Rene — Sex, Art and Videotape

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Sex, Art and Videotape
My first thought was, If I’m going to have to sell it, I might as well sell it,” the artist Andrea Fraser said last week, speaking from a downtown studio. Fraser was referring in a starkly literal sense to her work’s medium: a fit 38-year-old brunette in a sexy red V-necked dress, who is in fact herself.
Fraser’s videotape ”Untitled” (2003) was scheduled to go on view at the Friedrich Petzel Gallery in Chelsea on June 10. In it, the artist is seen having sex in what some have characterized coyly as ”every imaginable position,” with an unidentified American collector who paid close to $20,000 to participate in this curious 60-minute work of art.
As ”Untitled” begins, Fraser enters a hotel room, her hair swept fetchingly to one side. The setting is standard-issue Hip Hotel: the videotape was filmed, using a single overhead camera, in a room Fraser identified as being at the Royalton Hotel in Manhattan, owned by Ian Schrager. The artist is carrying two glasses, white wine in her left hand and what looks like a highball in her right. The collector enters, and then begins a filmed seduction whose detailed contractual terms were worked out in advance by the artist’s gallery. Among the requirements for participation in ”Untitled” were that the artist’s potential collaborator be heterosexual, unmarried and, of course, willing to underwrite the transaction. ”All of my work is about what we want from art, what collectors want, what artists want from collectors, what museum audiences want,” Fraser explained. ”By that, I mean what we want not only economically, but in more personal, psychological and affective terms.”
It would be easy to conclude that Fraser’s intellectual apparatus might have cooled the ardor of the most passionate suitor. That it did not may say less about Fraser’s persuasiveness than about the seductive spell that contemporary art-making seems to cast.
For Fraser, ”Untitled” was, she explained, ”not a literalization of what is, in fact, a very old metaphor, that selling art is prostitution,” a point that was made with pithy precision by Baudelaire. ”This is not ‘Indecent Proposal,”’ Fraser added quickly. And it is not — or not quite.
In Adrian Lyne’s notorious (and highly successful) stinker about a billionaire (Robert Redford) who pays for a night with someone else’s wife (Demi Moore), Moore says to Redford, ”You can’t buy people.” He replies: ”That’s a bit naive, Diana. I buy people all the time.”
There may be some Demi Moore naivete operating in Fraser’s work, peering from behind the verbiage of a brand of thinking known as ”institutional critique.” ”Andrea’s work has been about exposing the mechanism of the whole art system,” explained Dan Cameron, senior curator at the New Museum. ”In this case, she’s playing a little bit with what the act really is that takes place between an artist and a collector. It underscores the paradox of ownership and pushes it into a realm that hasn’t been so pointed before.” That may be. But when Fraser remarked that she wanted the transaction underpinning ”Untitled” to be ”normal to the extent that it could be,” she was perhaps forgetting that, in any number of ways, it already is. Article 230 of the New York State penal code refers, quite straightforwardly, to the sort of exchange ”Untitled” immortalizes as prostitution. It is safe to assume that transactions just like it are taking place this very minute in hotel rooms around the world. But those enterprises, unlike Fraser’s, lack the frisson of what the art press tends reflexively to call ”transgressive.”
Far from being the first artist to use her body as a medium for producing art or polemics, Fraser is one in a long — if not in every case distinguished — line of provocateurs. Back in the 1970’s, Carolee Schneemann pulled a paper scroll out of her vagina at a performance, and Hannah Wilke adorned her body with sculptural multiples of vulvas cast in hardened chewing gum. A decade later, the performance artist Karen Finley smeared her naked torso with chocolate syrup and publicly performed acts — using a yam — that are not advisable to mention in these pages. For many years, Annie Sprinkle, a sex worker turned artist, gave performances at which she invited members of the audience to examine her cervix through a speculum.
Stunts designed to set art-world sensibilities aquiver are practically a rite of career passage. Who can forget the stir caused when a buffed-up Jeff Koons transformed sexual acrobatics with his wife at the time, the Italian porn actress Cicciolina, into a highly lucrative series of glass sculptures and photographs? Or when the godfather of transgression, Vito Acconci, in his legendary ”Seedbed, 1972,” secreted himself naked beneath a ramp on the floor of the Sonnabend Gallery in SoHo, muttering obscenities as he . . . well, never mind.
You might have imagined that most people would be inured by now to shock art and accustomed to the notion that works like ”Untitled” are no more morally challenging than an average episode of ”Temptation Island.” But you would be wrong. As soon as Fraser’s show was announced, the tabloids went on high alert. ”Talk about interactive art,” huffed the lead item in The Daily News’s gossip column, later putting the word artwork in scare quotes, lest anyone miss the point.
The oddest thing about all this is that Fraser is both a savvy and a fairly well regarded artist. (A midcareer retrospective of her work, organized by the Kunstverein in Hamburg in the fall of 2003, is currently on view at the Dunkers Kulturhus in Helsingborg, Sweden.) What’s more, she has demonstrated a certain knack for skewering the foibles of the contemporary art world in her pieces, mostly videotapes of performances that hilariously depict her lampooning the bloated lingo of much art critique; the egomaniacal ravings of artists who believe their own fawning press; and the orgiastic cult of museum worshipers.
In her 2001 video, ”Official Welcome,” taped at a private collector’s house, Fraser delivered a monologue that mimicked, as one critic noted, ”the banal comments and effusive words of praise uttered by presenters” during gatherings intended to introduce avant-garde artists to wealthy patrons. Then she gradually stripped to her Gucci thong and high heels and portentously announced: ”I am not a person today. I’m an object in an artwork.” Any resemblance to persons living and working under the name Vanessa Beecroft — who once posed numerous models, some in thongs and Gucci stilettos, some in nothing at all, in the atrium of the Guggenheim in New York — was altogether intentional.
”This is one of the most complicated pieces I’ve ever done,” Fraser confessed to me, laying out her considerable fears for the anonymous collector — that his reputation might be damaged, his feelings hurt, his identity exposed. If Fraser’s emotional engagement tends to compromise a project based on satire and debunking, it also calls up another, older sort of story — that of the hooker with the heart of gold.
Guy Trebay is a reporter for The New York Times.