The Weekend Australian - Review

Hold­ing a mir­ror to sex in the 70s

It is no co­in­ci­dence that much of this work comes from the pre-AIDS era, the high point of the sex­ual lib­er­a­tion move­ment

- CHRISTO­PHER ALLEN Arts · Feminism · Social Movements · Society · Canberra · Qantas · National Gallery · National Gallery of Art · Australia · Youtube · Mascot · Sophie Calle · Nan Goldin · Cindy Sherman · Carolee Schneemann

There was some irony in vis­it­ing an ex­hi­bi­tion de­voted to sex­ual elec­tric­ity at the height of an epi­demic and at a time of so­cial dis­tanc­ing. In fact, even get­ting to Canberra was an ad­ven­ture. On the day be­fore the flight, I re­ceived a text from Qan­tas warn­ing me that var­i­ous states had spe­cial rules about en­try and pos­si­ble quar­an­tine re­stric­tions, and these could change at any time. In the end though, be­cause the ACT has been virus-free for more than a month, there seemed lit­tle chance that I would be forced to self-iso­late on my re­turn to Syd­ney.

The fol­low­ing day, I went to the air­port with a driver who told me that this was his first fare to Mas­cot for more than a month. When we ar­rived at Syd­ney air­port, it was al­most de­serted, with hardly a shop or cafe open.

The Qan­tas club was al­most empty but the at­mos­phere was strangely free of the usual fre­netic en­ergy gen­er­ated by the col­lec­tive will, hope and anx­i­eties of thou­sands of peo­ple in tran­sit.

In Canberra, the air­port was even emp­tier, and my driver had been wait­ing two hours for a fare. Changes at the Na­tional Gallery of Aus­tralia were even more ex­treme: there is no cloak­room and the cafe is shut. En­try is by timed tick­ets booked on­line, even though there are so few vis­i­tors that it seems hardly worth­while, and with­out the cafe there is no in­cen­tive to stay longer than the time it takes to visit the ex­hi­bi­tions. On top of all that, large sec­tions of the gallery are sim­ply shut­tered.

A few peo­ple came in and out of the ex­hi­bi­tion while I was there, in­clud­ing some younger peo­ple of un­der­grad­u­ate age. And it is no co­in­ci­dence that much of this work comes from the 1970s, the high point of the sex­ual lib­er­a­tion move­ment that came to an end in the early 80s with the ap­pear­ance of AIDS, and which seems very re­mote now in our age of scold­ing and even out­raged pu­ri­tanism.

In many ways, we have wit­nessed a pen­du­lum swing away from per­mis­sive­ness, sim­i­lar to the one that took place in the early to mid-19th cen­tury, when old men who had been lib­ertines in the late 18th cen­tury were as­ton­ished to find their grand­chil­dren adopt­ing re­spectabil­ity, and thus of course hypocrisy as well. But more sub­tly, and harder for the veter­ans of the 70s to un­der­stand, is the sheer im­por­tance that is cur­rently at­tached to ac­tiv­i­ties that were sim­ply not con­sid­ered as sig­nif­i­cant half a cen­tury ago.

No doubt this re­flects some shrink­ing of po­lit­i­cal hori­zons in a pros­per­ous con­sumer so­ci­ety when the in­di­vid­ual be­comes more con­cerned with per­sonal rights and ex­pe­ri­ences than with larger so­cial ques­tions. Yet it is ex­tra­or­di­nary that, as we see al­most ev­ery week, ca­reers can sur­vive all sorts of mishaps, in­com­pe­tence and even mal­prac­tice but can be ended for a mi­nor sex­ual in­dis­cre­tion. This is all the more in­ter­est­ing when we con­sider that sex­u­al­ity is in­her­ently trans­gres­sive. If we think of Ni­et­zsche’s

Na­tional Gallery of Aus­tralia, un­til Jan­uary 26 con­cepts of the Apol­lo­nian and the Dionysian, we can see grow­ing up into a re­spon­si­ble, au­ton­o­mous in­di­vid­ual as an es­sen­tially Apol­lo­nian process; but this in­di­vid­ual self is a sep­a­rate, iso­lated en­tity, and sex­ual con­nec­tion with an­other en­tails a tem­po­rary sus­pen­sion of in­di­vid­u­al­ity, or more ex­actly a Dionysian dis­so­lu­tion of the lim­its and bar­ri­ers that con­sti­tute the in­di­vid­ual. This is why sex­ual imag­i­na­tion is filled with things that are pre­cisely not what the in­di­vid­ual would do in the course of nor­mal life.

