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Art & Porn Amalia Ulman, “Dignity 01” (BUBBLE) (2017)
Amalia Ulman, “Dignity 01” (BUBBLE) (2017). Edited photographyCourtesy the artist & Deborah Schamoni

How the legalisation of porn in 1969 shaped the work of these major artists

An exhibition in Denmark explores how the laws on what we can create and consume have totally changed the art we make art about sex

In the Victorian era, sex was so rigidly moralised that this strict control birthed an entire underbelly of artists utterly obsessed with sex. Wildly rebellious, across theatre, literature, and art, sex evaded censorship to become a powerful symbol of rebellion. It was in this moment that Victorian erotica was born as a direct result of society’s control on expression, showing not only the ungovernable essence of art but its role as a guardian of free expression.

This is a powerful idea explored in Kunsthal Copenhagen’s current show, Art & Porn, running until 12 January 2020. Through the lens of sex art, the show traces how sexual expression in art fluctuates with the changing laws on what we can create and consume, beginning with Denmark 1969 legalisation of porn – a moment which opened up the flood gates of expression for Danish artists.

Art & Porn features artists who used sex as a tool of revolution in the 1970s, such as feminist artist Betty Tompkins, and travels across the decades – featuring the likes of Jeff Koons, Marina Abramović, Sarah Lucas, and more – until it lands on the current day to include social media artists such as Amalia Ulman. “Today we experience both a more open attitude to sexuality and gender issues, and with fourth-wave feminism where some of the younger artists actually use aesthetics from pornography, but in a way that claims their own body and sexuality – not to satisfy the male gaze,” reflect the show’s curators Gry Stangegård Schneider and Michael Thouber. “At the same time, we face a new kind of puritanism and censorship from transnational corporations. This triggers a very understandable rage, and in the exhibition, we also included contemporary artists who have experienced their art being removed from social media as soon as they post it. So we also raise the question, who decides what we are allowed to see today – the law or Facebook and Instagram?”

Observing the show’s themes from a global angle are artists like photographer Zanele Muholi, whose powerful works celebrating queer sexuality juxtapose a society in South Africa where it’s illegal to be gay. “More than half the world still have strong restrictions towards bare skin, homosexuality, and other things,” reflect Schneider and Thouber. “The body has always been a combat zone and there are still strong fights to be won.” 

As a whole, the exhibition also acts as a survey of whether porn itself is good or bad. “Every revolution also has a backside”, reflect the curators, “and the market around mainstream pornography has also led to trafficking and an increase in abuse of some of the people involved. Therefore, it is complex. In some ways, it seems obvious that we need more strict control. In other ways, freedom of speech and sexuality are still not protected rights for every human being. Already now, we have seen museums being forced to withdraw some paintings from exhibitions, old paintings because they ‘could be misunderstood’. This ‘trend’ is a dangerous path for the freedom of art because good intentions might end up being the new censorship.”

Below, Schneider and Thouber walk us through seven key works from the show and how they relate to the relationship between art and porn.

“The body has always been a combat zone and there are still strong fights to be won” – Michael Thouber

CINDY SHERMAN’S “UNTITLED #259” (1992)

“Cindy Sherman shows two photographs of dolls arranged to mimic sexual intercourse. The figures look like hybrids between sex dolls, mannequins, and prosthetics. The photographs are gloomy, bleak, and somewhat eerie: the figures look as if they have been arbitrarily put together by different body parts and posed in distorted positions so we can’t quite see what’s going on in the picture. In both works, Sherman uses a clichéd porn aesthetic with hairless bodies placed on shiny satin. When Sherman created the photo series, she partly did so in response to the censorship enacted against artists in the United States in the 1990s, as the US government refused to support and fund art projects whose contents were of an explicit nature.

“Cliché-filled representations of gender and identity are a recurring theme in Sherman’s practice. She mostly works with portraiture – in this case, using puppets as stand-ins for real sitters. Sherman’s imagery tends towards the heightened and distorted, voicing a critique of society through fictionalised and staged stereotypes that often use the artist herself as the model.”

BETTY TOMPNIKS’S “F PAINTING #31” (2009)

“Betty Tompkins first began painting her photorealistic Fuck Paintings back in 1969, but the series did not become known until 2002 when it was exhibited in its entirety for the first time. Highly explicit close-up portraits of penetration form the recurring theme of the series. Tompkins has drawn inspiration from porn movies but deliberately chosen to omit faces and any narrative progression in her works. Tompkin’s Fuck Paintings are purged of all sentimentality, possessing a raw honesty in an age when the porn industry is nourishing, and sex is ubiquitous in visual culture. The artist does not idealise the sex act, nor the porn industry. Instead, she engages directly with the physical interaction between the penis and the vagina, which on the one hand is the source of life, but also a source of economic gain, power, frustration, and pleasure.”

