With the Scissor Sisters curating a show of work by the New York photographer, the singer salutes the power of his pictures.
I saw my first Robert Mapplethorpe photograph when I was at high school: it was a picture of a man in a suit with his big black penis hanging out of the front. I was kind of scandalised when I saw it. I thought it was amazing. I couldn’t believe anyone could take such a picture, still less it could enter the mass consciousness.
Mapplethorpe disappeared from my mind until I was in a theatre bookshop, leafing through a book of his photographs, Ten by Ten, with my friend Ingrid Sischy (former editor-in-chief of Interview magazine), who was one of his closest friends and who told me the very sad story of being with him as he lay dying.
The Scissor Sisters’ latest album, Night Work, pays homage to the music and nightclubbing of the Seventies and Eighties, Mapplethorpe’s era, and when I saw his picture of two hands gripping an ass — the dancer Peter Reed — I knew immediately I had found the right image for our album cover. It summed up everything the record was about. It’s playful, sexual, it’s of a dancer, indeed a ballet dancer: the one occupation where you have to be absolutely committed to dancing. It looks as if that person has been dancing their ass off, you can almost feel their sweat. And Peter Reed died of Aids, like Mapplethorpe and so many brilliant people of that era.
The idea of us curating a gallery show came after Alison Jacques, who owns the London gallery that exhibits Mapplethorpe’s work, got in touch after seeing the album cover, asking if we would like to do a collaboration. We’ve brought together Mapplethorpe’s photographs alongside work by other artists that echo it. The artist Matthew Barney frames his explicit images as precisely and carefully as Mapplethorpe. Gillian Wearing’s piece is her take on one of the last famous images of Mapplethorpe, in which he looks directly into the camera holding a skull’s head cane.
He was photographed carrying that cane on the night of the launch of the final retrospective of his work held when he was still alive at the Whitney Museum in 1988. He was frail by then and probably not feeling well. But what an amazing, crazy moment that would have been: to see his life’s work held in such a high, establishment setting. He must have known he was dying, that this would be the final time he would see many of his friends, admirers and associates. He probably said goodbye to a lot of people that night.
What intrigues me about Mapplethorpe’s work is the time period in which he was doing it and what a difficult time that was because everybody was dying, and when I look at him and those guys who died at that time I can’t help but think — like a lot of gay men perhaps — “That could have been me.” I look at Mapplethorpe’s era with nostalgia, but I’m glad to have grown up when I did. These guys were martyrs, they paid a huge price. I can’t imagine what it must have been like with all your friends dying around you, alongside all that hostility and prejudice.
One of the inspirations for the album was us thinking about the impact of Aids on popular culture; if these people had lived, how would pop culture have been different? The album is a shout-out to all those people who paved a way for us, pushing the boundaries of creativity and sexuality, of not being afraid to express who they were.
Still today not everybody is comfortable with gay people, and we encounter difficulties ourselves: I’m sure our record company wasn’t happy with our choice of the album cover, and it may have shocked our more mainstream fans. But we felt strongly we had to use it. It’s brilliant to introduce Mapplethorpe’s work to young people who haven’t heard of him. There’s this amazing juxtaposition between his subject matter and how he photographed it; it was his life and times.
I love the story of his great friend Patti Smith asking him to shoot the album cover for Horses. He went to her place one afternoon and did it quickly. When Clive Davis, then head of Arista Records, saw the images he was incensed and apparently said that he didn’t want a woman on his record label wearing men’s clothes and a moustache on her album cover. But Patti had it in her contract that she had artistic freedom so she ignored him and it turned out that Horses became one of the greatest, most memorable album covers of all time. Patti will come and see the show in London.
Mapplethorpe’s images are known for their explicitness, but for me he celebrates sex. He didn’t give a damn what people thought, he was a documentarian and, more than shock and controversy, what I see in his pictures is restraint, the tease, and the perfection he is striving for, whether it’s photographing a body or a flower. He’s still mysterious to me, despite having read all the biographies, and fairly complicated. He ran with the loftiest, upper echelons of New York society, yet also enjoyed and photographed underground gay sexual subcultures. That’s why I connect with him.
The Scissor Sisters is a complicated band. We love making pop music, and we also love exploring the dark side. We go into arenas and play to grandparents and their grandchildren, and there’s also that element of some of our fans not caring to know how we spent last night. This album is unapologetically sexual, but we have censored ourselves on occasion: we’re making pop music for as many people as possible.
Mapplethorpe’s work has also faced attempts to censor it. I always get a little excited by a censorship controversy because it brings certain pieces of art into the open and provides a focus for a bigger dialogue that we wouldn’t be having if people weren’t up in arms.
I also feel close to Mapplethorpe because he demanded to be taken seriously, for his photographs to be defined as art. I hate using the word “art” for what we do: I’m a songwriter and singer, but there is that tug of war between us being a pop band and wanting to be taken seriously as performers, musicians and songwriters. It’s gotten to the point where describing us as “camp” is offensive and dismissive. It’s just a really easy way to mean “faggy”; such a lame, surface way to describe what we do. It implies what we’re doing is a joke to us. Similarly, Mapplethorpe was called a “shock artist” and his works given a similar surface read. There is a big difference between porn and Mapplethorpe’s artistry: there is a stillness, sharpness, a sculptural element to his photographs.
I wonder what he would have done had he lived: towards the end of his life he was taking amazing photographs of flowers. But you can see his impact on photographers and culture today.
The most important thing you can do is be honest about the life you lead and he definitely did that. It’s one of the reasons his work resonates so much. I think gay culture has become a lot more assimilated and tamer since his time: all sides have moved more towards the centre. There are pros and cons to that: a greater climate of acceptance is good for all of us, but the dissipation of the “gay culture” that existed back then is less exciting creatively. Today’s gay generation is spoilt, and that includes me.
Robert Mapplethorpe: Night Work, Alison Jacques Gallery, 16-18 Berners Street, London W1 (020-7631 4720; alisonjacquesgallery.com), Jan 19-Feb 19