From the catalogue and the exhibit. "'Intimate Encounters' is an exhibition that can, and has, changed lives. For Belinda Mason-Lovering, it has been critical that everyone photographed has been a participant in the process. This is a radical departure from the tradition of photographing disability in which individuals are reduced to subjects of the camera; an example of a disability, rather than a person with unique thoughts and experiences. To present one's own voice, to choose how one is represented, is a life enriching and life changing experience."
"'Intimate Encounters' debunks the myth that a person with a disability has no sexual identity or desire, an assumption that has led to the repression of discussion or expression of sexuality."
'Intimate Encounters' is also groundbreaking in its frank and realistic exploration of sexuality and people with disabilities, for too long unspoken, an almost taboo area. ...."
The small exhibit had some photographs of naked disabled people, sometimes with a partner, sometimes not. The photographs are but a small selection of the series (I actually prefer some of those in the catalogue that were not displayed). Overall, we all found the photographs "nice," "beautiful," "interesting," but we came away underwhelmed. One friend turned to me and asked, "Do you think they're doing us a favour?" "No," I replied, "but I know what you mean."
Another friend observed that the "overly intentionally artistic" feel to the images seemed to produce a consistently "coy" effect; we weren't looking at sex, but at sensuality. And, from a theoretical point of view, it really was a fine example of "first wave" sensuality. The photographs all show the disabled person on his or her own terms. There's no sense of subjectedness, yet I feel, that they err more on the side of, "I'm here, I'm naked, I have sex and sexuality."
The power, presence, and possibility of sensuality IS an important statement to make in our contemporary culture. Bent, for example, has this 2001 comment on the photographs. But I do not think that a whole exhibition dedicated to the same aspect of the same theme is a good idea. The idea that we have sexuality is new and exciting only to the non-disabled (TAB?) world. It is not enough to see aesthetically pleasing things, nor is it sufficient to know that some of the participants felt beautiful for the first time in their lives. When I go to see art, I want to be shocked, provoked, challenged, and changed. I want my comfy, little, prejudicial world to be stretched. Nudity, even aesthetically pleasing nudity or beautiful representations of sexual touch, cannot be the only voice in the conversation.
I wasn't able to raise this last point with Ms. Mason-Lovering herself, but she did say, in response, to another issue that I will raise in a moment, that considers her job well-done if her art changes the mind of one able-bodied person. And that was very much the feel of the work. The disabled people were presented on their own terms, but the work was directed at educating the unsuspecting non-disabled audience. I want Art for ME! I want my mind to be messed with; I want to be tweaked, overwhelmed, drawn in. This was not this exhibition.
Interestingly, Ms. Mason-Lovering's commitment to disabled people's participation was also at the heart of one of the most problematic aspects of the exhibition. Each of the photographs was accompanied by a curious series of labels, identifying some aspect of the bio of the person photographed and describing their disability. A friend and I approached Ms. Mason-Lovering and asked her about this. She said that she had consulted with a disabled friend -- or perhaps it was one of the people photographed? Sorry, I don't remember who, but I do remember that they were disabled. Anyway, this person saw the photographs and said that without a description of the disability of the person, they had no context, no idea of what they were looking at and why it mattered.
I found this extraordinarily problematic. I mean, if the disability is visible, then it's visible. If it is not, then it is not. And that is part of our world. Anyway. The photographed people supplied descriptions of themselves. And that's where my problems began.
X has a Bachelor of ... M. is a .... X. has Quadriplegia (yes, capitalized). G is a writer .... G. has Achondroplasia (yes, capitalized). You get the picture. The person as a life time of achievements, but the disability is the last thing we get to know about them.
I particularly enjoyed this one. Y has Paraplegia. M is an Interior Designer. One is defined by profession, the other by disability. The cynics among us joked about how we are our disabilities. One of us "aspires to CP." Giggle. Yes, there was a consultative process, but the execution seems to lacking.
Ms. Mason-Lovering is to be commended for her commitment to participation and to showing disabled people on their own terms. It's not her fault that her work doesn't much appeal to me. It was clearly important for the people photographed in the process, and the show might appeal to someone else.
So, I direct my critique to the curator of the exhibit -- this is an important distinction a friend raised over dinner. The artist does what s/he does; the curator takes that art and builds an exhibition that rocks the world. So, should that work have been shown, in that context, in that place? How could it have been better supported? What should the curator have known about contemporary disability/sexuality research? What kinds of connections were there to be made with other disability positive, sex positive art?
It is my contention that disability and sexuality research is more complicated, richer, and deeper than the declaration of desire and sexuality. Yes, we need that as a community, but it is only the first step. No, wait, step is the wrong word. It implies process -- first this, then that. Sex and sexuality are clamorous. There are multiple voices, all speaking at the same time. Different perspectives clash and collide. An exhibition cannot only speak in only one voice to one population -- the non disabled in this case. A successful exhibition should reach beyond conventions, stand at the precipice of scholarship, art, and lived experience.
So, to continue Ms. Mason-Lovering's commitment to the spirit of "nothing about us without us," I am including a link to the Museum of Sex's online project tracking sex as it happens in the US. Let's add our voices, perhaps even a link to the upcoming carnival about sex (Zephyr?). It's good to have different kinds of sexualities, practices, approaches etc. to sex. Sexuality is not always about reclaiming our bodies and selves in the face of oppression; learning to feel beautiful in the face of prejudice. Sometimes, sex is just about our bodies. Sometimes, sex is just full-on, hard-on physical and emotional pleasure. We do and are a diversity of things -- and sometimes that means living for ourselves without reference to societal messages. Sometimes it means changing societal messages. Sometimes, it means changing community norms. And sometimes, it doesn't. Sex can just be sex.
(And yeah, I did wear those shoes).
The Museum of Sex invites you to participate in its national project, Mapping Sex in America. Record your personal sex history and become a part of this ongoing archive chronicling Americans' stories of sexual practice and the evolution of America's sexual customs.
Mapping Sex in America takes our private stories and allows us to share them in an environment that encourages our contemplation. What are our boundaries? Prejudices? What turns us on and what offends us? What are the implications in terms of sex education, crime prevention, and disease control?
From the mundane to the passionate to the scandalous and everything in between, these stories have the capacity to captivate us, heal us, and educate us; but perhaps most importantly they connect us in a colorful world heretofore shrouded by the conventions of discretion.
The post contains three images of my red shoes on my bed. The shoes are red leather, with some red suede, and a red velvet ribbon. They are placed on my light green duvet: one foot, two feet, and two feet, crossed.