‘Follow me and I will make you Fishers of Men’ St. Matthew, 4-19 The Queer Gaze of “Fishers of Men” David Trullo’s fascinating queer MASTER piece from 2006 exemplifies the execution, subject, and style of contemporary photography that may be joyfully labeled “queer” in nature. Trullo’s ludic while sociopolitically conscious set of queer portraits effectively exposes, simultaneously, the iconography of institutionalized religion (namely Catholicism) and the use of sexual transgression to critique its own dominance. Similarly, “Fishers of Men” affirms the subversive power of homoeroticism in a queerphobic society while contesting “mainstream” models of how gayness is inscribed on the human (in this case, exclusively male) body. The piece reverently quotes Biblical passages, which serve as “epigraphs” of the photos in the collection while holding the viewer complicit in potentially sacrilegious readings of Biblical scriptures. This clearly queerly contradictory work of art brilliantly juxtaposes spirituality and sexuality. It is sensual in its depiction of typically marginalized male beauty while managing to resist the impulse to eroticize bodies to the point of pornographic objectification, the photographer’s sensitive queer lens steering clear of the temptation to disrobe his subjects. In theoretical terms, “Fishers of Men” is arguably “queer” for a number of reasons. If we begin by the title, the reader (prior to being transformed into viewer), might expect that, because of religious symbology, the fishermen, much like the disciples of Jesus Christ, have experienced some sort of epiphany or enlightenment and that they will subsequently reflect on the epiphany that has changed their world view and subsequently spread the word to others. On the contrary, however, the majority of the subjects photographed appear in a deeply reflective, meditative state, frozen still in a sort of introverted moment and therefore not corresponding to the initial impressions that the title evokes. None of the apostles seems ready or willing to share or disseminate his knowledge, but there are several who look quite apt at dominating, coercing, or seducing others. This interpretation, then, would necessarily critique the process of religious evangelism as an endeavor seeking to manipulate or force others into, quite literally, the corpulent “body” of knowledge they each appear to possess. A second possible reading of the title is one that is purely carnal in nature. It could very well be that the sole purpose of the models depicted in these photographs is to “fish out” other men, an interesting juxtaposition of the Biblical “Fear not; from henceforth thou shalt catch men” (St. Luke, 5 -10), the citation that accompanies “Jimmy” (obviously the artist’s “synchretic” substitution of St. James), who appears quite determined to seduce the invisible unknown subject of his own objectifying eyes, armed with a sporty pair of sunglasses hanging from a slinky pair of underwear, a towel, and an unbuttoned Hawaiian shirt. In this sense, the twelve disciples are the bait that would get their prey to bite, rather than the “gatherers” who, in a patriarchal society, are often inscribed as women or imbued with femininity.
Needless to say, there are many other (in fact, an infinite number of) possible readings of this photographic text. Regardless of the angle a viewer may take, however, the spectator has no choice but to allow himself to experience and hopefully indulge in the interesting juxtaposition of two universes that are often perceived as “opposites” or at least as oppositional: Evangelical Christianity and homoeroticism. By choosing subjects that likely self-selectively belong to the “bear” community, the portraits examine masculinity in excess that both serves to celebrate the features of “beardom” for a public that may appreciate this pursuit of the hirsute and the corpulent while simultaneously critiquing the rigidity of a rigorously suffocating “code” of masculinity that is in danger of becoming just as conformist, perhaps in fact just as evangelical and oppressive as patriarchal heteronormativity. St. John the Evangelist (in this piece hilariously “syncretized” as Johnny) is perhaps the only “chaser” or “bear admirer” in the bunch, exuding youth, soft facial features (with very limited body hair), and, one might say even feminine (i.e, “twink” or “circuit body”) beauty. Given the internally established aesthetic logic of this piece, Johnny can be read to be the only actually “queer” (read: different) apostle within the microcosm of disciples, for the other eleven are quintessentially masculinized as hairy, full-bodied, testosterone-endowed “manly” men. Interestingly, his photo is the only one in the collection taken with an “inward” look facing the phallic columns of a palace, his body partially concealing (or barely revealing) a water fountain with a bulbous penis head on its top. Johnny is also the only model who is holding a drink in his hand, rather than possessing a tool to work the earth or reap its delights (other apostles, for example, are carrying a saw, latex gloves, a large key, and Judas even has a whip and cash that would increase the power of seduction of any cunning would-be traitor). Johnny’s flirtatious eyes seem to imply that he