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Joseph Häxan’s Body Horror

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Joseph Häxan, The Winds, 2019, dimensions variable, digital composite image. Courtesy the artist.

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In Joseph Häxan’s Body Horror series, bodies hover between flesh and figure, contortions rendering them almost abstract. Their convergence creates Frankensteinian blooms and bodily centrepieces, supernatural wonders with dreadful implications. The masculine figure is vulnerable, refusing to meet our gaze; instead we look at them, surveying expanses both bloodied and bare with a hungry impunity.

To see is to desire, and societally, this has been the realm of men. For this reason, queer readings of works that position the male body as object of desire prevail. We expect women’s bodies to be the site of passions both sexual and violent, the substrate on which male tools work, their trauma the fruits of masculine labour. To see men vulnerable, their exposed bodies wearing the signs of trauma and excess is unexpected; through a hetero-normative lens, figures such as these are coded as feminine to be subsumed by the male gaze. But must the bodies that wear trauma and excess be coded in this way? Or can they exist as objects for a more inclusive gaze?

Like Häxan, filmmaker Eli Roth situates hysteria and excess upon the male form. While Roth’s work seeks to mock hyper-masculinity and capitalism, painting the latter as a masculinised, monstrous marketplace, it shares commonalities with Häxan’s in that men’s bodies are most prominently displayed and most frequently form the site of violent spectacle. Both implicate the viewer; Roth’s work is part of the torture-porn tradition whose moniker blurs the line between sexual and violent appetites, painting its consumers as perverts. Häxan’s work implicates the viewer in more subtle ways; his figures are strongly lit, giving them a supernatural glow that simultaneously implies a flash or a spotlight, a clue that the images are either staged or documents of events past. I am drawn to Visitor from the Stars, a wisp of something hairlike intruding into the picture plane, blown by the wind across the top half of the image. The camera looms large here, and so do we, less invisible voyeurs than intruders documenting some glorious unfolding event.

Roth’s work, whilst not necessarily feminist, is anti-patriarchy. In Hostel II, monstrous capitalism consumes all genders, indoctrinating them to enact hyper-masculine violence lest they find themselves at the bottom of the food chain. We see women as torturers and thus women see themselves as torturers, a refreshing (and problematic) change to the cultural precedent of placing women on the receiving end of such attention. Likewise, the focus on masculine vulnerability in Häxan’s work offers the opportunity to subvert the societal norms that positions the feminine form as a site of violence, allowing one to behold phantasmic images of bodily excess without the echoes of misogyny that often intrude unwanted into horror’s imagery. This combined with Häxan’s acknowledgement of the viewer, however subtle, opens the gaze up to be inhabited by anyone that surveys the works, consuming us all, malleable in a way that female focused violent spectacle often struggles to be.

Joseph Häxan, Visitor from the Stars, 2018, dimensions variable, digital composite image. Courtesy the artist.
Joseph Häxan, Visitor from the Stars, 2018, dimensions variable, digital composite image. Courtesy the artist.