Learn to love yourself at the Slought Foundation.
The big news about “Solitary Pleasures” at the Slought Foundation isn’t the masturbation-themed art—although there’s plenty of that. The news is that two powerful works by ’70s-era feminist artists Carolee Schneemann and VALIE EXPORT create an inquiry about taboos that is well beyond the giggling stage usually reached when the subject of onanism comes up.
Schneemann’s Infinity Kisses—the Movie (2008) is a silent slideshow of photos of the artist being kissed by her cat, Vesper. The photos are blurry, close-cropped and garish, echoing the low aesthetic appeal of pornographic images. They’re also sensual—the artist, seen close-up, her mouth open and eyes closed, receives what are obviously pleasurable kisses from her pet. But beyond the erotic intent, these documentary photos—taken over a number of years—raise issues about solitary practices in general. Schneemann is dignifying what’s done in private and suggesting a human need for secret rituals and practices. No matter your opinion—is it cute to kiss your cat or is it sickening?—what’s shocking here is the thought that this solitary pleasure, and others as well, might be acceptable or even an important part of the human experience.
EXPORT’s black-and-white video, Man, Woman, Animal likewise suggests there’s something almost holy in human private practices.
The film, made with her then-partner Peter Weibel, is an almost clinical portrayal of a woman masturbating. The artist, nude, seen from the waist down, sits in a bathtub with a stream of water directed at her vagina, which she displays for the camera. The camera zooms in on the water and the private parts, and the sound of moaning in the background suggests the pleasure of the experience. The full-frontal and accurate portrayal is shocking. Yet, as in Schneemann’s piece, there’s a level of dignity suggested. There’s nothing to snicker at here.
Work by younger artists round out the show. Notable pieces include Gabriel Martinez’s photo series of heterosexual men’s feet curled up at moment of climax after masturbating. The pictures rise to the level of Schneemann and EXPORT in their intent and documentary impact, although there’s a Charlie Chaplin-esque mischief about the curled toes, too. A selection of erotic drawings by Stephen and Billy Blaise Dufala, available as giveaways, suggest how art, being itself a solitary pleasure, has always sought to actively engage the viewer.
Above the serious art, the walls are peppered with photocopies of antique porn images and quotable quotes about masturbation hand-written on torn notebook pages. The higgledy-piggledy wall ensembles are kitsch comic relief from the seriousness felt throughout the show.
Before checking out the show, do some research. It is guaranteed to improve your experience. First, read curator Kevin Richards’ essay. He discusses the demonization of solitary pleasures—especially masturbation—characterized as unhealthy addictive behavior. But really, as Freud said, “The only thing about masturbation to be ashamed of is doing it badly.” Also, listen to podcasts by Richards and Schneemann to truly understand the broader messages of this excellent show.
Gabriel García Márquez, 1927-2014
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