By VITTORIA BENZINE, February 2022
After a staggered run across three galleries from Bed-Stuy to Chinatown, Give Me Pleasure or Give Me Death by Morrison Gong ends its semi-public showcases this week. The racy series of photos by the Brooklyn-based artist captures modern idealized nudes in 35mm film. Traipsing creeks or braving the snow on Wall Street, Gong’s subjects keep eye contact with the camera throughout the show, in actual conversation with the artist. Through this reciprocal vulnerability, Gong’s fantasies explore nuances of desire wrenched in those difficult places between words.
Curated by Ali Rossi of Olympia and April Zhu of Tutu Gallery, a portion of Gong’s work first unveiled on December 10th at C’mon Everybody in Bed-Stuy and then at Zhu’s feline-owned DIY space blocks away on December 18th. The owner of HOME Gallery in Chinatown caught wind of the exhibition and spontaneously welcomed works into their gallery for a two week run.
Gong arrived in NYC from Shenzhen by way of Bryn Mawr in 2017 to study at Parsons. Their practice spans sculpture, performance, and experimental arts–predominantly films documenting their erotic and romantic relationships. “Sometimes I do photography on the side as a byproduct of my experimental films,” Gong explained from the velvet throne in my office. That chair and I have lived a lot of life together since we met 9 months back, but this was our first artist interview.
They began conceptualizing this project during the pandemic, pairing previous inspirations with a yearning for connection. Gong’s fascination with the physical form stems from their own experience with near-universal body image issues. In art of particular varieties, beauty adopts roles beyond consumerism like study or celebration, even worship. We all know someone who cried the first time they saw marble, right?
Turning their gaze outward, Gong said, “I started to notice that there were so many people in New York City or in my life I feel very attracted to. I found that beautiful and interesting.” Many of the series’s subjects are acquaintances turned friends, others reached out over Instagram. Only one or two are from Tinder–a very distinct dynamic.
“Eros is not something only limited within erotic relationships–it can exist within all interpersonal relationships,” the artist continued, calling to mind the opening lines of an essay I first read in 2019 called Against The Couple Form: “Libidinal flows cut through the social world. Amorous and sexual relations do not exist in some domain safely taped off from the rest of society. Rather they are constituent elements of nearly every aspect of social life.” These sentences and I have lived a lot of life together since we first met, but now is our first fresh start. In cycles of years, desire’s the transformative fire that births phoenixes.
Desire invokes vulnerability–embodied across Give Me Pleasure or Give Me Death in both literal nakedness and the sitters’ direct relation with Gong behind a Nikon LiteTouch Zoom, equipped only with a compact flash. Gong allows their printers to color correct for the paper and nothing else, adding layers to the notion of ‘nakedness.’
The artist laid bare their soul in scene-setting small talk that grew into rich discussions. In return, subjects shared themselves–not just their likenesses, but their stories. Gong created a collaborative playlist from the project featuring picks by numerous subjects, their sonic interpretations of desire. Some songs even played while these photos were taken. The artist shot with a few subjects several times, watching them flower further. “I also noticed that the more vulnerable we get, the better the photos are,” Gong said.
Vulnerability is a necessary precursor to transformation. Conversations with some non-monogamous subjects, for example, expanded Gong’s ideas about desire. “Before I started taking photographs I was not very in touch with non monogamy,” they said. “After talking to them, I actually started to understand. Relationships do have an expiration date, because we are constantly growing and our partner is also growing.” Having attempted to align with the tenets in Against The Couple Form to varying degrees since that first read, I can attest–relationship anarchy is not a path for all times and all people, but there’s benefits to seizing all of one’s agency even in flashes.
“I think I'm still more monogamous than non-monogamous,” Gong responded. “I really enjoy having a deep genuine connection with someone. Photography is my way of developing spiritual non-monogamy.”
With its flash photography and sexy scenesters, Gong’s work recalls other contentious, bespectacled photographers, but their approach stands apart in its femininity–solely in terms of the neutral nature of feminine energy to receive rather than dominate. Gong channels intangible desire always within reach just like magical ether and transmutes it into something productive. Fulfilling desire in the traditional sense can be a sacred, selfish act. “That's why I only want to take photos of these people, not necessarily develop romantic relationships, because I know that I don't have what it takes to maintain several romantic relationships,” Gong said.
The oversized nature of these prints in the flesh emphasizes their dreamlike character, moments of intimacy more ephemeral than physical love. The last selection of images on view at Tutu Gallery through February 23rd are set amongst nature, complementing the gallery’s greenery. Meanwhile, the photos at C'mon On Everybody offered a nightlife vibe, set in bars and shiny places. The three-fold nature of Give Me Pleasure or Give Me Death as an exhibition suits what Gong called “a nomadic practice,” traveling to work with each sitter on their home turf.
Give Me Pleasure or Give Me Death has given Gong new perspectives on deconstructing the “New York standard” of beauty, especially upon discovering a common thread of insecurity even amongst its stunning subjects. “That was actually very surprising for me to hear, that these beautiful people actually don't feel beautiful,” Gong said. “I felt like that's why they put so much effort into constructing a fashion style or a ‘look’ to hide this insecurity.”
In the future, Gong’s interested to focus on the power their subjects carry in their body. “The whole reason for starting this project is that I have this anxiety around the definition of beauty,” Gong noted. To access deeper power, the artist might reach into sculpture and performance, crafting settings inspired by the dreamy maximalism of the 1985 film Mishima: A Life in Four Chapters. They’re even open to collaborating with subjects on backdrops that bring out their power, built to be enjoyed.
Keep your eyes on Morrison Gong, and one day you might see their lens smiling back. WM
Vittoria Benzine is a street art journalist and personal essayist based in Brooklyn, New York. Her affinity for counterculture and questioning has introduced her to exceptional artists and morally ambiguous characters alike. She values writing as a method of processing the world’s complexity. Send love letters to her via: @vittoriabenzine // firstname.lastname@example.org // vittoriabenzine.com
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