Travel

How Artists and Attendees Explained the Bloody Butts and Crocodile Vaginas at a Queer Erotica Exhibit

I went to a queer erotica exhibit in Montreal for a little social experiment.

by Stephen Keefe
Nov 19 2015, 3:23pm

Photo by Simon Goupil

Erotica is porn's less aggressive, more artistic cousin—which wants to arouse you while asking you to reflect and appreciate its art. It is Greek pottery carvings, burlesque shows, black and white nudie films, paperback novels with bent, yellow pages, and people with ostrich feathers in their hair. It has also historically been largely heterosexual, from its first documentation to the recent clitoris-duster Fifty Shades of Grey.

This is not to say erotica in its queer form doesn't exist. One place where you can find well-crafted modern queer erotica is Montreal, with its globally recognizedqueer and feminist art scene. Earlier this fall, I went to an installation called 'VERNISSAGE: Velvet Bush -Queer Feminist Erotica' that featured queer, erotic, feminist photographs submerged in candle-lit, water-filled jars suspended in midair. The event description had me at 'Bush' so I went to go check it out. To give you a feel for the exhibit, I asked some attendees for their thoughts on specific works and contrasted them with those of the artist Kinga. Here are snippets of those conversations.

Bloody Anus

Photos by the artist

Model: Brooks

What it looked like to me
Nudity and blood from wounds is a really dark mix for me, so this is one of those can't-look-away type situations. Actually if you follow the water bowl to the edge of the couch with your eye it curls into what looks like a shark's mouth, but that probably says more about me than the photo. Maybe I'm sexually afraid of sharks. The meaning? I have no idea. To put this in the queer feminist erotica lens of the event I'd say maybe it's reversing the sexual violence against women by showing the back of a bloody man in a sexual situation. But who knows?

What it looked like to other people
Yves: There's a lot of light play with this one. Whatever light is on him is, I assume, some kind of projection. And then the way it's presented to us now is backlit by a candle. So it plays with all that. But there also could be a stain on the photo or something in the water. Oh, wait, I guess that's blood, I didn't even notice that. That is definitely blood.

What it really means
Kinga (Artist): Thats my partner, and I projected some blood onto their ass. I dunno—I really love pornographic shots of the male body. I enjoy being a spectator of this because it's usually a guy looking at a woman's body in this way, and like, spreading out her butt-cheeks. So for me, it's just this empowering way of looking at a male body. I feel like women don't get to look at men this way that much, because it's usually the dude that's taking the girl from behind, not the other way around. Which is too bad. Hahaha. So it's my little calling to always be aware of the power dynamic in bed and always look for creative ways of redistributing it. It's been an important healing component for me.

Pieta Photo

Models: Guy Hermon & Jamaal Carrington

What it looked like to me
The image feels like the climax of a tragic story, almost like this woman found this guy drowned in a river, tried to revive him, and is presenting his body to the world or something. In the context of queer feminist erotica, you can see the blurring of traditional gender roles, it's black man being cradled by a trans woman. I don't know if there's more to it or if it's just an image that makes you reconsider the norms within which we live.

What it looked like to others
Charles: It feels like it has a lot to do with independence—with men and women and who is controlling what. The guy is almost dead but still manages to be the central object. It makes you think about different types of control—active and passive—and how the latter is sometimes underestimated.

Jesse: I love the concept, just the way that the image is formed through the glass, similar to the way that our norms and our drive are deformed by the content of the image. It's a bit of a shocking image. I think it has to do with the presence and strength of women. It's wild. The aesthetics are what stand out to me. The brown path and the white lady holding the black man—I think it's poetic. I think it speaks to the fact that there are different kinds of strength: there's physical strength but also the strength in perseverance, [the latter of which is] maybe something that women aren't recognized enough for.

