As much as cold little beers, year-round sunshine, and the best-looking people in Europe keep my serotonin levels moderately high, every now and again something will happen that makes me want to scream, "Fuck Spain!" at the top of my carbonated lungs before stabbing a matador. This happened recently with the Christian right's totally over-the-top reaction to Bruce LaBruce's show in Madrid.
Obscenity is made up of photos of fairly well-known people from Spain's culture industry (Think Rossy de Palma, Alaska), posing with religious paraphernalia like sacraments and rosaries (all of which you can buy over the counter in religious supplies stores). Maybe I'm desensitized by all the raping and killing I get up to, but the photos don't seem all that shocking to me. Self-consciously shot in a fashion magazine style, aside from some bleeding trackmarks and a lascivious looking gayngel, there's nothing all that explicit about them. Even so, the exhibition has caused an uproar, with senior politicians like the mayor of Madrid calling for it to be closed, religious groups protesting outside, and then, last Friday, someone threw a firebomb through the window. Due to some miracle it didn't explode (maybe God is on Bruce's side after all).
No one involved really understands what all the fuss is about. When I spoke to Rossy de Palma earlier this week her point of view was that religious iconography belonged as much to the models in the show as the angry Christian terrorists who tried to boycott it. "We grew up with all that bullshit and we can do what we want with it," she said.
Anyway, the exhibition was great, and the opening was packed with all the arty gays and fashion people that are currently making Madrid shit on Barcelona as far as creativity is concerned. Overall verdict? One in the asshole for freedom of expression over hysterical reactionaries.
Here's what Bruce had to say about it when we chatted a couple of weeks before the opening.
VICE: Hi Bruce, you're just back from Cuba. How was that?
Bruce LaBruce: I saw a guy get killed. I'd never seen that before.
Well, really I heard it more than saw it. A guy got hit by a car. It was really eerie sounding—the wheels squealing and then a thump. Whoever was around just picked up the body and drove it to the hospital.
I thought social services were supposed to be one of the good things about communism.
The healthcare's good, I think. And the universal education. But Cuba's weird. I didn't see one ambulance the whole time I was there. There are a lot of good aspects to the system, but the country is so impoverished that it's literally third world.
I've heard that civil liberties are a big issue there. Or maybe that's just propaganda?
Yeah, but even in America civil liberties are threatened. We'll see what happens if Occupy carries on. In my work I’ve come up against censorship. I haven't been able to show in China or Muslim countries, for instance. But even in Canada in the 90s I had film labs call the police. There's obviously more freedom in Western democracies, but it has its limitations.
Is provocation always a good thing?
Neo-Nazis can be provocative so… it all depends on context. It's always good for artists to explore those areas that are meant to be unrepresentable, whether it's underground or in the mainstream. The limits of expression do exist. I've discovered that. You have to stake out that territory and then decide whether you're going to transgress it and then what the consequences will be.
So are the limits of expression that you work with inherent, or are they more culturally defined? 'Cause if that's the case then they're subject to change, right?
There's kind of an illusion that as history evolves, things become more enlightened or progressive. I think it goes in cycles. It vacillates according to political or historical trends. I've done the same kind of work throughout my career, provocative and sexually explicit, and sometimes it corresponds more with the zeitgeist than at others. When LA Zombie got banned in Australia last year it corresponded with a regime that was trying to impose a ban on pornography. They were even checking people’s laptops for porn at the airports.
Ha ha. That's insane. It would feel like having to explain it to your dad!
Have you ever had something on your computer that you can't explain how it got there?
I don't think so. We should probably talk about your exhibition in Madrid. What kind of reaction are you expecting?
I know that the government has changed to a more right-wing one. It might sound naive but I didn't design these photos to be super controversial or anything, partly because so many of the models were willing to participate in them. There are some very high-profile models in it, which will probably play up any controversy it might have.
So are you crossing over to the straight community? Is this the next step to world domination?
It was actually a conscious decision to make my last two films zombie films, to cross over to a wider audience. It was a way of getting into the genre and horror film festivals. With Otto, or Up With Dead People for example, it was a way of drawing in all of these horror fanboys who are vaguely homophobic and misogynist. The strategy was to promise them a zombie film and then torture them with a tender gay love story. Which kind of worked…. Obscenity isn't so much about sexuality as it is about religious iconography. It's also kind of about the interchangeability of celebrity and religious idolatry. The main symbol of the show is the hostia [sacrament]. For me the fact that the models are wearing them on their eyes and mouths is a metaphor for censorship as well.
I was wondering, how do you get a hold of a jar full of hostias?
That's a good story, actually. We first bought a bag of them in the religious supplies shop where we got all the other props for the shoots. Then during the second shoot we ran out and sent one of the flamboyant gay stylists to get some more. They wouldn't sell them to him. In the end we got one of the girl assistants to go with a shawl on her head.