Ellie Violet Bramley

Between 11 and noon

Alex, Erwan, Mark, Mattias, Maxime, Ronnie, Xavier, and Rasha

Rasha Kahil
Rasha Kahil
Rasha Kahil
Rasha Kahil
Rasha Kahil
Rasha Kahil

On the face of it, this exhibition could appear to do to men what hundreds of years’ worth of male artists did to women – objectify them, beautify them, and ultimately, pacify and control them.


The exhibition literature explains one version of the ideas behind the exhibition: “The artist confronts herself and the 'object' of her desire with her infatuation without allowing 'it' to actively play a part. It is a controlled scenario where she imposes a meeting in her studio – between 11 and noon – and captures what these men represent to her, thus giving rise to a certain vulnerability in the sitter.”


On entering Karantina’s Running Horse Contemporary Art Space, you are confronted by the portraits of seven bare-chested men. Some are dark-haired, others are fairer, even Nordic-looking, one is bespectacled, some have keen eyes, others look mildly vacant. But there is an aesthetic thread running through the series – all look tousled, attractively rumpled, and have variations on the theme of facial hair and tattoos.


In front of each portrait sits a set of headphones. Placing them on you fall down a rabbit hole into the intimate, at once idiosyncratic – he smiles “a gum-baring smile, like I like them” – yet universal landscape that is this exhibition’s true setting. Despite the personality that the audio exudes – there are mentions of Radio 4 and joints smoked in the pastures of the Peak District, potato wedges, Guinness, whiskey and coke, and cheeseburgers, tapping boat shoes on the sticky floor of a night bus back to Shoreditch, Rockabilly tattoos, and salt and pepper hair (“more pepper than salt”) – you never escape the universality of the male/female relationship that is the central tenet of this project. 


You are allowed to insert yourself as a visitor into the work via the audio landscape. In this world, the photographed men are given their identities back: their strawberry blonde moustaches, long fingers, permanent smirks, tilted heads, and tattooed torsos have life breathed back into them by the words you listen to. The objectification of much traditional portraiture (and of your initial experience of these particular portraits) has been subverted, and to alluring effect. 


Rasha Kahil, the Lebanese-born, London-based artist whose work this is, is well aware of the subversion at play, having used it in a previous project, ‘In Your Home’, where she took nude self-portraits of herself in other peoples’ houses around the world over the course of three years, all without the homeowners’ knowing (in her own words, she “intuitively and secretly appropriated other people’s private spaces with my own nude body.”) Speaking to NOW, she explains, “I have tapped into the idea of the objectification of the body through photography, I have done an awful lot of portraits of women, but it was always something that I played with as a reference… I’m very aware of it and I use it to create a new meaning. When you’re aware of it, it takes it in a different direction.”


She continues: “with the men it’s the same sort of thing that you do with women. In a way they’re objectified – they’ve removed their clothing and they’re a body, so I play with the same sort of references, but because I’m a woman and because I’m attracted sensually to these men, it gives a different meaning, it becomes more personal.”


This is a project that started organically. Some of the men she knew better than others – some from work, some were friends already, some she just knew from passing. She asked them bluntly, “can I take your portrait?” They knew she was a photographer, so this didn’t come out of the blue. It was only once she had taken a few photographs that she became aware of what she was doing, “I knew that I was picking men that I had an affinity towards, that physically intrigued me or attracted me somehow. They were my types. I realized I wasn’t just picking anyone… I was doing an unconscious edit. That was when I realized, oh okay, this is what I’m doing.”


She would give each of them rigid instructions: come to my flat between 11 and noon (that was when the light was how she wanted it), sit on a stool in the corner of my living room with no top – “so they didn’t have the mark of clothing” – and don’t look at me or at the camera: “I wanted it to be that my gaze wasn’t confronted with theirs.”


Not only does the installation give you a personal and often charming window onto these men, but in this world the photographer gives you a uniquely frank and ultimately beguiling offering of herself, bringing out her own vulnerability. If it weren’t for the guileless descriptions she offers of her meetings with these men, the exhibition could have fallen flat, but her honesty is magnetic. “I try to get his attention, but I feel too clumsy, too Arab, too old,” the artist’s voiceover explains in front of the portrait of the glasses-wearing man who we learn is a “strange mix of posh schoolboy and sympathetic heckler.” In another she explains how she feels too much in her animated moments: “my plate is too pink, my smile too naïve and my eyes too intrusive.” In another, she reveals cluelessness, which although rescued somewhat by interest, reveals a feeling of inadequacy: “He talks history and I’m all social observation.” In more than one audio she reveals feeling too short, in another she feels “short, but in a good way.”


The audio for the man with the husky-dog coloured hair describes how they sit with 36 pictures of her nude body, breasts exposed, “splayed on the table.” Here the practice of portraiture is being played with perhaps most dynamically. She admits, “I like that he doesn’t flinch at my flesh,” instead chatting design, paper stocks, and font options.


Although the exhibition literature could have you believing that this is the installation of a bunny-boiling type, it is in fact a nuanced and interesting look at relationships between people, specifically men and women, and the line between public and private. Of the self-revelatory aspect of this exhibition, the kind of public confession, Kahil admits: “I do grapple with it sometimes, because I wonder where does it come from, but I do this work because I enjoy it, there’s no forethought, It all works quite intuitively. I know I do put myself out there a lot, and especially with this project, I knew I was telling them somehow you know… but I felt it was something that I wanted to crystallize in the project, the relationship between people, especially in the context of the photographer and their subject, it just kind of felt right.”


This is no empty confession, but one made with honesty and lack of artifice, and as a result it really works.


Between 11 and noon will be on display at the Running Horse until March 16 2013.


For more from the artist herself, you can visit her blog, 'La gueule du monde'.

Rasha Kahil, Between 11 and noon, 2012, C-print, 70 x 85 cm, Edition of 5 (Image Courtesy of The Running Horse)

you fall down a rabbit hole into the intimate, at once idiosyncratic – he smiles “a gum-baring smile, like I like them” – yet universal landscape that is this exhibition’s true setting