Curator of 20th Century Art, New Mexico Museum of Art, 2016
Eros is unkind. Intoxicating, Eros is more an opiate-fueled nightmare than the dream of love everlasting. Eros comes with the withdrawal and the hangover after the blind pleasures of infatuation. It is that longing the morning after for the hair of the dog that will only make you sicker. Over the past five years, Logan Bellew has visited the Island of Cyprus, to make portraits of the gay men who live there. Eros focuses on only one of those men. Bellew photographically explores and immortalizes their fleeting time with one another. He pictures their intimate encounters, captures the two of them together, and records the places they would go. The photographs are at the same time intimate and distant, captivating and haunting.
Cyprus is called the Island of Aphrodite. Eros in Greek mythology is Aphrodite’s son. Bellew first came to Cyprus to capture the remnants of Cyprus’ mythological past. He photographed the excavated votive statues and idols unearthed at various archeological cites around the island as. This type of work requires a particular stylistic approach to photography. With such documentary photography the composition should not distract from the object, calling for straight-on images with the subject centered unobstructed in the middle of the picture plane. This style conveys an objective, almost sterile distance between the
photographer and subject. The photographer is meant to disappear. Such documentary style employed by archeologists is deigned to allow researchers to return to an image of an object time and time and again. Over time Bellew internalized this mode of photography as a type of meditative, mediated form of deep looking. As Bellew retuned to Cyprus over the subsequent years to photograph the gay men living there, he noticed the stylistic similarities between the portraits of these men, the new idols, and his records of the old ones.
Bellew’s photographs are about intimacy and distance. Photography is a way to capture and expand intimacy indefinably. For Bellew this work “became a way for me to photograph people, to study and frame them, but also to just take joy in the act of looking for a long time and allow my thoughts to wander elsewhere, usually someplace erotic.” Photography and desire have an uneasy relationship. The camera has long been used as a tool to capture the objects of desire, leading to troublesome issues of exploitations and objectification. It is difficult, if not impossible, for a white, middle class photographer to come from a place such as the U.S. to a place like Cyprus in order to photograph an already marginalized portion of that population without raising some uncomfortable questions. In this way these photographs are imperfect, they make no claim to virtue and imagine no reconciliation, no pretense of equality, no redemption. There is no happy ending. It does not “get better.” They are, instead, an embodiment of those queer desires that do not work towards goodness, those that cannot be domesticated; the harmful impulses from witch we derive pleasure and manifest passion. They are the remnants of Eros.
These images are powerful in their indulgence and guilt. This project is about allowing oneself to dare to get close to another body, another soul, knowing you will leave it behind. They convey longing, the knowledge that you have already lost that to which you are holding on. Lust without love is ecstasy. When the body is detached from the soul we are free to engage in the most Dionysian indulgences without fear of feeling or failing. But such intimacy and distance can reach into our hearts and evoke the toxic powers of Eros. The power to love, to lust, to long, to linger, and to leave a poison in the blood.
Once again limb-loosening Eros shakes me,
A helpless crawling thing, sweet-bitter.
-Sappho, Fragment 130
Poets, authors, philosophers, and artists have addressed the topic of Eros long before me. The Greek poet Sappho characterizes Eros in one of her aptly named Fragments as “sweet-bitter,” while others have described it as missiles tempered in honey and cold ice melting in warm hands. What is revealed are two opposing ideas, trapping the one who would love another in a painful paradox. The word Eros itself is Greek in origin and denotes a desire for that which is missing. Anne Carson in her book “Eros the Bittersweet,” says, “It is by definition impossible for the lover to have what he wants if, as soon as it is had, it is no longer wanting. Love and hate bifurcate Eros.” This paradox leaves the amorous with a bitter sweetness Sappho was all too familiar with. Carson goes on to say “Sweetbitter Eros is what hits the raw film of the lover’s mind. Paradox is what takes shape on the sensitized plate of the poem, a negative image from which positive pictures can be created. Whether apprehended as a dilemma of action, sensation, or value, Eros prints as the same contradictory fact: love and hate converge within erotic desire.”
Since 2011 I have been returning to the island of Cyprus in the Eastern Mediterranean Sea, the mythological place of Aphrodite’s birth. It derives its colloquial name, “Love’s Island,” from this origin. At first my explorations in this place were based in and around the archaeological excavation I was a photographer for, but shifted drastically over time to encompass my own personal relationship with both the geography and ultimately the people I was meeting. I was interested in how other gay people live in this environment, and over time I developed not only an understanding of myself through this place but also what it is like to live in an environment of secrecy and hiding. What revealed itself to me in the photographs is a desire to connect on a physical level, and a contradicting fear of having a piece of myself exposed. The camera in this sense became a tool for me to keep and mediate my distance, while still connecting on some – any – level. This paradox, one of many internal contradictions I experienced, permeated my interactions, conversations, and encounters. My relationship with Pete – the subject of these latest photographs – is no exception.
Carson’s metaphor of a film negative embodying the paradox of Eros is only too sweet. The dichotomy of Eros, the paradox between bitter and sweet, the edge and the distance between polar opposites, seem to bifurcate and permeate my relationship with Cyprus in every sense. The photographs are about two lives, the tension between light and shadow, hiding and revealing, even dominance and submission. Hiding can be erotic. Absence can be narcotic, maybe even radiant. Surrender – Intoxicating; and destruction – euphoric. Such are the trappings of Eros.