Morris and Helen Belkin Art Gallery, UBC
September 11 – December 13, 2015
Audain Gallery, SFU
October 22 – December 12, 2015
Today we are immersed in a plethora of blatantly sexual images – particularly compared to 1979, when Michel Foucault dispelled the Victorian “repressive hypothesis” to recognize how active, if controlled, discussion of sexual material actually was. This exposure, developed in his History of Sexuality, may be taken as groundwork for two concurrent exhibitions in Vancouver, Maria Eichhorn at the Belkin Gallery, UBC and Lili Reynaud-Dewar’s My Epidemic (Teaching Bjarne Melgaard’s Class) at SFU’s Audain Gallery.
As with Foucault, Maria Eichhorn’s intention for looking at explicit content is to move beyond titillation and reveal the forces of power that define sexual vocabularies. Eichhorn’s exhibition consists of two ongoing projects. In Prohibited Imports (2003/08 and 2015), she anticipated the censure of printed material mailed to Japan. The books are not “pornographic” but art monographs (Mapplethorpe, Koons, and Tillmans) and scientific works (the Kinsey Reports). These books were seized and censored with sandpaper-tipped pens at the Narita Airport, their pictures of genitals rubbed down to raw, white ground. First exhibited in Japan as books, the project has been re-presented as photographs in long, framed series.
The Japanese inspectors’ attention to the offending appendages is intensely focused, following the organs’ outline closely with their eliminating implements. Their specific gaze often leaves pubic hair, scrotums, and rectums brazenly visible. Also surprising in these images was how the graphic nature was left to speak its transgressions. The exaggerated expression on Jeff Koons’ face as he drills his porn star wife; Mapplethorpe’s leather strap running down the crack of a spread ass is completely ignored, while censors erased a flaccid penis; the surprised eyes of a young girl peering between the legs of her lover as she rims him, his bulging erection a pulsating void of scratched paper. Each situation is more graphic than the banality of the removed area. The glaring content of these images raises questions around this genital-centric annihilation. Their project of censorship is exposed as an ineffective administrative .
Film Lexicon of Sexual Practices, a series started in 1999, operates in an inverse fashion. In the gallery, you encounter a projector with films on a trolley and a list of terms writ large on the wall. Soliciting the front desk’s aid, you can peruse these films. Like Warhol’s Screen Tests (1964-1966), the shots are objective and focus on a single subject. First up, by recommendation, Anal Coitus. The action starts right away with isolated, mechanical repetition, models shaven clean and clinical. Next in my research, Clitoris. The film opens on the star, again with a clean, shaven frame, isolated center stage. The sighs of breathing are seen on her lips and inner thighs, but otherwise completely still, straight. The action films have a bit more narrative (Fellatio, Analingus, Cunilingus), possibly since they are enacting foreplay, though still consistent in her direct, objectifying method.
These films are not sexy. We are shown the letters of our genital-centric language. All the personal backstory is gone, just the gory details. As Foucault said, sex is boring. Within this stripped back frame we are left to sort out our assumptions.
How we frame sex is also central to Lili Reynau-Dewar’s project, which may draw from the second part of Foucault’s investigation: the explosion of description since the instigation of confession by the church. He furthers this assertion by indicating that since the 18th century, we have been preoccupied with “the world of perversion.”
For her immersive work, the artist has created a landscape swathed in blood. She prepares the room with quotations from the HIV epidemic painted in red on white, floor-length curtains, many soaked waste high in the same sanguine fluid. In the gallery are two monitors on stands, and a group of white, oblong beanbags flopped around one of the screen/figures. In this video the artist discusses various texts that oscillate around contemporary queer sexuality and its political potential – texts she received through the project Bjarne Melgaard organized for the 54th Venice Biennale. The camera captures a bird’s-eye view of the table where the artist is lecturing, passing the books in front of the camera. Reynaud-Dewar delivers an overview of their contents. She handles each book with familiarity, their pages soiled by participation in past performances (she tells us), as she summarizes their impact within the larger discourse. Many of the books are scattered on the floor of this “learning lounge,” available for exploration. Transmission and reception play a feature role in her presentation. One text follows the personal experiences detailed in Guillaume Dustan’s writing and his conflict with HIV activists in France. ACT UP (an AIDS advocacy group) maintained Dustan romanticized barebacking (anal sex without condoms), to which Dustan responded that ACT UP supported the surveillance and control of the queer body, limiting the radical (social) potential of transgressive sexuality.
Lying on one of the beanbags, you can collapse into this revelry. Reynaud-Dewar shares her fragmented scholarship. She tells you the books she likes, dismissing the conservative ones she doesn’t. Economic critiques fair badly, blasphemous poets preferred. Heteronormative is out, sex bombs of infiltration in. Though it exposed me to some interesting thinkers, the thoughts I was left with were incoherent. I imagine the artist may claim this anarchism, but within the form of the work it pointed attention back to her interests more then revealing larger social conditions.
In the second video component, her body is permeated with this theoretical infection, having painted herself the same red that stained the curtains. Here she evokes Bjarne Melgaard himself, donning his style of shoes and cap, and a blazer and tie she estimates to be his size, imitating his gestures. It doesn’t read as a parody but an indulgence in an idealized, transgressive figure. She reads the books, dances expressively and does push-ups as this diseased body, readying herself for the culture wars. Her costume is now adorned by a male dressform in the gallery, Melgaard’s trademark cap perched on a second canvas form, this one all pelvis and legs and marked by red fingerprints on its thigh. Imbedded in this figured subject is a potential in infection, a proposal that through radicalized discussions of sex we may be released.
Foucault wasn’t sure of a transformed subject, wondering if his intentions for discovery would always be guided by external norms. Both exhibitions are obviously committed to imaging these boundaries between the personal and the institutionalized through astute aesthetic choices. But where Eichhorn manages to direct our attention beyond the object of study to its origins, I found Reynaud-Dewar enlists us in her literary delinquency. I don’t intend a conservative position – choice is central to unpacking power – but I will assert that Eichhorn’s open ended investigations of the “degenerate” more fully realize a space for the viewers understanding of sex’s vested interests.
Lee Plested is a Vancouver based curator and writer. He is currently the director of Griffin Art Projects, North Vancouver, and curating a solo artist project with Gordon Payne for the Outsider Art Fair in New York this January.