It’s an art historical convention that there is a difference between nudes and naked bodies. Nudes (both male and female) are meant to be pure idealised form, devoid of salacious overtones. I’ve never been convinced. All those busty, scantily clad odalisques hanging above bars in gentlemen’s clubs must have raised at least an eyebrow. And the curators of The Public Body .01, Talia Linz and Alexie Glass Kantor, definitely don’t buy it.
The stated mandate of The Public Body .01 (the first of three planned shows) was to explore representations of the sexualised body. Carter Mull’s piece, Broker, 2014, set the tone. In order to enter the exhibition you had to literally walk all over hundreds of photos of a male bum, a none-too-subtle nod to the objectification of bodies endemic in the voracious (virtual) consumption of flesh that drives the advertising and pornography industries.
In among Mull’s black and white images, Claire Lambe presented Yakety Sax, 2011, the female form represented by a pair of ridiculously spherical breasts balanced on a pile of wet clay that oozed across the gallery floor. At best this sculpture is an in-your-face celebration of the uncontainable female body: an abject challenge to accept feminine reality, leaky orifices and all. At worst it’s just more objectification: a woman reduced to breasts and a soft moist mass, perfectly passive, utterly helpless.
Ryan McGinley’s massive paste-up of pictures of naked people was less ambiguous. For his YEARBOOK, 2014, dozens of men and women posed sans clothes. And what was shocking wasn’t their nudity –it was their normality. These are not the pneumatic-breasted and rock-hard, well hung babes of porn. McGinley’s work highlights the confident beauty of ordinary people, in all colours, shapes and sizes. They are a disparate group, linked only by their willingness to get their gear off. But before we get too excited about diversity and inclusiveness, it’s worth noting that there were no ageing bodies. Too skinny or too fat is perfectly acceptable, but old, it seems, is a step too far.
One old man did sneak into The Public Body .01 via a photo by Abdul Abdullah, but he was literally tucked away in a corner and not remotely sexualised. In contrast, the men in Sterling Ruby’s video, The Masturbators, 2009, are highly sexualised and not remotely sexy. Sterling persuaded (presumably paid) eight male porn-stars to stand in a shabby room and masturbate. These guys are pros, but despite the requisite moans, they don’t seem to actually be enjoying themselves: it’s just another hard day keeping hard at the office.
Paul Yore seemed to have a lot more fun creating his kitschy-cool suite of mixed-media works which collectively read like a gushingly admiring ode to the penis. His overworked embroideries and bead-encrusted sculptures have been bedazzled beyond belief, yet their frothy, glittery exuberance can’t quite conceal their strength and defiance.
Rohan Wealleans eschewed the bedazzler in favour of paint. He somehow convinced several women to shave their pubes and let him daub their genitals with big globs of paint. In his huge colour photographs their brightly painted, multi-coloured labias are dead centre. Disembodied, these female genitals resembled strange insects or fantasy porn for a particular kind of sci-fi geek.
In Community Action Center, 2010, a video by AK Burns and AL Steiner, people (who the wall text asserted were consenting adults) wet their pants, appear to be tortured and pretend to be reborn. The wall text also pointed out that New York’s MoMA owns this work. So it can’t be bad.
Sarah Lucas’s enormous photo of a male body (headless, armless, legs akimbo) with a raw red steak plonked over his genitals was the star of the show. In this one simple move she transformed the male body into the female body as objectified by porn: just a piece of meat, a red gash. Lucas was quoted on the wall text as having said, “I’ve always found the penis a really useful sculptural thing. I’ve always said, ‘When in doubt…knob’” Yet her image is bold without being explicit. It makes its point precisely because the ‘knob’ is absent.
Lucas seems to have understood the merit of that old adage, ‘Less is more.’ Whereas The Public Body .01 appears to have been operating in the realm of The Real Housewives, Embarrassing Bodies and pay-per view peep shows; a hyper-commodified zone in which too much information is never enough.
The Public Body .01 was at Artspace, Sydney from 25 August to 23 October.