may be more interested in pursuing the “hunt” for one or more of the dozen bear apostles of his choice rather than entering his own internal vessel to undertake the reflective journey that would transport him into a more fluid place, surrounded by liberating waters whose unpredictable currents allow him to flow into a nameless space. Quite interestingly, “Fishers of Men” is exhibited as a twin collection of six images, with a large gap in the center. The pose and direction of the apostles is crucial here, for six are gazing to the right and the other half dozen are looking to the left. The centerpiece, where the viewer might expect to find a representation of the figure of Jesus Christ, whether perverted, subverted, inverted or not, is an entirely empty space. Whether the absence of a divine figure connotes the death of God in Nietschean sense after the creation and subsequent abandonment of his creatures, or whether this lack implies an atheistic critique of Judeo-Christian beliefs, the subjects, who gaze individually toward a center that is empty and have no apparent interaction with one another, are forced to construct their own lives as they see fit, with no centralized judgment or even direction to guide them on their voyage. Nature abounds with beautiful Irish countryside settings and rustic places of divine inspiration, such as the omnipresence of mountains and the sea. In each and every photograph the viewer catches a glimpse, sometimes blatant and other times more subtle, of a boat or a ship. To my mind, this vessel represents the journey that each subject must take to reach the spiritually enlightened place of liberation from societal norms. Just as each model is different, each vessel is unique and therefore also inscribed with difference, ranging from a kayak to a canoe to a large yacht, for each individual transverses in a singular fashion the waters that will bring about his own transformation. The presence of water seems to represent both the beauty of Nature and the fluidity or even the liquidity of an identity category that is perhaps in (re)construction or deconstruction from the landlocked permanence that would otherwise impose rules, regulations, rigid restrictions if allowed to permeate the identity formation of the subjects.
Freedom is not limited to the realm of and certainly encompasses a sexual dimension. An interesting example of this is the photograph of “Tom” (Trullo’s adaptation of the disciple Thomas) whose journey has taken him to a very queer space. With a canoe in the far background and a huge sinkhole behind him (perhaps a cistern or a large drain or even a nuclear power plant), Tom sports a latex glove and a thumb and two fingers ready to penetrate. While his face appears to restrain any possibility of emotion, as is the case of the majority of the expressionless models, who convey an often stoic, sometimes apathetic, sometimes pensive stare (frozen still in any case), his fingers are ready for action and his intentions are likely not medical in nature. Liberatingly lewd sexual innuendo mixes beautifully with ludic intentions. The tax collecting apostle, Matthew (appearing here as “Matt”) has his hands full with a tattered broken angel wing that he has perhaps collected on the “barter system” from an unlucky but well-meaning individual who was perhaps not able to pay cash. Interestingly, Matt is one of only two modern-day disciples (the other being Johnny, discussed above) whose accompanying Biblical citation corresponds to / is faithful to the apostle whose name he shares, St. Matthew. The Biblical verse reads: “But the very hairs of your head are all numbered” (St. Matthew, 1030). I find this to be a deliciously irreverent commentary on the fact that the apparently masculinized divine dozen represented in this piece is indeed follically-challenged, as it were, ranging from partial to complete baldness. At the same time, the tax collector, as sacred or profane as viewers perceive him to be, must undoubtedly face the reality that his job depends on numbers (and, frankly, figures, as the case may be). In his introductory remarks to “Fishers of Men,” the artist David Trullo writes the following: “Some people might see this work as a sacrilege, others a joke; hopefully they would use my images as they would use any other: to seduce or abuse or control or to be happy.” I would argue that this brilliant work of art is indeed blasphemous in the most deliciously irreverent fashion possible. Yet it is also a big joke, at times engaging facetiously yet critically with powerful political institutions such as the Church while simultaneously critiquing social constructions such as notions of masculinity. With every Europeanized, modernized, and masculinized disciple, the viewer is invited to flirt with the very institutions that serve to objectify us by applying the sweetest revenge possible: the freedom that comes with collapsing both religious institutions and social categories. As we struggle to unlearn “core values” to queer our own internalized conceptions of heteronormative and even homonormative structures, the progressive-minded viewer is seduced to find his own body of water to undertake a journey to stake out his own happiness, free of external impositions, divinely-inspired or otherwise.
