Porn and critique

A review of Andrea Frasers solo exhibition at MACBA

by Maria Rosua and Lina Natterer

fraser sex.jpg
Andrea Fraser: Untitled (2003), Video, 60. min., MACBA

What do we want from Art? is the leading question in L’1%, c’est moi, Andrea Fraser’s first solo exhibition in Spain taking place in the MACBA, museum for contemporary art in Barcelona. In the about thirty works, selected by the curators Cuauhtémoc Medina and Hiuwai Chu, the artist is questioning the motivations of a wide range of cultural agents including artists, collectors, gallery owners, patrons and audiences.[1] Her main body of work, produced between the mid-1980s and the present, is a critique of the institutions that are involved in the sale, display, and commerce of art. Fraser’s work comments on the politics, commerce and histories, critically analysing the hierarchies and the exclusion mechanisms of art as an enterprise.[2] Her performances, despite treating a serious manner, are often presented with a humorous, ridiculous, or satirical undertone.

While doing the research for what was planned to be an exhibition review– a chronicle of the impressions we had visiting the show that was inaugurated the 22nd of April at Barcelona’s museum for contemporary art– we encountered the unexpected voice of the Spanish press. Titled Porno duro en el Macba. La artista Andrea Fraser involucra a una coleccionista en una performance sexual“ one of Spain’s most influent newspapers El Pais released its review of the exhibit. Beside many others even the popular and usually not particularly art-orientated newspaper 20 minutos, published an article[3] about MACBA’s current exhibition, focusing on one precise artwork that apparently caught the public’s attention. El Pais further reports that one year after the scandal caused by Inés Doujak’s polemic piece No vestida para conquistar (a sculpture showing a german shepherd, an unionist and the former Spanish king Juan Carlos I in a sodomitic scene) the museum reopens the discussion about how provocative art can be.[4] Even though the sculpture had provoked the biggest crisis of MACBA so far, Andrea Fraser’s currently displayed video is considered stronger, more delicate and above all shocking.[5]

Exhibited in a side part of her solo exhibition, displayed on a small sized TV screen, Fraser’s videotape shows the artist having sex with an unidentified American collector who supposedly paid close to $20,000 to participate in this work of art[6]. The camera is static and permits the spectator to observe the sexual act for about 60 minutes. The video is not edited, though the sound is separated from the video and replayed on headphones in the adjacent room.

After decades of being confronted with artists injuring themselves, masturbating and throwing with excreta in performances, the public’s outraged reaction to Andrea Fraser’s Untitled is more then surprising. When the video was first exhibited in 2003 Andrea Fraser was temporarily the focus of the art world and media. The NY Times referred to the documented performance calling it an act of “prostitution”[7], in other articles and blogs it was described as “scandalous”.[8] Now, thirteen years later, the public should have had the time to overcome the initial shock and focus on the artist’s critique. Instead of debating whether or not it is appropriate to show explicit sexual content in an art museum, why not take closer look at the work’s background and context? The initial point of the work was, according to the artist, Charles Baudelaire’s metaphor of art as prostitution.[9] Nowadays the notion “prostitution” is frequently used to describe how interpersonal relationships, even the most intimate ones, are being reduced within the capitalist society to their economical relation. In an interview with the Brooklyn Rail the artist states:

„[…] the question I’m interested in posing is whether art is prostitution—in a metaphorical sense, of course. Is it any more prostitution because I happen to be having sex with a man than it would be if I were just selling him a piece? In fact, I remain much less comfortable with selling the DVDs of “Untitled” than I was with producing the piece. The “normal” sales situation that one has in the art world feels much more exploitative to me than any aspect of my relationship with, or the exchange with the participating collector. That’s where I lose control of it. That’s where the speculation begins.“[10]

By selling the sexual act as an artistic piece to a collector, Fraser evidences the cruel dynamics of the global art market. Her critique is directed to the selling act itself, it is about the artists having to satisfy the art market’s demand, having to gain money of their most intimate thoughts. Eventually it is a work about power.

„Untitled is about the art world, it’s about the relations between artists and collectors, it’s about what it means to be an artist and sell your work—sell what may be, what should be, a very intimate part of yourself, your desire, your fantasies, and to allow others to use you as a screen for their fantasies. It’s not really about sex work, it’s not really about prostitution, and it’s not about getting my fifteen minutes. You know, and it’s not about reality TV.“[11]

In her early years Andrea Fraser was still avoiding the dominant art institutions and mostly worked with non-profit organizations and museums in order to be independent of the laws of the market. Over time the artist realized that her breakout plans did not work out and decided to work with the commercial galleries.[12]

This decision, taken in the in the nineties, when the idea for Untitled was born, leads us back to the exhibition in Barcelona’s museum for contemporary art. As Frederic Montornés, a former curator of the museum comments, a work can never be isolated of its context and has to be seen as part of the artist’s practice.[13] Despite the division in different topics that lead through the exhibition (Museums, Globalization, It’s a beautiful show, isn’t it?, Discarded Fantasies, The Personal and the Political, Collected and archived) the anti-institutional tenor is dominant through the majority of the works. As a remarkable and obvious contradiction, the explicit critique of the art market finds itself displayed in one the most influent museums of Spain, a global player in the art business. With Untitled the institutional critique is formally brought to its extremes, however regarding to its content, the sex tape is far of being the most outstanding and interesting piece in the exhibition. The show is a review of the artist’s practice of the passed thirty years including revealing video works that pioneered a practice of critical reflexivity in the art world. Her early piece Museum Highlights: A Gallery Talk from 1989 documents Fraser’s use of an invented persona—a formally attired museum guide named Jane Castleton—to present a social history of the art museum that focuses on the relationships between class and taste, private philanthropy and public policy. The work was the first of its kind and remains a landmark in the recent history of performance art.[14] In Kunst muss hängen from 2001, an installation consisting of a 30 minute, single channel video projection over a painting, Fraser performs a transcript of a drunken, impromptu speech by the late Martin Kippenberger, which she memorized in German.[15] It is one of the few moments of exhibition when the artist plays with the double moral standards and gives the spectator a hint that she is clearly aware of the contradiction between institutional critique and being part of the dynamics of the exploitive art business. As the performance is projected over a real painting hung up on the wall of the museum, it transports her performance directly into the institution. With this simple and subtle act she leaves no doubt that the MACBA no exception. It is, as all big art institutions, part of the system.

