The photographic artist and filmmaker sets out to find the point between the erotic and the pornographic in a new exhibition.
The Office Baroque Gallery in Antwerp is about to launch its latest exhibition both digitally and in the flesh – quite literally, you might say, given the subject matter. Margaret Salmon’s Two will take place as a physical show from December 18th to 20th, and then continue online until the end of January. There are several rarely acknowledged plus points to the Covid age, and one of them is surely the opening up of exhibition space, allowing those unable to visit a gallery to nevertheless enjoy a show that has been curated and sometimes specifically created for that space. While it’s a very different experience, certainly, the online art show has its own appeals – not least of which is the ability to really take in work without the hassle of crowds pushing in front to get their view.
Two is a film and photographic study of couples making love. As such, it is very much a collaborative experience between the artist and the subjects, and the idea was to capture the honesty of lovemaking – the erotic rather than the pornographic. Now, it goes without saying that we raise our eyebrows at that distinction quite often – erotica is, after all, quite often simply pornography that the middle classes admit to watching. But in this case, we can understand the distinction. Even in the most naturalistic porn, there is a degree of artifice, be it in editing or performance. Normal people having normal sex isn’t actually all that sexy an experience to observe a lot of the time.
Salmon’s work features real couples in committed relationships, and sets out to be as authentic as possible. Salmon filmed and photographed as the couples made love, with no direction or pausing; when the 100ft reels of film on the 16mm Bolex ran out, she changed it without saying anything, so the couples simply continued; sometimes, she shot 35mm photographs. In a sense, it was as if she wasn’t really there, and while I suspect that it’s impossible to have sex in front of other people (or even in front of an unmanned camera) without at least some awareness – and with that awareness a certain shifting of what is real – it seems as though these images and this film have captured as close to authenticity as is possible.
Reality is, of course, as much about the perception of the view as anything. I suspect that the choice of 16mm movie film and 35mm stills was a conscious one – this isn’t standard issue equipment after all, and certainly, a handheld 16mm camera would be a more immediately intrusive thing than a video camera. But although video is the height of reality – the ubiquitous format for everything now, be it the flat format of news, amateur porn, reality TV, everyday life and whatever else – there is something about 16mm and its grainy style that seems to represent reality more than reality itself does. In short, even a contrived production on 16mm would somehow seem to be more authentic than HD video, if only because of the fact that we are so used to porn on this format that it would be psychologically hard to separate the two things out.
Interestingly, Salmon’s work (in these still images at least) does one thing that porn is often accused of – it reduces people to body parts, at least in the stills, with no faces, no emotion. But that simply shows how vacuous an accusation that is – sex itself effectively reduces us to a mass of limbs and gasping, sweating intermingled flesh. It always seemed weird that the people who criticised porn as being artificial seemingly wanted to make it even more artificial. Salmon’s art is far from porn – and as someone with a healthy appreciation for the shamelessly pornographic, I think I can say that with some certainty and lack of guile. But it perhaps unconsciously plays with some aspects of the pornographic gaze, the sense of seeing the forbidden and allowing us a voyeuristic eye onto reality – there’s a whole swathe of porn that switches the explicit for the allegedly authentic.
In the end, perhaps it doesn’t really matter – I certainly understand why Salmon’s work is being removed from the pornographic, because we live in a world where that connection will always be used to belittle and dismiss even the best work. Perhaps we should simply see it as sexual art and let everyone decide on categories that make them feel comfortable appreciating it as art rather than smut. That we are still in this world is kind of depressing, frankly, but there we go. In any case, these are remarkable images and the film – which you can watch on request once the physical exhibition is over and the digital display begins – is a provocative and extraordinary piece.
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