Review of True Blood

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Much Thicker Than Water
Spectator Magazine - October 31, 1997
(c) 1997 David Steinberg. All Rights Reserved.

TRUE BLOOD. Photographs by Charles Gatewood, text by David Aaron Clark. Last Gasp Books, 1997, 64 pages, large format. Perfectbound, $19.95; hardbound, $40.

"All hail the vermillion We; our mingling is absolute." -- David Aaron Clark, "True Blood"

Who isn't fascinated with blood? The essential life force. Draculaic source of passionate obsession. Red flag of danger and emergency. Supreme symbol of ultimate vulnerability. And, these days, inevitable reminder of the media-inflated possibility of contagion to the point of death.

Blood imagery is everywhere -- in films, on the tube -- usually connected to guns and knives, anger and violence, one person set against another in conflict and rage. Hardly the vehicle one might turn to in search of loving connection, the vulnerability of surrender, or the yearning for spiritual transcendence. And yet, for those who approach blood and blood play from a radically different perspective, these are precisely the rewards for entering the blood realm.

On the literal level, of course, the presence of blood -- the tearing of the container of the intact body, the outward flowing of plasma and platelets -- is, as a close friend of mine recently argued to me, a sign that something is physically wrong. I had asked this friend, a man well known for his fascination with radical sexual expression, how he felt about sexual blood play. He wasn't into it, something he explained by speaking of blood in strictly biological terms.

Biologically, of course, he was correct. Yet seeing blood solely as a biological artifact misses a larger, more significant point. Clearly there is much more to blood than its literal existence -- more to the intentional, sometimes ritual, erotic releasing of blood than the physical need to stanch the red flow before someone keels over dead. I reminded my friend that pain -- something he was much more drawn to in a sexual/erotic context -- was also, biologically speaking, a signal from the body that something was wrong. But even as pain speaks, symbolically and archetypally, about much more than the need to relieve its source, so does blood represent -- emotionally, subconsciously, archetypally, metaphorically -- far more than its simple biological function.

These larger, symbolic, implications of both blood and blood-letting are the subject of the photographs and text of "True Blood" -- Last Gasp Books' courageously complex look at a subcultural underground that is, at once, widespread, sensationalized, and seriously taboo. "True Blood" is, on many levels, an effective collaboration -- between veteran body-manipulation photographer Charles Gatewood and lyrical eroticist David Aaron Clark, between the media of visual imagery and poetry, between spiritual mysticism and carnal sensation. Each partner upholds and enhances the other, producing a combined impact neither could achieve on its own.

My primary perspective on "True Blood" is as a photographic essay since I am more familiar with Gatewood's past work than with Clark's, including the experimental blood imagery first shown in these parts at Morphos Gallery some two years ago. Many of the portraits in "True Blood" have the confrontative intensity and depth that have always formed the heart of Gatewood's effective portraiture. A nude, blood-smeared woman grins playfully (or is that a sinister gleam in her eye?), huge syringe full of blood in her hands, needle poised. A pretty blonde woman counters the inquisitive camera with a steady gaze, her quiet hands, her cheek, her mouth unexplainedly encrusted with dried blood. The presence of both is riveting. Meanwhile, Clark's accompanying words define a clear sexual context:

Turn the mirrors against the wall
and give me your skin
I swear you won't even feel it open
jack off for me jack off
Or at least until your nerves top sparkling and your cock is soft and raw
I hate those people on the street
I hate exposing these tender wounds to the open air Risking the infection of the mundane
I'd rather stay in here and play with you.

Photographs of Steven Johnson Leyba's bloodletting (and more) by Mistress Taira (the ritual that put blood play on the front pages of San Francisco^Rs mainstream press when performed at political organizer Jack Davis's controversial birthday bash) are emotionally and visually compelling. The blood-soaked kisses of Louis and Onya Bonz during their Blood Wedding draw us viscerally into the heart of their sticky, red passion, while Clark's evocative description makes clear what is going on:

As we embrace the cleric binds us together with a clear, strong hose, through which presently runs more blood, endless blood, as if from God's mighty heart itself. Eager to consummate but trapped in our elaborate gowns, we tumble down into the muddy red pool at our feet, sliding and rubbing and biting each other's lips.

The stink is phenomenal. Our lives are one.

The stills lifted directly from Gatewood's videos of blood play are, unfortunately, less effective. These low-resolution images, complete with tv- screen lines, lack the aesthetic and emotional impact of the elegant photographic prints. Yes, this person is holding a razor to her skin, or being cut with a buck knife. Yes, we don't usually get to see such things. But, just as sexual imagery, to be interesting, must convey more than the simple fact of people fucking in front of a camera, radical images such as these need to offer more than the factual record of a shocking or startling act.

All in all, however, the cumulative impact of "True Blood" is transcendent indeed, lifting at least a reasonably receptive viewer/reader out of the literal plane to that altered perspective from which poetry and archetype displace, at least for a while, the dominance of rational objectivity.

Most people, of course, turn to the literal, rational realm for their ultimate reality. Others find fundamental truth when they leave the paradigm of rational objectivity behind. These are the people from whom "True Blood" draws its inspiration and its vision. Its exceptional achievement is being able to convey, with mere words and photos on the printed page, something of the essential transformation possible from engaging the pulsating force of life with full heart, body, and spirit.

True blood, indeed.

[This column was originally published in Spectator Magazine (see If you would like to receive Comes Naturally columns, and other writing by David Steinberg, regularly via email, send your name and email address to David at Columns are sent as blind carbon copies, meaning that no one will have access to your name or email address.]

David Steinberg
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