Undoubtedly, some of the people who see the Sex Invaders photo exhibit at Hionas Gallery in New York this month, will be hard pressed to say which is a bigger turn-on: the bikini-clad models or the images of Storm Troopers and Donkey Kong. The collection of eight photographs is the latest installment from the "Ultravelvet Collection," the work of LA-based couple Eric Hajjar and Meredith Rose. Their work is a fusion of two popular but unrelated subjects, in this case, video games and erotica. In some of the pictures, images of bikini-clad women are overlaid with scenes from Space Invaders and Pac Man. In others, the models appear to be wearing Darth Vader masks.
"In Sex Invaders, we’ve merged childhood fantasies and adult fantasies," says Hajjar. "We wanted them to live simultaneously and harmoniously."
Hajjar and Rose shot the photographs with a Canon STB, a vintage camera form the 1960s. They used slide film, which heightens the color contrast, and a developing method called cross processing, which gives the images their particular glow. It’s a style they developed when they first started dating. They’d take an old manual camera to the beach and Rose would snap pictures of Hajjar. "I actually had control over when I advanced the film," Rose says, "I could control the double exposure." It was just the type of romantic courtship that you’d expect from young, geeky artists. And Sex Invaders was created with a similar kind of geeky romance, or at least nostalgia, in mind.
Both of the artists grew up obsessed with video games and they wanted to re-create that excitement of seeing Star Wars or playing Pac Man for the first time. "I put my childhood into these pieces," Hajjar says. But the exhibit is also a nod toward the future. "The digital age has taken over. You don’t shoot in film anymore." As Hajjar explains it, Sex Invaders is his and Rose’s way of "taking a past memory and making it feel present." To wit, the best aspect of the exhibit are its scenes of unabashed camp. Rose appears in some of the photographs, including "Imperial Girlz—Storm Trooper" and "Imperial Girlz—Darth Vader." There’s something here that is reminiscent of Princess Leah enslaved to Jabba the Hutt, (though it’s hard to imagine Carrie Fisher grabbing her own breasts with such conviction).
For the artists, the series is about creating a fantasy world, what Rose calls "the experience of meditation." (Rose and Hajjar have recently returned form a meditation retreat in Bali.) "We wanted to create a world where people can have a colorful, vibrant experience," she says. "And we wanted to make them feel sexy."
All of this language suggests scenes from the Kama Sutra and Hindu chanting, silken pillows and candlelight. Instead, Sex Invaders is shot based on a somewhat cheesy "fire and ice" theme, in which the red toned images show semi-naked women in a sauna and the blue toned ones show semi-naked women in a tanning bed. These pictures do not connote softness and sensuality, but have a hard, plastic quality (admittedly, that’s what Darth Vader’s helmet is made out of). There’s no outright pornography, but the staging (not to mention the bikinis and high heels) easily brings to mind a stripper’s catwalk.
Nor is there anything romantic or meditative about the name "Ultravelvet". The word suggests a skeezy nightclub, the expensive alcohol served at said nightclub, and a line of Victoria’s Secret lingerie.
It’s hard to imagine that all of this was less than purposeful, especially considering the content of the previous Ultravelvet series, The Color of Money, which overlays American bills naked ladies and brand icons. And yet, Hajjar and Rose refuse to call Sex Invaders either a critique or a work of irony. (But really? Not even that picture of spread-eagled women with little crab-like space invader aliens crawling all over them?)
They say they did not fuse scantily clad women with video games, as an ironic jab at sexist male entertainment. It never occurred to them to use men in the photographs. And Rose, for her part, takes pride in her role as model. And why not? Not every woman gets a chance to moonlight as a saber-wielding Sith Lord.