Body, performativity, sexual act... The different representations of sexuality in arts

30.10.2017 – 3:03 pm

Human sexuality is a theme long explored by art in different formats. It’s precisely this mixture of times, geographies and supports that constitute “Histories of sexuality” on exhibit at the São Paulo Museum of Art (MASP) through February 2018.

Visitors under the age of 18 are allowed in the exhibition, since accompanied by parents or responsible. Initially, no one 17 years old or under was admitted in the exhibition. Reclassification rule started with a technical note published by Federal Public Ministry. 

Conceived two years ago, the exhibit opened in the midst of a heated debate, in which the exhibition “Queermuseum – Mappings of the difference in Brazilian art” was canceled in Porto Alegre and strong criticisms were directed at the São Paulo Museum of Modern Art (MAM) for hosting the performance “La Bête”, when Wagner Schwartz performed naked before the public where a child was present. This topic also made headlines around the world in the beginning of October when the sculpture “Domestikator”, by Dutch artist Joep van Lieshout, considered sexually explicit, was removed from the Tuileries Garden at the Louvre (Paris).

“The discussion surrounding sexuality, gender and identity in Brazil is undergoing a paradoxical situation. On one hand, we have advanced in the debate content and in the legislative sphere, but we’ve also seen more hate and intolerance-related speeches. Since art is a field of negotiation, it ends up channeling all this,” says Paulo Miyada, researcher and curator of Instituto Tomie Ohtake. He reflects on aspects that encompass the representation of human sexuality.

(1) Body

“One of the founding problems of art surrounds the body of the artist and its representatives. This is an intrinsic discussion that we understand as art in Western Society,” explains Paulo Miyada. The body is not an exclusive element in the reflection surrounding sexuality, but it’s essential to it.

Divided into nine nuclei, “Histories of sexuality” includes sections such as “Naked body”, which exhibits different moments and formats of the human silhouette. In turn, Frieze, one of the main art fairs in the world, which took place in the beginning of October in London, dedicated the sector “Sex Work: Feminist Art & Radical Politics” to feminist artists who have explored different interpretations of sexuality since the 1960s. The body’s representation was the highlight of the section, like in the work of Polish artist Natalia LL.

(2) Sexuality

“This representation has to do with how each person or social group identifies and builds a place of visibility and of dialogue. This aspect presents discussions, performativities and roles attributed to sexuality in a broader sense. Here, there isn’t necessarily an image of the body,” says Miyada.

The nucleus “Performativity of gender”, at the MASP exhibition, precisely addresses these representations that negotiate with the socially established. The classic performance “Experience #3”, by Flávio de Carvalho, and photo essay “Magnolia with mirror”, by Mexican artist Graciela Iturbide, are examples of this aspect. Games with the language also permeate this element, like in the work of Georgete Melhem, in the “Languages” nucleus of “Histories of sexuality”.

(3) Sexual act

“A very important issue in the representation of human sexuality is the image of the sexual act itself. This is the most problematic part since, in Western Society, it’s relegated to the private or taboo fields. Works can relate with this restriction in different ways – they can cause shock, discomfort or even try to neutralize that sexual act so that it exits that aspect of ‘guilt’ or forbidden,” says Miyada.

The work “Scenes from the interior II”, by Adriana Varejão, caused commotion at the “Queermuseum” exhibition and is an example of this figuration of private and the different manifestations of the sexual act – like the classical work of Japanese artists Keisai Eisen. The works of Varejão and Eisen are part of the “Sexual games” nucleus of the “Histories of sexuality” exhibit. “Domestikator”, by artist Joep van Lieshout, is the key element of the controversy in Paris, and another example of a work that remits to this element.

For Miyada, representation of the sexual act would call for greater care in an exhibit. “Since it’s in the taboo field, it is necessary to take certain precautions,” he says. This reflection makes room so that the body, intrinsic to art, and sexuality, intrinsic to life, can occupy less controlled exhibition spaces.