I can honestly say I've never spent an evening in the company of a giant pink dildo or a woman wrapped in yellow Police line 'Do not cross' tape - but that's exactly what I did when I spent the evening at French photographer Philippe Shangti's private view at Imitate Modern, a chic little gallery in London's Marylebone.
Known for his provocative, bold, colourful style, Shangti has a unique aesthetic which blends the over sexualisation of women with elements including drug culture, fashion, celebrity culture and other playful paraphernalia, such as blow-up dolls. His work is designed to make you look twice.... and then look again.
Described as a 'modern day Guy Bourdin' in reference to his avant-garde style, Shangti's recent 'From St Tropez To London' exhibition was his first solo display in the UK, and centred around sex, drugs, fetishism, pornography and death - 28 fluoro bursting images were displayed to seduce the eyes, set against the sparse white walls of the gallery, giving you instant access to Shangti's self-proclaimed "crazy and disturbing world", predominantly driven by his signature humourous undertones.
Talking of crazy and disturbing, Nicki Minaj playing with lots of highlighter pens immediately sprang to my mind as I viewed more of the photographs on show. Bright neon pops fused with dildos, nipples, penises and a core element of 'dress-up' was just like seeing Minaj on stage - and just like her pink wigs and intergalactic couture, Shangti is all about over-the-top creative expression too.
This show took on taboos and presented them in full on assault your eyes mode such as 'The End of Sex' featuring a handcuffed woman stabbing the giant pink dildo I told you about earlier; and another which featured a Tulisa lookalike with her arms and stomach emblazoned with the words "Cash for liquid." In one of her hands she holds a wad of cash while in the other, a white liquid dribbles out of it. Yes it's semen. Yes the first thing that came to my mind was her controversial sex tape and yes I moved on quickly to the next photograph before I made a smutty comment. I did have a little snigger at the sausages on sticks being handed around by waitresses though, as we all stood in a room of images filled with phallic references.
Talking of lookalikes, Michael Jackson also popped up in the exhibition in a series of pictures entitled 'MJ Gone Too Soon', one image, 'The Rebirth', showing him (or rather his double) emerging from the grave in his trademark garb. It was Shangti's own tribute to a music icon, and it was cleverly done, but I don't think it worked in this particular exhibition.
The objective of Shangti's photography is to 'shock and stir emotions' in the viewer - and judging by some of the guests I spoke to, he achieved that with this showcase. I on the otherhand am a little harder to please. I was stirred in a good way with the image, 'Minnie is My Bitch', where the bottom and legs of a woman on all fours is seen positioned in front of a naughty little Mickey Mouse toy, with his own penis. I say a good way, because it appealed to my cheeky sense of humour.
But I was less emotionally charged about the cocaine-referencing shots. The shock factor was more of a 'sigh' factor for me, and I couldn't help but wonder how many people would actually want an image of a woman snorting white powder off of a mirror hanging on their wall at home? Even the dildo stabber would look less controversial.
Shangti's work aims to be erotic, but in handing it ('it' meaning sex) to us all on a visual plate, it loses a lot of the evocative and daring side of presenting the sexualised female form on camera. I really wanted to come away from this exhibition loving everything I saw, and although I probably will buy the Mickey Mouse image because it's quirky and makes for a good conversation topic when friends come round - I feel there is still more of Philippe's work I need to see to really understand the message he's trying to convey.
I also failed to see any of Guy Bourdin's visual artistry in his work. Bourdin made us all voyeurs with his unique style, flirting with pornography and art through highly stylised and controlled images which were full of mystery and a sense of danger. Bourdin made the sexualised female form fearsome but desirable, taboo and surreal, even when his models were depicted as dead or injured.
Shangti simply takes women as his muse and objectifies them in a psychedelic world of fantasy alongside a collection of mainly sex-based props, poking fun at taboos with the intention to break the rules 'in yer face' style. It works on one level in that it's provocative and full of expression. But that expression is sometimes over-glamourised, and it's often what we don't see that we're more interested in. That's why Guy Bourdin's work still captivates our imaginations today and will do for years to come.
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