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Sam Roddick, Hidden Within at Michael Hoppen

Breaking down the male gaze

Coco de Mer founder Sam Roddick recreates the lost porn polaroids of Carlo Mollino

The first time Coco De Mer founder and artist Sam Roddick came across architect, Surrealist and closet nude photographer Carlo Mollino, was 13 years ago, when, flicking through a book in her Covent Garden shop, she thumbed onto a series of alluring and mysterious polaroids – images that remained a secret until after his death in 1973. Roddick journeyed deeper into Mollino's subversive world, eliciting a desire to explore the shame and anxiety associated with the male gaze, along with the ideal of female perfection Mollino strived to achieve through his work.

The obsessive and fetishistic nature of Mollino’s images developed into an obsession for Roddick – engrossed in exploring the subject of sexual objectification of women through the male gaze, she turned to the lens to pick up where the polymath left off, creating 12 exact reconstructions of Mollino's polaroids, each completed with beautifully embroided frames and decorated with ancient symbols associated with religion. The sets and costumes were all created by Roddick, and through this experience, she began to understand the perfectionist approach that Mollino had for his work. 

Considering herself a ‘visual philosopher,’ Roddick uses her photography as a way to explore the many ideas she has through creative means. Her first solo project, Hidden Within, aims to explore the evolution of everything Roddick has learnt about sex in the past 15 years, incorporating the fascinating sexual psychology surrounding Mollino’s images as her main muse. “What I came away with was he was a very sad and lonely man plagued with insecurity. But this project has meant more to me than exploring Mollino. It is a collage of ideas that I have been holding on to for many years, about what is missing in our cultural sexual language and how Mollino reflects that,” she tells us. From the religious symbolism, to Roddick’s concept of ‘the wounded male gaze,’ Dazed talked to the entrepreneur and photographer about the man, our manipulated cultural relationship with sex and why good porn is “like finding a diamond in a shit pile.”

Could you tell us about your exhibition Hidden Within?

Sam Roddick: The exhibition is about me exploring the question: What are the roots to our social sexual shame? And where can we find the remedy to heal it? Women and sex historically have been seen through a male perspective so I created an archetype of ‘the wounded male gaze’ and set out to see women and sex through ‘his eyes’. The purpose was to place myself in a position of insight to try to understand historical roots of sexual objectification; the positive and negative aspects. I chose the gaze of the famous architect and furniture designer Carlo Mollino because of the sexual psychology and mystery that surrounds him.

What is it about photography that makes it a great medium to explore questions and gain answers?

Sam Roddick: When you look at an image, you're seeing it through the eyes of the photographer. If they are great you can get so lost in the moment, it can undo the way you see the world. The first photography book that I got lost in was given to me when I was 14-years-old by my mum, it was called In the American West by Richard Avedon. It is a collection of portraits of ordinary people, and when I would look at the images I would feel nauseated. It was the repulsion that sparked my curiosity.

As a teenager I found his images took me over the edge of what I felt normal was, and at the same time, introducing me to a deeper sense of humanity. The next photographer I was introduced to at the age of 15 was Robert Mapplethorpe. He blew my mind and taught me anything is permissible as long as it is beautiful.

Throughout your exhibition, you can see connotations of religious symbolism. Did your apprenticeship with artist Mara Amats, and her work with Russian Orthodox paintings have a significant impact within your work and approach to displaying images of the female body?

Sam Roddick: She had a massive impact on me, and was one of the people who set me on the journey of loving art and symbolism. What excites me about symbolism is it is a hidden language – Joseph Campbell and Carl Jung both point to the possibility that there is a collective consciousness and that within our subconscious there is a hidden library of symbols. All the symbols I have used in my pieces are symbols that historically celebrate women and sex. There is a lot within ancient philosophical thinking that is very sexually inspiring.

What was it about Carlo Mollino’s photography that led you on this journey?

