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The Independent Culture
The Hayward Gallery boasts that, with more than 200 images, the Robert Mapplethorpe retrospective exhibition it is now hosting (19 Sept - 17 Nov) is the most extensive ever mounted. Now imagine not 200, but nearly 2,500 Mapplethorpes, packed together on a CD-ROM. Rather a lot to take in at one sitting, as more than one of his models must have remarked.

It's also rather more expensive than a ticket to the Hayward: the Catalogue Raisonne retails at pounds 249.95, or about10p a picture. For less committed aficionados, Digital Collections International have produced two more discs (distributed by Virgin's New Media Solutions, 0171 229 1708). The first, An Overview (pounds 39.95), is a selection of material "appropriate to the entire family". The hardcore material is presented on The Controversy, which naturally commands the higher price of pounds 59.95.

The Catalogue Raisonne, like the other disks, is based on an image database program called ImageAXS which is also available separately, should you have a digital archive of your own to organise. It presents pictures in groups of six, on a matt black background, with caption information - minimal in this case - appended as linked files. Selected images can be blown up, and zoomed in upon. This is particularly useful with Mapplethorpe photos, allowing you to verify that, yes, that really is what you think it is.

The database grid has a marked influence on the impact of Mapplethorpe's work. It emphasises the extent of his control over his material. It also underlines his penchant for geometry, the diagonals and parabolas of his notorious flowers set off against the right angles of the display matrix.

The database is promiscuous in its ordering of the celebrities, forgotten socialites, flowers, black male nudes, female bodybuilders, sexual acts and muscle that make up the canon. An artlessly warm Mary Beth Hurt and her stern, square baby, the mother and son next door, are placed next to a close-up of a white male hand upon an erect black penis (scrupulously catalogued: "black male - body part - male - person - phallus - platinum print").

Mapplethorpe's work at its most extreme and disturbing has been seen in this country before, so the Catalogue Raisonne does not provoke any new questions about the limits of his art. But the policemen and the newspapers are straining at the leash, and they have picked out one area of hypermedia, the Internet, as a region of moral danger. In this charged atmosphere, the significance of the other main branch of hypermedia, the CD-ROM, is that it permits a consideration of Mapplethorpe's work as a whole.

The corpus in its totality confirms the usual summation of Mapplethorpe's themes; the body, its strength, its vulnerability, its extremes, its perfection, Mapplethorpe's monstrous arrogance. But he turns out to be more tolerant of human emotion than his dominant images admit. Although he never drops his guard, he occasionally acknowledges that others drop theirs.

Not Susan Sontag, though. In the accompanying multimedia presentation, she is seen surprising Michael Ignatieff by remarking on Mapplethorpe's sentimentality. A trawl through the catalogue provides supporting evidence, particularly in the representations of Patti Smith. In one shot Smith looks like Iggy Pop, in another like a neurasthenic Victorian maiden. In Mapplethorpe's portrait of Sontag herself, the critic holds her head back in a defensive attitude, her expression seeming to say, "I know your game."