Unbelievable part 21: Performing Camp and Sexuality

27 March 2020

Following from the previous posts looking at performativity more generally and of violence specifically in the Treasures from the Wreck of the Unbelievable sculptures, it is worth turning to the many performances of sexuality, camp, the body and gender.

After the striking reveal of the Calendar Stone upon entering the first room in Punta della Dogana, visitors came to the towering headless figure of The Diver, a 5m-tall coral-covered bronze depicting a buxom naked woman outstretched in a diving pose. This was accompanied by a light-box photograph of the sculpture on the ocean floor being found by the divers playing the role of the recovery team.

In Hettie Judah’s words, The Diver has ‘the figure of a porn star, complete with full bikini wax and peeping labia’. As a headless woman with her points of interest, shall we say, left rather unobscured by the coral, this sculpture does call to mind leering images framed to ‘decapitate’ the models so as not to detract from the main attractions. That calling her ‘the diver’ evokes the idea of ‘going down’ evokes a sense that the face is not to be looked at, but ought to perform an unseen function.

Until I found Judah’s review just a few weeks ago, and nearly three years since the exhibition opened, I thought I was thinking too much of what I took from this image when considering The Diver, so I am grateful to have found it. And, if you’ve been following my posts thus far you’ll know that no connection is too far a stretch!

To push a little further, The Diver and the light-box photograph The Diver with Divers for me call to mind Interpol’s ‘Stella Was A Diver and She Was Always Down’ from their 2002 album, Turn On The Bright Lights. Some of the lyrics state:

At the bottom of the ocean she dwells
From crevices caressed by fingers
And fat blue serpent swells


Well, she was my catatonic sex toy, love drug diver
She went down, down, down there into the sea
Yeah, she went down, down, down there
Down there for me, right on’

With all the other pop and film culture references throughout the show, it wouldn’t surprise me if inspiration was also taken from this kind of example from contemporary music. Either that, or both the artwork and the song could be referencing The Illuminatus! Trilogy by Robert Shea and Robert Anton Wilson, which, given the references to William Burroughs’s The Soft Machine as another (violently) erotic sci-fi, would equally not be a surprise, and might help explain why fantasy fans have reacted positively to finding circulated images of the show and the film about it.

As a sculpture with the additions of what I’m certain are painted bronze coral-like structures, she has indeed got ‘crevices caressed by fingers’ from her making as well as in innuendo. In addition to The Diver, I also relate some of the lines from the song like ‘fat blue serpent swells’ with the blue Andromeda and the Sea Monster as the shark is accompanied by a creature that looks more like Cetus from the myth also swelling up out of the waves. If the connections are not deliberate, then they are at least uncanny.

Demon with Bowl (Exhibition Enlargement) is another work around which I stifled my initial reactions in case I was seeing something not there. Again, Judah’s review validated my feelings concerning its campness; he’s positively prancing while tantalisingly extending his offering. Camp as performative code for queer, particularly in de-sexualised British depictions after the decriminalisation of male homosexuality in 1967 (Mr Humphries lilting his catchphrase ‘I’m free!’ in Are You Being Served? comes to mind), is fused here with the louche appearance of the Demon, which fully imagines the ‘manhood’ concealed in William Blake’s miniature painting The Ghost of a Flea. The Tate’s description of the painting reads:

John Varley – an artist, astrologer and close friend of Blake – reported in his Treatise on Zodiacal Physiognomy (1882) that Blake once had a spiritual vision of a ghost of a flea and that “This spirit visited his imagination in such a figure as he never anticipated in an insect.” While drawing the spirit it told the artist that all fleas were inhabited by the souls of men who were “by nature bloodthirsty to excess”. In the painting it holds a cup for blood-drinking and stares eagerly towards it. Blake’s amalgamation of man and beast suggests a human character marred by animalistic traits.’

There is nothing to say the excessive blood-thirst cannot be read as one of sexual desire, hence the cloak of shame implied as we glimpse Blake’s naked ghost as it crosses a curtained stage while looking longingly at its bowl – a vessel from which to take illicit fluids.

