„I was thinking this morning, if there is one word to describe the art in this exhibition, it’s Fearless. Some of these visions might not be easy to identify with, but the spirit of liberty expressed throughout, will resonate for most. Weather taboo or provocative, its cathartic during this era of restrictions.“
On April 17th, the Ruttkowski;68 gallery opened an exhibition in Paris entirely within the framework of sexuality, intimacy and eroticism, implemented by 23 artists, inspired by Hokusai’s “The Dream of the Fisherman’s Wife”. Numéro Berlin had a talk with curator and writer Steven Pollock about intimacy juxtaposed with fetish, the digitalization of art and of course sex and its social oppression.
NUMÉRO BERLIN: The exhibition mainly focuses on Sex and Erotic content. Sex itself is something really natural, but something also explicit… Where does this come from?
STEVEN POLLOCK: Well, that’s for sure, which is what is so fascinating to me about Hokusai and this period in Japan; when the established hierarchy in Japan was collapsing to a degree. They had these pleasure quarters called The Floating World ( Ukiyo-e ) with geishas, kabuki and a new thriving decadent culture that had taken hold. That was Hokusai’s world, both his subject & where he was most at home. We always hear the same story about Hokusai’s art; The Great Wave & Mt. Fuji & beautiful landscapes –but he also did those amazing works which were erotic. Men & and woman alike enjoyed erotic Japanese prints ( Shunga ). This artwork that was not exclusive, or expensive, it was Pop art. And then there appears this one piece with the octopus which was really incredible. It represents a different picture of morality, in Japan it was alien to think about sex according to pious morals that Western artists have had to struggle with. The idea that the woman is with the animal is obviously not literal; it’s the blissful state without limits that comes across. It’s a masterpiece and an iconic work; the origin of a continuous school of thought that made its way to the present via sub-cultures.
Sex and eroticism are such fascinating things, captured by so many artists, and in so many films, everywhere.
Take the Picasso quote „ sex and art is the same “. The more you suppress it, the stronger it becomes. It is not surprising that artists express themselves with erotic themes; whereas pornography is a real trap. By showing art like this in a gallery, it evokes feelings and thought, that porn never could.
It’s also a platform where straight people can look at paintings of gay people having sex – and realise what’s the big deal? Gay audiences are seeing straight people having sex all the time in films, etc. It’s the same thing. Couldn’t art be a really good place to see that ? With art, viewers can experience variety without any particular dominant norm and learn and explore.
Why is it suppressed?
Sex is self-expression, but potentially the greatest bond. Its repressed not just by obvious polarities like religion, but also the young fanatics of Cancel Culture. Our society finds individuals messy, inconvenient and unpredictable. Sex (which has no history) is a powerful & threatening force. Sex with Cleopatra, or Marilyn Monroe affected the future of entire empires! Sex also exposes society’s biggest lie, that as a species we are somehow set totally apart from animals. Mostly we do the same repetitive acts as animals. We eat, sleep and copulate, yet we want to pretend it’s different, because we are Sapiens. Thus the development of institutions that create a framework to control desire, like marriage- which usually fails, is the most repressive act of all.
Gender and sexuality is something which is increasingly discussed at the moment, but years before we didn’t use terms like non-binary.
I was in NY in the 80’s , an incredibly high-energy period. There were no rules, and maybe I am looking back through the rose – tinted glasses, but as I remember it everyone was much more comfortable. Nobody thought twice about categories. It was the same with the music, like Bowie & Lou Reed & the scene around Andy Warhol’s Factory. It all seemed to work better, without so much talk or definitions.
Why do you think artists feel the need to express sex or erotic content? It could be a completely uninteresting topic because it is somehow so natural, nothing to talk about. But it has became so explicit.
One of the oldest known artworks is the Venus of Willendorf, a 25,000-year-old fertility fetish. There is no society without sexual expression. It is completely strange, that in the West it has been so controversial. The Church tried so hard, and then we had the art of the Renaissance and you walked into a church to be inspired and reinforce your belief in Jesus, and confess your sins & even Jesus was shown in a subtle sexual way. There were so many artworks in which your attention enjoys these great bodies, modelled by ordinary but beautiful people that the artists of the Renaissance were really exploring. Everything Michelangelo & Leonardo did was like so incredibly sensual.
In Japan or China, sex and sexuality is even more repressed.
