On ViewEmmanuel Fremin Gallery
October 23 – December 31, 2014
As a photographer, Moby’s efforts have been predominantly autobiographical. His 2011 book of images, Destroyed,offered a view into the life of a travelling musician: empty hotel rooms, paparazzi lying in ambush at the arrivals gate, and fans in ecstasy, viewed from the stage. The project itself was more or less readymade, as there is always an audience willing to experience and share the life of the artist, especially a well-known performer, and the photographs themselves were beautiful—very atmospheric and evocative, somber and dark. But for his new series, a cycle of large-scale photographs entitled Innocents, Moby tackles the greater challenge of generating a set of characters that can retain the viewer’s interest while striving to maintain the continuity needed in any mature artistic practice. In this case, the cast is a fictitious cult at large in Los Angeles. He has now placed his work within the genre of dystopian suburban mythologies, a playing field dominated by Gregory Crewdson and Joel Sternfeld, and thus needs to make a convincing transition from autobiographical photographer to photographer as unseen author.
In works like “Innocents” and “A New Spring” (all 2013), Moby presents us with circles of masked officiates set against the cloudless blue skies of L.A. Other images show the same masked figures as they baptize themselves, submerged, in a backyard pool. On land, these acolytes wear flowing white robes; underwater they are often naked or normally dressed, as demonstrated by the girl in a monkey mask and party dress seen in “Damage” and “Lone.” There is no indication of what they believe beyond that individual identity is subsumed into that of the group. The choice of masks—those of demons and wild animals—simultaneously conveys humor and a looming sense of horror. To a certain extent we are asked to question what it is we fear in these mostly harmless associations of very fervent people. It’s a surprising jump for an artist whose photography has primarily rested on the premise of offering up a view of the world that is unattainable for most. Like a war or nature photographer, Moby’s view from the inside out is one that few of us will ever enjoy in the flesh and is thus fascinating to a certain degree. Combined with an eye for detail and lyrical composition, the series Destroyed was both successful and straightforward.
The alienation of Destroyed is retained in Innocents. Despite the emptiness of the single-figure images that posits a post-apocalyptic subtext, the idea is that a new religion might sprout from a plunge pool, sun deck, or the aisles of a Stop n’ Shop, as in the exhibition’s most successful print, “Receiving.” In it, a robed figure stands at the center of a fish-eye lens photo of a grocery store, its head and chest the center of perspective. The figure’s monkey mask and pure white robes are contrasted with the shelves stacked with colorful cans of cat food and boxes of toothpaste, while the goofy mask and the curvature of the straight lines lent by the distortion of the lens function almost as a twisted comic relief for the scene. Unlike many of the other prints that navigate the uncomfortable line between horror and sexual stimulation, as in “Metasis,” where a masked naked body stands silhouetted and submerged in a pool, the incipient comedy of “Receiving” underlines the absurdity of religious awakening in a sun-drenched city of wealth and privilege, something of a Bonfire of the Vanities.
As a manifestation of current multimedia artistic practices, Innocents does not in fact exist solely as photographs, but evolves as a series of posed stills from several of the short videos created to accompany Moby’s new album of the same title. The music video has stood as a vague and hard-to-pin-down genre throughout its short existence. As a creative afterthought meant to provide a visual distraction while the music is playing, videos have often strayed into moments of unintended brilliance and culturally iconic significance. They have progressed into a refuge for mainstream directors looking to supplement their income and have also recently become an artistic proving ground. Kalup Linzy and Ryan Trecartin employ or wholeheartedly embrace tropes of the music video. Michael Stipe and REM opened up their final album Collapse into Now to the interpretive capabilities of Sam Taylor-Wood and James Franco among others; the duo Javelin produced both a film and a large sculptural interactive installation at the Clocktower Gallery in 2012 to accompany their album Canyon Candy. By generating a cycle of photographs based on the video that accompanies his music, Moby is extending the reach of what has become a common manifestation of the total work of art: the music video, a contemporary actualization of the spectacle, something mystically resembling an opera. The problem of the music video is often that the action on screen has nothing to do with the words. Quite possibly this is to the benefit of Moby’s photographs as independent works, as they seek to solidify the narrative that exists outside of the music.
Moby’s Innocents are luminous works featuring dark subject matter that is both powerful and timely. “Masters” shows a bear mask floating in a shimmering pool of blank white reflections. The reflections and distorted highlights simultaneously overwhelm and coalesce around the mask, pitching the man-made plastic object of the spirit creature against the further dichotomous background of the backyard pool. Moby has moved from the personal alienation seen in Destroyed to a wider cultural disembodiment, though it remains to be seen is if he can continue to expand on these propositions.