In an interview with Amelia Abraham in VICE on his amusingly upsetting zine Ninja Turtle Sex Museum, London-based artist James Unsworth explained, “The grotesque usually combines horror and humor that don’t necessarily go together, and so you don’t really know how to process it. I’m interested in those kinds of psychological spaces that are outside of the ordinary, where you don’t know how to react. Combining the Ninja Turtles with really graphic, adult stuff was a kind of unique way of encapsulating those ideas.”
And he’s not kidding. Filled with Ninja turtle sex acts and, as the press release describes, “grand faggotory,” Unsworth’s current exhibition N.S.F.L. at Printed Matter certainly confronts viewers with an uncanny mix of emotions and responses. Are we supposed to giggle at the Ninja Turtles sucking each other off? Or are we supposed to mourn the final nail in the coffin of our 1980s and 1990s childhoods? Are we supposed to be horrified, amused or a sublime combination of the two? Most likely, it’s the latter.
Walking through the gallery space in Printed Matter’s new 11th Avenue store, there is no other way to react to N.S.F.L. than with mouth-gaping awe at just the extravagant expanse of Unsworth’s subversively sordid gestures. N.S.F.L., which stands for Not Safe For Life for any of you Interwebz uninitiated, is possibly the most aptly named exhibition I’ve ever witnessed.
As you know, dearest Filthy Dreams readers, I’m not easily stunned but a wall of Ninja Turtles enacting various bizarre and surreal sexual positions would render anyone speechless. Better get ready to nervously giggle through the exhibition like a school girl because you’re going to whether you mean to or not.
Frankly put, the exhibition is a visual assault, an ocular overstimulation and a dynamically disgusting display. From a lovely plate featuring the Ninja Turtles’ asses with a very Georges Bataille eye instead of an anus to vitrines of porntastic source materials for his lurid drawings to an illustration of an anus with a rainbow gushing from it, which really should be offered as an alt-version of the all-too-safe rainbow flag, Unsworth’s exhibition is gnarly and, well, totally radical, dude.
Of course with the exhibition being at Printed Matter, N.S.F.L. centers around two of Unsworth’s zines: Ninja Turtle Sex Museum and Dead Boys. Zines have always been repositories of subversive behavior, which makes them such a continually exciting art form and Unsworth’s are no different. While Ninja Turtle Sex Museum may need no explanation, Dead Boys, with the same name as the legendary punk band, takes inspiration from the same 1990s period as the Ninja Turtles with references to Garbage Pail Kids, Beavis and Butthead and smiley face stickers.
I’m sure you’re wondering, dearest Filthy Dreams readers, just how Unsworth gets away with perverting and subverting the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles–a well-known copyrighted cartoon. Well, the answer is he doesn’t. Unsworth, according to his VICE interview, has received numerous cease and desist letters for his zine, as well as his YouTube channel.
His YouTube channel was taken down, likely because of the video on display in the gallery, which presents a type of turtle snuff film that looks as if Lars Von Trier directed an episode of the popular children’s series. It begins with people in homemade tape-wrapped Ninja Turtles costumes drinking and taking ecstasy. And then, suddenly they’re penetrating one of the turtle’s disembodied heads. How does it get there? Well, it’s a long story.
The video points to one of the most deliciously depraved elements of Unsworth’s N.S.F.L., which is his unwavering glee in transforming our collective childhood nostalgia into horrifyingly violent and thoroughly queer acts. With pizza and Space Raiders crisps scattered all over the gallery space, Unsworth renders Buzzfeed’s Rewind yearnings into imagery worthy of a Dennis Cooper novel.
With this childhood gone rogue, Unsworth’s art has an unmistakable similarity to Mike Kelley and Paul McCarthy’s violent perversions of thrift store crap and Disney characters like Snow White. In her book The Art Of Cruelty: A Reckoning, Maggie Nelson delves into violence and cruelty in the work of artists such as Francis Bacon, Ryan Trecartin and the collaborations between Paul McCarthy and Mike Kelley. While Nelson explores the cruelty that might be transferred to the viewers when asked to regard Kelley and McCarthy’s videos, I was more interested by her short discussion of pop culture in these works, as well as the subsequent unauthorized sequel to the duo’s Heidi by Sue de Beer and Laura Parnes.
Nelson quotes critic Tom Moody on his view of the difference between McCarthy and artists Sue de Beer and Laura Parnes’ video Heidi 2 that comes from a younger generation of media-saturated artists that don’t see a division between high and low art. He wrote, “In de Beer’s and Parnes’ view, no split exists because everything is mediated: the most extreme acts can be found on tape at the corner video stores and ‘real’ experience is suspect. Rejecting the superior vantage point of the artist/shaman, the artists use pop culture tropes without apology; expressing the most ‘primal’ events–childbirth, orgasm, incestuous rape–in the idiom of sitcoms, video games and splatter films” (102-3). In many ways, this reads as similar to Unsworth’s work, which draws absolutely no distinction between cartoons and porn, violence and eroticism, dishware and sculpture or Ninja Turtles and hustlers.
Nelson continues, “But to me, the most interesting works of art are those that gum up this either-or-equation, with its dependence on a whole host of by-now familiar dualism–repressed/authentic, primal/synthetic, real/mediated–or sidestep it entirely” (103). Like Nelson’s statement, Unsworth’s work does exactly that. His zines throw all distinctions into question, which is probably what exactly makes it so unsettling. All the art in N.S.F.L. looks as if it could be found in the corners of a comic book store, old school video rental shop, sex shop or just maybe, the evidence room of a police station.
Much of this derives from the deft display of Unsworth’s porn source materials in vitrines next to his drawings. Looking at the two side-by-side, viewers can witness the transformation of these porn stars into ninja turtles or dead boys. One of my particular favorites is the switch of bear porn vehicle Paulie’s Pizza Boys who “charge by the pound,” which gets bafflingly reinterpreted by Unsworth as some chubby-chasing Ninja Turtles.
Mirroring Nelson’s statement, Unsworth’s work does ask viewers to question the divisions between real/mediated, as well as primal/synthetic and repressed/authentic. They are often all-of-the-above. What makes the photographic porn images more real or even, less ridiculous than the drawings of Ninja Turtles? The porn imagery is just as campy as Unsworth’s over-the-top illustrations.
The lasting effect of N.S.F.L. enacts a similar alteration of the viewer’s outlook as any NSFL image on the Internet. Like a confusing website, you tend to leave the show seeing differently. After N.S.F.L., just try to glance at a child wearing a Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles shirt without thinking of one of Unsworth’s hilariously horrible scenes. You can’t–you’re now infected, which was Unsworth’s wonderfully trangressive intent. Indeed, Unsworth even points this theme in his work to VICE, describing his focus as “knowledge brutalizing innocence and that kind of paradox where, the more you know about the world, the more your innocence gets destroyed.”