online conversation with the respondent, which (according to the artist in answer to a question from Hyperallergic) often went along these lines:
Them: I am contacting regarding your post looking for a man to please you, if u still interested please send me your number
Koch: Please send me a photo of your hands and something about your fetish. Thanks.
Them: Are you really a woman?
Koch: Yes, send me a photo of your hands.
Them: I want to see you first.
Koch: *sends mildly suggestive photo of myself*
Them: I love that it’s so sexy. *sends a blurry photo of their hand and a dick pic* let’s meet up, what’s your number?
Koch: Thank you for the photo of your hand. I am not interested in meeting up. What is your fetish?
*no reply for a few days*
Them: what’s your number sweetie?
Some of the subjects’ descriptions of their fetishes can be read on a monitor in the gallery, or in a brochure at the gallery desk. The choice to request that each person send a photo of one or both of his hands is a brilliant stroke, with several layers of meaning. The work seems like a parody of dick selfies, though of course hands can be as fetishized as any other part of the body, so to some people they could still be read as stimulation material (as it were). The hands are anonymous, and perhaps the senders thought that it was an easy part of the transaction for them (I get a “mildly suggestive” photo of you, and all you want is a picture of my hands? Here you go!).
Yet you don’t have to look at the photos for very long before you start to see how incredibly personal they are — each hand is unique in its shape, color, texture, blemishes, and each person has chosen an unintentionally revealing setting to take the picture (bathrooms, of course, but also corners of bedrooms, in front of the TV, hotel rooms, holding a switchblade, clutching a cigar). Some men photographed one side of a hand, but quite a few included shots of the back of the hand and the palm. Were they so proud of their hands, or were they unintentionally allowing the hand to stand in for another body part? Why does the hand of an Egyptian guy look like it’s been damaged by fire or accident? And why exactly did that man from Chicago show his hands holding those vicious-looking knives after revealing that he likes “having my clothes cut off with scissors by complete strangers”? Gradually, the sensation of observing these photos moves from prurience and a perhaps satirical impulse on the part of the artist, to a moment where narratives start to emerge, stories of the ferocious indiscriminate rapacity of sexual desire, and the pathos of the forlorn men who are desperate for any form of contact.
Without realizing it, the subjects of “Men at Play” are helping to create a synecdoche for their fetishes, where their hands stand in for a whole world of uninhibited eros. One can’t help but admire Koch’s achievement in presenting such texts and photos without judgement. She starts by gently mocking her respondents, but ultimately she is much more interested in digging through this soiled material to unearth real people with personalities, in a way that the subjects themselves seem to be singularly unaware.
Marlo Koch: Both Sides of the Mirror continues at C33 Gallery (33 East Congress Parkway, Chicago) through December 20.