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Artists have been making erotica for about as long as they've been making art. There are copulating figures on ancient Greek pottery, raunchy Caravaggios, and an astounding canvas by Courbet called The Origin of the World, which now hangs in the Musée d'Orsay in Paris. Picasso made priapic drawings almost compulsively, and for more recent examples we have Mapplethorpe's notorious X Portfolio and Jeff Koons' explicit paintings of himself and his (now ex-) wife, Cicciolina, engaged in marital pleasures.
I don't think that moving pictures have quite the same double history: Truly pornographic art films and videos are few and far between. There are brazen works by, for example, Carolee Schneemann, but they're not prurient; Jack Smith's brilliant and beautiful Flaming Creatures was banned for obscenity, but by XXX standards it's pretty tame, as are Warhol's Factory films. Only the Viennese Actionists really went all the way, and their work has remained obscure. All in all, there's very little in the way of high-toned smut, at least when it comes to moving pictures—and maybe the politics and aesthetics of motion are the reason why: Mapplethorpe's photos are as graphic as pictures get, but they fit comfortably in a museum. The same kind of work filmed in 16 mm would be a tougher sell. An explicit still image is a nude, but an explicit movie is hard-core.
The seven artists who participated in Destricted, then, were working without a net. Invited by a group of art professionals to make short films with explicit content, they're responding to an assignment without any real precedent. The results, which range from pretty good to brilliant, were collected and screened at a few film festivals earlier this year and then made their official debut this month at the Tate in London. They will eventually be released on DVD, and the whole thing has been successful enough that Destricted 2 is in the works.
It sounds like a base exercise, and it might have turned out that way; but it didn't. In fact, if Destricted proves anything, it's that art is more powerful than porn (and that artists, thankfully, don't take well to assignments), for each of the seven participants simply enlarges his or her own concerns just far enough to include concupiscence. The producers were smart: The artists they chose are powerful and confident enough to emerge from the project with their work intact—which is just to say that, while the sex looks different than it does in adult videos, the art looks pretty much the same as it does in art videos.
Matthew Barney's Hoist involves the creation of an elaborate masturbatory rig, mounted within an enormous, violent-looking machine (it's a 50-ton deforesting vehicle made by Caterpillar). The artist's surrogate is strapped inside, just opposite a drive-shaft coated in Vaseline, and the whole contraption is set in fearsome motion, producing a sort of man-machine frottage. That's one description: Another would include a strange story the artist wants to tell—or perhaps demonstrate, or perhaps inhabit—about an infernal struggle between godly forces, local deities (the film was shot in Salvador, Brazil), and the brute dumb strength of gears and gasoline. In short, it is like much of Barney's work: poetic and athletic, multiple in its meanings, and beautifully made and executed.
Richard Prince, too, ends up making a Richard Prince, by projecting a '70s porn short and then videotaping the screen, and then processing the tape so that the whole thing looks as though it's covered in a layer of sugar crystals. In fact, it's oddly sweet-tempered, this little trip down memory lane; the performers are casual about it all, slightly stoned, grinning softly and moving slowly, as they carry out an ordinary sequence of sex acts, ending, as porn films generally do, with a money shot, though the tempo of the whole makes it seem like an afterthought.
Beyond those two, there's an eccentric dramatization of Balkan myths by Marina Abramovic, a simple tape of a man masturbating in Death Valley by Sam Taylor-Wood, and a pair of shorts that seem to be variations on porn rather than transfigurations of it. And then there's Larry Clark's contribution, which is devastating.
I want to talk about Clark's film (it's called Impaled) at some length, but before I do I should make a fuller-than-usual disclosure. Clark is an old and close friend of mine; in fact, I collaborated with him on the story for his first movie, Kids, and gave it its title. While I'm at it, Richard Prince is an old friend as well. So are Matthew Barney and Neville Wakefield, one of the producers of the film, though I don't know either of them quite as well. If this implies that I'm less than perfectly objective, then so be it.
Still, my enthusiasm for all this work is genuine, and Clark's work in particular strikes me as essential. The setup for Impaled is reality-show simple: The artist interviews a series of young men who want to break into the porn industry, and chooses one. Together, he and the winner interview a series of women who are already porn stars; the kid picks one; and they have sex. The whole thing lasts 38 minutes, and when it's over, you just don't know what to think.
Pornography trades on fantasies of success, of perfect pliancy and perfect performance. No one fumbles, or loses his or her nerve; no one gets bored or tired, or misjudges a partner's tastes or tempo. Of course, that's true of entertainment in general: Whatever you think of porn—and for Destricted's purposes, it doesn't really matter what you think—on this level it's no different than a TV drama, or the ballet. The cops on Law & Order are never at a loss for words, the dancers in SwanLake are never at a loss for their next step, and the men and women in a porn movie are never at a loss for an orgasm.
The difference, of course, is that most of us will never beat down a perp or waltz around an enchanted lake. Some of the kids Clark interviews are harsh and misogynistic, and some are gentle and shy (one worries that he's not well-endowed: "You're fine," Clark reassures him from off-camera). But all of them have been raised on porn: Like a lot of people, they live life through the movies, but their movies are full of sex acts. What was, for generations past, at best a furtive magazine hidden under a mattress, is for them a nonstop video, utterly explicit and ubiquitous as incandescent light. As a result, they've taken the conventions of the genre as givens: Anal sex is standard fare, for example, and so are threesomes, stark forms of dominance and submission, and ejaculating on a woman's face. The women have darker childhood stories to tell, or at least to hint at, but they, too, assume that porn-movie sex is just how it's done. All the performers, male and female, shave their genitalia, because porn stars shave. Impaled is like some licentious modern update of DonQuixote, or MadameBovary, in which ordinary characters indulge in fantastic tales with such abandon that they lose the power to tell the representation from real life, and then act out a tragicomedy that's both harsh and touching.
In large part this is because the kid Clark selects is the most likable of the half-dozen or so he interviews. He's young and skinny, sad-eyed and incapable of hiding his emotions; when the starlets strip and plop down next to him on a lime-green couch, he shrinks defensively. And the woman he chooses is the most likable of the porn stars who audition. She's 40 (he fantasizes about older women) and both aggressively cheerful and a little bit brittle, and she coos over him in a way that is obviously for show but not obviously fake.
Clark's camera catches all of this—the setup, the interviews, and the sex that follows—with a combination of fearlessness and forgiveness. Every flicker of bravado, desire, and discomfort registers, every averted eye, every passing grimace and every small smile. The rhythm of the editing is swift and loose, but Clark leaves nothing out: I have burned in my memory a fleeting shot of the woman kneeling down with a paper towel to help clean up after they're done, as matter-of-factly as she might wipe spilled Coke from a kitchen table.
With Impaled, Clark does to pornography what Cervantes did to tales of chivalry, and Flaubert did to romance-fiction: He knocks the edifice down and then rebuilds it into a more profound version, with a relentlessness that's almost horrifying and an attention to detail that keeps the whole thing human. "I didn't realize it would be like that," the kid says after he's enacted his fantasy, but he sounds more puzzled than rueful. And by the time the film was done, I had to agree with him. I didn't know it would be like that, either.