The Art of Porn

Naked bottoms and clucking tongues: a museum exposé at the KunstHalle is as much off the wall as it is on

You shouldn’t talk about pop music, say some, you should just dance to it. Perhaps you shouldn’t talk about pornography… erm, where am I going with this? Actually, an art exhibition dedicated solely to pornography, such as “The Porn Identity” in Vienna’s KunstHalle art gallery, is probably long overdue. Pornography really is, as the exhibition’s curator Thomas Edlinger stresses, “everywhere.” One-fifth of all sites on the World Wide Web are pornographic and, according to the research of the Falter newspaper, one in four men in Austria readily admits to surfing those sites at work. And besides, I’m from a generation for which it is taboo NOT to talk about sex and for whom prudery has replaced lust on the list of deadly sins.

The Rainbow Wall at The Porn Identity exhibition at the KunstHalle | Photo: Stephan Wyckoff

But still, it was a bizarre way to spend my Saturday afternoon. It was rather like early sex education classes at school – the thing was not to giggle and thereby expose yourself as immature.

But it was hard. I found myself, for example, standing in front of a video installation called the Rainbow Wall. It was a grid of 20 separate screens, 4 high and 5 wide, showing a series of porno films. Naked bottoms bucked away, taught balls jigged, tongues flickered and stretched orifices were mercilessly zoomed in on; and the whole time the vertical rows of screens were shaded with different tints of color. All forms of porn are represented on the screens, straight, gay and lesbian.

It’s an interesting technical feat, but it is neither really shocking, nor, in the cold high rooms of an exhibition center, the slightest bit erotic. But is that partly the point? Is it showing how overexposure can make what was once arousing simply banal? Whereas previous generations were titillated by the glimpse of a bare calf, my generation has been so bombarded with so many pornographic images that even hard-core porn ends up leaving you cold.

It could leave us cold for an entirely different reason. According to the brochure, putting such imagery in an art gallery “transcends the typical context of market-oriented publications and re-privatized consumption.” In other words, although porn is publicized everywhere, it is still highly unusual to consume its images away from the privacy of our own homes. Because it is in an art gallery, we treat the images in a different way. We intellectualize the experience and instinctively distance ourselves from it as a source of pleasure or arousal.   If there is art here, you feel, it’s partly a manipulation of the reactions of the paying guest. Watching others, watching porn was definitely part of the fascination of the exhibition – particularly given the broad spectrum of people who were there. Young and old, male and female, we were all keen to show we are liberal and unshockable.

The curators say the exhibition also explores “the similarities and differences between art and the visual culture of stimulation,” which, in my translation, means asking whether and, if so, when pornography can be art. Now this is an interesting question!

What was once considered pornography is now recognized as art; and I don’t just mean those ancient Greek vases depicting fellatio and sodomy. If I had exited the KunstHalle, shocked at the indecency of the imagery, I could have trotted across the Museumsquartier, and seen some ‘real art’ in the permanent exhibition of the great Austrian Expressionist artist Egon Schiele – whose drawings of wiry and naked women leave precious little to the imagination. Is it the skill with which Schiele’s sketches the delicate texture of a stocking that makes us so sure that this art rather than pornography?

Stroking my chin intellectually over all of these high thoughts, and now free of that cloying feeling of being nothing better than a dirty “Peeping Tom,” I went to a Playboy pinball machine, designed by the Californians Ed and Nancy Kienholz, from which, cast in bronze, a woman’s spread legs protruded invitingly towards me. You can guess where I was supposed to slot in my coin. I admit it. I tittered like a school boy.

You are allowed to giggle at my favorite exhibit, thankfully. A group of actors sit around the table reading the script to a porn film in a totally dispassionate way. Once again the porn has been displaced; this time the result is truly hilarious. Of course dirty talk is absurd – as are the various bizarre fetishist fantasies on show on various TV screens. The lessons we should take home from this exhibition remain opaque.

But it begs this vital question: does age-of-consent pornography hurt anyone? Where is the border line between exploitation and self-exploitation? Is veteran German feminist Alice Schwarzer really so out of touch with her PorNO campaign, which sees pornographic images as not just demeaning to the dignity of women, but maintains an atmosphere of physical violence against women?

Questions! So many questions! Maybe we should, after all talk a little bit more about pornography.

 

The Porn Identity

Through Jun. 1

KunstHalle Wien

Daily 10:00 – 19:00

7., Museumsplatz 1

(01) 521 89 33

www.kunsthallewien.at

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