No matter how liberal and supportive of the arts we think the French are, it's still illegal to get naked in a public art gallery, as the Luxembourg performance artist Deborah de Robertis was reminded this week. Two years ago she calmly exposed her vagina in front of Gustave Courbet's famous painting of a vagina, L'Origine du Monde, and was removed from the prestigious gallery, Musee D'Orsay, leaving the art world to ponder whether it was art or simply a vagina. Or both.
Her reprise this week stepped things up a gear. This time she came to the same gallery to pose as a real life imitation of Edouard Manet's Olympia. The museum's directors promptly called the police and she spent two days in prison for public indecency.
While public opinion will naturally be split it's surely beyond debate that de Robertis' art is immensely entertaining, thought-provoking, amusing, and offers a much-needed change to the stale modern art scene that exists right now. And who knows where her work will go next? Will she masturbate over a Monet? Piss over a Picasso?
I spoke to her as she completed the editing of the film of her Paris performance to ask her about stripping off in front of tourists and priceless works of art.
Broadly: The pictures of your live performance imitating Olympia have not emerged in the media yet. Please can you describe exactly how you recreated the painting, so we can visualise it. Were you laying on a chaise longue with a chambermaid bringing flowers and a cat by your feet?
I had Olympia's bouquet of flowers and I was wearing her necklace and a wig that was similar to her hair. I wore shiny shoes as a contemporary reference and had a GoPro camera to symbolise Olympia directing her first film. The main idea was that the director steps down to receive the bouquet which is carried by a maid in the painting. The idea was definitely not to imitate the painting identically but rather to reverse the power relations in the painting and within the institution.
How long did it take you to get into position? Did you undress right there in the gallery room?
When I arrived, some of the actors (artists I invited for the performance) had already been there for an hour. The room was full and there was an extraordinary amount of tension. The guards recognised me and followed me into the museum. They must have had instructions because I had called the day before to make an appointment in front of the painting in order to generate a face-to-face and in order to invert the preconceived power relations. I should point out that I wrote an open letter to the director of the museum in which I asked him to accept my performance as a matter of urgency. It is also important to recognise that the performance that I'm talking about is not the fact of me undressing but rather of putting a GoPro camera on Olympia's forehead and by doing this, I become the model of a contemporary female actress.
I read that the security guards closed the room and you were arrested—which your lawyer described as "a seriously negative message." What reaction would you have liked from the guards, the museum, the police, and the audience in an ideal scenario?
I like your question because in discussing the scenario, you put emphasis on an important aspect of my conception of the performance. I don't have the ideal scenario but I have to make a stand which, in this case, was to confront the institution by implicating the director himself.
Secondly, it was of course a matter of filming from the point of view of Olympia, whom I embody, and to make a record of the face-to-face interaction that eventually finishes with a sort of balance of power between the nude model and the guards. In an ideal scenario, the guards would protect my naked body like they protect the painting. The role of the guards and the museum authorities is to protect artists and militants who use their bodies to bring the art to life, not to stop them. This is what I asked of the director both literally and figuratively in the open letter.
Is your work a feminist protest statement (in the same way the Femen activists stage nude demonstrations)? Or is it an anti-censorship statement which suggests sexuality should be liberalized and presents public nudity as an anarchic way of achieving that? Or is it simply your way of producing art and your attempt to test the sensibilities of the art world?
In a nutshell, I believe that the nudity I expose is public. I think there is no transgression here and that the institution should have symbolically agreed to reverse its policies in order to allow me to carry out my performance. It was an opportunity for the Musée d'Orsay to reconsider its position and review its politics.
The word "scandalized" is being used to describe both this perfomance and your previous work involving Courbet's painting. Would you describe it that way? Should art scandalize the contemporary society in which it is created?
What I can say about the scandal is that I don't simply copy the model but redefine it, as I replay a scandalous scene in the middle of the Musee d'Orsay using modern media.
Do you see Manet's Olympia as an important work of art, and likewise Courbet's L'Origine du Monde? Were these artists visionaries of gender equality or do you see them as exploiting women?
I consider them to be visionaries but my choice is not linked to whether these painters are sexist or not. What interests me is that in my work, the model is the director.
How do you feel before, during, and after your performances? The Courbet one, in particular, was extremely brave. But you looked quite calm and confident, even when the security guards were standing over you.
Before the performances, I feel like a woman who is about to bungee jump. I have vertigo. When I start to perform, I'm no longer scared, I am in the moment and completely present. I welcome whatever happens and I direct the scene like I direct my films. I believe that they [the guards] don't have the right to touch me. In my two performances, they tried to clear the room but they never touched me.
For your performances to be sustained at any length they would need to happen in locations where you can't be stopped from performing (like outside the museum in a transparent box or something). Have you considered this? Or is the whole point that you perform inside the gallery? Is your work an attack on galleries?
I have never considered performing outside of the museum because it is my framework and I am interested in the power relations, procedures, policies, and legal issues. I believe that none of these things apply to contemporary art and my performance is intended to be inoffensive. I wouldn't say that it is an attack on galleries but it is certainly a direct confrontation.
I saw Miseres et Splendours, the Musee d'Orsay exhibition that Olympia is part of, when it first opened. The Victorian-era pornographic films were shocking and funny to me, not because I'm shocked by porn but because I didn't know actual porn films were made so long ago. What was your opinion of these films?
I think that the 'porn' films that were shown were anecdotal and the scenes were more from a 'voyeur' point of view as these images once pornographic are just erotic now. Archives have lost their sulphurous character nowadays when sex is everywhere. This was just empty daring, meaningless audacity, from the Musee d'Orsay.
People who are more shy about themselves would say you must have extraordinary body confidence. In what way do you think of your own body?
I love my body and I think all bodies are beautiful when they are lived in. I separate the public from the private body so that when I expose my public body, my intimacy no longer exists. To get there I have to surpass myself.