The love between Inez van Lamsweerde and Vinoodh Matadin that lies at the root of their work is reminiscent of Aristophanes’ speech to the symposium on the splitting of the sexes. Outlining a creation myth for gender separation, he speaks of a time when there were three sexes: man, woman, and the union of the two, which is named the androgynous. The sexes corresponded to the sun, moon and earth, as did their shape. Primeval man was round with four hands and feet and one head with two faces — whole until he was split in two as punishment for Otus and Ephialtes’ attempt to scale heaven and touch the gods. It was the splitting of the third sex, the androgynous, that resulted in the love between man and woman.
Inez & Vinoodh — the singular unit they’ve come to be known as — began their conjoined career in 1986 when Inez was called in to photograph Vinoodh’s short-lived clothing line, Lawina. In the many profiles of the two, we are made duly aware not only of their prolific body of work in photography but also their physical beauty. Many of these profiles focus as much on their lifestyle as they do on the images they produce. We are told of the fluidity between their two identities and its application to all of their work, whether it is their more recent forays into jewelry and perfume design or the photography for which they’re known. Accounts of the couple’s dynamic during photo shoots describe Inez as the stationary eye while Vinoodh circulates around the model as the roving camera — two visions creating a single image. They are a reunited whole, as represented by their iconic work Me Kissing Vinoodh (Passionately) (1999) in which Inez’s violently contorted face is mid-kiss with Vinoodh, who has been digitally removed from the image. While this image without Vinoodh was exhibited in galleries, another version with Vinoodh present in the image and Inez covered in body paint was used as a campaign for Lanvin Homme.
Grunge defined the period when Inez & Vinoodh began to work together in the early 1990s. Inez arrived for a yearlong residency at MoMA PS1 in New York in 1991, moving permanently in 1995. In art school at the Gerrit Rietveld Academy she was given access to and learned how to use the tools needed for digital photo editing — the tools that have since become commonplace and available to the everyday prosumer, but which in 1991 lay in the hands of technicians. They used these newly learned skills to produce their breakthrough editorial “For Your Pleasure.” Published in The Face in April 1994, it featured models seamlessly superimposed onto stock image backgrounds, all with enigmatic titles such as Well Basically Basuco is Coke Mixed with Kerosene, which has two women sharing a popsicle grafted onto an image-bank photo of a rocket launch, and My Mother? I’ll Tell You About My Mother… with a secretarial woman lifting a cigarette to her lips as she sits in an office. These images, with their embrace of theatrics and glamour and their employment of textbook symbology, were defiantly not grunge, which solicited a collective sigh of relief from the fashion world. Because Inez and Vinoodh provided an alternative to grunge, harkening back to the Guy Bourdin–style prevalent in the 1980s, they were quickly hired to shoot multiple campaigns for the likes of Balmain and Yves Saint Laurent, and their work was recurrently featured in magazines like V and Paris Vogue. Their images are seamless; when there are more intensive digital manipulations it is in the service of the uncanny. Thank You Thighmaster (1993) features a woman with her nipples and orifices removed, while The Forest (1995)has men in polo shirts lying in repose with superimposed, well-manicured women’s hands (a less subtle and more recent image has Lady Gaga standing as a three-headed Cerberus). Grunge is unglamorous — it replaced the clean, hard bodies of 1990s Baywatch health and image consciousness with unkempt scuzzy looks. But the clear element of stylization and artifice in Inez & Vinoodh’s work poses another alternative to fashion’s impregnable notions of glamour by employing strategies taken from drag and camp.
While their work overtly addresses the fluidity between genders and a fractured notion of self, it ultimately reflects back on IInez & Vinoodh, an identity that still hinges on the separation between female and male. It is a defining feature of the camp sensibility to take a neutral stance and privilege style over content — to achieve distance by doubling back self-awareness and magnifying details. But with this distance comes disengagement and an apolitical attitude. The 1990s introduced grunge into popular aesthetics but also queer theory into popular discourse. Inez & Vinoodh’s unified identity exists in some fluctuating constellation between the two of them. The camp aesthetic in their work, which helps locate and define queer identity, is blunted by the reiterative suggestion that their work is a product of love — and with love comes blindness.
