Saturday, September 12, 2009

T & A (Transgression & Art)

If read as the three figures interacting, the work really pushes the viewer’s moral boundaries…

I am pleased to say that my blogging hiatus—the result of a nasty cold at the busiest time of year on campus—is officially over. And now for an exhibition review…

Because over 70 works comprise the 30-year survey of Genesis Breyer P-orridge’s notorious art career, they are hung in close proximity to one another at Invisible-Exports in Manhattan’s Chinatown. As a result, my head couldn’t have been farther than a foot away from that of a gentleman viewer when I took in the first ‘beaver shot.’ Just then, I heard an authoritative-sounding “Very Dada” from behind. Actually, I would have gone with ‘very surreal.’ “Oh wait,” I realized, “the gallerist is referring to the artworks, not my extraordinarily awkward viewing experience.”

I incorrectly assumed that I had become desensitized to pornographic images after compiling a binder of pornography photocopies for a colleague last week, which I procured from the Sexual Representation Collection at the University of Toronto. Alas, I was a tad squeamish viewing the array of collage, photomontage and photographic works that appropriate pornography. I waited until I was on the train home with the list of works to give G.P-O (as s/he is known) due consideration. Even then, I kept wondering if my seatmate was eyeing the images with curiosity, and me with judgment. Although my art alludes to erotica for shock value, it seems that I can dish it out but not take it.

In my embarrassed state, I initially found the most accessible works to be the humourous ones. Some read like one-liners, such as mail art featuring a banana poking out of a man's pants, and a collage that combines a label for cock-flavored soup with predictable pornography. This is not to say that a one-liner cannot be successful, and given the childish humour associated with sexuality, it is extremely appropriate.

Once I poured over the list of works, I was actually more impressed by the ones revealing the artist’s dark sense of humour. Allow me to preface my reactions with some theory. As strange as it sounds, collage is a sexualized medium. Of surrealist and Dadaist collage, Lydenberg (1988) writes, “everything that is juxtaposed in collage…can ‘make love’; the procreative possibilities, therefore, are staggering”(280). Meanwhile, Derrida (as paraphrased by Ulmer, 1983) believes, “If the clipping is associated with ‘castration’…the montage or dissemination of the fragments thus collected in the new frame is associated with ‘invagination’ (collage/montage is a bisexual writing)” (90). If these quotations seem far-fetched, consider the following works by G.P.-O.

Untitled (mail art to Robert Delford Brown) (1977) superimposes a photograph of a woman performing felatio with a portrait of a man in a suit, conflating cropped penis and tie. What I love about this piece is the hint of a smile on his face, as if acknowledging the sexual act; the power reversal suggested by her dominance (both in size and because she is in colour while he is in black and white); and the contrast of his suit, a signifier of formality (read: public costume) with a private act.

Similarly, Education Sentimentale (mail art to Jean-Pierre Turnell) (1978) shows a young child whose arm morphs seamlessly into an arm and hand spreading the buttocks of a woman to display her genitals. Captivation is the reward if you can get past the disturbing combination of children and pornography in the same image—a common pairing in h/er oeuvre. For instance, a work of the same name and year as the Turnell piece juxtaposes a photograph of a woman masturbating in the foreground, with two children in the background. The children's downcast eyes mirror those of the woman, and hint at child sexuality, connoting the pleasure of looking at oneself during a sexual act but also implying shame. If read as the three figures interacting, the work really pushes the viewer’s moral boundaries by establishing the children as voyeurs.

The transgressive nature of the works should come as no surprise to those familiar with the artist. G.P-O is infamous for being called a ‘wrecker of civilization’ by the British art minister in the 70s because of the controversial exhibition, Prostitution. In recent years, G.P.-O made headlines for undergoing a remarkable process of collaborative plastic surgery with h/er late lover, performance artist Lady Jane Breyer, to resemble one another as much as possible.


Lydenberg, Robin. “Engendering Collage: Collaboration and Desire in Dada and Surrealism”. In Katherine Hoffman, Collage: Critical Views, Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1988, 271-286. Print.

Ulmer, Gregory L. “The Object of Post-criticism. In The Anti-aesthetic: Essays on Post-modern Culture”, Hal Foster, ed. Port Townsend, Washington: Bay Press, 1983, 83-110. Print.

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