Although the video that includes “sexually explicit content” – as the MACBA announces the video in the introductory text– has so far attracted the visitors’ attention and is for sure the most sensational piece, it is neither the most significant nor most interesting work of the exhibition. Art as prostitution is not only an old metaphor that came up with Charles Baudelaire in the 19th century, it has further been subject of many artistic works in the past decades. Six years before the release of Untitled, the Turkish artist Şükran Moral offered sexual services in a brothel in Istanbul after having it declared to a Museum of Modern Art.[16] In difference to Fraser’s performance, Şükran Moral did not execute the sexual act but used it to provoke the same reflection about the art market. Untitled is neither a milestone in the art history nor in Fraser’s artistic practice. As Fraser says in the interview with Brooklyn Rail, that even though she enjoys the attention she got for the work she “would have preferred to get this kind of attention for some other things“[17] she has done. This point we definitely concede to the artist: Having sex with a collector is not what Andrea Fraser should be remembered for.

[1] Andrea Fraser. L’1%, c’est moi [online] [last consult: 11th of may, 2016]. Available online:

http://www.macba.cat/en/exhibition-andrea-fraser

[2] Andrea Fraser – Professor, New Genres [online] [last consult: 11th of may, 2016]. Available online:

http://www.art.ucla.edu/faculty/fraser.html

[3] Andrea Fraser lleva al MACBA una exposición que incluye un vídeo porno [online] [last consult: 11th of may, 2016]. Available online:

http://www.20minutos.es/noticia/2729143/0/andrea-fraser/macba-exposicion/incluye-video-porno/

[4] BOSCO, Roberta: El vídeo porno del Macba reabre el debate de la provocación del arte, Barcelona: El Pais, 2016 [last consult: 11th of may, 2016]. Available online:

http://ccaa.elpais.com/ccaa/2016/04/22/catalunya/1461356412_565660.html

[5] BOSCO, Roberta: Porno duro en el Macba, Barcelona: El Pais, 2016 [last consult: 11th of may, 2016]. Available online:

http://ccaa.elpais.com/ccaa/2016/04/21/catalunya/1461268552_516237.html

[6] TREBAY, GUY: THE WAY WE LIVE NOW: 6-13-04: ENCOUNTER; Sex, Art and Videotape, New York: NY Times, 2014 [last consult: 11th of may, 2016]. Available online:

[7] TREBAY, GUY: THE WAY WE LIVE NOW: 6-13-04: ENCOUNTER; Sex, Art and Videotape, New York: NY Times, 2014 [last consult: 11th of may, 2016]. Available online:

[8] Understanding a Sex Tape as an Artwork [online] [last consult: 11th of may, 2016]. Available online:

http://nataliebradvica.blogspot.com.es/2014/05/understanding-sex-tape-as-artwork.html

[9] Werkauswahl [online] [last consult: 11th of may, 2016]. Available online:

http://www.elfriede-jelinek-forschungszentrum.com/wissenschaftsportale/oekonomie-gender/kunst/andrea-fraser/

[10] PRAXIS: Andrea Fraser, New York: Brooklyn Rail, 2004 [last consult: 11th of may, 2016]. Available online:

http://www.brooklynrail.org/2004/10/art/andrea-fraser

[11] PRAXIS: Andrea Fraser, New York: Brooklyn Rail, 2004 [last consult: 11th of may, 2016]. Available online:

http://www.brooklynrail.org/2004/10/art/andrea-fraser

[12] Werkauswahl [online] [last consult: 11th of may, 2016]. Available online:

http://www.elfriede-jelinek-forschungszentrum.com/wissenschaftsportale/oekonomie-gender/kunst/andrea-fraser/

[13] BOSCO, Roberta: El vídeo porno del Macba reabre el debate de la provocación del arte, Barcelona: El Pais, 2016 [last consult: 11th of may, 2016]. Available online:

http://ccaa.elpais.com/ccaa/2016/04/22/catalunya/1461356412_565660.html

[14] A gallery talk [online] [last consult: 11th of may, 2016]. Available online:

http://www.artic.edu/aic/collections/artwork/193356

[15] Andrea Fraser [online] [last consult: 11th of may, 2016]. Available online:

http://www.petzel.com/exhibitions/2002-01-12_andrea-fraser/

[16] Die Skandal-Auslöserin [online] [last consult: 11th of may, 2016]. Available online:

http://www.taz.de/!5039320/

[17] PRAXIS: Andrea Fraser, New York: Brooklyn Rail, 2004 [last consult: 11th of may, 2016]. Available in the internet:

http://www.brooklynrail.org/2004/10/art/andrea-fraser

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