Masochism is itself an aesthetic formation. The only place where its contradictions and impossibilities can be reconciled is that specific zone that modern aesthetic philosophy, from Kant to Lyotard, has identified as the sublime, that unique and illogical experience that carries with it both pleasure and pain.
Victor Cobo is the contemporary version of Baudelaire’s nineteenth century flâneur who roamed the streets of Paris following his intrigue. Cobo is specifically in pursuit of the seedier side of life though, much like what we see in Toulouse Lautrec and Edgar Degas’ works (especially in the latter artists brothel monotypes). Different from these bourgeois gents, Cobo gets even closer to his subjects and plays into the fantasies of the motley crue of personalities he encounters on any given street corner. He is hardly a bystander, instead he runs with them and pushes them to reveal their inner secrets and explore their sexuality as he persuades and tempts them with his camera. He has been driven by curiosity since his teen years to seek out these seedy remnants of beings tied up in the sexual underground that seeps out in certain areas of the city and late at night when the common folk have long since turned out the lights.
Cobo leads us down into the underbelly of this world of sex and power exchanges and exposes who we are as humans, made of flesh and teeming with carnal desire. An image of a bed cloaked in morning light, absent the typical floral patterned cum-soiled bedspread found on most seedy motel room beds, sets the tone suggesting that this the morning after a night of wild sex. While the space is vacant, the lack of actual bodies only serves to trigger an emotional fascination in us that runs rampant as we try to recount what might have happened the night before. A pimp’s hand studded with gold rings tenderly embraces a leather jacket as if to suggest that his “girl” was good. In a contradictory gesture, a mistress, who normally dominates her objects, bows her head down in submission to someone in preparation for the treatment she is about to receive. The gesture is no doubt hot to anyone who sees it, but knowing that she is the dominant who has switched, makes the scene even hotter. It is convoluted game of role-playing that complicates how we come to understand desire and how we react to these figures who operate in these realms, whether by choice or not. Free will is not necessarily a given when one enters the world of BDSM and certainly there is no singular prescription to the terms of engagement. Desire enters when boundaries get blurry and expectations are pushed.
The older naked woman cloaked in darkness has lifted her torso, perhaps in a fit of ecstasy. Are we seeing her movement up and down the shaft of a penis? Or is she merely playing in her own demented world as the photographer who has taken an interest in her snaps away? She seems the product of a life of sex and drugs on the street. It may or may not have been by choice, but the reality is that she is there and she wants her image immortalized by Cobo’s camera. You wonder if this is the eventual plight of the hot girls dancing in the club half naked with stars on their breasts or showing off their tits in the heat of the moment. Those are young girls gone wild, if even for just the night, but Cobo is there to record their decadence. He’s a stalker who has gotten good at invading the public and privates spaces of the sex culture that flares its nostrils throughout certain neighborhoods in San Francisco.
One image that gets me is the shot of the girl pulling her panties aside to allow Cobo entrance to her privates, or at least document what her pubic area might look like. I love the vantage point that privileges the photographer as the all powerful and the prey who lies there spread eagle on the ground waiting and wanting to be forcefully taken by this man still in his socks. It is intense but also quasi-comical and as such provides a sense of release to the tensions that have been building. The blurry shot of the man’s face brings me back to a dream state where I’m trying to recall who he was and causes me to question what he is doing there so close to me enveloped in the darkness. And since he appears just after the shot of the smoke screened curtain, I am brought into a scene that looks like it is from a David Lynch film. I’m entrenched now wondering what will come next and whether or not I will want to partake in it. Ever so naturally, as might a filmic sequence would unfold, a stunning blond appears and I’m left feeling as though she is mine, that I can have her and that I will have her, that she wants me to have her.
Then I’m reminded that all to easily these fantasies have been absorbed, that in fact I might be that girl who is walking into the darkness burned by the experiences of casual sex encounters; that someone might be following me, but not because I’m desirable or desired for anything other than the split that is hidden beneath my skirt. These are very real reactions when put in such circumstances. Casual implies just that, no commitment, just temporary fun. It is easy to wander down this road and get trained into thinking that all you are is a piece of meat who loves to get fucked, that loves the game of charades that ensues, or at least used to. These are the people that Cobo records with a deftness that I rarely see. I want to be those people, I want to be the masochist, but I also want to wield the power the way Severin does in Venus in Furs, I want to moan in ecstasy like the figure on the screen in the pay-per-view porn shop cubicle, and I want to suck on the malformed nipple of the bare-chested tranny holding her breath as her dark hair obscures her identity.
Just like the charaters in Cobo’s theater, I want to be ravaged and desired and be remembered not as I am but as I was then. To hold immortal that desire that drove me to excess. These are the stories that are brought to life in the subjects Cobo captures within his theater. They become mere shells of themselves as time passes and life takes its toll on their bodies and faces. This is what we see when we go down into the hole and remain there for some time before trying to resurface. It is a playing field of desire where the score is only kept upstairs and only revealed upon our conscious removal from the depths of despair that held us down there for so long. Time is what makes us specters of theaters, ghosts of ourselves. Light issues us out of that construction but only if we are willing to go towards it.
ASX CHANNEL: Victor Cobo
Text © copyright ASX and Tricia Lawless Murray. All Victor Cobo images © copyright the photographer, gallery and/or publisher