Sabrina Tarasoff

October 23, 2014
FIAC, Paris
October 23–26, 2014

“Is there sexual innuendo in the artworld?”1 Cady Noland, in response to this question posed by John Waters and Bruce Hainley in Art: A Sex Book (2003), answered with a very prompt: “Yes. ‘Euphemisms.’” According to the infamous artworld absentee, artists and dealers are screwed, and often engaged in “one night stands”: money, artworks, and documentation are tenderly “held onto” by galleries; practices are promiscuous, and, as Noland states, “artists can have ‘performance anxiety’, because art, like sex, can be on demand.” Within the context of a fair, where artworks are arguably in their highest public demand—at least in an economic sense—“performance anxiety” of any kind seems resolutely forbidden. Due to its emphasis on peformativity, the conditions created for the display of art are precisely attuned to the sexuality incited by the market—or more specifically, by consumerism—conflating not only symbolic and capital value in the works themselves, but ensuring the total collapse between financial affairs and personal relationships. What is enacted, by the system and those who participate alike, is a fetishism directed towards artworld professionals and their interactions, rather than towards the works: a promiscuous knowledge exchange encouraged by the increasing amount of discursive platforms integrated into the fair programming. We over-share and over-look, co-opting this neoliberal fair model.

FIAC is no different. Each year, new additions have been made to the program, starting from the Hors-les-Murs outdoor events, to the addition of the (OFF)icielle fair, not to mention the ever-increasing amounts of participating institutions and temporary installations, performances, and other in-situ interventions located around the city. This vast expansion in recent years, although certainly successful in showing off the libidinal intensity (qua power potential) of the French art scene, feels far from being progressively emancipated outside the fair walls as it perhaps intended. Since Foucault’s writing in the first volume of The History of Sexuality (1976), sexual liberation has been socially linked to the rise of the bourgeoisie, and here at FIAC, the fair expansion is another paradoxical example in a long French lineage, which proves that openness does not necessarily equate to creative subversion or progress. Instead, I would argue that the most seductive content comes from inside the fair walls, with the galleries providing attractive, yet subdued displays. Restrictions are erotic, as Tom Burr pointed out in Art: A Sex Book, and it seems that the most prominent exhibitors this year have kept this in mind.

Hauser & Wirth’s commission from Paul McCarthy, Tree (2014), on Place Vendôme, is a laudable example of the paradox inherent to creative subversion within a libidinal economy. Without delving into the already well-publicized details of its controversial erection and subsequent vandalization, what the piece (unintentionally) accomplishes is the exposure of a deep-rooted conservatism in a supposedly “liberated” nation. It makes no pretense of the connection between sexuality and the bourgeoisie, but rather conflates the formal vocabulary of Constantin Brâncuși, sex toys and the Christmas tree in one. The topics poked at—sex and class, highbrow and lowbrow, filth and purity—instrumentalize ambivalence in order to trigger a sense of shame, humility, and perversity, much like a modern-day Gustave Courbet. Thus, the piece paradoxically becomes a witty and exposing euphemism for the sexual repression of an art market that was, and remains, predominantly bourgeois.

Inside the fair, the strongest booths all seem to incite a sense of ambivalence in the viewer—a total lack of sex, a blankness, which resonates as unassuming confidence in both the artists on display and in the works chosen. New York gallery Bortolami’s presentation of Jutta Koether alongside Daniel Buren seems to signal a carefully considered parallel between these two equally subversive artists, who utilize the canonical tenets of painting as a way to systematically deconstruct the institutions that preside over their work. In Koether’s case, the diptych Marriage (2012–13) references Nicolas Poussin’s famous works, the Four Seasons (1664) and Seven Sacraments (1637–40), in elegant, yet sloppy handwriting. The marriage scenes are superimposed with the jagged lines of stock market charts, literally “marrying” art and market in one historical event.

Below the diptych, Koether’s Extreme Unction (2013), installed on the floor, is more visibly disturbing. The reference, again, is to Poussin’s original work, yet Koether’s fluid anointment of black, tapered boards is utterly unsentimental and highly sexualized. Faced with this, Buren’s beach-towel stripes in Peinture acrylique blanche sur tissu rayé blanc et bleu (1972) seem almost perversely innocuous, and totally un-revolutionary; yet next to Koether, his work feels supremely confident—not only as a sure sale, but as a work that can hold its ground four decades after its creation.

Buren’s sense of blankness is partially due to viewers’ familiarity with his artistic style, but also due to the operational nature of the work. With Buren, we cannot consider the paintings but in relation to something else—such as the structural context of the fair. In other cases, as with Hauser & Wirth’s display of Roni Horn’s Portrait of an Image (With Isabelle Huppert) (2005/2013), the facelessness and repetition mirror the leveling of distinctions that fairs are often accused of. Whether intentionally critical or not, it evokes the resignation of individuality within this context in a way that is surprisingly stimulating. Los Angeles-based Kohn Gallery’s “historical booth” further disrupts this flattening of individuality—at least amongst exhibitors—by resisting the demand for youth, instead exhibiting Wallace Berman (1926–1976), Bruce Conner (b. 1933), and Larry Bell (b. 1939). In this particular case, the placement of Berman’s Untitled (Male Ear) (1964–1976) and Bell’s clear, sensory sculptures create strong visual parallelisms with Horn at Hauser & Wirth. At Algus Greenspon’s booth, Torbjørn Rødland’s strangely banal photographs—White Socks and Clogs (2013) and Narrative Statis (2008–13)—stand out by instrumentalizing a quietly commercial language, drawing the viewer in, and creating a strange awareness of one’s complicity with the entire production of capital. At Karma International, Carissa Rodriguez’s It’s Symptomatic / What Would Edith Say (2014), a monumental close-up of a tongue with anecdotal notes inscribed on its surface, seems to support this in a diagrammatic way, pointing out the particular involvement of the body as a participatory force in creating an economy fuelled by desires.

In all of the aforementioned works, from Horn’s nondescript portraits, Rødland’s commercial eroticism, to Rodriguez’s annotated tongue, the body is used as an image which is then oriented towards an ideal; the body, in other words, is co-opted as an object of economic stimulation.

Foucault’s coupling of sexual liberation and the bourgeoisie is perhaps a result of the pervasive exploitation of the body—or life itself—by capital. The two become indistinguishable, particularly in this fair context: as viewers, we unconsciously invest in the production of meaning and thus value, no matter how theoretically enlightened and apparently external to it we may feel. We engage in the process of seduction, one way or another.

In pursuing this notion of sexuality as a euphemism for the working relations in art, I am interested in creating a lexical analogy for the desires and drives that support the socioeconomic structuring of the fair itself. By recognizing such tendencies to “over-sexualize” in a libidinally rampant commercial atmosphere, the most subversive strategies seem to be those that instrumentalize sexual withdrawal. By doing so, they create a visual ambivalence that stimulates desire; however, as the images trigger the libidinal, they simultaneously evoke an operational sense of shame, even abjection—perhaps, one could say, in a way that would have satisfied even Noland herself.


Bruce Hainley and John Waters, Art: A Sex Book. (London: Thames & Hudson, 2003), 195.

Sexuality & Eroticism
Art Market

Sabrina Tarasoff is a curator and writer based in Los Angeles.

October 23, 2014

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