Straits Times January 15, 2011

David LaChapelle, Takashi Murakami and Zeng Fanzhi are three of the top names in town for Art Stage Singapore

"Sharp Shooter"

'Gun crosshairs on a map? What is that saying?' asks an agitated David LaChapelle. The American photographer, known as much for his nudes in eye-popping colours as his portraits of pop stars such as Lady Gaga and Kanye West, is becoming visibly angered while speaking to Life! at the Art Stage fair.

The recent shootings in Arizona which left six dead and a congresswoman seriously injured are blamed by some on the crosshairs used on maps listing the political opponents of former governor Sarah Palin. Critics have blamed the shooting on the heated political rhetoric. Her camp has said that the gunsights were never meant to be taken literally, but that defense shows an ignorance about the power of images, says the 47-year-old artist.

It was the same outrage that he aimed at rock singer Marilyn Manson some years ago, when he was commissioned to do a photo shoot for the singer's band. The composer's songs, filled with themes of self-annihilation, had been cited as a factor in a number of teen suicides. 'I sat them down and told them, 'You can't have it both ways. Either you have an impact or you don't',' he says. Artists who say that their positive images create a better world, then also claim that their darker messages cannot be taken at face value, are practicising double standards, he says. 'If you think that 12-year-olds can understand irony, you are mistaken,' he remembers telling Manson.

That is not to say that LaChapelle's work is all innocuous and sunny. An exhibition of his art, now on at the De Sarthe Fine Art stand at the Art Stage fair, showcases his fascination with sex and sensuality, often intertwined with cheeky commentaries on fame, luxury and conspicuous consumption.

In the late 1990s, he made his name for shooting portraits and fashion spreads featuring stars and supermodels for magazines but lately he has transformed into a darling of the fine arts world, where he is known for his large, elaborately staged and highly detailed photo-collages, some over 100m long. He has not closed the door completely on magazine commissions, he says, but admits that the magazine landscape has changed, especially among the young. 'With Facebook and MySpace, they have created their own magazine, in a sense,' he says.

His stance on harmful images does not mean his works do not invite controversy. In 2006, his book of images Heaven To Hell featured a picture of rocker Courtney Love cradling a dying man who was a dead ringer for her husband Kurt Cobain, frontman of the band Nirvana. The much-loved rock star killed himself with a shotgun in 1994. The resemblance of the male model to Cobain was an accident, but a beautiful one, he says. 'At the shoot, when he (the model) walked in, everyone went 'oh!'' says LaChapelle, of that first awkward moment. But the photographer went ahead because he saw that it could add a layer of meaning to the work.

'What is wrong with it? Courtney loved Kurt,' he says. He saw the coincidence as fortunate and used it. 'It's something that happens in photography and it's beyond your control,' says the artist, who now lives and works on an isolated farm in Maui, Hawaii, but keeps a studio in Los Angeles. While the shoot with Love had its tense moments - he says that at one point, he was ready to drop the temperamental singer and actress and use another model - it came off well in the end and the two are still friends.

He believes that his mission to show beauty in everyone can sometimes be thwarted when celebrities turn out to be unpleasant. Lately, though, he says he has found a mental trick in the pages of a book written by a former prostitute. She was asked how she made herself have sex with physically repulsive people and her technique was to look for the one nice thing about them, even if it was their shoes, he says.

'So if the celebrity is not very nice, I'll go, 'Well, okay, I like her shoes'.'

By John Lui

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