Around the time when Hokusai was making the octopus scene, there was a new wave of censorship because they thought their society was eroding, with all of the teahouses and the bars and the geishas. The erotic prints became illegal to produce. Also Hokusai, was not born “ Hokusai“, he had almost 45 names in his lifetime, so that was a pseudonym which helped keep him out of trouble with the law. Then they also started to print landscapes, out of fear of arrest. So his other masterpieces, like 135 views of Mt. Fuji, could have been created mainly to stay clear of trouble for a while. The Japanese may have been producing sublime landscapes, but that was also because they could no longer show the bedroom. Eventually the censorship just got worse and worse, peaking during the Second World War, when the Americans occupied Japan. Japan adapted really quickly for the shocked Americans, who saw gay and straight prostitution that was not even illegal. So they made that illegal & hid their culture to placate the invaders. They made new censorship laws, which are still intact today. Japanese publishers, and cinema cannot really show genitals at all.
There was also a live performance by Shibari artist Marie Sauvage. Shibari belongs to the so-called bondage, which is basically classified as a fetish, but it’s more about trust and intimacy.
In that performance there was a really intimate, unspoken communication. You know after lockdown, to have 20 people to watch that in a gallery was cathartic. I haven’t seen a play, a performance or heard a band play for more than over a year now. It was an important moment, and it was as much of an artwork as the Warhol drawing.
Intimacy and trust are two things we are missing at the moment. Because of Corona we kind of lost our whole trust in the world, and we can not see our families, friends etc, so intimacy is as well something we do miss at the moment.
I mean, we are in such a dangerous time. The shifting into a virtual world, where we have friends whom we are talking to for over a year now, whom we don’t know when we will meet again; or friends we actually never met at all. We have big cities with empty buildings, and corporations realize it works well economically like this. I am also a parent and experiencing this from my daughter’s view, who is only 11. The aspect of interaction by sports, music, film, dance, travel or simply hanging out, is endangered. For children to develop they need this physical interaction. Children do that intuitively and at the moment it is discouraged and replaced by fear. They are not going to dance with anybody or their first dance is alone with Tik Tok.
Yes it seems like our whole life kind of turned to the digital side, also a lot of exhibitions are happing virtually at the moment, and NFT’s are an increasing thing as well.
I am really grateful this show is in a gallery and not a virtual exhibition. That’s what I think was amazing about the live performance we had. People were so focused on it, which was something unexpected. We are all ritually deprived at the moment, and hungry for ritual. Parisians need to see it.
The Censorship on Instagram is causing an increasing discussion at the moment. The impact on artists working with erotic or sexual themes is huge. For them it is kind of impossible to share or promote their work outside of exhibitions.
We are still stuck on this app Instagram, which is regulated by algorithms. It is time for a new app, an app with the balance between censorship and responsibility. I don’t want to promote non- consensual sex or violence, but artists need a place to express themselves without limit. At least for adults, they should be able to look at whatever they want.
I think the huge problem in this is, that it is an artificial intelligence reacting to nudity, does not matter in which context. It also reacts to sexual writing, even a sexual title could cause the blocking of the whole content. Kind of this is banning a group of artists from the whole platform or force them to change their artworks by cover some parts in it.
It is so mad and dangerous. Also the arrival of NFT’s! I personally totally dislike this development. Critics jump on a bandwagon to say NFT’s allow artistic freedom and the opportunity to sell directly, but the costs will be the loss of the social platform of galleries and museums. It’s same thing as all the corporate real estate, when the employer exploits having people work from home. The scene for art could disappear, & it’s already happening. Coming to a gallery meeting someone you know, having a coffee, or drinking or talking is a nostalgic pleasure. You know, I would never buy anything I never saw personally- how is that supposed to work? Some things are incredibly interesting, but do not even look good online. But if it looks good on Instagram, that’s a perverse marketing bonus. How can an app decide you can have a breast, but you cannot have a nipple?
ALL PARTICIPATING ARTISTS:
Hans Bellmer, Kitty Brophy, Robert Crumb, Sante D’Orazio, Jårg Geismar, Kent Monkman, Marieli Fröhlich, Matthew Collings, Robert Hawkins, Bjarne Melgaard, Pierre Molinier,Carlos Pazos, Vilte Fuller, Philomène Amougou, Lily Lewis, Sophy Rickett, Larry Rivers, Marie Sauvage, Penny Slinger, Andy Warhol, Bruce Weber, Cicciolina Ilona Staller, Hokusai
Curated by Steven Pollock with Gallery Ruttkowski;68
Interview by Carolin Desiree Becker
all pictures are courtesy of Ruttkowski;68