Originally published on The Seen, July 2014.
“…Heva, naked Eve. She had no navel. Gaze. Belly without blemish, bulging big, a buckler of taut vellum, no, whiteheaped corn, orient and immortal, standing from everlasting to everlasting. Wombed in sin darkness I was too, made not begotten. By them, the man with my voice and my eyes and a ghostwoman with ashes on her breath. They clasped and sundered, did the coupler’s will.”
— James Joyce, Ulysses, Episode Three, “Proteus.”
Picture a masculine torso, identified primarily by a single ridge running down the center of the photograph; it divides the abdomen between a subtle range of light and dark gray. At its base, the image is punctuated with a delicate field of hair: a threshold pointing just beyond the frame where the pubic area begins. The image would function like an aerial landscape – a desert, maybe – except for a curious belly button blooming in the center, like the bulb of a very fat tulip. Its unusual shape pulls focus, recalling what one tends to forget: a remote point of origin just beyond memory. This torso was once frail, vulnerable, fat, and forming in the dark. This body came from a point of non-being, passing through the hips of its mother into a structured world, whose human society tends to favor binary opposites.
Belly Button, 1986, hangs unobtrusively on a wall of the Grand Palais in Paris amongst over 200 stunning, familiar, and sometimes provocative images taken by Robert Mapplethorpe from 1970 until his death in 1989. The black and white navel might seem the less remarkable example of themes that reappear throughout the rest of the show, where classic studies of ideal male bodies glisten dangerously in high contrast, cropped to emphasize a geometrical, almost anonymous body. Those abstract figures stand juxtaposed by personable celebrity headshots. As in one wall arrangement, Arnold Schwarzenegger, Isabella Rossellini, Grace Jones, and Louis Bourgeois hang among other identifiables, salon style, around a portrait of Warhol, himself framed in a cross, like another point of origin. Additionally, religious crosses appear throughout, as do pentagrams, orchids, and geometric angles. Such themes wrestle under parameters prescribed by the camera — the dramatic tension of dark and light — attempting to capture a symbolic opposition the artist is at once suspicious of, and beholden to. read more