The Force is strong with this oneby Sean O'Toole / 24.07.2009
“Darth Vader is Gay.” I remember the statement clearly, written in schoolboy pen on a classmate’s suitcase. I laughed, not so much because it was funny, rather because it was weird. It was 1983. I was 13. How could this super villain with an air-conditioned voice be gay?
The penny eventually dropped ¬– a very long time after an angry teacher made Brett Syndercombe cover up the offending statement on his suitcase. It happened a couple years later actually, Brett’s taste having moved on from horror writer Stephen King’s Cujo, from which he pilfered the line, to Rocky Horror and a photobook dedicated to camp.
Darth Vader, with his naff cape and glowing erection, is a strange cipher of contemporary culture. Author JG Ballard, who famously dismissed Star Wars as the “first totally unserious sci-fi film,” further describing the film as little more than a “technology pantomime,” saw Vader simply, plainly, as the “wicked witch”.
Robert Sloon, aka Cape Town-based artist Chad Rossouw, has his own ideas about Star Wars. Sloon, whose current exhibition at Cape Town’s Whatiftheworld Gallery includes this photograph, agrees that Star Wars is “terribly written” but is of the belief that “the overarching narrative is far deeper than the script”.
Vader’s story, he seems to say in the natty catalogue accompanying his show, is a morality tale, an age-old story of rags to riches, of success and failure, followed by redemption. The plot though is circular: unavoidably, Luke too will become a fetish addict in service of the evil Empire, giving cause to another rebellion. And so on.
Not that any of this pop-philosophy really says much about Sloon’s photograph, which measures roughly 20 x 12cm, a hidden obscurity in a gallery filled with evidence of strange paranormal phenomena, literary re-enactments and much-needed silliness. (Check out Sloon’s duet with Michaelis lecturer Andrew Lamprecht
Standing in front of this laboriously produced albumen print at his walkabout the artist explains that the photo is a riff on ancient photographic trick. In the time of Jesse James and Lucky Luke, a man named William H. Mumler was making spirit photographs, pictures that claimed to record the presence of incorporeal others. The famous circus showman PT Barnum objected, sued, and effectively ruined Mumler, which seems a cruel fate given the preponderance of many nineteenth century photographers to bend the truth, some even managing to record sightings of fairies.
It is exactly this creative, pseudo-scientific use of the camera that interests Sloon, who is incidentally the founder and editor of the blog Artheat.
“One of my constant fascinations,” he writes in his catalogue, “is with understanding the nature of images, especially the idea that images lie, they mislead and manipulate us. These sorts of vague musings and loose analyses take their most concrete form in the study of photographs, which bear the great weight of representation (i.e. they collect and scientifically store light, reality), but which can be picked apart with a fingernail.”
Rather than let this doubt disable him, Sloon has co-opted it to his advantage, using the camera to create a series of playfully ambiguous images that tell lies, only damned lies.