Art

Do You Have What It Takes To Be A Whore?: Laboring Over Sex In “Putting Out”

Annie Sprinkle, Anatomy of a 1980’s Pin Up,1984/2006, Digital print (all Images courtesy of the artists and Gavin Brown’s enterprise, New York / Rome)

“Lay me down tonight in my diamonds and pearls
Tell me something nice ‘bout your favorite girl
I fucked my way up to the top
This is my show”
Lana Del Rey, “Fucked My Way To The Top”

“Whores have the ability to share their most private body parts with total strangers,” begins a list of Forty Reasons Why Whores Are My Heroes made in 1998 by sexologist, artist, activist, performer and sex worker Annie Sprinkle. Bordered by Polaroids of women spread-eagle, posing in matching lingerie and shaving their pubes, Sprinkle runs down a litany of arguments for whore heroism, including “Whores are tough,” “Whores explore their own sexual desires,” “Whores have the guts to wear very big wigs,” and perhaps the most importantly, “Whores are rebelling against the absurd, patriarchal, sex-negative laws against their profession and are fighting for the legal right to receive financial compensation for their valuable work.”

Even twenty years later, fighting the stigma against sex work is still a necessary endeavor, which Sprinkle does in a small label affixed to the wall of Gavin Brown’s enterprise near her original Forty Reasons Why Whores Are My Heroes in the current group exhibition Putting OutSprinkle adds to her original list, providing nods to the increased cultural (“Whores produce fabulous film festivals”) and academic (“Whores host inspiring whore conferences”) attention given to sex work, mostly due to the organizational and activist effort by sex workers themselves. In her 2018 version of Why Whores Are My Heroes, Sprinkle concludes: “Whores are everywhere.”

Philip-Lorca diCorcia, Major Tom, 20 years old, Kansas City, Kansas, $20, 1990-1992, Fujicolor Crystal Archive print

Indeed. Of course, whore is not the most politically correct term nowadays, unless it is reclaimed by as someone as role model-worthy as Annie Sprinkle. Instead, the appropriate lingo–sex work–makes clear the tethering of sex and capitalism. However, one doesn’t have to be a professional sex worker to experience equating labor and sex. Sex, for better or for worse, is tied to some sort of exchange, whether monetary, influence or merely, fluids. Just this week, we received another reminder of what control sex can play in our current late capitalist state with ginger-haired Russian spy Maria Butina, who traded sex for political sway by boinking and sometimes living with (to her apparent disgust) conservative men, including Republican operative Paul Erickson. Granted, trading sex for power is not just for Russian spies. In our late capitalist state, it seems that the economy of sex has overpowered the supposed transformational possibilities of the erotic.

Curated by writer, editor and dominatrix Reba Maybury (who, in spirit of disclosure, interviewed Osman Can Yerebakan and me years ago for her pub Sang Bleu) and Taylor Trabulus, Putting Out brings together a diverse range of artists to take stock of this state of sexual exchange. As Maybury writes in the show’s press release, which doubles as a poetic curatorial statement: “Belief that you are not repressed does not refuse one’s repression. Because there are invisible people doing the work for you, sex and labour are intertwined more than ever. You watch them on a screen and you meet them on websites or in hotels. You insert plastic made by barely paid workers into your body.”

Hal Fischer, Signifiers for a Male Response, 1977 (printed 2017), Carbon pigment print

From Philip-Lorca diCorcia’s melancholy series of hustlers on the streets of Los Angeles to Deana Lawson’s subdued yet suggestive photograph of a yonic hole in a couch, presumably worn down by too much…friction, to Hal Fischer’s Signifiers for a Male Response, laying out the semiotics of the bandana code, the exhibition presents a multifaceted look at sex, without either relying entirely on that romanticized notion of sex as ultimate transgression or a hackneyed “sex workers…they’re just like us!” approach. In fact, looking at the eighteen artist show as a (w)hole, it’s difficult to pinpoint one singular argument. And thank god–the intertwined intercourse between sexuality and power is certainly not simple nor is it a subject for a one-liner theme that hastily thrown together summer gallery shows often prefer.

Some of this likely has to do with Maybury’s own nuanced views on sex work and her understanding of who can access transgression, as laid out in her book Dining with Humpty-Dumpty. I first viewed Putting Out when attending Maybury’s marathon reading of the book, a meandering and amusing odyssey documenting her relationship with a feeder fetish sub who desires to become as big as a beanbag chair or blow up like a giant blueberry a la Violet from Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. In the time I spent listening to the reading, Maybury detailed, between her recollections of making Humpty shoplift for her, the reality that anarchical subversion is typically only accessed by white cis dudes (who sometimes, like her unnamed ex, still live with their mothers).

Pierre Klossowski, La generosite de Roberte, 1983, Pencil on paper

In addition to Maybury’s own perspective, a key to the exhibition seems to the presence of two iconic figures–Sprinkle and Pierre Klossowski. With three pieces in the show, Sprinkle is, in many ways, its matriarch (isn’t she to all of us denizens of filth?). Whether asking audience members to stare into her cervix in her infamous and educational Public Cervix Announcement or pointing out every superficial alteration and fantastical construction in a pin-up photo in Anatomy of a 1980’s Pin Up, included in Putting Out, Sprinkle has dedicated her life and career to perversion with a purpose. As she writes in Hardcore from the Heart: The Pleasures, Profits and Politics of Sex in Performance, “For years, I made myself available to the media. The arrangement was mutually beneficial. They got some provocative, titillating stories. I got to disseminate my messages; a call to decriminalize and destigmatize sex work, to promote sex positive attitudes and encourage more and better sex education” (37).

