Desire – Digital Age Revisions at IMMA

Desire – Digital Age Revisions at IMMA

“This exhibition follows the development of desire through the lens of the Eurocentric male gaze and its influence in shaping depiction of desire in contemporary culture across the world.”

— wall text prefacing IMMA’s Desire: A Revision from the 20th Century to the Digital Age.

There were few males at Desire: A Revision from the 20th Century to the Digital Age for any male gaze to be coming from. I saw only a handful of men. More were perhaps behind, or above, twisting the eyeball of a security camera on the ceiling. In theory no men need be present to form a male gaze, since its axis is observed within the work of art itself. Nonetheless, the male gaze rarely seemed to be the concern of the art itself, at least not to the extent suggested by the opening wall text’s wave down of the concept, outstretching the exhibition’s hallways like land for it to speculate on. The invocation of the male gaze is not unusual. What is unusual is that the male gaze may have otherwise passed this show entirely, ignored by artwork that is not only suspect of the male gaze but the adequacy of the notion altogether.

Facing the opening wall text is Marcel Duchamp’s Rasee L.H.O.O.Q. (1965), an invitation card fronted with a reproduction of the Mona Lisa. A male artist appropriates a work by a male artist and, still, it’s the female’s gaze that’s mesmerizing. In her seminal essay criticising the filmic male gaze, “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema,” Laura Mulvey conceptualizes the male gaze as an active vector unto a passive subject. It’s the passivity that the Mona Lisa disrupts into something aware. Awake.

Passivity is a pall missing from the first part of the hallway, representing works from the twentieth century. The circumstances change with the Digital Age. In two large-format paintings of reclining nudes, Mickalene Thomas captures a dawn of new vacancies. Both women have collaged elements that become exaggerated around the orbital region, which are plastered over with sleep mask-shaped photographs of eyes (Fig 1 & 2). The distortion of eyes is a defense mechanism across almost all the works in the latter half of the exhibition. Eyes are closed or emptied or plastered over. They are decoys, foreclosing contact with a real person or even reality.

Fig. 1
Fig. 2

A human’s eye is supposed to speak of desire in spite of itself. The pupil enlarges when it sees an object of love. Desire as dilation. In Desire: A Revision, the pupil is shut off. The beady eyes in Genieve Figgis’s work shrink as far as they go (Fig. 3), sometimes shriveled out of existence entirely: in an untitled canvas propped against the pillows of a Victorian bed, Figgis represents a kissing scene where the pink of the lovers’ mouths is being pulled and stretched like taffy (Fig. 4). Both their eyes are white hot. This is not one male gaze — these are two glares.

Fig. 3
Fig. 4

In the next room, Koji Nakazono’s works share the white hot machine eyes (Fig. 5). Instead of fibrous tissue there is light. Sometimes these machine eyes are assigned a moral valence: in the Transformers series, autobots (good) have blue eyes while decepticons (evil) have red. Regardless of virtue, the eye signifies consciousness switched on. A power switch. It is in incorporating these non-humans that the male gaze becomes an insufficient category in describing the power dynamics vectored by eyes. The male gaze insists on domination; the glare does not. The male gaze wants; the glare wants not. The denominator that they share is a default to dehumanize — with the male gaze, that’s a failure to recognize the subjectivity of the subject, and in the glare, a confusion about subjecthood altogether.


The concept of the male gaze can be an excuse, dismissing other uninnocent ways that a person (and non-person) can regard an other. The stare, for one. What we don’t understand we stare at. A gaze knows what it looks for. While the gaze has, or knows, its power over what it wants, a stare is more starving. It does not stand across from something and intimidate — to the gaze’s push, the stare is a pull — but is like a fish with its lips against the glass. The complexity is captured by Figgis’s The Spectator (2019) (Fig. 6), hung high above a door frame in the room with the Victorian bed. The Spectator features a reclining nude, indeed observed by a man with a male gaze, but a man who is an absurd caricature nervously crossing his legs. He is a lesser harm to the more insidious spectator, which is the framed picture of an eye above the fireplace. The principles of the male gaze are thus split from the man and diffused to the surroundings. It is as with any surveilling gaze: the panoptical eyeball, twisted sometimes by a man, sometimes by a woman, sometimes by no one at all.

Fig. 6

The end of Desire is a reason to stare. Elaine Hoey’s two video game installations occupy the back of the long hallway like thrones. I reach them by processing. Two controllers lie on pink carpet and wire into seperate TVs. Both screens show a solitary figure (Fig. 7), alone and naked in a low mountainous region. I stare not at the male bodies, their genitals airbrushed, but at the bodies’ borders. The men are heaving. These are not the first video game characters to be run to exhaustion. Characters are often made to cross grids until they are naked and bald with their lungs on fire. The man’s finger moves back and forth as the blood rushes to his extremities. There is a tan around his neckline, as though he was once wearing a shirt and soaking in the sun. There is no sunlight in the air. The outside has no heft, no feeling, depleted even of the oxygen that circulates desperately within his own, nervous system. His exhale ends with him. Foam at the mouth. His only given instinct is to run. I pick up the controller, thinking of nothing to do with him but let him run as he is told, and maybe, because I have time, run him as far as he will go. Maybe he’ll find me the boundary line if I run him there, the both of us passing time to the soles of his feet pounding against the ground, kicking up nothing. I do not know what will happen at the boundary. Maybe it will be like Truman Show, where instead of meeting the programmer he meets the player. He’ll be congratulated on reaching the finish since he ran so hard to get there. My thumb on the thumbstick. I zone out, staring at him as, presumably, he stares at the mountains he is running toward. Running clears the mind. Running is the only thing the human body has to brag about. Physiologically, there’s an animal more evolutionarily advanced than us in every way except this one. We outlast predators. This man might outlast us, there in the mountain range where just now, by force, he reaches the very end of the world. I know he’s at the edge because he’s gently repelled from continuing, as though by a magnet. I have him stalk the rim of the limit until the two of us reach a corner, where the one boundary makes a perpendicular with the other. At this corner, due to a computer glitch maybe, his right foot disappears. It looks like he is stuck in the mud to his ankle, grounded there, so that my eyes can stare as the force of my thumb makes him pivot, pivot in a circle leftward, where he would turn to face mountains, more mountains, me.

Fig. 7

We look at each other. Nothing is said or exchanged. He breathes heavy. After a few moments like this, I put down the controller at his and my feet and retreat down the hallway, turning to glance at a sculpture with the face of a Neoclassical sculpture. Its stare is blank toward me as well.

Frani O'Toole

is a writer currently based in Ireland. Her art criticism has been featured in The Guardian, The Brooklyn Rail, and Hyperallergic, while her fiction was most recently featured in The Stinging Fly.

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