Steven F. Butterman, Ph.D. Associate Professor University of Miami Coral Gables, Florida USA
‘Only mankind is able to deceive by using the truth. An animal can pretend to be or disguise itself as something different from what it really is or tries to be, but only man can lie saying the truth while expecting it to be taken as a lie. Only man can deceive by pretending to deceive. Slavoj Zizeck. Looking at the Edge They say that the Bible tells us that our Lord said that man, in order to live his life, could choose between living with a woman or without one; the apostles, as well as the gays, decided to live without one – for very different reasons, of course: one in order to preach Christ’s teachings, the other to satisfy their carnal desires. With the intention of drawing a parallel between the apostles, fishers of men for the Christian cause, and the bears as bait for other men (real men, with hair on their chest), David Trullo establishes a series of suggestive connections: the representation –sexy to some- of this type of ‘alternative’ beauty which distances itself from the mainstream representation of the ideal gay man by using the cultural context which underlies many sociological phenomena, mainly at an unconscious level. This artwork involves a different way of depicting the so-called ‘bears’. Some of the pictures we can see of them just imitate the images of muscular gay men that appear in the centrefolds of the most famous gay magazines. They just attempt a simplistic displacement, the substitution of an Apollo-like, hairless, sculptured body by its opposite (the bear, big and hairy), but without showing any of the specific features of the ‘bear phenomenon’. Considering the bears as an organized and heterogeneous group within the gay community we should take into account the following premises: i) that if there is something that joins together a group, it is not a powerful truth, but a shared lie; ii) that the group is founded on a primordial lie, and that, in a certain way, the group builds itself from a shared guilt; iii) there is more truth in the appearance of things than in the so-called story that lies within; iv) that truth is structured like fiction; v) that being trapped into a false appearance is playing with fire, and it implies the risk of burning – the midnight oil; vi) what gives a group its unity isn’t the identification of its members with a certain law, but more ‘the identification with a specific way of transgressing the law, of the suspension of the law – in psychoanalytical terms, with a particular enjoyment’. (1) All these premises and the questions which arise from them can be applied to both groups, bears and apostles, with a common starting point and two roads which both lead to the building of illusions, ways of life, rituals and places of cult at two different levels, but yet with broad similarities. This may be due to religious education, at least for a particular generation, which showed the way to search for the desired happiness. In the case of Catholics, happiness is to make sure of a place in Heaven after death, and in the case of gays to ensure extreme happiness precisely on Earth. ‘Be unfaithful, no matter with whom’ seems to be the motto of the gay community.
The gay bear world is inscribed, at least in Spanish culture, in a religious system that allows the enjoyment of sin without the need to feel guilty. When religion is thought of as a passport to a good life without punishment, the perverse Catholic system offers a complicated strategy in order to be able to follow one’s desires without having to pay the price. It is then possible to enjoy life and its pleasures without suffering the pain and guilt that awaits us at the end of the road. Following this line we get to the conclusion that Christ died to pay for all the sins of mankind so that humans could abandon themselves to pleasure and enjoy it without feeling guilty. Christ carried on his back the price of all sins. As an illustration of this we can refer to the joke that Slavoj Zizeck quotes in his book ‘The perverse heart of the Christian Church’. So, there is some degree of truth in the joke about what ideal prayer a young maid should offer to the Virgin Mary: ‘Oh you who bore without sinning, let me sin without bearing’. There has been a lot of criticism from ‘chasers’ and ‘admirers’ who fiercely attack the endogamy of the most radical sectors of bears who only relate to their equals, ignoring those who do not belong to their kind. The main premise is no other than ‘We don’t want anything alien to us, we only want what it is legitimate to us’ - a sure sign of racism - as it tries to draw a clear dividing line where there isn’t one. ‘In both cases these fantasies are clearly based on the hatred of enjoyment itself’. (2) Users beware!
Juan Redón, Barcelona, March 2006 Notes (1) Slavoj Zizeck. The pursuit of fantasies (page 71) (2) do. (page 49)
exhibition view at Q Gallery! Glasgow UK 2008
exhibition view at Rita Castellote Gallery Madrid Spain 2007
‘Fishers of Men’ edition of 12 artist’s book, 12 plates, digital prints on archival paper, 40 x 50 cm each 2006