From ‘First Kiss’ to ‘Undress Me’ – awkwardly juggling science and Cyrus

[youtube]   Perhaps I am revealing myself as a cynic, but Tatia Pilieva’s ‘First Kiss’ (a video of ten pairs of strangers sharing a kiss) was, as the tender examination of romance it was purported to be, pretty excruciating. The “beautiful moments [that] took place when nothing was happening”, in the words of Pilieva, were little more engaging than rom-com fodder.For an example of how the kiss, commonplace or sublime, can be more artfully employed to evoke true romance and pathos, see the achingly prosaic, unselfconscious responses to the Guardian’s recent invitation for readers to submit accounts of their first kisses (or if all else fails, there’s always Klimt). However, excepting the corniness (to say nothing of the restricted social palette of moderately attractive, straight, white participants) it must be admitted that the video had a certain surreal frisson. Its strength lay in this surreality, rather than its affected sentimentality. It was not so much taboo-busting as intriguingly simplifying, decontextualizing the act of ‘kissing’, and thus circumventing the complex web of emotional and social codes that we have somehow constructed around the act of locking lips. The project’s primary fault was to re-sentimentalise the arbitrary ‘kisses’ enacted by its participants, tapping the vast stores of rom-com sentimentality that we have been conditioned with to make the ghostly insinuation of a potential significant connection between the kissing strangers. The mental image was evoked of Pilieva being thrilled to receive a letter, six months down the line, revealing that two of the kissers were now engaged.

Can you do ‘First Kiss’, but with more sex please?

Still, despite these errors in the execution of the video, the idea was thought provoking. So where does this place Pilieva’s latest project? ‘Undress Me’ is the sequel video to ‘First Kiss’ in which, as expected, twenty strangers take each other’s’ clothes off. The initial reportage of the video by Harper’s Bazaar seemed to confirm my cynical expectation that the video was a media-pleasing exaggeration of the initial idea – “Can you do ‘First Kiss’, but with more sex please?”. However, isn’t this knee-jerk reaction exactly the emotional construction that ‘First Kiss’ aimed to expose and question? What exactly is wrong with the revealing of flesh, with ‘more sex please’? Why attach such significance to these particular actions? More to the point, the two videos as a sequence raise the question as to what the distinction is between kissing and undressing – where is the line drawn and why?

‘Undress Me’ ends up an uncomfortable compromise between Science and Miley Cyrus

The video opens with the statement that ‘In 1957, William Masters and Virginia Johnson began asking men and women to undress for science’, and goes on to explain that the video aims to celebrate their work by asking men and women to undress ‘for fun’. Of course, the apparent distinction between ‘science’ and ‘fun’ is a bluff, and serves to tacitly connect Pilieva’s socio-sexual ponderings to this ‘scientific’ heritage. The aim of this is perhaps to deflect from the ever-present pornographic affiliation that dogs the modern artist who examines sexuality and the body as literally as Pilieva does. As if to say, ‘It’s not just hetero-Mapplethorpe with lamer lighting’. Pilieva is obviously conscious that the sculpted bodies, sardonic grins and gratuitous awkward hair-ruffling (to say nothing of the provocative title) of ‘Undress Me’ happily feeds the popular demand for sensual sensationalism, and so ends up juggling an uncomfortable compromise between Science and Miley Cyrus. In the end, my initial scepticism of the video was fulfilled. The flabby, lovey superfluity of ‘First Kiss’ is escalated to such painfully self-conscious levels in ‘Undress Me’ as to completely override any vestiges of the interesting, ‘overheard’ qualities that redeemed the original video. The enchanting decontextualisation and transgression between the private and performative is, in ‘Undress Me’, marred by Pilieva’s refusal to examine the revealed bodies, instead sending them leaping into bed together – cue camera-conscious, imitation-Hollywood love-making and cuddling. It seems a cheap way to treat such a good idea, and leaves one yearning for the defter directorial touch that could have elevated the project to greater significance.