Who would have thought that nunsploitation could cause such a ruckus in this day and age? All you have to do is google “sexy nuns” on the internet and you will be confronted with literally thousands of images of the brides of Christ in kinky lingerie and fetish gear, fishnet stockings, and garters. You will find drag queens as nuns, masochistic nuns, dominatrix nuns, whatever your evil heart desires. It’s a well-established genre. I mean, it’s not as if I invented the Catherine Wheel! For those a little more adventurous, a quick perusal of PornTube or XTube will show you porn stars dressed up as priests and nuns doing the dirty deed. That’s the function of porn: a play space where people are allowed to vicariously act out their darkest, most secret and politically incorrect fantasies. It’s probably what allows civilization to move forward without repressing or denying its desires to the point of having them reemerge in some monstrous and much more dangerous form. Porn is good. Porn works. If more priests watched porn, they probably wouldn’t get themselves into so much trouble with altar boys. Just saying.
Nuns wear a specific and instantly identifiable uniform, and this image constitutes an archetype. Archetypes are fair game for representation in art, cinema, popular culture, and even fashion. George A. Romero included zombie nuns in his film Dawn of the Dead. Take a look at the costumes on any given Halloween and you will see innumerable nuns walking the streets—some of them of a lascivious nature. It’s a healthy acting out of what might otherwise be regarded as demonic desires.
Here’s how my new exhibition of all-new photographs, called “Obscenity,” that opened in Madrid last week was described by the conservative campaign group Make Yourself Heard: “Gay-looking angels encouraging lechery, lascivious nuns posing in underwear, reveling with crucifixes or cradling a tattooed Christ between their breasts… this is the new content of the provocative exhibition ‘Obscenity’.” Well, that does generally describe the show, but it’s a little, as Madonna might say, reductive. I’ll get to my own characterization of the show later, but suffice to say there was more complexity to it than that, for those who cared to analyze it—or even see it—for themselves. My favorite condemnation of the show came from The Francisco Franco Foundation, a group that campaigns to preserve the memory of Spain’s former dictator, who branded the exhibition “a virulent and morbid attack on the Catholic religion.” When contacted by AFP to comment, I responded, “How can fascists attempt to assert any sort of moral authority over anything?” Really, people in fascist glass houses shouldn’t throw stones. Or bombs, as the case may be.
I shudder to think what the reaction to “Obscenity” would have been had I included some of the more extreme images I’ve taken recently on the same theme, including a priest looking up toward heaven with an ecstatic expression and come all over his face. This image, which was leaked on the internet without my knowledge, nails the essence of my thesis, albeit in more confrontational terms. There probably would have been seizures, heart attacks, bigger protests, successful bombing attempts… Let’s not even think about it. Maybe I’ll have a show someday entitled “Forbidden Obscenity,” but I may have to have it in a bunker somewhere. You can’t be too careful these days.
La Fresh, the gallery in Madrid where I mounted the show, is fortunately a bit like a bunker itself, nestled as it is in the concrete basement of a building near the Biblioteca Nacional de Espana. The day before the exhibit opened, the owner of the building breezed through to see the photographs and didn’t seem to see what all the fuss was about. Likewise, the two working class ladies employed in the beauty shop above the gallery came in and shrugged their shoulders, bemused. But then again, in my experience beauticians are rarely fanatical religious extremists.
It’s true that Spain, like Canada, the US, the UK, and many other Western countries in the world, are going through, shall we say, to be hopeful, a conservative phase. As we all know, timing is everything, so having a show featuring naughty nuns and perverted priests at this historical moment was bound to create controversy. However, art doesn’t always respond to conservatism by acting out the opposite impulses. When I attended ARCO, the enormous art fair in Madrid last week, most of the work was decidedly and remarkably lacking in political or religious (or sexual) content, leaning more towards abstract and decorative tendencies. There were some exceptions.
An artwork by Spanish artist Eugenio Merino, entitled “Forever Franco,” which generated a lot of controversy consisted of a life-size dummy of the former fascist dictator dressed in his trademark general costume encased like a pop mummy inside a Coke dispenser with a see-through glass door. Several critics pointed out the casual similarity of this sculptural work to a photograph of mine from “Obscenity” of a sexy nun drinking from a Coke can. (In both cases, Coca-Cola is only suggested by color and design; the actual commercial logo is obscured.) It’s a very simple formula, but effective: a statement on the new corporate nature of politics and religion, and the reduction of political or religious elements to pure pop art significance.
Another piece I liked by the same artist consisted of three replicas of the Hollywood Walk of Fame Stars on the floor dedicated to Franco, Hitler, and Stalin. Again, a simple idea, but something, apparently, with the Franco Foundation lurking about, that still needs to be said. I did see some excellent examples of political work by Spanish artists when a friend took me to the beautiful contemporary art gallery La Casa Encendida. Of particular interest were pieces by Daniel Silvo, Juanli Carrion, and Rubio Infante. The latter’s work featured two large photographs of a site where some of the anonymous victims of the brutal Franco regime are buried en masse, illuminated by his own lights both within the photographs and in front of them in the gallery. I’m told that the crimes of the regime have largely been swept under the carpet, but as more mass gravesites are being exhumed, young Spaniards are starting to ask serious questions and become outraged. But this kind of political consciousness was definitely lacking at ARCO, emphasized by the likes of the bland, smug period points of Damien Hirst’s aggressively meaningless, overpriced, and infinitely unoriginal polka dot paintings. Yawn.
Ivan Santo, one of the models, attended the opening dressed as a priest.
This conservative trend in art is more than a little depressing, considering it’s being driven by the same conservatism, reinforced by neo-liberal economic strategies of disaster capitalism, that are currently hitting southern European countries like Greece and Spain particularly hard: extreme austerity measures, slashed wages, dismantled social programs, rampant unemployment, etc. I gather the idea is to keep people in a perpetual state of fear and anxiety, particularly about their fiscal and health security (selling inoffensive, decorative polka dots amounts to peddling art as comfort food), and it’s exactly at this moment when the socially conservative and religious forces move in, taking advantage of this fear in order to assert their moralistic, archaic agendas. Look what’s happening now in the US, with ultraconservative Republican nominee and Catholic demagogue nonpareil Rick Santorum surging in the polls. This sweater-vested Crusader, a creationist who denies the science of evolution and global warming, and, as Bill Maher phrased it, believes that life begins at erection, also looks like the strongest candidate to lead the world straight into the rapture. Antichrist, anyone?
Check back on Monday for Part II of Bruce's Spanish dispatch.