Monday, June 15, 2009

Exhibition of exhibitionists


"...the overwhelming majority of images strike me as the visual equivalent of shouting, 'I’ll show you mine if you show me yours'."

My sister and I emerged from the Morgan subway station in Brooklyn on Friday night to find an industrial area that seemed an unlikely location for an art gallery. We were on our way to the opening of Sex Cells, an exhibition of erotic photographs and videos created by the American public using cell phones. When we saw a group of glammed up teens walking while texting, we knew that we must be close to our destination of 3rd Ward.

Was Sex Cells the provocative show that I was expecting? Not really. Maybe the artwork about young people reveling in their sexuality would have made me “laugh, gasp and blush” (as the gallery website predicted) had I not finished reading Art/Porn by Kelly Davis (Berg, 2008) earlier that day on the train. The book includes reproductions of fetishistic stereographs and daguerreotypes, whose size is actually reminiscent of cell phones. Dennis argues that photography brought pornography to a new level, mainly because of its ability to convey realism. The fact that these lascivious scenes were made during the restrictive Victorian era makes them seem a whole lot more daring than their modern counterparts in Sex Cells.

The show, which had an open call for submissions, suffers from an apparent willingness to accept all entries. The sheer volume of images (212, if I counted correctly) conveys the pervasiveness of sexting, but at the same time it desensitizes the viewer. If such a high number of works is going to be included, it might be helpful to capitalize on the indexical nature of photography. Grouping like images together would reveal how few photographs include two lovers interacting, plus it would emphasize the laughable fixation on the phallus in the male portraits compared to the portraits of women, who—how shall I say this—have taken a more holistic approach to pleasure. The installation is weak in general: the images have been blown up on 8-by-10 inch paper and hung in a grid on several walls. The size robs them of their assumed initial intimacy between photographer and lover or would-be lover. It also does little to elevate them to high art status, for the familiar scale and poor paper quality make them look like a home printing job. The statements beneath the images are curled up at the edges, giving a slapdash effect. A staggered salon style hanging may have enhanced the installation because it would accommodate the large number of images and be more in keeping with the ephemeral nature of the medium than a static grid (and that’s probably why the videos felt more effective).

Maybe the problem lies in choosing to exhibit works like these in a gallery. Kelly Davis reminds the reader that the controversy surrounding pornography depends on the implication of touch and not just sight. In the case of 3rd Ward, public display connotes only voyeurism. A safe distance between subject and voyeur (er, I mean ‘viewer’) is maintained because the names of the contributors are not postedwith the exception of two artistswhich can be explained by the fact that the call for submissions stated that submissions could be anonymous. Anonymity takes two things away: (1) recognition for the artist and (2) the element of inviting physical contact à la names and phone numbers scrawled on a bathroom stall. Perhaps that’s a crude thing to say, but the overwhelming majority of images strike me as the visual equivalent of shouting, “I’ll show you mine if you show me yours.”

This is not to say that there is lack of artistic merit. Some of the works are accompanied by thoughtful statements that make reference to concepts like the scopophilic gaze, revealing training in art or at the very least, a vested interest in art. Unfortunately, the inclusiveness means that the more serious-minded works are integrated with what might be considered low-grade porn. I feel badly for one of the participants who referred to Sex Cells on Facebook as her first show in New York City, which is like a badge of honour for artists. Honestly, it feels like participants were duped into dropping their pants for a sensationalist exhibition that is short on curation.

One thing that the organizers have done a terrific job of is selecting a winner. Given my inclination to merge cupcakes with pasties in artwork, it should come as little surprise that I was impressed by the Sex Cells winner. Genevieve Belleveau applied her background in burlesque to a series of x-rated images taken before an unassuming public in an ice cream truck. They tie in wonderfully to the theme of the exhibition and are playful and smart in equal measure. I can just picture Xander Harris in the Restless episode of Buffy the Vampire Slayer as the voyeur.

All in all, I am not sold on Sex Cells.

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