Once a Dancer, now a Photographer, Phil Griffin Taps into Submission for “Surrender”

From the art of ancient Greece to the photography of Robert Mapplethorpe, from Rihanna lyrics to Fifty Shades of Grey, submission and domination have long been themes in art and music. Now, the creative powerhouse Phil Griffin tackles the subject in “Surrender,” a striking photography exhibition at Antwerp’s At The Gallery.

The suite vibrates with motion and emotion as the German-born artist captures his human subjects in different forms of movement: walking, jumping, dancing, falling, etc. Painterly and vaguely mysterious, the photographs are marked by fluttering forms and indistinct edges, each moment charged with passion. The viewer is voyeur: Gazing at one of these works, you can’t help but feel you’re peering into some kind of an intimate moment.

The works, Griffin says, are more like conversations than photographs, more like feelings than pictures. Mapplethorpe often portrayed his subjects—namely, representatives of New York’s BDSM community in the 1970s—in the act of submission, while Griffin considers himself an active participant in the unique interaction between artist and subject.

“I believe this ‘Surrender’ series is about truly giving in to a shared vulnerability. About finding trust in letting go,” the artist has said. “As a process I believe that only by offering my own vulnerability will my collaborator offer me their own. This presents in the form of a deep truth shared between us. It is sometimes ephemeral, intangible, even disturbing, but always deeply open.”

Griffin is used to working behind the scenes. He started his career as a dancer and choreographer, graduating from Ballet Rambert in London to become the first male dancer of Jan Fabre’s Troubleyn theater company. He went on to build a highly successful career as a creative director in London and Los Angeles, working on music videos, photo shoots, visual campaigns, and documentaries for the likes of Prince, Adele, Rihanna, Stevie Wonder, Dolly Parton, Sir Paul McCartney, and Mariah Carey.

It was Fabre who invited Griffin—three decades after they first collaborated—to be artist-in-residence at Troubleyn Laboratorium, where Griffin produced these 40 photos and the feature-length documentary film that form “Surrender.”

His twin creative trajectories—performer and artist—come full circle in the latest series, where domination and submission are more than master and slave, top and bottom. “For me it is the single moment that both I as observer and performer as observed relinquish all power,” he has said, “and for one single moment trust in each other completely that our shared truth with all its fear, hope, tragedy and beauty can be revealed.”


—Bridget Gleeson


Phil Griffin: Surrender” is on view at At The Gallery, Antwerp, Sept. 3–Oct. 16, 2016.

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