Surrounded by “Sexodrome” signs, catcalls, and lingerie costumes, I entered the Musée de l’Érotisme unsure if I was actually going to museum or instead going to my first encounter with porn. I am pretty sure I received a 2-in-1 package.
The museum definitely displayed porn. Sitting next to a couple around my age holding hands and an old white-haired man, I watched a video of two girls and two guys having sex together until the oldest man orgasmed. Again without realizing what I was getting myself into, I also observed a scrapbook with glued-in pictures of Japanese men and women making love. If that movie and scrapbook were not porn, then I must be more naïve than I thought.
I realize that one could argue the artistic value in these two porn pieces. Film and photography are in fact art forms. Furthermore, the images are … creative… and they definitely led to emotional reactions. After viewing the massive orgy, I felt disgusted and my eyebrows tightened, whereas the couple next to just felt turned on, as evidenced by their thigh rubs and slow kisses. In any case, those two pieces were among my least favorite pieces in the museum, and I found many others much more humorous, intellectually exciting and beautiful.
Some of the pieces of artwork portrayed sex to me in an amusing light. One sculpture, “The Unfuckables” by Thierry Stock, consisted of clear penises with pigs, cork screws, and barbed wires, hinting to me to avoid men who are pigs, men who will screw me over, and men who are either harmful or put up a sharp barrier between themselves and the world. Another sculpture, from 20th century Népal, shows a woman pulling a man’s hair while he pleases himself.
Other pieces of artwork reference strong connotations that one may have with sex. For example, high heels, cakes, and wine glasses are all sexy in my opinion. The museum displays all of these objects in the shapes of penises and vaginas, emphasizing the strong sexual connections that I associate with these things.
The majority of the paintings, sculptures, and photographs portray mutual sexual participation by the woman and the man. However, various artworks demonstrate the sad realities of many sex lives, that of abuse and one-way pleasure. In one photo titled “Abandon,” a skinny black man penetrates an obese white woman who has ropes around her arms and feet trapping her to the bed. The woman’s shackles and facial expression indicate to the viewer that she is not consenting to sexual participation. The title suggests that she will be abandoned after this act is over, and the fact that she is obese interestingly causes the viewer to make a correlation between a woman who is not “ideally” beautiful and sexual abuse.
In many of the artworks, women are displayed as subordinate to men. The men play the role of what art critic and author John Berger would label “typical” men in his essay on art criticism, Ways of Seeing; they are powerful and they are the ones taking action (47). They complete the sexual act not looking at the viewer, while the women just bend over staring at the viewer, inviting the viewer to stare at them as though she was a displayed object. There are a few pieces of artwork that really emphasize the penis as a representation of power. In one photograph, a woman rests her head underneath a penis and prays to it while holding jewels, as if to suggest that the penis would bring wealth.
In the trippiest piece that I saw, “Date of Creation” by Emmanuel Rodoveda, the woman in the photograph is displayed as an object—naked with arms perfectly positioned to show all of her private parts, staring at the viewer and therefore asking to be looked at, with a mask hiding her true identity and jewels in the background. Her nonhuman qualities are further emphasized by the fact the photograph stands upright on a counter, almost as if she is in a display case, and by the wires in front of her that outline the shape of her body. The shadows of the wires fall just next to her breasts and private part, so the viewer is immediately drawn to those areas. In contrast to the modern, objectified woman, a man carved of wood as though he was made in ancient times lies beneath her, his body curved so that the viewer cannot see his penis well. He seems to be pleasing himself. After about ten minutes of analyzing these images against each other, the speakers holding the wires outlining the woman start playing a sound of the woman having an orgasm. It is as if the woman is a modern-day perfected machine that the man operates in order to please himself (to me, the orgasm seems forced in order to satisfy the man’s sexual fantasies).
Because their bodies are made of up projected images of rocks and wood, the women in Joel Simpson’s pieces of artwork initially seem much more naturally and less artificially beautiful than in “Date of Creation.” In “Detached Bark,” peeling bark with a smooth surface underneath is projected over the woman’s body. However, although the image connects the woman with nature, it still displays an imaginary image of a woman. It appears as though her wrinkles, cellulite, and tired skin, are the bark, and underneath is her smooth, more perfect body. She has no head; only her body shows, and thus she is dehumanized and still being displayed. I wonder if it is even possible to have artwork display naked women without seemingly objectifying them.
What amazes me the most is the universality and eternality of love that the museum portrays. Love, represented by sex, has spanned continents and centuries, from the Mochica civilization’s vases with sexual images that people put in tombs in 500AD, to Inca texts, to drums from Bali, to France’s modern-day fountains of a naked man and woman. In the museum, love is displayed in all forms, from bowls, to sculptures, to photographs, to playing cards. Of course, love and sex mean different things to different cultures and even to different people within one culture. In ancient Rome, the meaning of the phallus derives from the Latin word “fascinum” or to “distance bad spirits,” and images were supposed to represent a protector of the household. In Africa, sexual organs were cult objects, and images were to be displayed in religious ceremonies as well as in domestic life. In Japan, sexual images were mostly limited to sexual manuals in order to train the young, and the images of women only included the “ideal” feminine beauty: “white skin, a high face, the paleness of which is heightened by powder, thick eyebrows replaced by several centimeters higher by a thick black line.” In modern religions, sex is seen as the emanation of all evils, whereas in the east, sex represents health and happiness.
Although different cultures represent the sexual act in different ways, there is still a commonality that spans the images. I think that Joel Simpon’s exhibition in the museum best represents this commonality. He visited a 14000-year-old Paleolithic site and projected the images of rock and wood that he obtained from the site onto the bodies of women, alluding to the idea that humans have been similarly using the body for thousands of years. We all continue the cycle of life, and images displaying this eternal cycle seem to celebrate the body as a basis of procreation.