Kissing for Art’s Sake

An image from Jedediah Johnson’s The Makeout Project (all images courtesy the artist)

A kiss. Two mouths. Sometimes a tongue. A universal act that can both unite and isolate. Politically, religiously and culturally, a kiss can take many forms. It can express everything from lust to hatred. From mundane to spontaneous, it continuously shocks and surprises people. Specifically, artists are captivated by the kiss.

What is it about kissing that artists are trying to capture? A sensual — private and public —event that is engaged in worldwide. Yet, it seems there is still something magical that artists continue to document.

In Jedediah Johnson’s photo series The Makeout Project (blog), he deconstructs the kiss into the essentials of the act itself — adding, of course, red lipstick, willing participants, and a camera. Johnson’s makeout partners are marked with lipstick and their reactions documented. Describing the inspiration of his project, Johnson told Hyperallergic:

My interest was sparked by an evening I spent in the driveway of a girl named Emily Zeiss back in 1997. That was the time/place/chosen collaborator of my first kiss. I think when I came up with the idea to kiss people for art I was hoping that my make out sessions with subjects would be as exhilarating as that first kiss and, in fact, every other kiss I’d experienced.


The emotion on the participants’ faces move from joy to discomfort as they stare into Johnson’s lens. His series feels human, funny, and a bit odd. What is most striking about Johnson’s series is his blunt, yet ingenious approach to capture the kiss. Straying from Tino Seghal’s invisible kissing act, Johnson brands his companions, leaving evidence of the act, and inviting the viewer to piece the story together.

Johnson’s project has had mixed reviews with comments ranging from delightful to exploitative. In response to his critics Johnson admits: “Nobody is wrong. Photography is inherently exploitive as is human intimacy.”

There appears to be something less exhibitionist about Johnson’s work in comparison to Seghal’s “Kiss” or British fashion photographer Rankin’s Snog series. Unlike Seghal and Rankin, whose work dances in between private and public, Johnson’s red lipstick beckons the viewer to acknowledge the presence of his kiss. His work relies on the evidence of the kiss, rather than a performance of the visceral act of kissing. His series is slightly more demure, yet still visually arousing.


Simply showing people kiss is not enough for contemporary artists. Fluctuating from paintings to sculptures to performances to tubes of red lipstick, it seems that contemporary art is bent on embodying the kiss. Johnson comments on contemporary art’s kiss:

That common experience of kissing and its nearly unbreakable connection to an emotional response is probably why several artists are using kissing in their work … When people are kissed or they see other people kissing there is a moment when their frontal lobes shut down, the limbic system kicks in, and they just feel their emotions. They get embarrassed. The get aroused. Sometimes they even get angry. The important thing is that they feel. That’s art. 

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