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Deborah De Robertis, photography Vivien Deleuze
Deborah De Robertis© Deborah De Robertis, photography Vivien Deleuze

Why this artist flashes her vagina in museums and galleries

With a Go-Pro on her head, Deborah de Robertis has notoriously stripped off inside the Musée d'Orsay twice before being arrested. She tells us why it’s about more than exhibitionism

As Deborah de Robertis walked into the prestigious Musée d'Orsay in Paris, threw off her coat and exposed her naked body while wearing a Go-Pro on her head, it wasn’t a simple act of exhibitionism in a growing conservative culture. Her literal embodiment of Édouard Manet's landmark painting “Olympia” – a naked woman sprawled across a bed – was a proverbial fuck-you to both outdated conceptions of female nudity and the art institutions which uphold them. Challenging the art world’s fixation on the naked female as a road to emancipation, de Robertis wants to the flip the lens on spectators themselves and quite literally tear up the canvas. Her performances as an artist have not only made a name for her in both creative and activist circles, but they have also landed her in police custody. Back in 2014, de Robertis graced the Musée d'Orsay once again as she held her labia open in front of Gustave Courbet’s painting “L'Origine du monde”; an artistic choice which angered the gallery’s director Guy Cogeval and created an animosity I’m sure he’s come to regret.

“My nudity is a form of clothing,” de Robertis tells me, “I give away no intimacy.” Her “Olympia” performance piece resulted in a short film of the same name which was pieced together after being released from police custody. As the commander of the gaze and by reversing the role of the model as passive, she hoped to expose the masculinist nature of portraiture for what it is: inhibiting, voyeuristic and exploitative. The idea that sex, particularly female sex, sells is nothing new, and de Robertis maintains that cultural institutions such as the Musée d'Orsay are out to cash in on this well-established trend. For this artist, exhibitions comprising images of sex workers isn’t a resistance to the status quo, it’s a manifestation of it. “If female nudity allows cultural institutions to attract tourists and fill their cash register then they welcome it,” she argues, “but if nudity ventures outside the box and uses them instead, then that becomes a problem.” The difficulties de Robertis must navigate are found in the intersection of the law and art – two worlds which are often at loggerheads. Here, we chat to the artist about her politically-charged performances, the female nude and her engagement with feminism.

“If female nudity allows cultural institutions to attract tourists and fill their cash register then they welcome it, but if nudity ventures outside the box and uses them instead, then that becomes a problem” – Deborah de Robertis

What made you do your first performance at the Musée d'Orsay in 2014? Why that painting?

Deborah de Robertis: My research has always focused on the gaze and, more precisely, on the point of view of the feminine model in the history of art. I’ve always asked myself: how can you cry out as hard as possible in order to make your point of view exist? My way of doing so was with “L'Origine du monde” (translated “The Origin of the World”); “L'Origine du monde” that I present today is a woman of flesh and bone with a gaze directed towards the world rather than towards herself; the gaze that we know by heart, the one found in all magazines.

What does public nudity mean for you and your work?

Deborah de Robertis: When I'm naked in a public space I feel like hiding behind a keyhole, my body becomes the target of a subjective camera. My nudity is a form of clothing, I give away no intimacy. My sex became public like that of the “L'Origine du monde”, it is the sex of all women. I could just work on the issue of the nude model at home, I choose public nudity since a fundamental aspect of my job is to impose a model that is outside of the box and which invites itself to exhibitions without needing permission. I'm using the names and the background of major museums as a tool that assists female nudity. Cultural institutions such as, for example, the Musée d'Orsay with expositions on prostitution, which aim to give an emancipated image, but in truth, they seek only to entice the audience and that is very clear in their reactions to my performances. Moreover, I also intervened in the context of the exhibition reinterpreting Édouard “Manet's Olympia”. If female nudity allows them to attract tourists and fill their cash register then they welcome it, but if nudity ventures outside the box and uses them instead of being used by them, then that becomes a problem and it is for that reason that the Musée d'Orsay filed a complaint against a sexual exhibition. It is nothing more than a communication strategy to divert the public debate away from the profound issues within my work, which challenge institutional discourse.

Are you critical of art institutions such as Musée d'Orsay and why? How did you feel being arrested for something you believe is art?

Deborah de Robertis: The museum is using its position of power to discredit my work, it's a way to put me back in a setting that I have left behind, it's a way of denying the taking of this freedom and the new representation of the nude that this freedom requires. What bothers me, I was told at the Parisian commissariat, is that I find my way into the window displays of the city. The museums are using the law on public exposure to censor but they know very well that this is an artistic performance. What Orsay tries to camouflage through this complaint, is not my sex, it is the video that shows the lack of respect for freedom that they display, however, by exposing the “L'Origine du monde” or organising exhibitions on prostitution. We continue to make use of the feminine body to sell, but if “L'Origine du monde”, that sex which they use to attract visitors, frees itself and reverses the situation by exploiting the museum to its advantage, then that creates a problem and by complaining to the court they express a machismo attitude. What interests me is that the institution's position also reflects the outlook on nudity in our societies.

What was the reaction from the crowds at the Musée d'Orsay both times?

Deborah de Robertis: People were enthusiastic and curious. They want to hear what I have to say, it takes them away from the linear path museums. My performances are indeed livelier than an audio-guide.

“Normally the body is objectified to serve the message of the author but from my point of view it is the spectator who is controlled by the look of the model” – Deborah de Robertis

What’s the relationship between the paintings and you as an active model?

Deborah de Robertis: While traditionally women's bodies are used as an object, in my work it is the opposite: when this view is reversed, the naked model views the spectator. Normally the body is objectified to serve the message of the author but from my point of view it is the spectator who is controlled by the look of the model. One of the aspects of my performances single out the conditioning of our way of viewing female nudity; the arrest is a sign of a refusal of the institution to reverse the balance of power between the mostly male artist and his female model. My gesture is thus political because opening my sex is like opening up, tearing the canvas. Making the choice to take a stand in a work of art is making a choice to register one’s place in the history of art by reversing the point of view and therefore also the sense of history.

Would you call yourself a feminist artist?

Deborah de Robertis: I am a woman and a feminist but I define myself quite simply as an artist – a man's equal. Actually I think that being an artist requires campaigning in order to be recognised as such, the proof is that I have to fight legally to avoid being perceived as an exhibitionist, thus it is inseparable. On December 13, I will be tried for sexual exhibition in Paris and I plan to use the court as a platform to expose my point of view.