art... Raqib Shaw

Art Now: Raqib Shaw
Tate Britain
7 Oct– 17 Dec 2006

Toward the end of his career, the Post-structuralist philosopher and cultural critique Michel Foucault concentrated his efforts on analysing the history of sexuality in the West and proposed a six volume study of that title, from which comes The Will to Knowledge, The Use of Pleasure, and The Care of the Self. Within his treatment of Western cultural traditions on sexuality, the power structures of scientific knowledge again feature prominently. He especially lamented the fact that unlike cultures in the Far East; China, Japan and India for example, the West has not developed its own ars erotica- a repertoire of imagery and artistic sensations that probes the heights and depths of sexual pleasure. In his view, an art tradition devoted to examining the intensity, duration, quality and effects of pleasure upon the human body offered a more accessible and reliable source of knowledge about sexuality than the scientific discourse of religious morality or modern psychology. Foucault sought to demonstrate how the various, historical power structures of the West have dominated the discourse on sexuality by controlling the exchanges and inquiries related to sex. In his view, too much of the discourse on sexuality has taken place either in the confession stall of the church or on the psychoanalyst's couch and not before truly provocative and engaging art.I offer this lens with which to view the work of Raqib Shaw. Not only the elusive references to Eastern mythological imagery but also the sheer sexiness of the work qualifies it as an unavoidable attempt at a modern, Western ars erotica. Incorporating a vibrant palette of industrial paints, gleaming jewels and precious stones, Shaw presents a surface teeming with sexual energy and unfettered Bacchic exuberance. To date, his most impressive and formidable series remains a collection of large canvas' intricately detailed to refine the artist's hedonistic vision, aptly titled Garden of Earthly Delights.

While I admire the virtuosity of this painter's technique and especially the juxtaposition of alternative materials for an impressive painterly surface, I can't help but question the scenes he has offered here as so much eye candy. It seems the longer you look the further you see, and seeing through the work the vision of sexuality becomes darker, less and less inviting. Shaw's work, if taken as an ars erotica, evokes a sexual ethic more dependent upon violence and masochism than pure pleasure. In addition to the work's inherent violence, it lacks any hint of femininity, and in this way, represents something wholly foreign and strange to what meager lineage of eroticism exists in the history of Western art. If this is Shaw's contribution to an ars erotica, many will no doubt reject this vision of sexuality once the effects of his visualisations have worn off.
Watch an interview here.