Such fan­tasies are evoked in most of these works, and often com­mented upon in the ac­com­pa­ny­ing wall la­bels. There are, for ex­am­ple, sev­eral of the sub­tly dis­turb­ing black and white pho­to­graphs of Francesca Wood­man, who sadly took her own life at 22 in 1981. Fe­male fig­ures, mostly naked, lie or crouch, ex­posed, con­fined and some­times re­strained, in one case seen from the back, ly­ing over a small couch in garter belts as though in a brothel. Wood­man wrote: “I am so vain and I am so masochis­tic. How can they coex­ist?”

Masochism is a re­cur­rent theme in fe­male sex­u­al­ity, as in that of many men. There is a photo of So­phie Calle when she was work­ing as a strip­per in Pi­galle in the 1970s, but what she writes is even more in­ter­est­ing than the pic­ture. Of her pa­trons at the club, she says, “to me they were pa­thetic, and I looked at them with a look of con­tempt. I had made a style of this con­tempt and they were paral­ysed.”

Then Calle re­calls a story about her­self as a child of six, liv­ing with her grand­par­ents: “A daily rit­ual obliged me ev­ery even­ing to un­dress com­pletely in the el­e­va­tor on the way up to the sixth floor, where I ar­rived with­out a stitch on, then I would dash down the cor­ri­dor at light­ning speed … Twenty years later I found my­self re­peat­ing the same cer­e­mony ev­ery night in public, on the stage of one of the strip joints that line the boule­vard de Pi­galle…”

Be­tween them, these sto­ries epit­o­mise the in­ter­twin­ing of sadism and masochism im­plied in the pho­to­graph — ex­hi­bi­tion­ism be­ing es­sen­tially an ex­pres­sion of masochism.

Pat Brass­ing­ton plays with un­com­fort­able as­so­ci­a­tions in a se­ries of dig­i­tally al­tered pho­to­graphs from 2003, in­clud­ing one in which a creep­ing fig­ure in the at­ti­tude typ­i­cal of a lizard has a phal­lic head, and an­other in which a woman has a vul­val slit in the nape of her neck. In a later pho­to­graph from 2019, a woman’s bot­tom is seen from be­hind, with coloured but­tons stuck on her tights in a ver­ti­cal line. As I was look­ing at this im­age, a lit­tle girl sud­denly said to her fa­ther, “Look daddy, she has pins on her bot­tom”; her fa­ther replied, “No dar­ling, I think they’re mar­bles” – but the lit­tle girl, whose in­tu­ition was closer to the truth in­sisted, “No, daddy, they’re pins”.

Nan Goldin’s pho­to­graphs, from the se­ries The Bal­lad of Sex­ual De­pen­dency, por­tray var­i­ous as­pects of sex­ual ex­pe­ri­ence in the 1980s. One of the most mem­o­rable is Siob­han in the Shower (1991) but the two most fa­mous are prob­a­bly the self-por­trait Nan One Month Af­ter Be­ing Bat­tered (1984) and the pic­ture, a year ear­lier, of her in bed with the man who later beat her up. In hind­sight, Nan and Brian in Bed is both a mis­nomer and im­bued with ten­sion, if not men­ace: for only she is ac­tu­ally ly­ing in bed, look­ing up at him, while he sits on the edge, smok­ing, in his own world.

Jo Ann Cal­lis’s images are sub­tler evo­ca­tions of vul­ner­a­bil­ity, ex­po­sure and sub­mis­sion: in one, a naked woman kneels over the arm of a chair, twist­ing and blind­folded. An­other shows the lower legs of a woman stand­ing on a chair in high heels, while a man’s hands grasp her an­kles from be­hind. Both of these images are from she called her “fetish project”, taken be­tween 1974 and 1977 when she was study­ing pho­tog­ra­phy un­der Robert Hei­necken but not pub­licly ex­hib­ited un­til 2014, when they were also pub­lished in the book Other Rooms, with the an­kle pic­ture on the cover.

