A Study in Scarlet
May 17 - July 22, 2018
In 1976, the Institute of Contemporary Art (ICA) in London organized an exhibition entitled Prostitution. The project originated with COUM Transmissions, a collective founded in 1969 and dedicated to performance and mail art, drawing its influences from Dada, Beat poetry, Viennese actionism, counter-culture and the occult. On the occasion of the exhibition, Chris Carter, Cosey Fanni Tutti, Genesis P-Orridge and Peter "Sleazy" Christopherson formalize the transformation of COUM into a new musical entity called Throbbing Gristle. In just a few years, the band would become a cult figure, pioneering the industrial electronic music scene.
At the time, it wasn't so much the band's noisy performance on opening night as the sulphurous content of the exhibition that shocked public opinion. A series of pornographic magazines containing photos by Cosey Fanni Tutti were framed as works of art and displayed in a room at the ICA that could be visited on request. Although the exhibition lasted only a few days, it was enough to create a veritable media explosion, relayed by the tabloids, which spread from the art world all the way to Parliament, fanning the flames of political debate around the issues of defending the moral order and controlling public spending in the arts.
Cosey Fanni Tutti's work, whether in the corpus of pornographic magazines or in her performances, is based on an emancipatory praxis that transgresses the structures that frame it. When she worked in the pornographic industry as a model and actress for several years, her strategy of self-representation became paradoxical, as she simultaneously succeeded in freeing herself from a fixed identity while embodying one after another of the feminine stereotypes (the secretary, the cleaning lady, the ingenuous student...) conveyed by heteronormative pornography. Cosey Fanni Tutti's multi-faceted display of herself (poses, clothes, roles) goes against an essentialist conception of femininity. At the same time, she reveals the archetypes and normativity of patriarchal fantasies produced by the capitalist industry and, like a mirror, turns the desiring gaze against itself.
Neither retrospective nor historical, nor even monographic, the exhibition is conceived as a nebula that unfolds from Cosey Fanni Tutti's practice to radiate outwards from her influences (Beat Generation, Fluxus), her fellow artists (COUM Transmissions, Monte Cazazza) and her contemporaries (Karen Finley), while linking a number of problematics or strategies through recent practices: the infiltration of an institution or industry (whether artistic, pornographic or musical), the absorption of a body into a production chain, the overturning of a norm through its exacerbation or redundancy, self-representation and self-definition of one's own identity, "pro-sex" feminism, the visibility of women in radical music scenes, etc.
The exhibition is not thematic - it's not a project about pornography. On the contrary, the aim of A Study in Scarlet is to construct a non-exhaustive reflection on practices and gestures, both historical and contemporary, that should be considered according to the similarities and specificities linked to their contexts of emergence. As tools of emancipation and identity rearrangement, these strategies are deployed at the heart of cultural distribution, consumption and communication networks, the better to subvert them.
In A Study in Scarlet, these questions also converge in the observation of the relationship between artist and model - a recurring motif that a number of participants in the exhibition attempt to deconstruct and invert, following the example of Vaginal Davis and Christophe de Rohan Chabot. In the history of art, the construction of the gaze is based on relationships of gender and domination (male/female, artist/model, clothed/unclothed, off-screen/exhibited). When she enters the world of pornography, Cosey Fanni Tutti re-enacts these age-old patterns. By infiltrating outside the field of art, she agrees to undermine the very integrity of her status as an artist, since as a model she has to relinquish part of her creative authority to the industry operators who convey her image - starting with the photographers responsible for staging her. By attacking the traditional prerogatives of her position as an artist, she renews the anti-hierarchical strategies developed by the historical avant-gardes, which she confronts with the media production and distribution circuits of the post-industrial capitalist system.
Ethan Assouline, Beau Geste Press, Lynda Benglis, Kévin Blinderman : masternantes, Pauline Boudry / Renate Lorenz, Jean-Louis Brau & Claude Palmer, Monte Cazazza, Chris & Cosey, COUM Transmissions, Vaginal Davis, Brice Dellsperger, Casey Jane Ellison, Harun Farocki, Karen Finley, Brion Gysin, Hendrik Hegray, Her Noise Archive, Robert Morris, Ebecho Muslimova, Meret Oppenheim, Pedro, Muriel & Esther, Lili Reynaud-Dewar, Christophe de Rohan Chabot, Louise Sartor, Throbbing Gristle, Cosey Fanni Tutti, Amalia Ulman and the participation of Vagues.
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