Saturday, February 12, 2005


There is a form of sexual bondage that involves making furniture designed to incorporate a bound person. It is sometimes known as forniphilia (or human furniture).

The best-known example of forniphilia in art is by British artist Allen Jones who has a very famous series of sculptures called "Hat Stand and Table", made in 1969, which show semi-naked women in the roles of furniture. It's a very striking and provocative work bound to create strong reactions. According to viewer, those works can been seen in a very ambivalent way: either, as a fantasy of sexual objectification, or, a critical and ironic comment on that objectification and woman's role in society -- even though this interpretation is very problematic, as we can see.

Feminists have criticized Jones' painted and sculptured women images. In 1973 Laura Mulvey discussed in the feminist magazine Spare Rib Jones' images in relation to fetishism in the Freudian sense. Mulvey argued that Jones repeated typical fetishistic female imagery familiar from media and pop culture. She suggested that his work is not about women at all, but illustrates Jones' male fears. These images are related to fetishism in the strictly Freudian sense, and reproduce the woman as spectacle, as primarily sexual being, and as the object of a specifically masculine gaze/desire. The notion of the woman bound and restricted through shoes and clothing is addressed in Mulvey's critique of the art of Allen Jones. Mulvey writes, "The most effective fetish both constricts, and up-lifts, binds and raises, particularly high-heeled shoes, corsets and bras" (Mulvey, Laura: "You Don't Know What's Happening, Do You Mr. Jones?" in Framing Feminism, p. 128). High-heels represent heightened sexuality, yet a lack of agency in their inhibition of movement. Shackles of a sort, they place the female wearer in a position of greater vulnerability than that of the male.

In the article "Allen Jones in Retrospect: A Serpentine Review" of Block magazine (1979) Lisa Tickner discussed the imagery of women and sexuality as a reflection of social phenomena. Allen Jones represents women through sexual images and he rarely includes heads in his representations. According to Tickner, Jones associates women with "passivity, availability, narcissism, exhibitionism, physicality, and mindlessness."

Tickner discusses Jones' images in the context of the politics of representation, an understanding of how imagery operates in society. She is anxious to point to their deeper social and ideological implications rather than to reject Jones' images. She regards the artist as a "social barometer" and insists that the images are already loaded with social significance. No longer could Jones' images be treated as real women, but rather the representation of women, coded/ideologized images by cultural and social systems. The systems are negotiated in terms of the struggle between the dominant and the dominated, the exploiting and the exploited in classes, races and genders.

Tickner cannot agree with Jones' idea that his women are morally neutral and a simple matter of formal innovation and variation. Tickner is against Jones' emphasis on formal qualities of the work in the formalist tradition and she cannot accept the distinction between form and content. Tickner argues that 'sexism' cannot be distilled from the image itself -- it lies in the relation between that image and external social relations and ideologies. She states that "the exploitation of already exploitative material cannot be seen as politically neutral, whatever the artist's intentions and the use of a particular kind of sexual imagery contributes to the 'objectification', even degradation of women". (Block 1, p. 39) Therefore, Tickner argues that images cannot be ineffective, or socially neutral but they are inevitably compromised by ideological assumptions. She wants to make clear that all images, whatever the intention of the maker, enter into a public domain and are read in relation to external social relations and ideologies. Thus, Tickner's approach is meant to displace a pure formalistic treatment of art works.

No can deny these aren't very well-argumented views. However, I find both Mulvey's and Tickner's approaches somehow one-sided, since I think another possible layer of interpretation is still missing there. I'd call that an "difficulty of interpretation caused by the ambivalence or irony" where the viewer of works cannot strictly and unambiguously decide here which cultural codes these works actually bear, since they are too multi-faceted for simple and straightforward interpretations.

To add another possible layer of interpretation here, the Japanese sound artist Merzbow once said: "Most people think female bondage is a realisation of a sexist rape and violence obsession. Violence and rape -- if we consider the police, military, schools and other forms of establishment power -- are 'normal' human activities. Bondage is not a 'normal' human activity. It must be 'abnormal'. Bondage is parody and an anti-form of authority. People don't understand this point."

Therefore, the S/M-type of roleplaying games of bondage and fetishism could be seen as a carnevalistic turning upside down of the conventional power games in our hierarchy-obsessed society. It is known that in the psycho-sexual role plays of the dominatrix and the slave, "alpha male" men, those holding precious places in society, often voluntarily revert into the latter's role, to be voluntarily humiliated by their "mistresses". A man used to dominate and give orders in his every-day life receiving pleasure from the situation of being crudely embarrassed, both mentally and physically, and even losing face, something that he wouldn't be ever willing to do under normal circumstances. (See also: "The Right Man".)

Personally, I'd like to see Allen Jones' works as a comment on sexism, consumerism and fetishism; all three of them interconnected in capitalist society. The problem here is with the individual interpretation, of which sort of comment: are they actually pro or con sexism/bondage fetishism? What to make out of that? What is the artist trying to tell us? Women depicted as furniture and objects in this society: as pure pornography, which purpose is to titillate and arouse, I find this imagery far too revolting and even disturbing. It won't arouse me, and if it does, it makes me ask what the hell is wrong with me? And for being called feminist works they are far too "slick" and "sexy" (meaning here the typical commercial media imagery -- of fashion, ads and so on -- intended to please a typical masculine eye), since there can be clearly found the fetishistic imagery criticized by Mulvey and Tickner.

If we follow Merzbow's line of thinking here, we should then see Jones' work as parody or an ironic comment on woman's role in society, not as sexism, but as we have already noticed, it is not at all as simple as that, and the artist's "message" ultimately remains ambiguous. Anyway, isn't that what a work of art is supposed to: to create questions and new trains of thought in a viewer rather than to answer them in a clear-cut way. Allen Jones' work provokes and leaves a viewer enraged or puzzled, but it doesn't give answers.

Also film-maker Stanley Kubrick's controversial Clockwork Orange (1971) features a scene with Korova Milkbar and its female-shaped furniture -- inspired by Allen Jones -- which give emphasis on film's alienated worldview. In front of Alex and his "droogs" we see forming a corridor and on either side of the camera grotesque forms of artwork in a mood of futuristic nihilism -- sculpted, sleek, hygienic white-fiber glass nude furniture and statues of submissive women either kneeling or in a back-bending position on all fours as tables. Colours are absent except for the artificial orlon wigs and pubic hair.

Human Furniture @ Jahsonic


Jan said...

Hi Phinn;

Just wanted to give you a yell, because you have inspired me so many times.

Will be doing give some attention to your human furniture page.

Jan, jahsonic

pHinn said...

Thank you, Jan. Your Jahsonic page also has proved useful to me often. (For everyone else, it's -- check it out!)