What it really means
To me, this is pretty straightforwardly a reference to the Pieta. There's a black Jesus cradled by a trans Mary. Many queer artists have explored Christian symbols, but usually through a white cis-gay man, so I made Mary a transwoman, for a change. It's just pointing out some of the missing elements of this religion, which is very much cis-sexist and white-male-dominant, and in which women are inferior. As a queer woman growing up Catholic in Poland I felt very alienated, so, although my experience is not equivalent to that of trans folks and queers of color, this project is in some ways a response to the body-shaming, self-deprecating attitude that Catholicism brought into my life. The theme I'm working with is queer mythologies. People who hold spiritual power in my photos are queer goddesses, as opposed to gods. I believe in creating spiritual practices and inventing our own rituals that correspond with our personal ethical values, rather than the dominant ones. I see sexuality as a form of spiritual practice as well.

Pipecleaners

Model: Winnie Superhova

What it looked like to me
So this is cool. What strikes me immediately is how strong she looks despite being bound and filled with pipe cleaners. If she were to be saying something it might be, "I'm here. Go fuck yourself if you think I'm any less because of these constraints. Also, there's a lot of pipe cleaners in me." It's a very captivating gaze. The photo is filled with props but the message is all over her face.

What it looked like to others
Sarala: It's really fierce. This one reminds me of a film adaptation of a Shakespeare play. Titus [Andronicus] I think? Basically someone's daughter gets her hands chopped off and gets sticks stuck up her arms and stuck up on a pole. That image will always be stuck in my head after watching that movie. So things like this always remind me of it.

Louis: I just noticed how, [because of] the candles, it's very interactive with people walking by. This one I have no idea what it means. But if i think of it, the unibrow made there and the beads coming down, it seems very horse-like. I see imagery of a whip there, but I have no idea what the intention is.

What it really means
Most of the people I photograph are my close friends, but this one I did with Winnie, a model I didn't know before. So it was interesting to do that with a stranger. It turned out to be the most explicit shoot that I did for the exhibition. Being strangers ended up making it easier to have no inhibitions. I just said I wanted to hold space with her and gave her free range. She told me she wanted to insert things in her holes. For her, playing with pipe cleaners has to do with her artistic research and fascination with objects. She was looking for ways to connect and embody the pipe cleaners—she wanted to explore this embodiment with her mouth and cervix. Winnie is from Hong Kong and decided to wear this Chinese Emperor's headdress that we made together. Many things in this photo are symbols of male power, but are held by a fierce androgynous woman. To me, the image of the pipe cleaners being inserted into the body relates to male violence on female bodies. Also a reference to imposed hygiene and a polished look. With the unibrow, I'm very hair positive and I have a unibrow myself, so I voted to add that. And the plastic in the background is a reference to porn and the problems with it in regards to women, but it also adds a soft poetic quality to the light, so it's a play of contrasts.

Birth of the Goddess

Models: Jamal Carrington, Guy Hermon, and Brooks

What it looked like to me
I'm getting kind of biblical themes from this one, almost like a resurrection. The flowers seem to point towards him being dead but there's a calmness in their faces, like they have faith in him being at peace in whatever state of being he's in. The three of them look like they have a strong bond with the arrangement of their bodies, like they seem very much a unit in front of this apocalyptic scene. So I guess I would take away strength, faith, togetherness and the end of the world from this.

What it looked like to others
Saskya: There's this kind of creepy peacefulness to this photo. The foreground is so focused compared to the background, that the trees almost look like a painting, like this could be on a set. It looks like this guy is getting baptized? It looks religious, maybe with medieval themes. At first, the guy in the water seems the most vulnerable but then you see the muscle strain on the trans woman and the third guy, and the way they're looking down and the power dynamic evens out a bit, so maybe it has something to do with that.

Peter: To me, this raises the idea of tranquility and how fiercely we strive to achieve it, like how that pursuit is never-ending. That's why people work their entire lives. It's the light at the end of the tunnel. And there's this impermanence to it. It can never be a permanent state, and we chase it with six packs of beer or losing ourselves in a book or whatever. But I think in the end you have to be proud of your being and what you represent to get true tranquility, and that's what I see from the people in this photo.

