They say one should write about what one knows, has experienced in real life; and so it is with Coco Young, a former fashion model and artist’s muse who has swapped the catwalk for Art History and launched her career in the visual arts with the photobook Vanity, published by London based Bemojake.
The shimmering cover of the book alone alludes to the content, which translates the language of surface beauty into a project exploring the depth of this idea using the ancient Greek fable of Narcissus as the premise for her visual and conceptual exploration.
The project runs along two parallel dimensions between physical analogue film photography and information built digital photography. Using film to capture in documentary style the young and beautiful as they pose and play in streetlight and club light, her portraits of handsome youth offer glimpses of what is generally considered to be the set aesthetic for beauty since ancient times. In their blurring and monochromatic simplicity these portraits offer moments of intimate seduction and dreamlike fragments of a hot summer’s day spent whiling away hours in the throes of youthful indifference. Pages of slender faces in personal repose slide in to Young’s depth of field, lit by rays of sun, camera flash or television screen for but a second, yet long enough to find appreciation and magazine glamour chic.
Never more has a culture of modern times mirrored the long passed but eternally resounding culture of Greek idealism. Our black mirror culture of digital egotism and selfie-obsessed indulgence permeates Vanity, with Young suggesting that the god of our age is Narcissus Wifi. This mirroring is directly referenced in one cogent spread in which a harshly lit alabaster white sculpture of a young maiden stairs intently at an object in her slim hand. Her eyes seem fixed in a temporary thought of wonder and amusement, her supple breasts rendered in cold stone yet suggesting warmth, while her other arm drops almost lifeless as though oblivious of any inclination beyond that which captivates her gaze. On the page opposite that of the maiden is a toned and tattooed male – our fabled young hero – standing naked in a darkened room yet caressed by the morning light while he scans his cellular phone screen. Each image swaps time for the other, and beyond the obvious attraction, we the viewers and kept at arm’s length, forever incapable of entering each world or knowing each divinity’s true obsession. We are subject to the surface and only the surface, captivated by the vanity and beholden to its unfair advantage.
As with the tale of Narcissus, the recurring motif of nature’s sanctuary and a calm, reflecting water pool recurs throughout the book, in each instance it silences the partial voices, hasty existence and din of reality. As with the watery surface other examples of reflection appear, and in many instances this reflection begins to break down the image itself into a kind of disrupted reality where beauty, surface and value are questioned.
With the dominance of youthful vigour and the obviousness of prescribed visual aesthetic, Young delves skin deep and deeper still in an attempt to flay the skin of the egocentric. Vanity challenges the subjects, and the Narcissistic world we now find ourselves drowning in thanks mainly to digital technology and its aligned fascination with whimsical pseudo-celebrity. So to visually represent this Young literally plants her subjects flat-out on a flat bed scanner and digitally records their human surface. What happens is a total breakdown of the human form into unrecognizable data. Zooming too close for comfort we see all this analogue side of the ideal disintegrate into a much weirder world of raw information and abstraction: skin becomes #F28841 and pretty blue eyes become #22BDED. Breaking images up into fractions and sections, splitting their encoded pixilated construction and fracturing all the information that hitherto suggested meaning is a release from the confines of millennia of preconception. In this dark world of pores that seem like shadowed wells and hairs that appear like trees, the viewer is freed from limitations set by artists, philosophers and advertising executives. The result is a relationship where the unnerving microscopic view overwhelms the pleasure of distant appreciation.
As advertising regularly makes an appearance, either by way of corporate giants like Coca-Cola, a bottle of Smart Water or indeed the posters for Japanese call girls posing erotically beneath cruel tube lights Young is reaffirming in her argument: do not take things at face value. It can feel a little heavy-handed at times, as can the glare of posing white youth, but then again this is itself a reminder at how heavy-handed vanity itself can be and those who encourage it as a lifestyle choice so as to subscribe to brand identity and ultimately buy products. The Ouroboros of commercial identity and art’s surface value is indeed a complex mechanism worthy of exploration, though it is intrinsically laden with risk and the potential for critical dilemma.
The premise for Vanity is a tough subject for any artist to get to grips with. Inevitably it requires a considerable amount of time and a hardened sensibility, not to mention a good deal of personal distance in order to uncover elusive insights. Due to the nataure of the photographic medium this reliance on time, distance and cold vision is all the more important for the work to be truly successful. Despite her best efforts in constructing an argument through a deliberately adventurous visual narrative, it feels as though Young ‘s will to rebel against a previous disposition has taken over. Rather than maintain a cogent deconstruction of the subject, the project becomes reliant on a visual obfuscation that dissipates the thrust of that deconstruction towards the end. Though laudable in its intention and desires, Young’s openness and willingness to experiment has created a kind of visual and conceptual whirlpool where the veracity of the original point becomes lost; by smashing the mirror one can end up with a thousand reflecting fragments.
Vanity by Coco Young can be purchased directly from here.
All images ©Coco Young