Spirited away into a latex underworld

Spirit, a short-run art show at the Kalashnikovv Gallery in Braamfontein, Johannesburg, is a sometimes unsettling — sometimes grotesque — often touching collaboration between Antonia Steyn and Gill Rall.

Steyn is a Cape Town photographer who specialises in portraiture; Rall is a diesel mechanic from Edenvale, an artisan and a fetishist.

Rall styles himself as South Africa’s only legitimate “rubber doll”, part of a global community of people who take pleasure in dressing in spectacular, handmade full body latex suits, often designed to look like idealised women.

But Spirit is not just a show about one man’s attachment to latex. It’s about identity, whiteness, masculinity and ageing, all written on skin: both through Rall’s physical body (he is 77) and the enticingly tactile latex suits he designs and makes for himself when he dresses as Spirit, his rubber alter ego.

The exhibition itself is stark and mostly empty. Curator Roelof van Wyk makes the most of the Kalashnikovv’s semi-industrial space. It remains white and echoey, aside from a few walls of sickly pink that recall Rall’s own flesh, displayed here in
disconcerting detail.

The walls hold a minimal selection of seven photographs. In the first annexe, we encounter a series of three, presumably of Rall in full rubber doll gear: a high-gloss black-on-black alien, a hairless nightmare doll, a bright white corset close up.

These preternaturally glossy and hypermodern images thrillingly display Steyn’s impressive technical skills.

However, it is the other four photographs that work on the gut. First, a triptych of Rall’s naked body displayed full-length on a bed under a draped sheet of latex, looking like a shroud, a memento mori, ghostlike, almost fading into the material that covers him.

And then a final image marooned alone on a pink wall of Rall from behind, sitting on a bed under a piece of latex. His skin is painfully human, sagging, sun-marked where it peeks out beneath the perfection of the impervious rubber. This is white masculinity revealed as damaged, frail and ageing.

It is not a depiction that we get to see often in South Africa. Within our patriarchal and racially rigid culture, male vulnerability is viewed as shameful, and we are far too quick to accept whiteness’ own claims about its impenetrability.

Elsewhere in the first annexe is a series of three masks that Rall has made: two human heads, one black and one pink, and a pony mask, which is the exhibition’s most obvious nod to the fetish aesthetic that underlies it.

In the centre of the room is a suspended rail on which six of Rall’s full-body latex suits hang. One has fish scales, others are varying shades of pink. The faux flesh on display here is almost always “white”. The suits look like they belong in a dressing room, or a horror film or perhaps a Hieronymus Bosch painting.

Through the main room into a small dark space is where things really get interesting.

Steyn and van Wyk have set up a slide show — recalling the work of artists like Nan Goldin and Wolfgang Tillmans — that flicks through a series of photo stories of Rall as himself, as Spirit and as moving between the two.

A series of fast-cut shots of Rall dressing as Spirit in a bright red outfit, forcing his body into the suit, lacing up his thigh-high boots, pulling on his full head mask and then relaxing on an armchair in the incongruous surrounds of what looks like a tacky hotel room. Rall as himself: a close shot of a wrinkled hand clutching a burned out cigarette, a solitary figure on a windswept beach.

An astonishing metamorphosis features in which a bright yellow Spirit is slowly peeled off in a bathtub, the shock of old man’s feet holding up her cartoon-perfect body, the banality of the Sunlight Dishwashing Liquid that Rall uses to peel himself out of his other skin, his face submerged in bath water, the contrast between his two selves painfully stark.

The exhibition’s opening night on October 26 featured a once-off live performance from Rall, in which an initially bemused and then increasingly enthralled audience watched him transform into a powder pink version of Spirit while answering some mildly intrusive questions with gentle good humour.

The pathos and vulnerability exposed by Steyn’s images here became subsumed in Rall’s own vision of himself as a bold transgressor — as a person who has made and remade his own self, as a sensual traveller within the realms of identity.

Asked about the appeal of latex for him personally, Rall spoke about the positive effects of swaddling on autistic infants — the fundamental human urge to be held, to be wrapped, as well as the erotic glee of being transformed into what is, for him, an ultimate object of desire.

The performance came to a natural climax when Spirit, now fully inhabited, invited the audience to touch her body and was quickly surrounded by a swarm of art scene cool kids, stroking her face like latex Jesus.

Spirit is an unusual and affecting exhibition and a welcome addition to the rich field of South African visual culture.

For a subject that could easily become sensational, prurient or exploitative, it handles its material thoughtfully, allowing equal space to Steyn and Rall without the standard constraints of “artist” and “subject”.

As well as showcasing the skills of the collaborators and offering a peek into Rall’s hidden world, it also suggests a nuanced and contingent view of white masculinity, miles away from the violent, entitled machismo that characterised the apartheid years and continues to impact on our social landscape.

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