One night when I was 12 or so, I left my bed, unable to sleep, and walked into the living room. My parents were watching as a squad of men, heads encased in helmets and black visors savagely beat a flailing and unprotected young man with rubber truncheons. All of the usual theatricality and choreography I had assumed as the natural character of violence had gone. Now I knew I was face to face with the real thing. It was terrifying.
My father quickly ushered me back to the darkness of my room without explanation so I could be alone with the after images. The film was Sleeping Dogs. Was that good parenting? I’m still not sure.
On a beautiful spring afternoon in 1988, I walked into the gloomy foyer of the Midcity Cinema on Manners St in Wellington and bought a ticket to see David Lynch’s new film Blue Velvet. A group of women were milling at the entrance to the theatre and, as I entered, one pleasantly handed me a leaflet. It said, “This film contains pornographic images of the violent sexual subjection of a woman. Do not support it.” (Or other highly subjective words to that effect.) When I left the theatre two hours later, Blue Velvet had replaced Eraserhead as the single most exciting event of my film-going life.
Early on in 2013, friends of mine, members of the Auckland punk group Mean Girls, contacted me about doing some artwork as a response to their justreleased, self-titled e.p. I tend to work in an opportunistic manner, and as luck would have it, I had a magazine of images of kinbaku-bi (literally translates to ‘the beauty of tight binding’, a Japanese sexual bondage discipline dating from the Edo period; look it up on Wikipedia, kids).
I excised the girls from their somewhat dingy backgrounds and recast them as fantastic performers in new scenes modelled on 18th century Baroque and Western religious art compositions.
Choreographed? Theatrical? Obviously artificial? Tick, tick, tick.
Making this stuff was fun. I certainly didn’t approach it as, you know, ‘Art’. I was just at play in the fields of The Lord. Everybody knows art-making is an inescapably escapist activity. Artists take the flight response and cunningly repackage it as fight. I’m doing it now…
But it’s funny how even though people all agree that art isn’t real or factual, that it’s a fiction in every meaningful sense of that word, they somehow still get cold feet about its freedom as if it had a causal relationship with reality. There’s always that joyless policing mindset.
And then, of course, everybody always reaches for the lever marked ‘porn’, never the ‘erotica’ button.
I exhibited the Mean Girls pictures in Auckland and they attracted nil controversy, exactly as I expected. I attempted to exhibit them in Napier just before Xmas 2014 and boom! Strong-armed from show. I hesitate to leap to an eyerolling ‘typical provinces’ attitude because, well, in global terms this country is a province and it could happen in Auckland. The art gallery, much to artists’ and curators’ enduring disappointment, is separated from the rich vitality of the conservative mainstream by a resolutely impervious membrane of disinterest. So arguably the gallery is the safest place to squirrel away this contentious stuff. If you really want to minimize the amount of people looking at it and giving you grief, put it in a provincial gallery.
On the other hand, if you think it’s important to provide a safe, quarantining, and mature forum for people to talk about problematic artwork as if digital and social media’s greased channels and inflammatory framing didn’t exist, you really should open a provincial gallery.
I don’t care about the conservative mainstream and they certainly don’t care about me. I’m beneath their notice. My pictures will never invade their family havens. I have the cultural reach, the clout of a Montgomery Burns. Nicki Minaj is kicking sand in my face every day. But somehow middle NZ has developed a bemused tolerance of the ‘buns’ in her ‘Anaconda’ video – “He can tell I ain’t missin’ no meals/ Come through and fuck ‘em in my automobile/I let him eat it with his grills/He keep tellin’ me to chill…”
When do I get some of that action? :-(
Luckily for you and yours, mainstream culture handles the hot potato of R18 content quite well. It covers it with a plastic sleeve marked ‘R18’ or otherwise trusts the family/ community unit to use their common sense.
Aren’t art galleries supposed to be liberal reflectors and microcosms of the cultures that underwrite them? Then surely they too can responsibly handle R18 content instead of filing it under ‘too hard’ and whipping away the right-to-view of the community they claim to represent, just like those religious/fundamentalist organs they assume they’re the opposite of, that dictate the terms of culture in the middleeast and the bible-belt of the US.
My dad would’ve hated the Mean Girls works. Filth! He would have refused any attempt to draw him into discussion about them. He would have sat there in his armchair with pursed lips and a red face and fumed.
And that’s what this kind of reflex censorship does. It refuses to consider from sight. It simply pulls the fusty old Patricia Bartlett lever marked ‘indecency’ and shuts down any valuable discussion. It treats us like children.
Please understand, I’m not anticensorship. In fact, in this specific case censorship did me a favour. My pictures were made in a punk spirit that stuck the fingers up to politically correct representations and so I needed to be punished in order to complete the picture convincingly. It’s rock ‘n roll kids!
So please, you protectors of public morals, censor me. You helped me do my work and better than if I’d done it on my own. So is it art? No, not really. Should it be in a gallery? Who cares?