A couple of weeks ago a bunch of Christian nutjobs staged a big protest outside of Bruce's new show, "Obscenity," in Madrid. Things reached a crescendo the day after the opening, when some asshole threw some sort of homemade explosive through the window (it didn't go off). This is part II of Bruce's Spanish dispatch. Read part I here.
I chose the title of the show, "Obscenity," as a kind of pre-emptive strike—since I figured the exhibit would be considered obscene from the get-go, I thought I might as well embrace it. Here’s my description of “Obscenity” as it appears, more or less, on the La Fresh Gallery website:
As an artist whose work has been routinely confiscated by customs since the 1980s and stamped with the judgment OBSCENITY, LaBruce knows a thing or two about the territory of the taboo, the representation of the unrepresentable, the love that dare not speak its name. As recently as last summer, a shipment of 400 Polaroids that were displayed at gallery Wrong Weather in Porto, Portugal for the exhibition “Polaroid Rage: Survey 2000 – 2010” were confiscated by Canadian customs and summarily deemed to be OBSCENITY and denied entry into the Canadian LaBruce’s own country. Last year, LaBruce’s movie L.A. Zombie was judged to be obscene and banned from the entire continent of Australia. Undaunted, LaBruce continues to produce work that ignores boundaries and defies censorship.
But the photographs in the OBSCENITY show—almost all of them shot last October in Madrid specifically for this exhibition—are not necessarily traditionally pornographic. Obscenity need not be sexually explicit to be obscene, nor does it need to be vulgar, harsh or extreme. OBSCENITY offers a variety of images—some gentle, some romantic, some spiritual, some grotesque—that attempts to refine and redefine the nature of the fetish and the taboo, to sanctify this imagery and position it more closely to godliness. The lives of the saints are full of ecstatic acts of sublimated sexuality that are expressed in the most startlingly sexual and perverse ways. OBSCENITY presents a series of portraits that illustrate this most holy convergence of the sacred and the profane.
I intentionally wrote this description to be a bit cheeky, but I stand behind it. I was also looking at a lot of classical art and Renaissance paintings that depict religious ecstasy, and it struck me how indistinguishable the expressions on the faces of the subjects were from sexual ecstasy. This led me to question why there should be a conflict between sexuality and religion at all. Jesus was probably a sexual being, and he didn’t seem to have any problem hanging out with prostitutes. So what’s the big deal? Part of the outrage seemed to be directed toward my use of the hostia, the Holy Communion wafer, in the work. In a number of the photographs I had the models pose with the round, white biscuits, occasionally colored black, covering their eyes, mouths, and private bits. I intended it as a multi-leveled symbol, representing censorship (when my movies are released in Japan, white dots are placed over the genitals of naked characters), but also the notion that organized religion is often blind to sexuality, trying to ignore or deny its vast significance—see no evil, speak no evil. For me, it also turned the subjects into zombies, slavishly following religious dictums, or blind prophets or high priestesses, peering into the future beyond the restrictions of religion, or prophesying the decline of Western culture. For fundamentalist Catholics, however, the hostia is literally, not metaphorically, the body of Christ, so posing with Christ in your mouth accompanied by a sexually suggestive pose didn’t go over so well. Personally, I thought it was kind of hot.
Sexy girls at the opening. Maria Forque, on the left, was the model who posed as the sexy nun with the Coke can.
The larger point, which was the subtext of the show, is, of course, a critique of the Catholic Church coming from a homosexual artist, taking into consideration that this antiquated institution turns a blind eye to homosexuality, pedophile priest scandals, women’s issues regarding sexuality, women’s control over their own bodies, birth control, feminism (not allowing women to become priests), refusing to promote or distribute condoms in African countries ravaged by AIDS, etc. The photographs did not offend many Spaniards who came to the show—it was packed wall to wall for over three hours—in the least. There is also a strong secular strain and intellectual tradition in Spanish society, so a lot of them expressed their gratitude for the show, its polemical intent, and its stand against censorious conservative elements in the ascendant in their country.
Now to the fall-out of the show. When I arrived in Madrid, I discovered that Mario Vaquerizo, front man of the band the Nancys Rubias, and one half of Mario and Alaska (the musical duo that has a popular reality TV show on MTV Spain), lost his weekly job at the conservative radio station La Codena Copa for posing in “Obscenity.” The main photograph in which he appears with his sexy wife Alaska has them recreating the pose of Michaelangelo’s La Pieta, she as a sexy nun/Madonna cradling him, a tattooed Christ, to her (covered) breast. The image is demure to say the least, so everyone was surprised by the hostile reaction. Mario and Alaska were extremely gracious about the whole affair, attending the opening with camera crew in tow and supporting the show unconditionally. Rossy de Palma, the great fashion icon and Almodovar star, also appeared as a model, which for me was also about the modern idea of the worship of celebrities as the new religious icons. The participation of these hugely popular Spanish stars definitely contributed to the notoriety and controversy surrounding the exhibit. The day after the opening, someone, presumably a religious extremist, smashed a hole in the front window of the gallery and threw a Molotov cocktail-type device through it, which, thank goodness, didn’t detonate. With police swarming all over the gallery and the news going viral, the previously scheduled manifestation took place that evening, where picketers played Christian rock music over loudspeakers and chanted slogans in front of La Fresh. That’s about it. Nothing too extreme, but I have to confess the notion of my first firebomb was a bit of a thrill.
The show was undeniably offensive to some people, but to make the obvious point, there’s a big difference between art and representation on the one hand and committing an actual act of assault or violence on the other. They exist on separate moral planes. A priest molesting an altar boy or a religious fanatic blowing up a gallery and possibly killing someone is not the same as expressing something controversial through art. Please, get a perspective.
Several days after the show, I needed to get my mind off the whole imbroglio, so I essayed a photo shoot with two cute young gay boys in Madrid named Carlos and Joaquin for my friends at Dirt magazine. We shot on the Viaducto de Segovia, the bridge I wrote about on VICE.com two weeks ago that people sometimes jump off to commit suicide. The city has erected a transparent fence to keep people away from the edge, but I got the two boys to crawl between the fence and the bridge railing so I could take some pictures from below (it's a 23 meter drop to the street). I had them take off their shirts and one of them pretended he was trying to jump after a lovers' quarrel, while the other one was on his knees praying, pleading for him to stop. After about ten minutes, we heard the inevitable sirens, and five police cars and two motorcycles pulled up. Apparently 16 people had called the police, possibly thinking they were really trying to jump! So it was a big fracas, but fortunately the cops weren't interested in the photographer. One of the boys had a switchblade knife in his backpack, so they took him to the police station. The other boy and I had a beer and then collected him an hour later at the cop shop. No charges were filed, thank goodness, but they kept his knife! I tried to snap a shot of them with the police, but the hot policeman came over and made me erase it. While the police were questioning the boy with the knife, Carlos came down to me below and said, “They want you, Bruce. They’re taking you to jail. Spain hates you.” Then he laughed. But for a second there, I actually believed him.
Previously - Don't Get Your Rosaries in a Bunch, Madrid - Part I