While Sprinkle represents Putting Out’s sex positivity through sleaze, Pierre Klossowski, who equally believes in the power of the erotic as a transcendent force, acts as the show’s patriarchal figure in many senses of that word. The exhibition features his large-scale drawing La generosite de Roberte that depicts a scene from his lurid trilogy The Laws of Hospitality, which includes a moment that a wife, Roberte, upon the request from her husband Octave, gives herself over to be used as a sexual plaything for their guests. La generosite de Roberte reveals this moment with a lithe, androgynous Roberte as her clothes are removed by a smaller, sprite-like man. This juxtaposition between sexual power imbalances and (perhaps consensual) objectification with erotic self-empowerment also plays out throughout the exhibition, making the show into an exercise in interrogating power writ large.

“I am fascinated by deconstructing power,” explains Maybury in an interview with Dazed Digital, “In my honest opinion, taboo and socially uncomfortable topics can only be tackled through discussion. And how can we have a good conversation about these things if they aren’t based on an honest account of our experiences?… Is that exploiting them, or more simply observing the gendered and classed nuances all around us? And how these nuances actually do eventually add up to a power that is undeniable.”

Installation view of “Putting Out” at Gavin Brown’s enterprise (Photographer: Lance Brewer)

By laying out these experiences in artworks, Putting Out details both the possibilities and limitations in how we navigate the intersection of sex and power. Some artists do this through drawing on their own experiences with sex work, including Cosey Fanni Tutti’s notorious magazine actions such as 1974’s Oui Vol. 3 No. 7 July, 1974, 1 x cooler magazine page. Juxtaposing her nude modeling with a large image of Richard Nixon, Fanni Tutti’s porn work, like much of her art, achieves a celebratory, as well as political, blending of art and life.

While Fanni Tutti’s approach to porn is one of experimentation and revelatory exploration, not all people can equally access this self-empowerment through sex equally or at least, without complication, particularly people of color who are always already seen as hypersexualized. This is visible in works like Frida Orupabo’s Untitled collage, which pins various parts of a Black woman’s anatomy together like butterflies in a rare collection, portraying the fetishization and exoticiziation of Black people–both men and women–in porn. Similarly, Nil Yalter’s iconic 1974 feminist video piece The Headless Woman or the Belly Dance slyly critiques the Orientalist gaze by enacting the quintessentially stereotypical Western fantasy of the belly dance. Naturally, of course, Yalter twists this gaze by writing a sexually liberating text on herself from René Nelli’s Erotique et civilisations that is also on the wall nearby.

Installation view of “Putting Out” at Gavin Brown’s enterprise (Photographer: Lance Brewer)

Other works frankly portray how sex has become literally about contractual obligations, including Maybury’s own Submissions series. This series consisting of a gathering of free-standing flip cart boards emblazoned with surveys taken by her subs. Under the boards, Maybury wedges the anonymous men’s shoes–beat-up sneakers, boat shoes and most revoltingly, sandals (is there anything worse than men in sandals?! It should be a crime). This erases the men’s bodies, making them into standing needs, wants, desires and at least one contract.

Next to Maybury’s Submissions is Leigh Ledare’s series An Invitation, which, through enormous photographs and contracts, tells the story of the exchange between a couple and the photographer. Navigating consent and privacy, the contract is perhaps more interesting than the photographs, which more than anything act as proof this actually occurred. The contract reads, “For seven consecutive days from July 22, 2011 to July 28, 2011, Leigh Ledare was commissioned by Mrs. _____, a well known writer and the wife of a highly recognizable public figure with connections to the media and politics, to stay at the home of her and her husband in order to make a series of erotic photographs that featured Mrs _____ as their subject.” Ick! An Invitation explores the power difference between the monied and artistic class without refusing to implicate Ledare in his own participation.

Installation view of “Putting Out” at Gavin Brown’s enterprise (Photographer: Lance Brewer)

Now, what do we do if erotic exchange is this goddamn complicated that we need bureaucratic red tape? Putting Out provides no direct answers. Maybe it’s like Kathy Acker said in a notebook about working in the sex shows at Times Squares’s Fun City, “You have to become a criminal or a pervert.” But, perhaps she forgot academic, porn star or an artist as seen in Elizabeth Stephens’s The Porn Star/Academic Bronzed Panty Collection that celebrates the boundary breaking impulse of figures in these fields (and many who click off multiple boxes). Rather than traditional portraits, Stephens takes crumpled skivvies from icons such as Annie Sprinkle herself, Kate Bornstein, Ron Jeremy, Candida Royalle and Scarlot Harlot and transforms them into bronze sculptures as if to indicate that these undies have touched greatness.

Rather than relegating sex work to the sordid trash heap, Stephens raises sleaze to the level of monuments. As it should be. As Sprinkle ends her original 40 Reasons Why Whores Are My Heroes: “Do you have what it takes to be a whore?”

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