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BelugaReview - Beluga
by Jean Van Cleemput
Goliath, 2004
Review by Christian Perring, Ph.D.
Mar 18th 2005 (Volume 9, Issue 11)

Beluga is named of course after a variety of caviar, which are quite a delicacy, consisting of fish roe.  The book features photographs of topless models and dead fish in one of the oldest Chinese restaurants in Antwerp, Belgium, the photographer's hometown.  It a profoundly odd and basically unpleasant book, although it may appeal to those with an appetite for the bizarre. 

The restaurant certainly provides a kitsch feast for the senses: the walls are wood-paneled with shelves of garishly colored Chinese vases and decorations, pictures and lanterns.  The models are dressed up in black stockings, pearl necklaces, silk shirts, lacy underwear, and of course high-heeled black shoes.  In some of the pictures there are men dressed as waiters.  One is a person of short stature, while another is a young black man. 

As bizarre as the pictures is a collection of recipes at the end of the book, with instructions for meals such as marinated jellyfish with sesame, ragout of octopus with Mediterranean vegetables, and tartar of stewed summer purslane with breaded plaice, crushed eggs and a lemon and olive oil sauce.  These are illustrated with small pictures of the seafood and models, but not of the finished meals.  I can't really imagine using this book as a recipe book, although I expect that someone will.

Some of the pages fold out, making large pages, although this has the disadvantage of making it difficult to browse the book easily, and making it inevitable that the pages will get unwanted extra folds in them after viewing them.  On some of these fold-out pages, the main picture is nevertheless centered on the book's fold so it is impossible to fully see the model's face, in an apparently deliberate attempt to defeat the advantage of the fold-out format.  The book is about10" x 12", which is larger in size than most of the other Goliath products, although it has fewer pages,

To give some sense of these pictures, I will describe a couple in more detail.  In the "shark" section, a woman on a table crouches over a large shark, about five feet from nose to tail.  She has blonde hair and is wearing it up.  She has on black underwear, her breasts poking through open-fronted bra cups, and she wears thigh high black high heel boots.  She looks up to the viewer's right, holding her hands to her buttocks.  The woman looks expectant and ready for further instructions.  Her mouth is open.  The shark is glassy-eyed and open mouthed. Behind this couple are the omnipresent wood colored walls, a large Chinese painting, and two lit electric lanterns. 

In another picture, this one a fold-out over four pages, a brunette with thigh-length stockings, high heels, black panties and glittery silver-colored necklace wrapped in several long strands around her neck and draped over her rather small breaks, resting against one pointed nipple, reclines on the floor.  She pouts sexily, and this might be a silly cheese-cake glamour shot were it not for the glistening cuttlefish sharing her space to her left, stood on its head on the floor.  It is a large and apparently slimy sea creature, maybe 15 inches high, and with some kind of tentacles arranged on the floor.  The whole effect is disturbing and may make some viewers feel quite ill.  I found it quite disgusting. 

We might ask what photographer Jean Van Cleemput is aiming to achieve with this series of images.  It is possible that there are people who have a fetish for the conjunction of attractive topless models and shiny dead fish, although I have yet to see a website devoted to such a fetish.  There seem to be no bounds to what some people can find erotic, but for most of the population, the presence of the dead fish probably strips the images of their eroticism.  It is hard to imagine that he is likely to make great financial profit from this book as a collection of sexy photographs.  It is easier to imagine he is a fan of the bizarre and the perverse, possibly with an awareness of the traditions of surrealism and dada-ism in twentieth century art, as well as the obvious fantasy of pornography.  These pictures lack any clear political or social sensibility, and one might complain that they are saturated with a flavor of self-indulgent decadence. 

If there is anything valuable here, it has to lie in the sheer absurdity of the images and the possibility that Van Cleemput is poking fun at the genre of glamour photography.  Indeed, these images are open to a rather straightforward feminist interpretation, that glamour photography turns women into dead fish, so to speak.  These models, while certainly conventionally attractive, are effectively transformed into pieces of (fish)meat here.  The trappings of stockings and high heels look about as erotic on them as a plate of sea bass.  So maybe this is a surprisingly subtle work protesting the objectification of women.  But I suspect not.  The book might equally be read as an anti-female manifesto, comparing them to dead fish, or as a pro-seafood manifesto, comparing the culinary delicacies to the joys of beautiful women.  There is no way to discover any definite meaning to these works.  They will induce a powerful reaction in most viewers though, and I imagine that most will find them both a little intriguing and quite repellant.

 

 

Links:

·        Jean Van Cleemput  http://www.isawyou.be

·        Goliath Books

 

© 2005 Christian Perring. All rights reserved. 

 

Christian Perring, Ph.D., is Academic Chair of the Arts & Humanities Division and Chair of the Philosophy Department at Dowling College, Long Island. He is also editor of Metapsychology Online Review.  His main research is on philosophical issues in medicine, psychiatry and psychology.


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