Sam Roddick: They are very alluring and mysterious, and I was instantly fascinated by the sexual psychology that surrounded them. I discovered that he lived with his parents his whole life, that never really had any relationships, never married, never had children and that he built and decorated his villa specifically to take these photographs – he never slept there. He had two male friends source the prostitutes and a maid to dress them in the clothes that he bought and sometimes designed specifically for the photos. He took thousands and thousands of these images, and it was when I recreated the images myself that my understanding deepened of how unnatural the poses where and how tightly he controlled the women's bodies, moulding them like sculptures. The Mollino women were not expressing their own sexuality but instead Mollino was chasing the ideal of feminine perfection.

Do you feel a certain responsibility to pick up where he left off?

Sam Roddick: Immersing myself in Mollino’s world has been a total pleasure. Although it touches on some seriously dark stuff! I call him the archetype of a wounded male because he is totally emotionally disconnected and there is a darkness to his sexuality that is quite profound. In the process of creatively exploring his influence, I was drawn deep into the worlds of Ancient philosophy and mythology, the Freemasons, his passion for Egyptology and Surrealism, as well as his fascination with the occult. I spent a lot of time in Italy and met with friends of his, I even interviewed one of his models. I worked closely with the Mollino museum when I started, and I had no idea that Turin is the centre of black magic in Italy and how much Mollino was surrounded by that world. 

“I call him the archetype of a wounded male because he is totally emotionally disconnected and there is a darkness to his sexuality that is quite profound” – Sam Roddick

In today’s society there has been a certain cultural shift to how we experience and view female sexuality, largely due to the digital era in the age of Instagram, Snapchat, and such things. Do you feel the shame and anxiety often associated with female sexuality has decreased, or merely taken on a different form in this day and age?

Sam Roddick: Instagram and Facebook have a lack of creative intelligence that I find totally disturbing. They are more likely to ban a beautiful painting of a hairy pussy than they are a cat being skinned alive. What does this say about our mainstream perspective of sex?  However there are some brilliant movements emerging that are exploring sexuality and this is not coming from the sex industry, it is coming from fashion and art. Rick Owens is a now a champion of penises; Marilyn Minter is a pioneer of the pubic bush while Tyrone Lebon’s photograph of Lily Cole celebrated armpit hair. I really like what Baron magazine and American SuburbX are doing. On the other hand 99 per cent of the content created by the sex industry is creatively talentless. Its perspective of sex is just holes and gizzum.

Finding good porn is like finding a diamond in a shit pile. The best chance you have is Google search 'feminist porn' but still that doesn’t cut the biscuit. The sexual shame and anxiety is deep rooted in our society. It started with religion telling us we have come from the original sin and has ended up with advertising telling us we are not enough. There is a massive gap between how sex is represented and how sex is experienced. So there needs to be more emotional honesty and for us to acknowledge at the very centre of sex is our emotional well being — in order to address and to heal the sexual shame and anxiety, we need to understand that the beauty of sex is that it encompasses all of who we are. It includes our humour, our emotional and intellectual intelligence and our spiritual understanding. Our physical pleasure derives from all of that combined and that sex at its best is a creative expression between yourself and who ever else is invited to join in.    

I read that you were inspired by a book entitled The History of Whores. What specific points in the book awakened an interest in sexual politics to you?

Sam Roddick: It is a must read for everyone! It was in this book that I realised, that the way we currently view sex and women has taken a major step backwards. Women used to be worshiped. For instance, in Sumerian times prostitutes were treated with respect and had more legal rights than they do today. Women were the the guardians of agricultural communal land and performed the fertility rites. I find it curious that the Ancient Greeks didn’t sleep with virgins. Their hymans were thought of as so powerful, that they could kill a mere mortals, so dildos were deflowering instruments of self worship.

That belief alone would have surely protected some young women from unwanted advances or at least been the best threat a woman could have: “don’t fuck me I am a virgin.” I mean can you imagine sex education encouraging teenagers to have an instrument of self worship and to explore as much of their own bodies as they can before fully engaging with sex? Anyone with any experiences knows building a secure relationship with yourself gives you a much better chance of really enjoying a loving sexual relationship.

Hidden Within is on at the Michael Hoppen Gallery and runs from 19 March – 1 May. Click here for more