Awardee of the Michael O'Pray Prize 2022 Siavash Minoukadeh explores the power of oblique suggestion in queer cinema.
There’s nothing straightforwardly erotic about the close-up shots of flowers in Robert Beavers’s Pitcher of Coloured Light, 2007. They feature in a film documenting the house that Beavers’s mother lived in. Bar a little movement in the breeze, the petals sit rather still on the ends of their respective stems, as if listening to the soft overlaying commentary that comes in and out. Altogether, the flowers in this film have something of a homely, grandparental air to them. And yet, the stigma and filaments are primed for reproduction. The vivid pinks and reds of the petals are a botanical equivalent of a ‘come hither’ glance. As far as plants go, this is as racy as it gets. There is a reason that flowers have become a symbol of romance, so maybe there is something erotic about these close-up shots.
Seeing these flowers and other objects captured in Beavers’s recent films at a London screening last year left me uneasy. I desired them. It wasn’t clear why, but there was a latent, unspoken desire there all the same. Whatever this desire was, it was erotic not sexual, a difference which became clear through watching these films. I simply felt drawn to these objects, as though instinctively I was sensing that they might reveal something more of themselves. I had an urge to be in that garden, smelling every note of the flowers or feeling all the cold contours of the bronze figure in The Suppliant, 2010. There was something more going on than the surfaces I was being shown. I wanted to experience them, to possess and be possessed by them, and ultimately spend time beyond the film’s length with them. The films kept these desires very much on the horizon of my thinking, desires which I was never sure I was meant to have.
On paper, the films were not erotic films, I had no reason to see anything but serene domestic settings. Was I reading symbols into objects which were presented as anything but symbolic? Looking at the overlapping and unfurling folds of the fleshy petals, the thought of anal sex flashed into my mind; was it a natural response or an indication of my corrupted youth trained to see sex in even the most mundane of objects through years of advertising and pop star imagery. In short, was I being perverse or was Beavers leaving enough crumbs for a tuned-in viewer to snack on? The films did not encourage me to feel what I felt, but nor did they refute it.
Beavers took part in a Q&A after the screening. I could have asked about the flowers, but I realised that didn’t really care to know what he thought. I preferred to think ahead, to speculate. This in-betweenness felt more exciting than the fact of knowing either way; after all, the erotic is at home in this state of tension. An unlikely combination of excitement and dread – was that brush with another’s arm accidental or a hint of an invitation? Will your witty comment be a masterfully flirtatious riposte or strike the wrong tone and shatter the fragile bond that was being built up? Beavers’s flowers threw at me a similar anxious tension.
In the words of the theorist José Estaban Muñoz, the erotics of queerness is ‘always on the horizon’, going on to characterise queer sensibilities as something at home in the fluid and varied possibilities of the erotic, seeing the potential to open up several avenues without ever needing to drop down any attachments along the way. As opposed to setting out to answer a question, queer erotics explores them and the multiple meanings that can be held in the same sign without ever committing to a single one. Queer desire is not just about getting one’s desire, but about savouring the act of desiring, from a condition of impossibility, to realising that it can bring disappointment, be unsafe or, indeed, deadly.
If Beavers presented the erotic without the sexual, William E Jones’s The Fall of Communism as seen in Gay Pornography, 1998, shows the reverse. Here, there is no need to imagine what successfully reaching your desire can look like, there is no need to play the delicate game of flirtation, because everything you would wish to see is discussed and shown directly on screen. Jones’s collection of gay porn videos made in post-Soviet Eastern Europe should be, at least for some viewers, thrilling, and yet my overwhelming response was one of sadness and discomfort.
For while the film may be gay centred, there is nothing queer about it. Rewatching the clips, the encounters with the men have already taken place, there is nothing in the frame to lead to new encounters. There is no role that remains open for you to play as the viewer. Your presence is that of an uncomfortable voyeur. Jones is able to use the porno clips as historical documents precisely because, lacking any erotic element, they are firmly stuck in the past.
So how then can an erotic feeling be felt by a viewer if depicting an erotic encounter does exactly its opposite? The power of the camera is its ability to document, to show as exact an image as possible. The camera’s visual testimony is key to its function, but if its aims are not one of capture but instead to plant a seed, then the camera’s greatest strength becomes its weakness when it comes to the queer erotic. Its objective eye excels at showing that which is currently in front of it, but it struggles to represent that which may (or may not) come to be.
Which brings us back to Beavers and his domestic idyll, a million miles away from the nudity and ‘fingers-in-mouths’ of Jones’s porn clips. Here there is only the slightest hint of any such scene coming to pass. But there is still a hint. What the flowers of Pitcher of Coloured Light show is that the queer erotic is an attempt to shape the future when that future is still too fragile to be brought out onto the screen. Beavers is only able to successfully present an audience with this notion by going against the norm of cinema, but makes them feel the queer erotic without ever showing it.
Siavash Minoukadeh is a writer and moving image curator based in London, and an awardee in the Film and Video Umbrella and Art Monthly Michael O’Pray Prize 2022.
The Michael O’Pray Prize is a Film and Video Umbrella initiative in partnership with Art Monthly, supported by University of East London and Arts Council England.
2022 Selection Panel
Terry Bailey, Senior Lecturer, Programme leader, Creative and Professional Writing, University of East London
Steven Bode, Director, FVU
Ellen Mara de Wachter, Writer on Arts and Culture
Chris McCormack, Associate Editor, Art Monthly
Tai Shani, Artist
Image: Robert Beavers, 'Pitcher of Coloured Light', 2007, film still.