Until recently, in a tucked-away little public space in Kingsland, artist Bob Jones had a selection of photographs titled I Lay My Pussy Bare on view. The work featured—blown up to A0 size—stylised and almost abstracted close-ups of vulvas. The installation was Jones' response to The Body Laid Bare exhibition currently on show at the Auckland Art Gallery—but, perhaps predictably, it seems someone took offence and ripped her work from the walls. Jones sees the act as systematic of the taboo surrounding this piece of anatomy and an illustration of why her work is necessary.
Now back in Berlin, VICE caught up with Jones on Skype to talk about the ideas behind her work, the male gaze in the Western canon, and artistic activism.
VICE: Hey, so tell me about the ideas behind your work.
Bob Jones: I produced the work before The Body Laid Bare exhibition. When I heard about that exhibition and walked through it and had a good look at it, I was like, 'This is the moment we need to raise the discussion about what we want to show as nudes.' What is our contemporary understanding of nudity? From my perspective vulvas are still taboo and there is this kind of mystification around them. I don't see them often, and if you see them it's [often] in the context of porn, and in mainstream porn they… don't show the diversity of vulvas that exists – they idealise some vulvas over others. And they show vulvas as means of bringing pleasure to men, rather than just being a vulva. I think there's a lot of reduction around vulvas and a lot of taboo. I'm like why? Why the vulva? Breasts and penises are ok, but the vulva? No. This needs to be documented.
And why the name?
Obviously it's not my pussy in all of the photos, but I thought the title of the exhibition in the Auckland Art Gallery The Body Laid Bare is a little bit of a passive action—you know, like laying bare someone else's body and this connects to the male gaze and fetishising others. With I lay my pussy bare what I want as an artist is to give people the platform to show their own bodies in the way they like, or in a way so that they feel a connection to their body. Also I lay my pussy bare because if you photograph other people, you are also making a self portrait as a photographer.
Aesthetically your images are very striking—can you tell me about the importance of aesthetics for you?
I don't think that's a super conscious thing. I think some of [my images] are quite abstract, and that's something I like because I want to blur identities. I want to leave them open because I obviously photograph cis women but also trans people, so that's something that I had in mind. But why the aesthetics? I respect vulvas a lot and for me it's not something clinical or something gross or mystical, it's a body part, the same as a hand.
What particularly about The Body Laid Bare exhibition made you feel you had to respond?
In The Body Laid Bare there are a lot of male gazes, there are a lot of idealised bodies, and there are a lot of males looking at female bodies. My subjects, they are not muses, they are people: that's what I want to emphasise. I think in the art in this exhibition what I miss is diversity. I don't see many fat bodies or queer bodies or people of colour. Also, I'm not so interested any more in seeing the Western artworks over and over again and not art from other perspectives. I'm not against this exhibition – I think it's still interesting to look at these artworks, and they are beautiful artworks, but it's time for a change. We have to have a discussion about how we depict nudity and I want to allow space for diverse naked bodies and not just for some of them.
How do you describe what you've created?
I'm also an activist in a way; I'm also political in my work. I'm interested in questioning body image and gender stereotypes and addressing questions of identity and sexuality. I'm always complicit because I'm always photographing people that share the same perspective, in a way, or that share the same position.
As an outsider looking at Aotearoa, is there anything that strikes you about gender and sexuality in this country?
I'm not telling you guys you are behind schedule or something. I mean, Auckland is a progressive place. I'm based in Berlin but if I go to other places in Germany it would be totally different. Yesterday I was looking at the posters up as advertisements for exhibitions and stuff and I saw so many nudes—I was focused on finding nudes—and almost every poster showed a nude. In Berlin you aren't surprised to see nudity. In Auckland, because that exhibition seemed to be such a big step, I was like, 'Well, then obviously it's quite striking still.' Also, I looked at quite a lot of art galleries around the country when I was travelling and I didn't see so many nudes. What I saw was landscapes or portraits.
Your work was torn down—what do you think that could or might mean in the context of what we've been talking about?
I reckon it was because someone got offended; I don't think it was because someone stole them for their own sake. For me it proves this taboo exists. I mean, they are artworks, but they are body parts that have been stolen and that almost seems a little appropriative. I don't want to be too symbolic, but for me it definitely shows that it's not ok for vulvas to be out there. I really wonder why it's ok to show the other body parts. I don't think these photos are too pornographic and I just would've liked people to comment or tell me what offended them about it. I would like to have that discussion.
VICE is hosting a series of three Open Late nights for The Body Laid Bare: Masterpieces From Tate, a major exhibition on now at Auckland Art Gallery. Our second after dark event is on May 2, featuring Tiny Ruins live, DJ Aaron Yap and entry to the exhibition.
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See more work by Bob Jones here.