The broad thematic parameters of labour, sex and the relationship between the two, place the group exhibition ‘Putting Out’ at Gavin Brown’s Enterprise in a position to explore how bodies are constituted and governed by sex-gender regimes under the constellation of late global capitalism. In ‘Putting Out’ this wide scope has resulted in an exhibition that feels vaguely curated. Yet, there are individual works within that offer engaging explorations and critiques of the power dynamics that produce sex-gender.
Spanning from 1974 to 2018, the eighteen works on display hang from the ceiling, on walls, sit on the floor, in vitrines and in room corners, lumbering through the gallery. A temporary wall divides the main gallery without quite achieving a ‘behind the wall’ versus ‘on the wall’, or private versus public, special effect. Rather, the cramped group hang produces an awkward relationship between the viewer and the work on display.
Annie Sprinkle’s iconic Anatomy of a 1980’s Pin Up (1984/2006), a framed digital print, does well to generate attention in the space. Sprinkle’s print features a female pin up model and handwritten annotations of her anatomy. Sprinkle is also pictured in her pin up attire – thigh-high leather boots, corset, undersized bra, garters – a body transformed into capital by clothing. All are described in text alongside descriptions of the pain these garments cause. In the bottom left of the frame is the text ‘In spite of it all, I’m sexually excited and feeling great’.
Sprinkle’s pleasure is not sadomasochistic. Instead she maps labour onto the body – the work and pain her body has undergone produce a marketable aesthetic of desire. Beyond the subjugation required for the economy of sadomasochism to function, Sprinkle’s pleasure is prompted by the pin up’s creation and control over her own desirable and desiring image.
Beside Sprinkle’s work is another iconic work, Signifiers of a Male Response (1977) by Hal Fischer. Similar to Anatomy of a 1980’s Pin Up, Fischer’s work explores the way in which dress code, utterance, gesture and representation are figured in the production of desire and sexual identity. A male subject, wearing Levis, Converse and a souvenir jacket (all typical for his time and class in America) is framed against a brick wall. With his back to the camera – as he peers over his left shoulder – the viewer must rely on the specific details of attire to identify the subject, such as a handkerchief, keys, an earring and so on. These signifiers (or flags) are described by text that overlays the photograph; they bring the subject into coded circuits of excitation and desire, signifying the potential for specific gay sexual encounters.
Both Sprinkle and Fischer’s works explore ejaculatory of gesture and image. However, there are marked differences in how the subjects of each photograph are positioned in relation to the social environment in which they exist. With Sprinkle’s work, technologies constrict and contort the body to augment its orgasmic force; a corset or a push up bra aren’t adornments, they are the necessary technological extensions of this body, used to optimise its sexual capital. The female technobody is constructed and measured by its ability to produce excitation. Whereas for Fischer, flags are simultaneously decoys and exciters that conceal the economy they operate in – a blue bandana or set of keys worn in a certain way only becomes excitatory to the correct interlocutor.
One of the newer works in ‘Putting Out’ is Elle Pérez’s Morning (2017/2018). In Pérez’s photograph a trans subject is figured laying naked on their side atop aquamarine bed-linen as the morning sun shines across their biceps and chest creating a striated light pattern on the body. An arm that holds a smart phone obscures the subject’s face, while a prosthetic cock matching the colour of their flesh rests between thighs bearing the question: where does the prosthesis began and end? Unlike the work of Sprinkle and Fischer, text is redundant here. Pérez’s portrait of intimacy and warmth directs the viewer to the slippage between the personal experiences and the technological that produces embodied feelings.1
The exhibition statement for ‘Putting Out’ attempts to locate revolutionary power and freedom in sex and pleasure. Yet, what these three works demonstrate is that there is no sex-gender located beyond the confines of capitalism, particularly when any moment or gesture is open to being commercialised. These works show that what is necessary is to maintain a critical aesthetic approach to the normalising and restrictive effects of utopian promises like those made in the exhibition statement.
Tristen Harwood is an Indigenous writer, cultural critic and independent researcher, a descendent of Numbulwar where the Rose River opens onto the Gulf of Carpentaria. He lives and works in the Northern Territory and Naarm.