Christopher Matthews, Lads

V&A, London | 28.09.2018


One figure on the ground, head facing down, arm reaching out, their neck and spine gently twisting. The other looms above – soft and precise as a shadow – to take a photo on their phone. Both are dressed in immaculate Adidas tracksuits, black with the signature three bold white stripes.

A text on the wall that describes the project’s interjection into the Instagram’s hashtag ‘#lads’. But rather than its activity in this digital space, I’m much more interested in the live role of the camera here. It’s a performance in a busy art night, in which everyone obsessively documents everything through their camera-phone. But the performers get there first, by continually taking these (self-?)portraits of their double. It’s refreshing to see a choreographer taking ownership of the incredible image production that forms part of the economy, spectatorship and participation of these events.

I shift position: looking straight on, from higher up on the stairs, and then kneeling close to the Lads. Slow-controlled-moving-quoting-statuesque-posing is kind of a cliché, but here I’m entranced by the precision and skill of these turns, reaches, slouches, grasps, pulls and folds. He puts down the phone and twins the other lying on the ground; and then suddenly a third strides in. He neatly adds his shoes to the identical pairs at the side, takes a couple of photos, and then deftly folds into the work as one of the others departs.

Each of these entries, exits, or shifts between the roles of model and photographer is swooningly caught by an acceleration of Naoto Hiéda’s exquisite sound design. The lagging, dragging, and revving of a turntable pulls us from an abstraction of the lowest and deeper frequencies to the startling clarity of the refrain of Air’s ‘Sexy Boy’ – a dreamy endless stop-start lurch that helps hold the quiet attention of both performer and audience amidst the semi-public bustle of the V&A.

The men continue to dance around each other; this doubling-of-the-same a strong echo of Felix Gonzales-Torres’ gay male aesthetic. They are close enough to grapple, to clasp, to hug, to fight, to fuck – but they don’t. Instead, this encounter is kept open – spatially, symbolically, psychologically and dramaturgically. Chris sits on Andrew’s elevated hips to push him back down to the ground. Sam squats over Chris as he kneels on the floor, riding him, raising and curling a clenched fist. Andrew is on the ground, and Sam stands above, his eyes and fingers flickering over his smartphone; but then looking out to see Andrew pull his leg back and across to reveal his torso, face and crotch. Feet are in pristine white socks; the heel of one foot is delicately and impossibly placed to rest on the toes of the other, and just as his partner lies down to mirror him they collapse in a synchronous slow roll. Hands touch, tap and grasp phones. Black silk-y plastic-y fabric stretches, pulls and folds over curves. I look at legs, hands, crotches, bellies, eyes, asses, beards, flesh and cloth.

If it’s not clear: I’m not only seduced by this work – the boldness and intelligence of the choreography – but turned on by these dancing figures who luxuriate and stretch in the deliciousness of this soft streetwear. I wonder about the aesthetics and pleasures on offer here – how much is this work tied to a particularly gay male sense of pleasure, precision and seduction? How might this choreography be read by other watchers, touchers, lovers? But Lads is engaged precisely in these questions of codification and ownership. Despite the near-ubiquity of urban sportswear as a ‘uniform’ of contemporary dance, there’s a specificity to its use here that sharply questions how the costumes and poses of masculinity – across race, sexuality and class – are proposed, appropriated, abandoned and reclaimed.

One twists and poses on the ground as the other towers above to photograph. The mediation and digitisation of this watching keeps their relation indirect and open; their watching echoes out to our own. I think of Leo Bersani writing about the radical anti-relational homosexuality of Jean Genet’s Funeral Rites, in which two traitorous soldiers fuck on a rooftop before a war-torn Paris. Rather than producing a closed unit in which they face one another, their intimacy rather perpetually opens itself and these lovers to the night-sky, an uncertain future, the world. The sexuality of Lads is in the pleasure of the image, of the offer to become an image for (and of) one another. This homo intimacy – and the use and circulation of this clothing – is revealed to be a public display of possession, desire, unfolding, openness and escape.

Paul Hughes

Photo credit: Thomas Dupal.