There is, in con­trast, noth­ing sub­tle about Cindy Sher­man’s Un­ti­tled # 255 (1992), a large-scale pho­to­graph of a plas­tic doll on all fours seen from be­hind in an ex­plic­itly sex­ual pose and sur­rounded by items of cloth­ing and a hair­brush promi­nently in the fore­ground. This is pre­sum­ably a com­mer­cial sex doll of some kind, but its hard plas­tic body and ar­tic­u­lated joints are un­com­fort­ably rem­i­nis­cent of the Bar­bie dolls with which lit­tle girls re­hearse the per­for­mance of fem­i­nine stereo­types in a con­sumer so­ci­ety.

The work is shock­ing be­cause such dolls are ex­am­ples of com­mer­cial kitsch; they cel­e­brate il­lu­sion and con­ceal re­al­ity, en­cour­ag­ing the in­grown sex­u­al­ity of nar­cis­sism that is the ba­sis of the fash­ion in­dus­try. Sher­man’s pho­to­graph bru­tally strips away the kitsch to re­veal the pri­mal re­al­ity. “The work is what it is,” she ob­serves, “and hope­fully it’s seen as fem­i­nist work, or fem­i­nist-ad­vised work, but I’m not

pent-up de­sire in the years be­fore the sex­ual revo­lu­tion. In con­trast, Carolee Sch­nee­mann’s lu­di­crous but en­ter­tain­ing film Meat Joy (1964) is an or­gias­tic romp of semi-naked bod­ies rolling over each other, drip­ping in paint that is meant to look like blood, play­ing with meat, chicken car­casses and fish; girls in biki­nis im­pro­vise rou­tines more akin to syn­chro­nised swim­ming than to dance, or are car­ried around, col­lapsed in the arms of young men.

There are a cou­ple of other video works, in­clud­ing Lynda Benglis’s Fe­male Sen­si­bil­ity (1973) in which she kisses an­other girl, but look­ing at the cam­era all the while, as though into a mir­ror, re­call­ing yet again the theme of nar­cis­sism. Ch­eryl Done­gan’s Head (1993) is able to be re­mark­ably graphic about the plea­sure of per­form­ing a sex­ual act be­cause the part­ner is re­moved and re­placed by a clev­erly-con­ceived de­vice. Like many video works, this one is also avail­able on YouTube.

One end of the ex­hi­bi­tion is dom­i­nated by a film work by Tracey Mof­fatt and Gary Hill­berg, Other (1991), which I have men­tioned be­fore be­cause it has been in­cluded in sev­eral re­cent ex­hi­bi­tions. It is a mon­tage of scenes from pop­u­lar films in which mem­bers of dif­fer­ent eth­nic groups meet and are drawn to each other, and it is struc­tured loosely from first catch­ing sight of the “other” to recog­nis­ing the ap­pear­ance of de­sire and then grad­u­ally to­wards ful­fil­ment and con­sum­ma­tion.

The film starts with tan­talis­ing glimpses and hints of ex­otic and un­ex­pected at­trac­tion, and as most of these are very fa­mil­iar films, each clip brings with it a flood of mem­o­ries and as­so­ci­a­tions. But the mon­tage of so many scenes does make us pon­der how often mid 20th-cen­tury cin­ema evoked ex­pe­ri­ences that crossed the bound­aries of cus­tom or pro­pri­ety, if not taboos. In the end, con­sum­ma­tion is evoked in an ec­static but hi­lar­i­ously ab­surd se­quence of metaphor­i­cally erupt­ing vol­ca­noes, ex­plod­ing bombs and mush­room clouds; the in­ten­sity of arousal is af­ter all im­pli­cated with for­bid­den de­sire.

 ??  ?? Jo Ann Cal­lis, Un­ti­tled (woman with flash­light), c1976
Jo Ann Cal­lis, Un­ti­tled (woman with flash­light), c1976
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 ??  ?? Nan Goldin’s Nan and Brian in bed, NYC (1983), top; Jo Ann Cal­lis’s Un­ti­tled (hand grab­bing an­kles), c1976, above
Nan Goldin’s Nan and Brian in bed, NYC (1983), top; Jo Ann Cal­lis’s Un­ti­tled (hand grab­bing an­kles), c1976, above

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