The larger duplicities of camp emerge when they deal with the ambiguity of their work existing in multiple contexts — fashion, advertising, editorial, fine art, etc. On top of being commercial photographers, Inez & Vinoodh maintain careers as commercial artists. Their photographs have been shown in art institutions since the early 1990s. The Forest, shown by commercial art galleries across Europe, has the feeling of an editorial staged as an art exhibit. They began working with Gagosian in 2012. Their presence in galleries is varied though, and in 2001 Inez & Vinoodh took on the role of curator with two exhibitions: “We Set off in High Spirits” at Matthew Marks in New York and “Transformer II” at Air de Paris in Paris a year later. “We Set off in High Spirits”traces a lineage of their influences; a work by Ed van der Elsken, Zwitserland (1967), photographically depicts a girl with a full-leg cast lying with her back to us on a balcony overlooking the Alps. With its harsh division between interior foreground and exterior background, this image has a similar effect to the composited images of “For Your Pleasure.” Similarly, the exhibit’s namesake, a painting by Robert Greene, We Set off in High Spirits (1988), features two figures that are dwarfed by the overwhelming background. With these two artworks, as in many of their photographs, the mise-en-scène takes primacy over the subject. “Transformer II,” which was conceived as a sequel,included a selection of artworks from their personal collection and works by artists in their expansive social network. Here they confront the ambiguities implicit in their crossover works, including magazine spreads like RE Magazine # 6, 2001, The information trash can, page 15-16, and works by their frequent collaborators, the design partnership M/M. The artworks at the crux of this, though, are the adjacent display of Christy Stereo Christy (2002), a portrait of supermodel Christy Turlington beside a Richard Phillips painting of the same image. This pairing reflects another double, Katharina Sieverding’s Transformer – Solarisation 2A/B (1973/2000), which has two mirror images of a woman’s solarized face, not so dissimilar from Christy’s. Richard Phillips’ painting utilizes the popular imagery that Inez and Vinoodh produce, while Inez & Vinoodh reflect the artist’s work back onto their larger commercial practice. This brings both parties into an ambiguous sphere where there is no differentiation between art and fashion.
Because their images circulate in the highest tiers of luxury, their staging of exhibitions that feature photos of other artistically aspirational celebrities such as James Franco and Lady Gaga does not feel like much of a stretch. There is nothing about their work or the institutions that house it that hints at being non-commercial, which makes questions of when, why or how they might be selling out irrelevant. Their exhibitions read like the pages of a magazine spread hung on a gallery wall. But this also is a defining characteristic of camp, which when looked at under the scrutiny of art criticism could pass as kitsch. By presenting their fashion as art, and reciprocally doing so with art as fashion, Inez and Vinoodh handle the circulation of their work in a manner that is similar to their handling of gender, androgenizing and moving fluidly between spheres.
It is worth acknowledging that the language of fashion feeds upon ambiguous dichotomies — the natural and the artificial, the beautiful and the grotesque, the high and the low. It also hinges on the tension created by an artificial elevation where fashion, like photography, aims to transpose the mundane with the beautiful — even though Inez and Vinoodh’s subjects are never mundane to begin with. Another thread in their work, their dead-on black-and-white portraits of models and celebrities against seamless white backdrops, glamorizes what is already glamorous by once again turning to camp aesthetics. Lady Gaga dresses as her drag alter ego Jo Calderone, a persona created by Gaga and fellow fashion editor Nicola Formichetti. Inez poses as a bearded woman for the cover of The Gentlewoman. Their non-drag approach to this implies a hyperbolic take on the imagery of glory and heroism rather than gender. Heroism is inscribed into the history of photography, though the role of the hero lies with the photographer, not the subject. No one is made a hero merely by being subjected to the scrutiny of the lens, so Inez and Vinoodh’s portraiture aims to “glorify the specificity and the character … of the one element in someone’s physiognomy, heightening that through the lens and making everyone into a hero.” [“Abstracting Beauty: Inez & Vinoodh,” Nowness, July 13, 2013] But when every one of their photographed subjects becomes a hero, heroism quickly becomes nothing special; Inez and Vinoodh manage to relegate the heroic to the mundane, highlighting the banality of glory. This is the high comedy thatkeeps their work subversive within the realm of fashion. They identify the elements of fashion photography, of Helmut Newton and Guy Bourdin, and dress them up in drag. What differentiates Inez and Vinoodh from the singular visions of these predecessors? The obvious answer is that their authorship is half female, and their images are created from a two-point perspective. But they are still two individuals, and it’s an ultimately uncomplicated position. Viewing their work as employing elements of camp and drag is optimistic. Conversely, their movement between identities and professional positions could be seen as “passing” not to avoid persecution, but to maximize their viability in the largest network possible, all done under the auspices of love. Their ongoing series of flower photographs may be as harmless as they seem, though it is when they as a unit move fluidly between shooting videos for Miu Miu, Juicy Couture and Dior that we see the scope of what happens when love is put to work. All lines of inquiry end with the two of them, Inez & Vinoodh.