Porn Again: Under Your Skin at Catalyst Arts

Under Your Skin, the current show at Catalyst Arts, brings together the work of Richard Kern and Annie Sprinkle.  Kern is a New York film-maker and photographer who, as he explained at a talk following the show’s opening, makes his living shooting commercial porn; Annie Sprinkle is a former prostitute and porn star turned film-maker, performance artist, activist and – if you take her seriously here – sexual shaman.

There’s a sign on the stairs warning that it’s X-rated, but if you’re vague enough to wander past Kern’s unframed prints to the back of the gallery, Annie Sprinkle’s “herstory” of porn might still come as a shock, especially if you’re unlucky enough to arrive during the vomit scenes.  The most explicit thing in the exhibition, the film takes a look at porno films over the past 30 years, their occasional pretensions (“She wanted to make a porn film that was like a horror film”) and bad acting.  On the whole, however, its point seems to be the contrast between hardcore material – in all its variety and often featuring Annie Sprinkle herself – and her cheerful, enthusiastic faux-naïve persona as hostess and narrator: “The director told me to look like I hated it and loved it. That was hard!”.  Also featured in the exhibition is Annie Sprinkle’s lesbian Sluts and Goddesses Video Workshop.  This is all corny graphics and weird children’s T.V. sound effects.  It features tongue-in-cheek, new-agey advice on breathing techniques, exercise (the “womb wave”) and choosing the appropriate name  to awaken your inner slut/goddess (“Rainbow Buffalo Cornwoman”).  Other tips include that “flagellation with oak leaves can improve circulation” .

Richard Kern’s photographs are distinctly less glossy.  Discussing his work, Kern explained that he likes his photographs to suggest a narrative, so try reconstructing the narrative behind the one with the girl balancing with her head down a toilet wearing only trainers and pants.  Interestingly, the photographer also suggested that some of the images he finds less satisfactory may have crept across from his more mainstream work, in which case I’m guessing he means the topless hill-walkers or the two girls in the bath.  Not all the girls in Kerns photo’s are undressed or semi-dressed; some are just boring-ish portraits of them having nosebleeds or picking their nose.  None of them is nude in the traditional, voyeuristic sense of the word.

Predictably much of the debate in the talk accompanying this exhibition was taken up with questions of whether Kern’s work was porn or not porn, or whether re-contextualisation in a gallery alters the pornographic effect, and therefore status of a work.  No one asked whether the work was interesting not-porn.  Shows like this are always good because they annoy people, but there can be a certain exhausted knowingness in drinking wine and looking at this kind of stuff.  Annie Sprinkle’s subversive effect, if she has one, might better be appreciated, as it were, in the flesh – apparently in previous performances she’s invited people to view her cervix.  Here she’s funny and silly and kitsch (her playing cards are great) but it’s hard to fight off creeping associations with Eurotrash.  Similarly, something about Kern’s work might, to the cynical, feel like coffee-table stuff for middle class ex-Sonic Youth fans who either can’t reach the top shelf or want to import some ‘edge’ via Taschen. On the other hand, on a re-visit, a nice French woman told me that it was all charming.  Sluts and Goddesses was beautifully filmed  she said– look at the mirror ball – and Kern’s work was empowering. She also made a point of telling me she was going to bring all her friends – so what do I know.