Dear Diane and Shaded Viewers,
My first encounter with Gary Needham was in the Dante room of the National Library in Florence last week. I could see tattoos on his chest and hands emerging from his suit jacket, and his Scottish accent was charming to my Australian ears. These features were enough for me to know that he is a human, and a very interesting human at that, though at one point he assured me ‘I promise I’m normal under this’.
Needham, in collaboration with Yvonne Trew, performed his short essay on the history, culture and politics of fetishism last week as part of the IFFTI Conference in Florence. He did this wearing a gimp mask. With this simple action, his identity was removed, or rather denied access to, making people feel uneasy to say the least.
‘People were afraid to even move during the performance, like they couldn’t enter or leave.’
We don’t often consider the importance of identity, really, though certain types of dress make it apparent that identity holds considerable power in pinpointing ‘humanness’. Indeed in this case, the apparent removal of identity rendered Needham into an object with orifices.
‘At the end of my performance, I asked the audience if they had any questions. They froze. It was a moment of ‘what happens when the thing speaks back to you?”
In it’s original context, the gimp mask is a symbol of consensual pleasure. So in a sense, when its space is switched and the gimp is seen as a prop of threat and menace, the only force of misinterpretation is the most classic one; cultural appropriation.
‘I’m okay with this. I find it interesting. When they match up the tattoos they must think I’m a dungeon master. I’m not, but I’m quite happy to play with that.’
A few days later, Needham and I began our conversation speaking about Florence, its beauty and its tumultuous cobblestones; not the easiest to run around in wearing 6-inch Louboutin stilettos, for example. But is that the colour of lust or blood under their soles? Or both? Originating in fetish culture, though now a part of acceptable public dress, this is one of many items that have been removed from their origins and are no longer conscious motifs of sadomasochism.
‘What’s interesting is that fashion allows you to play a character; you can look like a pervert without being one.’ Though the safety of dress-up in fashion implies the complication that the gimp is both inside and outside fashion. As Needham recited in his performance, the gimp mask has featured in many fashion shows like those of Gareth Pugh, Ricardo Tisci at Givenchy, and Rick Owens, though in his essay, Bringing out the Gimp: Fashioning the SM Imaginary, he explains that these objects are rarely ones for sale.
It’s clear that fetish imagery has been emerging more evidently in fashion and pop culture in recent years, and it was ‘the exhibition Fetishism and Fashion that was the starting point for the original essay that inspired this performance’, explained Trew, ‘the crowd was very interesting there too. We entered and saw grandmas with young children walking around – it was surprisingly a family show!’ ‘Fashion has made acceptable all these things, though the gimp mask is the last to be accepted,’ said Needham.
‘This performance was a little risky in the context of the conference, but it wasn’t at all accepted outside. Someone asked me after one of my performances, ‘have you ever gone out in that?’ Well I hadn’t so we left the Library and walked over to Santa Croce. It was very interesting because people wanted to look but they didn’t. I could really tell the difference. The public weren’t ready for it. Also, I decided to wear it to the gala dinner. The gala wasn’t ready for it.’
With the fetish community being one of the last real subcultures to withstand the homogenising effects of digital communication, I asked Needham if the gimp would follow other items of fetish costume and eventually be accepted into the mainstream, along with its whole underground culture.
‘What this performance is doing is making closer The Other, so people begin to understand that ‘oh the gimp’s okay’. And the more it becomes aboveground, the more the underground needs to push the boundaries. In a way, they both need each other. When something enters the mainstream, it puts pressure on its origins. This is what moves things forward.’
Needham’s essay, ‘Bringing out the Gimp: Fashioning the SM Imaginary’, was published in Fashion Theory, Volume 18, Issue 2.
All photography by Laura Allen