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In 'Soft Boy,' adolescent masculine identity takes shape in unexpected ways

caption: A still from Soldi's film, "Soft Boy."
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A still from Soldi's film, "Soft Boy."
Courtesy of the Frye Art Museum

The idea of masculinity is one that young boys have grappled with for generations.

In his new exhibit at the Frye Art Museum, photographer Rafael Soldi explores the concept through pictures, words, and video.

At the heart of this exhibit is a three-channel video: three oversized screens that are connected, but display individual images.

The video shows a group of teenage boys, who are reacting to prompts. They experience touch, games, military style drills, and their shared emotions.

Having screens of that size in a small space is intentional — it creates an inability for the audience to see all three screens at once. That means viewers can choose where to look, but similar to real life, some moments and experiences will naturally be missed.

As a viewer, this created a feeling that was not like watching a movie, but more like glimpses of Soldi's memories. The complete picture is there, but because we can't view everything all at once, we are forced to fill in the blanks of what's happening.

Soldi's work in “Soft Boy” is a reflection of his own experiences as a queer boy growing up in a Catholic school in Peru.

The exhibit displays pictures and video images of a game he and his classmates played called cargamontón, in which a bully tackles one kid, and fellow peers run and jump on top of the two, creating a dog-pile that continues to grow as more and more boys join in.

Soldi remembers being at the bottom of the pile and feeling conflicted. There was terror from the growing pile of bodies, but also pleasure — these were some of few moments where he, as a queer young boy, was allowed to have physical contact with his male peers.

His use of three-channel video conveys the nuances of how teenage boys interact, as well as the fogginess of memory — the hugs, the tackles, the laughs, the tears.

Even with knowing the environment was staged, the clips contained a realness that was inescapable.

"Soft Boy" is showing at the Frye Art Museum in Seattle through Jan. 7, 2024.

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