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THE PLEASURE PARK
My two earlier bodies of work, Still Lovers, and Fandomania: Characters and Cosplay, are photographic studies that reveal under-examined subjects. As a visual artist I have found remarkable beauty in subjects that, on the surface, might be dismissed as aberrant and unseemly. I am fascinated by the interplay between fiction and fact and the thin line that separates the two. By keeping the line of inquiry open, I have been able to make images that raise questions. Rather than focusing on the unknown, my new work creates an alternative perspective on a popular icon: the horse.
Beginning with my years as a competitive rider, the historical and contemporary manifestations of equine imagery have intrigued me. Horses and riders have been represented in photography and film from the medium’s inception. Early practitioners, such as Edward Muybridge and Etienne Jules Marey, isolated the powerful motion and sinewy muscularity of the equine form such that these images continue to resonate in our collective unconscious.
The metaphoric potential that exists between representations of the horse—and the jockey—in movement and the spectator’s gaze, particularly in racing, is at the forefront of my new work. At the track, expectations of the horse and rider are still insatiable, and conjure in the viewer motion, athleticism, sexuality, power, performance, vulnerability, competition, financial gain, and fetishism – the same issues humans are faced with in a society that worships commodity culture and winning at all costs.
The Pleasure Park series combines digital still photography and High Definition motion video to represent the racing horse in various forms. The animal has been abstracted but also made whole by the layering of animation, archival footage, freeze-frames, still photographs, full-motion video, and sound. This series includes two video instillations: The Pleasure Park simulates a horse race and is projected on four walls with quadraphonic sound. My intent is not only to capture the poise and resilience of the fleeting animal in multidimensional space, but also to place the spectator directly in the racing environment, overwhelming them with sensation and the power of the physical form and sheer force of these trained athletes. Pleasure Park: The Jockeys, is a one-channel series of video portraits, allowing the viewer to confront the riders in their most vulnerable and unprotected state. Pleasure Park: The Horses, portrays these powerful and sinewy animals off the track, in a studio setting deprived of visual cues. Although the ritual and pageantry of the race are alluded to in the accoutrement represented the animals are suspended in motion, still, removed from the culture of commodity. The final installation includes a variety of grids composed of still images, referencing Muybridge’s earliest studies of the horse. This complete series not only regards the beauty of the racehorse and the jockey, but also raises questions about the ongoing fetishism of thoroughbreds and their ultimate expendability for spectacle.
A short interview with Elena Dorfman.
Much of your personal work examines synthetic human constructs and what you call a ‘culture of commodity’ in your artist statement for The Pleasure Park. Can you tell us why this is an area of particular interest for you?
What I’m most interested in is exploring cultures that are not my own–synthetic or real–that may not be familiar to most viewers. This was the case in both Still Lovers and Fandomania. The horse–and horse racing–is certainly an oft-photographed subject, but my intent with The Pleasure Park was to present the animal–and jockey– in a way that I had not seen before, and in a visual style that connected both the animal and the rider–two entities that cannot exist without the other–who are both under duress to succeed.
For how long were you a competitive horse rider? Can you describe your own relationship with horses?
I was a competitive rider for a decade, which began when I was eight. For me, horses were a refuge, a source of connection and love for something much larger than myself both physically and emotionally. I learned self-reliance by riding and competing, and it gave me structure and a place to escape to as a teenager. Horses were my first love so returning to them later in life, as an artist, was like speaking a language I’d forgotten but had no trouble remembering.
How did the animals react to the studio environment and to being photographed?
Much to my surprise, the horses were fine around the strobes and the people on set and my gear. They never spooked when the lights went off, although the initial introduction to the set took them time to get used to. All of the animals are race horses trained to focus in a very busy and loud environment, so they were somewhat used to a chaotic space. The biggest challenge of shooting the horses was their constant movement, difficult technically and to the set I’d built.
You mention being intrigued by equine imagery in film; can you expand on this? Did you look at any painters in preparation for making this work?
I looked a many forms of media to make this work including books, film, photographs and painting. Eadweard Muybridge was a huge source of inspiration, of course, as was Etienne-Jules Marey, Andrei Tarkovsky, and Denys Colomb Daunant’s Dream of the Wild Horses. I did, of course, spend time with the equine imagery of George Stubbs, among many other sources.
To what extent do you think these animals are “expendable for spectacle”?
Race horses are a commodity. They are bred to run and to make money for their owners. Very often they are loved and respected by their trainers and riders, but they serve a purpose and that purpose is to win. Horse racing is entertainment run primarily by gamblers, thus the color and pageantry and drama–all for the sake of winning–sometimes at the cost of young animals who are bred too young for the speed they must attain. My purpose in creating The Pleasure Park was in no way political, but it was difficult not to be aware of the ingrained practices and mechanisms of the racing industry, at once both exhilarating and heart breaking.
ELENA DORFMAN’S 2007 series, Fandomania: Characters & Cosplay, explored the world of costume play—a pop-cultural phenomenon exported from Japan, now exploding in the US. The subjects in this series are extreme fans who frequent conventions worldwide, who dress up and live as characters from video games, Japanese manga and anime. A book of the same title has been published by Aperture.
Still Lovers, the photographic series that preceeded Fandomania, examined the intimate and domestic lives of men and women who live with life-sized silicone sex dolls. Still Lovers, the monograph, was published by Channel Photographics. Both series were the subject of solo shows at the Edwynn Houk Gallery in New York, and multiple cities worldwide.
Elena lives between Los Angeles and New York. More of her work can be seen on her website.