Curator Eva Neklyaeva works at the intersection of sexuality and art. In a series of three articles, she talks to colleagues who are active in this intersection as well. Part 3 of the series – again accompanied by images by Milan-based illustrator Filip Adrian – focusses on the incorporation of the practices introduced up until now in an art context.
Read Part 1 here and Part 2 here.
Among other things, Matìs d‘Arc and Beata Absalon are workshop facilitators at luhmen d‘arc, a label offering experimental and inventive settings in which to experience intimacy, such as courses, sessions, jams, and play spaces. The encounters they seek to tease out could be associated with the terms sex-positivity and BDSM, on one hand, but also with performing arts and improvisation, on the other, and they are always driven by the question what sex actually is and can be. One of their workshops is called House of Neurotic Womxn. It celebrates those transfixing cinematic images of females losing their shit – or finding an unexplored state of mind – in obsession, hysteria, ecstasy. Its aim is to embrace the often-neglected grotesque, monstrous, weird, and overwhelming elements of Eros. It acknowledges that mainstream media and popular culture might have trained us to have the perfect seductive bedroom-look, but it could be more rewarding to allow ourselves to go into (supposedly) ugly grimacing.
“luhmen d‘arc inquires into intimate practices and scenes for the peculiar qualities it wants to highlight, lovingly and critically asking in what way they are, or aren’t, transformative, silly, creepy, subversive, pretentious, therapeutical, erotic,” Matìs and Beata told me. “This requires questioning what usually is taken for granted and to resist giving easy, comforting answers. It requires time and idleness. Some of the things we do can feel overwhelming, for example when we do workshops that invite pain via flogging or rope bondage, pain that is usually avoided. Those weird new sensations evolve over time: they not only change during a flogging session, but it’s quite likely that you will digest this experience for a few days afterwards or longer, as if the sensations become a companion. You will simply get more out of it if you indulge in the luxury of not rushing. It’s like Shavasana, the practice with which a yoga session ends: simply lying down and doing nothing, so the body cells can actually incorporate the practice … or whatever is happening there!”
For Matìs and Beata it is important that the participants of their workshops don‘t just follow the specific recipe of techniques they show them or that they copy their style. “We hope to encourage them to find their own unique style and to responsibly follow their desire by being inspired by the container we provide,” they explained. “That also takes time because it’s easier to just do what somebody else tells you. Usually when people get asked in an intimate situation about what they want, they go blank. What do I want?! And is it really what I want or what I am supposed to want? An anchor to not get lost in those questions is to get back to the simple stuff: breathing, feeling, hearing, seeing, smelling, tasting – cultivating something like a beginner’s mind.”
Matìs and Beata present work in both art institutions and sex-positive contexts. As a curator who works in both of these contexts, I always questioned how we decide what belongs in one and what in the other. On one hand, with the mainstreaming of sex-positivity, I often find that when we bring these practices into the art field, they are hijacked by the market. Exoticized and presented as “edgy,” they lose their transformative potential. On the other hand, this fluidity between the fields enriches the research in both. I asked Beata and Matìs if they’re interested in the difference between these two fields. “Is it an either-or,” they asked in response. “One could say that sex-positive spaces can be artful while art spaces can be sex-positive. Also, the aesthetics and the reflection about the tools, objects, and materials being used interest us anyway, no matter in which space. The difference might lie in the expectations of the visitors. If they come to a workshop, they might already arrive with a mindset of wanting to interact and be challenged while in an art space they tend to think of themselves as an observing audience, nestled more safely in the dark space in front of a stage. But then the opposite can be true as well. Maybe there is a tendency in our work to switch some of the expectations around.
In art spaces, luhmen d’arc tends to focus more on giving an idea of how it can be worth it to integrate sexuality into an artistic process and how both sex and art are probably less about self-expression and more about overcoming the burden of selfhood for a few moments by touching the alien and unknown. “Since we figured this out,” Matìs and Beata said, “we’ve been struggling to find a vocabulary for what we are doing. We tried ‘curating spaces’ and ‘engineering fantasies,’ but now we think it might be called ‘doing exorcisms’ or ‘opening a portal for sex to enter’ – like in a séance.“
Still: Bringing sex-positive practices into arts venues requires a lot of care. Jarkko Partanen has been working on a kind of peer-to-peer support group for artists working with sexuality. It is called Bodies of Pleasures and tries to be a platform for artists and performance makers who would like to explore sexuality and sex-positive practices in their work. “There are a lot of fantastic makers who deal with pornography, sexuality, and sex-positivity in the performing arts, but they usually stay in the aesthetic or representational realm and focus on pushing the boundaries of what we are used to seeing on a contemporary dance stage,” he argues. “But these shows are performed in a context where explicit sexual acts on stage are still to be perceived as a provocation, as a sort of ‘edgy’ thing. I think that sexuality on stage has much more to offer than a provocation.” He also asks: “Coming back to the audience: what about when an audience member likes what they see and maybe would like to explore that sensation of arousal? They would probably be banned from the venue!” Jarkko is interested in spaces that could be creative but could also be safer spaces where both performing and experiencing sexuality and sex-positivity in a non-stigmatizing performance setting could be possible for both the performers and the audience. “What if as an audience member you get aroused? If it was me, I would wish that I knew what my options are in this situation!”
Performer and visual artist Luke George also mentioned the risk of sex being sensationalized in the arts scene. Parallel to his artistic practice, he has also been a sex worker, an intimate body worker, and a rope bondage practitioner. “I have worked as a sex worker a large part of the time I’ve been an artist, on and off,” he told me. “As a queer person, I have been having an ongoing relationship with sex-positive culture and spaces. It is a big part of who I am as a queer, gay man. Starting from a young age of not being out, hiding, and experiencing shame, I made a big journey. Exploring my relationship to intimacy, sexuality, desire, and pleasure is a constant and continuing process.”
Luke is very careful though not to mention his sex work too explicitly: “It is not in my bio; it is not on my website; I do not explicitly come forward and say that I am a sex worker, rope worker, sexual educator.” The reason for his reluctance is that he witnessed how that went sideways for other people, how it became sensationalized and a hot topic: “Oh, that artist is a sex worker, and then all their work has to be about it. I want to honor the safe space I create for my clients to explore what they want to explore. That has to be very protected, and I feel like if I start using this in my art in an explicit way it is sort of not respecting that space.”
Hearing this, I couldn’t help getting curious and asked him, if something from that realm of his life and practice didn’t end up in the other after all. “In my early rope stages, I was seeing a dom who had really pushed my boundaries, hard and fast. He took me to the edge really quickly, and the scene that he did to bring me to the edge impressed me so much I actually took it and put it explicitly into my performance Bunny,” he confessed. “Normally I would not do something like that, but the way it impacted me was just so intense. It was my second or third session with him. He tied me up and did lots of things, lots of sensation, submission, humiliation, lots of quite heavy impact play, and I was just like ‘Yes, yes, yes!’ At the end of this long session, I was blindfolded and he just became very quiet and left me alone standing there. I was listening to him moving around the room and moving objects, asking myself: ‘What is he doing?’ Then he took off my blindfold. He was standing in front of me with my bag in his hands. Then he opened it and inspected every single object of the bag, laying them all out on the table. And in this way, he really got me, he really got in there. It was deeply psychological; he knew exactly what he was doing. And that was the thing that got me. It was so perfect that we took this scene and included it in the performance.”