Interview Examiner.com

Interview by Francis Xavier for Examiner.com

Artist Hester Scheurwater blurs the line between private and public

There are those who believe we live in a voyeuristic society; some like to watch and some like to be watched. Artist Hester Scheurwater is exploring voyeurism, the power of female sexuality, and the hypocrisy of social media with her eye cast not outward but inward. She is using herself as a canvas; often to reflect the tenuous boundaries between what is public and what is private.

For those who are unfamiliar with your work how would you describe your photography? Your short films?

The tension between what is happening inside my head and how I act on the outside is what my work is about – this border between private and public. In trying to reach this frontier, I make use of my own body and present fantasy self-images. Indoctrinated, obsessed and fascinated by this view of the ‘sensual seductive’ woman as a sex object, I try, almost obsessively, to comply with this image through self-portraiture. These fantasy images are reminiscent of desires, fears, temptation, seduction, violence and sex – self-images as sex objects, devoid of any commercial frills; knowing full well that I can never compete or live up to the image.

The mirrored self-images are my way of reacting to the imitated and fake media images that constantly call upon our imagination without ever intending to be taken too seriously. By switching the ‘subject-object’ relationship, I try to deconstruct this call’s effect without being victimized by it.

Within my research, there are several ways that I explore the boundaries between public and private. In the ‘Self-obsessed’ iPhone series, I explore my own limitations and fantasy images. The exhibitionist nature of these images is enhanced by placing them in the context of Facebook/Website space – an environment that represents the convergence of exhibitionism and voyeurism in the living room-to-living room ‘upload’.

When did you start taking erotic photographs of yourself and what changes have you noticed in your photos from then until now?

I studied monumental art at the Royal Academy of Fine Arts in The Hague and started in 1997 with filmmaking, video performances, installations and ‘wild beaming’ (projecting moving images in public space) making use of my own body as I still do now. Last year an overview of all my video work was exhibit in the Stedelijk Museum Zwolle in the Netherlands,

In 2009, I started my Facebook project in which I daily uploaded photographs, in which I use my own body as a sex object in corresponding poses and in which I reflect on voyeurism and exhibitionism. Within a few years, my daily photo series had grown from a modest Facebook project (using an iPhone) to a serious photo diary (using better technology). Now I exhibit my work in various galleries and museums and at the same time, I use the Facebook platform to launch ideas and photographs and ‘shoot ‘ them ‘back’.

The controversy surrounding your work is intriguing; where do you think this controversy stems from? How are you getting along with Facebook now?

Facebook is all about looking and being looked at. You are given access to the lives of others and, in your turn, you are encouraged to share details of your own private life. But it is also very much about what is permitted and what is not. You have to comply with standards of behavior in order to remain part of the community. People present themselves in a way that’s socially acceptable. They stage themselves. In this sense it gives the illusion of truth and openness while involves a great deal of coercion and performance. And this was the very reason for which I had chosen Facebook as a platform for my uploads in the first place. I was publicizing a set of overtly exhibitionistic self-portraits on a platform that was all about voyeurism and exhibitionism as forms of social control. By doing so, I was testing the boundaries of the new medium and its users

By twisting around role patterns and opinions of the man-woman domain through status-updates and photographs, I mirror the reactions on my work, which visualizes the hypocrisy. Sometimes, this reality turns out to be confronting. The standards ironed out and sometimes circumvented by the common media suddenly become the subject of discussion in my work, both on Facebook and in the media hype that arose around my work. I explore those boundaries by engaging in a direct confrontation with the observer on my website and on social media such as Facebook.

The interaction between maker and receiver is an important aspect in the presentation of my work. It makes it not just about me, but also about social perception. My work confronts Facebook and my accounts have been blocked several times in the past few years. I see that as an example of the so-called freedom that Facebook likes to represent.

Can you talk a little about how you compose your photographs? Does the idea come first, or a setting? A fantasy?

The question of who is looking and how a woman has to present herself in order to be seen as one, have been recurring issues in my work. In the iPhone self-portrait, series I was trying in an almost compulsive way to comply to contemporary codes of femininity as we abundantly see them reflected in all sorts of advertisements from billboards to MTV videos. These codes define women as sex objects and link a woman’s identity with her sexuality. I was trying to appropriate these clichés of the ‘sensual, seductive’ woman and flip them on their head. As I like to say: “I take them in, chew them, and spit them out again.” I shoot back.

In my own personal way, I try to reflect on existing images and ideas in a prescribed ideal world. In many of my photos the rooms in my own house, e.g. the bathroom, the bedroom, the studio, the attic, and the garden, form the setting. In these comfortable spaces, I compose my images mixed with the inside out fantasies. It feels like it all comes together.

What is the message behind your work? What story is your work telling?

Through my images, created out of my own desires, I react to fake media images. I turn around the subject-object relations: my self-images show that I am not a victim of the ‘sexual’ visual culture that is forced on us. I make an assertive reply, in which I try to show what I feel and see in what is forced on us as ‘fake’ every day.

Are men and women afraid of blatant female sexuality? If so, how does the fear differ between the sexes?

It is ‘normal’ for male artists to look at the female body and turn it into the object of their art. It becomes an aberration when it is a woman who handles the chisel or stands behind the camera. I think it’s not about the difference between the sexes but about the social perception of the beholder. We are constantly bombed with sexually loaded images everywhere. We just accept them, in the images there is a certain distance. In my photographs, there is no distance. I do the same out of my own desire, for some people male or female; this starts to be ‘confronting’ and controversial.

 What has the response been in American in regards to your work and how is it different/same as a European response?

 In the Netherlands, my self-portraits caused controversy, discussion and fed the media hype about the sexualization of society. The question was raised if it was pornography or art. In my feeling, there was no middle ground. On the international level I have the feeling my work is positively praised. With recent publications in important photo magazines such as CPHOTO and European Photography; the self-portraits are presented between big daddies such as Guy Bourdin, Winogrand, and Lartique .

 I have been active as a visual artist for more than a decade and on an international level, my work shares links with international feminist art. In the United States my performances, videos, and multi-media installations have been the object of several exhibitions over the past years and were part of feminist programs and exhibitions, including those at the Brooklyn Museum in New York, the Blanton Museum of Art in Austin and the Nelson-Atkin Museum of Art in Kansas City.

 I have yet to exhibit my self-portraits in the United States. Maybe the recent publication of my work in international photo-magazines and the publication of my artist’s book SHOOTING BACK edited by Walter Keller will change that in the future. Who knows?

 What has using your body as an erotic canvas taught you about your own sexuality?

 Actually, I guess that without my own wild sexual power, there wouldn’t be any photographs.

 What does being brave mean to you?

 To be open-minded, to not care about what the judging minds of other people would say and to do the things I really want to do with no fear and no boundaries.

 What’s next for you in 2012?

 I have got two upcoming shows during the art fair “Art Rotterdam” starting at 8 February, and my own book ‘SHOOTING BACK’, edited by Walter Keller, is being published in 2012. Furthermore, I am working on my concept of making intimate ‘single edition books’ in commission. And I am working on a Zine.

 Where can my readers find you online?

 www.hesterscheurwater.com

 and facebook

 and twitter.

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Hester Scheurwater