Bleicher Gallery in Los Angeles is playing host to a naughty exhibit named 21st Century Sex. The show plays with the idea of what intercourse will be like throughout the rest of the 00s in playful and theoretical ways. And while some may argue that a handful of work on the wall is pornography, upon deeper investigation it's not actually the case. I spoke with the curator of the exhibit, Shaye Nelson, over the phone to get the skinny on the show. Or should I say BBW to keep it more fitting to the theme.
"There was a big line I had to draw between what's art and what's porn."
Some of the works that Shaye struggled with the most were a set of photographs. One of these featured a discarded and mutilated sex doll that brought about interesting questions in regards to how we will define sexually deviant behavior in the near future. Especially since the dolls are getting to such a heightened point of realism.
"Is it ok to mutilate a sex doll just because she's not a real woman?" asked Shaye as we spoke about the piece.
The black and white photos that began stirring up questions were relatively tame compared to the life sized picture of a nun, sans everything except her habit, covered in blood with a contraption in her mouth to keep it gaped open. The piece was backlit by LED's that illuminated the fetish device in her cheeks and light around her body.
"I'll be honest, had the nun image come from a man I would never have put it in."
For some reason her statement flipped a trigger in my brain about the picture's meaning. Where once I saw an aggressively pornographic image, I now saw a feminist statement. I mean, the point of view of the artist and who they are makes a huge difference in one's vision of the work. It's a similar effect to how Chris Brown's lyrics completely changed once he was charged with beating up Rihanna.
"I had a conversation with the gallery owner next door about looking at artists in context to the rest of their work because it gives you a greater idea of what they are expressing."
To act on this philosophy, Shaye placed two other works of the photographer who shot the nun next to it. One was of a man wearing women's clothes and the other was of a girl on a trampoline. It softened the dramatic nudeness of the nun, when it was seen with larger eyes in context. A good analogy would be that it became a sex scene in a film, rather than a film about sex.
Sometimes the fine line between art and everything else is that it can require a bit of a backstory before judging it. And even I have been guilty of going quickly through a show regretting that I didn't stop to ask the curator, or docent, or artist about what was going on. So, I had to ask Shaye about one specific work in the back of the gallery. It was a dress made out of a cowhide that was in the back corner of the gallery.
"It was created by two of the youngest artists in the show, yet they have the most basic and primitive sense of what sex is all about. The work has to do with a creationist myth from The Upanishads."
The story basically goes something like this. Man is on Earth and creates woman out of his loneliness and desire for a partner. He then procreates with her to create more men, which is how the human race comes to be. Eventually, she begins to feel the sense of how can she be from Man as well as embrace him, so she changes her form to that of a cow to hide from him. Man still wants to have sex with her and so he changes himself into a bull and thus cows came to be on Earth. The story continues with every species, even ants, until every living thing on Earth is formed.
"The myth plays into a woman's skin. Are we sex objects? Do we put on clothes to hide? I just found it so fascinating when you have these young women saying a statement as fierce as that. They are looking back to the beginning of time to inform them about what their idea of sex is."
While some pieces, like the cow dress, took a level of intellectual understanding to delve deeper into, others required a physical examination. From up close, Ellen Schinderman's [whose Flesh & Fiber show I covered a little while ago] piece looked like an abstract needlepoint display.
"I thought I was being punk'd when Ellen first brought in her piece. But then when I stepped back from it, I was like cool! A blow job!"
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At the end of the day, it was impossible to not have fun with this show. Especially, after you put on the headphones hanging from thought bubbles in the front of the space, which played back things like "Tonight I Want To Fuck You Like A Democrat", "Tonight I Want To Fuck You Like A Pornstar", and thousands of other sayings in a robotic voice. Also, all you could see surrounding you were buttons that said the same things, which were ridiculously amusing.
"In my opinion, artists are historians and their job in society is to reflect on and present what they see in order to allow others to appreciate it whether it's beautiful or disturbing. And that was my real goal with this exhibit. I wanted people to think about things they weren't thinking about when they came in."