Gen Doy

Mario Minichiello

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Mario Minichiello's drawings of scenes and episodes in a narrative of prostitution in Amsterdam remind us of the violence and excess of German Expressionist works from the period of politcal, economic and social turmoil which resulted in the coming to power of the Nazi party in 1933. His best works echo the committment and ferocity of artists such as Grosz, Pechstein, or perhaps resemble even more the works of the lesser-known Elfriede Lohse-Wächtler, whose easy-flowing lines and grasp of rich tonal variety seem, at first sight, at odds with the underlying current of menace lurking in the scenes of urban night-life she depicted. Lohse-Wächtler died a concentration camp victim, her artistic work, and her person, categorised as "degenerate" by the Nazi regime. What of the women, and also the men, who are represented in Mario Minichiello's contemporary works? Are these examples of degenerates for our own times? And what kind of art can show something of their experiences, and convey to the spectator a feeling of the lives they lead?


It seems to me that colour would have detracted from the seriousness of the subject matter in these drawings, where a sense of violence and threat is never far away. Similarly, an academic kind of approach towards the contemporary body as a sort of descendant from classical beauty, doesn't really work when you are depicting someone whose eye has been kicked out by her pimp.

The possibility of photographing male and female prostitutes is quite remote, as both the sex workers and those who control them are averse to their faces being captured on film. The British photographic artist Roshini Kempadoo attempted a few years ago to undertake a photographic-based project on female prostitutes in the red-light district of Amsterdam. After long negotiations, all she was granted permission to photograph were the cubicles where the women worked. No actual people were allowed to appear.

However Minichiello is adamant that he would have chosen drawing as his medium, even if photography had been possible in this context. The carefully built up layers of tonal complexity and patterning, as well as the expressive force of different kinds of line, are seen by the artist as part of a complex narrativity without the use of words. Working from both sides of the paper, using frottage over materials placed behind the paper, and also "normal" drawing from above the paper, a dark density is created which almost forces the viewer to engage with unpleasant and disturbing scenes of intimate bodily contact devoid of tenderness or affection.

Some feminists have argued that prostitutes and other women who sell their sexuality, such as strippers or lap-dancers, have a certain kind of power over the sad people who pay to use and see them. Many debates of this sort occurred in academic and journalistic articles when the singer/actress Madonna was at the height of her career a few years ago. However, in Mario Minichiello's opinion - one which I share - the sex workers in his drawings have no power over their lives, and are forced into an existence which also destroys their self-esteem. Their work is demeaning and dangerous, though the supposedly liberal state authorities in the Netherlands believe that the worst aspects of prostitution are managed and contained.

Mario told me that many of the women are subjected to violence or even killed. When he went to the morgue to draw a dead prostitute's body, he was made to feel more unwelcome than in any of the locations where he had been sketching. The workers there were uneasy with his presence. Why? Haven't artists always tried to have access to dead bodies for the study of anatomy? Obviously a deeper more powerful taboo was being broken here. Yet if Miniciello's presence in the morgue was undesirable to the authorities, why are Andres Serrano's large sumptuous colour photrographs in his morgue series of 1992 almost cult images of postmodern taste? Miniciello's bodies are not the kind of bodies that postmodernist critics like to see though. As Terry Eagleton has remarked "For the new somatics [study of the body], not any old body will do. If the libidinal body is in, the labouring body is out.There are mutilated bodies galore, but few malnourished ones." (The Illusions of Postmodernism, Blackwell, 1996, p71).

However despite their engagement in sexual activity, the bodies in Mario's drawings are not "sexy" bodies, or sensually fetishistic and fragmented. These are the bodies of victims, just as much as people who have to sell organs such as their kidneys on the world body-parts market because they have nothing else that anyone want to buy from them. Mario's drawings are different from the sort of bodies focussed on by the current postmodern fashion for "the body" perhaps also because his work on images of prostitution stems from a political and investigative commitment, and continues the tradition of his earlier investigative work for both television broadcasts and newspaper articles.

His work is art put to a use which is very different from, say, Andres Serrano's representations of bodies or Joel Peter Witkin's photographs of sexily freakish body-shapes. As Mario described to me how he researched this project, his difficulty in persuading the prostitutes to allow him to sketch them even for a few minutes, hanging around for hours outside cafes to "stake out" the prostitutes' workplaces, it sounded to me as if he was working like a classic "private-eye", searching for evidence of the hidden, the suppressed, and the just plain nasty, things that people know go on, but don't want to see. This is a brave position on Mario Minichiello's part, because these works are not immediately attractive to either galleries or potential purchasers.

Hopefully there is a substantial audience "out there" who will engage with and confront the experiences embodied in these images and reflect on the position of the sex workers represented in them. Economic migrants and homeless people are often forced into leading lives, or more accurately, existences like this. The introduction of a capitalist economy in large sections of the former Soviet block has resulted in a large number of impoverished young women being trapped in the sex trade. Immigration laws mean deportation for most migrants. What kind of protection can such repressive measures on the part of the state agencies afford?

The world of Minichiello's prostitution drawings is a grim one, and there are lots of many other dire situations out there for large numbers of people in the early twenty-first century. Have things really changed a lot since the 1930s for the poor and exploited? Maybe that's why these drawings remind me so strongly of the German images I mentioned at the start of this essay.

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Professor Gen Doy
Head of Postgraduate Studies in Art History
University of de Montfort

September 2000