The unions and fusions between humans and animals throughout the show seem to explore a tipping point between violence and sexuality. As discussed last time, The Minotaur is an example of this tipping over and the sexual aspect is more one of coercive control. However, many other works are caught in the moments of tension immediately before a grievous act, or the aftermath of one, often between a human(oid) and creature or showing a scene of victimhood.

I’ve written before about the anatomically accurate female genitals in the back of the fly head in Metamorphosis, one of the few examples (that include Dead Woman and Woman's Tomb) of a clothed figure with the anatomy in question on display and yet concealed by its positioning in a corner, albeit with the back facing a window looking out over the Venetian lagoon. It flips the notion that female genitals should be concealed, and in art, smoothed away, while access must be granted at any time. It does this by showing everything in full but in a position and at a height and as part of an artwork where touching is out of the question. The classical figure-hugging draped dress on the half-woman half-fly rather sexualises her in perhaps a more ‘refined’ way while the fine lines and tantalising tactility of the dress clash with the repulsive image of the giant fly. Do they counteract each other, I wonder? Can we see beauty in something between?

The character of Seth Brundle in The Fly (dir. David Cronenberg, 1986)i makes the rash decision of trialling his teleportation pods on himself after expressing jealousy over his lover’s contact with her former partner. A time after being unwittingly fused with a housefly and scaring off Geena Davis’s Veronica Quaife, he seduces another young woman only to try to use her as a further test subject. This sexually charged body horror teases the boundaries of subjective considerations of what acceptable sexual conduct may be. Being fused with an insect with only the impulses to feed, purge and procreate sends Brundle into a spiral of what his changing body can do at any stage of the transformation, really extending the metaphor of what any body can perform, sexually or otherwise, at any stage in its life, with life itself understood as a perpetual state of transformation.

Ronnie’s nightmarish pregnancy that she is prevented from terminating due to the horror expressed by the men around her at her wanting to exercise reproductive rights, causes her death in the sequel. The Fly II (dir. Chris Walas, 1989) focuses on the monstrous progeny. Can Hirst’s Metamorphosis be read as a reclamation of women’s bodies as battlegrounds for sexual and reproductive rights? Can we focus on the body’s beauty, and the beauty of an area of women’s bodies that is heavily policed and shamed and othered as at once obscene and desired by society and culture? Can we confront, and even accept, our own baser, animalistic natures as still evolving creatures?

Penitent, i.e. a silver Gimp mask, in Palazzo Grassi, June 2017
Sexualities perceived as grotesque or perverse are implicitly present in the Calendar Stone, given its connection with William Burroughs’s 1961 novel The Soft Machine. The sculpture and its connection with the book build on Hirst’s previous anatomical sculptures that strip back the flesh and exude another sign of illicit sexuality, such as teenage pregnancy in Virgin Mother, while also evoking sexualised forms of social control (e.g. the statutory rape of minors alongside the withholding of access to abortion). The novel features gratuitous descriptions of sexual acts between men and boys conflated with the time travel process of transposing from one body to another, all to emancipate slave workers from the Mayan priests who control them.

At the risk of suggesting something unwholesome, it’s worth looking at the inclusion of Mowgli and Baloo from Disney’s The Jungle Book (1967) in the coral-covered sculpture called Best Friends. The characters are positioned with the young man-cub straddling the large bear lying on his back and both are laughing. Perhaps on its own this could be seen as an image of playful innocence, but its placing in the exhibition meant it could not help but be seen with the residue from the many sexually charged works; even if you had wanted to go straight to room 8 of Palazzo Grassi to see it, you would have been bombarded by hyper-sexual figures no matter which direction you took to get there. Together The Collector and Friend showing Walt Disney and Mickey Mouse holding hands and waving happily, it also speaks to the many inter-species relationships underpinning the show. These have the figures on a par, whereas the Lion Women of Asit Mayor is an example of inequality with one entity commanding power over the other. Do the fusions, then, speak to a parity between humans and animals, or in the case of Hermaphrodite, equality and ‘bothness’ between sexes and genders? It's definitely worth poking at this further to find out.

i Itself a remake of the 1958 sci-fi horror of the same title, which was adapted for screen from the George Langelaan short story first published in Playboy magazine in 1957.

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