JEFF KOONS’ “WOLFMAN (CLOSE-UP)” (1991) AND “BLOW JOB-ICE” (1991)

“In the early 1990s, Jeff Koons created his Made in Heaven series, depicting himself and his then-wife, Italian porn actress Ilona Staller, also known as La Cicciolina, (in sexual acts). The kitsch atmosphere evident in the series also permeates most of Koons’s practice. Popular cultural phenomena are incorporated into and treated in Koons’s pop-like imagery, which has repeatedly sparked discussions about whether his works can reasonably be called ‘art’. In this work, Koons investigates the presence of sexuality in the visual culture that surrounds us every day, blurring the boundaries between high and low culture.

“Koons wishes to pays tribute to the primal sexual drives of humanity, explicitly presenting the sex act in a fairy- tale, glossy set-up, using classic backdrops of the kind often used for commercial photoshoots.”

MARINA ABRAMOVIĆ’S “ART MUST BE BEAUTIFUL, ARTIST MUST BE BEAUTIFUL” (1975)

“The Serbian performance artist Marina Abramović created and performed this work for the seminal Women’s Exhibition XX presented at Charlottenborg (Germany) in 1975. In the work, we see her brush her hair repeatedly, speaking in a voice that is by turns excited, vulnerable, orgiastic, and full of pain. She insistently repeats the phrase ‘Art must be beautiful, artist must be beautiful’. Abramović wants to foreground the role assigned to the female artist as an object of pleasure, subjected to the male gaze and desire just like the protagonists of mainstream porn movies. At the same time, the work casts a critical eye upon women’s role in society and the expectations associated with that role. Abramović is known for her radical, uncompromising performance art which explores subjects such as body, gender, energy, presence, pain, and identity. The exhibition features yet another video work by Abramović: Balkan Erotic Epic”

ZANELE MUHOLI’S BEING (T)HERE (2009)

“Muholi’s art must be seen in relation to the strict social and sexual control in many African countries. In her own home country, it is still illegal to be gay, and she uses her art to discuss and push the boundaries for the acceptance of having your own sexuality.

“In the work series Being (T)here, the South African artist explores a space that was, to them, alien – delving into their interaction with it. The photographs were taken in Amsterdam’s red-light district while Muholi was undertaking an art residency in the city. In the pictures, the artist has taken up position in one of the many windows used by prostitutes to advertise their services to passing men. We see Muholi striking a range of different poses to attract attention. At the same time, various men are documented as they pass by, their expressions blurry and fleeting.

“Muholi has a passion for communicating women’s experience and history. In their practice, they often work with issues such as race, sexuality, and gender. Much of Muholi’s work focuses on marginalised groups and identities. In the Being (T)here project, they continue their continuously ongoing documentation of the lives and identities of black lesbian women, in this case, by examining different types of work that women take to survive.

“Muholi has a strong voice in the sense that we also present some artists in the Art & Porn show that still experience hard censorship and even legal prosecution in their regions of the world when they try to express any of these topics in art.”

AMALIA ULMAN’S “DIGNITY 01”, “DIGNITY O2”, “DIGNITY 01 (BUBBLE)”, AND “DIGNITY 02 (BUBBLE)” (2017)

“This work consists of photographs depicting artist Amalia Ulman presented as a beautiful actress on the red carpet, but with the photoshopped addition of sperm ejaculated onto her face. Ulman, who used to be sex worker herself and is familiar with the codes of the porn industry, plays with aspects of the unreal, with lies and how quickly they can affect us.

“Ulman takes some of the known strategies from the pornographic and sex industry to use in her own art projects and own experiences. This was for instance seen in her show in New York where she transformed a stripper pole into an oversized cane, which Ulman uses herself.

“The way she used social media in her art on sexual issues are quite revolutionary. Not least because we experience some of the same regulations and censorship on social media that were on artists working with sexual images before 1969.”

SARAH LUCAS’ “EROS” (2013)

“Phallic symbols can be found everywhere in visual culture and everyday life. In Sarah Lucas’s work Eros, she directly addresses the real basis of phallic symbols: the penis. By placing her ‘dick sculpture’ on top of a car that has been crushed for scrap metal, Lucas takes a humorous approach to masculinity and masculine culture, addressing the ideals and paradoxes associated with the concepts of cars and the male genitals: vitality, power, strength and potency. In ways that combine the ‘naughty’ with social critique, Lucas shines the spotlight on fragile masculinity and the emotions associated with having a penis.”