“A kiss is the beginning of cannibalism”–Georges Bataille
Heavy breathing is not normally the sound permeating blue chip galleries unless it’s the deep existential sighs of gallerinas. However, loud moans of pleasure currently echo through Marlborough Chelsea, luring and seducing viewers through Aïda Ruilova’s current exhibition.
In the forward to his morbidly sexy study Eroticism: Death and Sensuality, Georges Bataille defines eroticism as “assenting to life up to the point of death” (11). Through her stimulating exhibition, Ruilova explores this all-too-alluring boundary between sensuality and mortality, as well as the conflation of love and violence. Fascinated by the hyperfeminine, highly aesthetic worlds constructed in vintage porn of the 1960s and 1970s, Ruilova mines the underlying darkness inherent in these sordid cinematic fantasies.
Aptly vaginally named The Pink Palace, the exhibition’s titillating title is derived from Jayne Mansfield’s home–a late 1950s Graceland-level testament to bold opulence, over-the-top bad taste and a role model-worthy adherence to shag. An interior decorator’s pink nightmare or a teenage boy’s hallucinatory wet dream, Mansfield’s absurdly sexual home appears almost as an extension of her extremely erotic body. In a photograph of Mansfield’s bedroom released as promotion for The Pink Palace, a black velvet-covered bed sits ominously amidst an all-pink room as either a reminder of the fatal threat inherent in sensuality or just another kitschy design decision.
Like Mansfield, Ruilova finds suggestive and subversive uses for black velvet in The Pink Palace, bringing the typically tacky medium for Elvis and Jesus paintings to the realm of high art by cutting stenciled flowers into flimsy and frayed vintage porn posters to reveal black velvet backing. While these collages feature hilariously pulpy porn titles such as Pleasure Seeking Nurses, Ruilova’s alterations of their original trashy form transform these triumphs of sleaze into rich metaphorical studies of desire and danger.
In addition to her collages, Ruilova also presents her first large-scale inflatable sculpture entitled Rocky. An enormous black heart created from boxing gloves–an image culled from the film Rocky’s poster, Rocky looms large, towering over the viewer. The exhibition also presents a short but memorable recreation of an erotic moment in Walerian Borowczyk’s 1974 porn classic Immoral Tales, depicting a woman’s open mouth and pink pillowy lips being caressed by a finger while projecting gasps through the gallery space.
The wife of artist Raymond Pettibon who is also no stranger to erotic morbidity in his frantic drawings with iconography from Charles Manson to porn, Ruilova proves she is just as radical as her husband, showcasing her mastery of materials and cleverly applying techniques that could be interpreted as erotic themselves. Cutting, penetrating, blowing and touching, Ruilova’s manual manipulation adds a tangible tactility to the work, inviting the viewer’s pleasurable imaginings of stroking the works.
Despite vintage porn being the pinnacle of the male gaze, The Pink Palace is a purely female exhibition–a softcore artistic statement without men. Throughout the exhibition, Ruilova places herself in the role of power as the controlling voyeur through the lens of the camera in Immoral Tales or the dominatrix-like destructor and interpreter of these various porn tropes in her collages.
Even with the undeniable beauty originating from both the vintage source materials and Ruilova’s artistic eye, the works in The Pink Palace also contain a violent undertone. Whether Rocky’s both physically and symbolically intimidating monumental boxing gloves–as well as its constant threat of popping–or Ruilova’s own shredding of her poster collection, The Pink Palace teeters on the edge of destruction.
In his chapter on beauty in Eroticism, Bataille notes that beauty’s seduction is directly related to its ability to be destroyed. As Bataille writes, “beauty is desired in order that it may be befouled; not for its own sake but for the joy brought by the certainty of profaning it,” noting that “to despoil is the essence of eroticism” (144).
Ruilova too understands destruction as inherent to not only eroticism, but her own artistic practice, which is perhaps best observed in her porn poster collages. More than merely the sensory experience of the viewer, Ruilova’s active destruction of her vintage posters, as well as her recontextualization and reinterpretation of their imagery with flowers, puts her in the position of the active aggressor, seducer and suitor. Despite tearing away parts of the original erogenous layer of the posters–the female body, Ruilova only heightens its eroticism. As Bataille confirms, “When the Marquis de Sade in his novels defines murder as a pinnacle of erotic excitement, that only implies that the destructive element pushed to its logical conclusion does not necessarily take us out of the field of eroticism proper” (18).
By carving flowers into the women’s bodies on the posters, Ruilova creates a windfall of possible interpretations of their black forms as invocations of grief, ephemeral offerings of love, self-mutilating scarification or organic representations of genitalia (paging Georgia O’Keefe). In an interview with W Magazine on The Pink Palace, Ruilova explains, “It’s less about the films and more about the violence and the body and death. Death has always been a part of my work. We’re all in denial of where we’re going. We just have this body and we’re like ephemera ourselves–we’re rotting.”
With her engagement with rotting and ephemerality, Ruilova’s The Pink Palace thoroughly disrupts normative appreciation of beauty and sex, yet maintains the horror and fear that create the potential for transgressive eroticism as defined by Bataille. As Bataille states, “There is always some limit which the individual accepts. He identifies this limit with himself. Horror seizes him at the thought that this limit may cease to be. But we are wrong to take this limit and the individual’s acceptance of it seriously. The limit is only there to be overreached. Fear and horror are not the real and final reaction; on the contrary, they are a temptation to overstep the bounds” (144).