What it really means
When I took this photo, I was thinking about spirituality and how most big religions have masculine gods. I had an idea to create a queer myth with the characters that I would like to worship, where everyone was a femme goddess. For me this photo refers to both the myth of Aphrodite, who was born from the sea foam, as well as to the ritual of baptism or hammam. It carries a feeling of care and support between sisters, or lovers? It implies intimacy but it also leaves ambiguity.

Blue Spaghetti

Model: Meghan Riley

What it looked like to me
This one feels confrontational. I mean, she's right there, looking right at you with these crazy eyes like she's letting out her inner madness. It's definitely sexual. It also almost seems like she's been pulling the spaghetti out of her vagina and started playing with it and eating it, like in some kind of raw protest... maybe of our collective fear of vaginal discharge?

What it looked like to others
Audrey: My eyes are drawn right away to her naked breasts, but then it's funny when I look at the rest of the photograph, her breasts actually become the most normal thing in it. I can't speak for the meaning behind the spaghetti or other props, but to me that one part puts a perspective on the treatment of female body parts, how when they're put in this over-the-top context they become less objectified, less put on display for society in a way.

What it really means
The inspiration came from a Björk photo that I really love where she's vomiting black spaghetti, as well as [the scene with the] witch covering her whole face in lipstick from David Lynch's Wild at Heart. Also food porn—I love food porn. For the background, she's just kind of sitting on a cloud, and the model was presenting her body as like a pinup girl, but exaggerated and over the top to make fun of those stereotypical poses like a female drag queen, and there's a pubic wig and like blue armpit hair. I love hair, I think body hair is super sexy.

Crocodile Vagina

Model: Lynne Dauphinee

What it looked like to me
I've seen a similar photo somewhere. I think this might be inspired by a famous photo with a toothed vagina. What I can say about this is how much my eyes immediately do not want to look at this photo. I think sharp teeth and vaginas are in polar opposite regions of my brain and to see them together short circuits my mind, which I think is the point. It's exploiting this ideal image I have of vaginas as things that don't bite your dick off.

What it looked like to other people
Alice: My first impression is that it is a tongue-in-cheek reference to the male gaze which initially views the female sex as inviting and later on as a dangerous trap. So seeing the vagina as scary and wild is, I feel, a reflection on how female sexuality was and still is narrowed down and misunderstood, as something that needs to be tamed. But the alligator's mouth also symbolizes here an empowerment that comes from the experience of strength and self-determination.

Helen: I think it has to do with how so much is demanded of vaginas to make them palatable, tame even, you know—douching, harshly perfumed soaps, shaving, waxing, sometimes even labiaplasty. And I think underlying all this is the idea that they aren't good enough already—that they're ugly or unruly or scary. But this photograph sort of turns this notion on it's head, you know, rather than presenting vaginas as pretty and presentable, it embraces the wild animalistic nature of vaginas that society works so hard to subdue. And I think the alligator teeth are a play on this psychoanalytic fear of emasculation via castration.

What it really means
So this was the most spontaneous one. I was planning to do the spaghetti shoot with her but she was not into it, she wanted to do something earthy and tribal. I have a bit of a problem with animals in my shoots because one time a snake died in the shoot and I [promised] myself not to ever use animals for anything. Each time someone asks me to bring an animal to the shoot I say, "I don't wanna use such a powerful symbol without permission." But I knew the story of the crocodile head—a friend of mine from New Zealand found this baby crocodile who died young because of sickness, so he used it's dead body to make this powerful artifact. I have a lot of respect for this object and I made a ritual to give gratitude to it. Anyways, the picture is a reference to Vagina Dentata. I find this one very empowering. For me it's a portrait of an angry vagina. Vaginas carry so much pain and are often, I find, abused, and they deserve to show their teeth sometimes. We want to heal, we want sexual healing. And if it's violent that's OK.

Kinga is a Montreal-based Queer photographer from Warsaw, Poland. You can see more of her work here.

Photos of the exhibit taken by Simon Goupil. You can see more of his work here or follow him on Instagram.