Madison Young performing 'Radical Slow' at Grace Exhibition Space (all photos by Mara Catalan, courtesy Grace Exhibition Space)

Madison Young performing ‘Radical Slow’ at Grace Exhibition Space (all photos by Mara Catalan, courtesy Grace Exhibition Space)

Madison Young isn’t the first woman I’ve seen pour honey on her naked body and, owing to certain lifestyle choices I’ve made, I have a feeling she won’t be the last.

Honey and women’s performance art have gone together since even before Karen Finley started screaming, “It’s honey time” and dumping buckets of the stuff over her bare body. Is Young positioning herself as an inheritor of this tradition? Was she paying tribute to Finley? Her solo show on April 15, Radical Slow, at Grace Exhibition Space (GES) in Bushwick was short on details. Upon entering we did see a series of instructions Young had provided the audience, a late-arriving trickle that came to number about 50 people. Silencing cell phones was one. Letting oneself “melt” into the floor was another. Coating our lips with honey and giving a stranger a consensual hug were the last.

Madison Young performing ‘Radical Slow’ at Grace Exhibition Space

As far as I saw, no one followed the instructions. We all waited for Young to enter the circular performance area and do her thing. Sadly, that thing consisted only of a naked and visibly pregnant Young slowly walking, crawling, and squatting on a square piece of paper while coating herself in honey. Eventually she wrote the word “love” in honey on the paper. Occasionally she moaned.

A film crew was on hand to capture the hour-long performance. Fitting, as Young’s persona relies on equal parts self-promotion, utopianism, free love, and naïveté. Her performance career began in 2000 in San Francisco. he had been granted a year-long internship by Antioch College, where Young was a student, to found a feminist art gallery and performance space, Femina Potens. When the year was up, she decided to stay in San Francisco and keep at Femina Potens. To fund the gallery the photogenic redhead turned to bondage modeling. She was already into kinky play with her girlfriend (and modeling for her girlfriend’s friends), who encouraged Young to get paid for it. The modeling turned into appearing in pornographic films produced by, where Young found a niche for herself in the world of BDSM. The press picked up on the wholesome-looking young woman’s narrative about funding an art gallery with anal sex scenes. The phenomenon of Madison Young was launched.

Since then, Young has expanded her repertoire, and she maintains a grueling schedule, traveling around the world advocating for sex positive culture, a movement that positions itself contrary to the straw man of a “sex negative culture.” She runs the Erotic Film School, part of the aim of which, I believe, is to reclaim porn for women. Her memoir, Daddy, was published by Barnacle/Rare Bird in 2014. (Copies of Daddy were available for sale at the performance.) Much of Daddy explains Young’s relationship as submissive to her dominant partner, James Mogul. The two made an episode in Mogul’s porn series, The Training of O. The video, whose teaser features Young gagging on Mogul’s cock, having her vagina whipped, and getting scrubbed down with a pool cleaning brush, is held up as the standard for showing a loving D/s relationship. Young and Mogul live together with their daughter in Arizona. Femina Potens, alas, is no more.

Madison Young performing ‘Radical Slow’ at Grace Exhibition Space

Would Young be performing at Grace were she not a porn star? I don’t think so. Halfway through her piece my mind wandered to the old countercultural rant that American society succeeds best in promoting mediocrity. There are writers more talented than Young who can’t get books published. There are artists with more to say who will not be produced in New York. I will concede that pornography is part of today’s anthropological conception of culture, like TED Talks taco trucks. But it takes no artistic talent, no training, no intelligence to get fucked on camera.

Of course, this is the crux: Young has an agency problem. Her kink persona is built on this idea of consent to be dominated — by the porn industry, by her partner. It’s as Madison Young and not as Tina Butcher (her real name) that she performs. In a performance, without a dom present, Young has nothing at stake. Great performance artists always do.

Still, I would like to see Young succeed. Her mission to create a feminist pornography might be the most important cultural movement of our time. As Rebecca Solnit recently remarked in an essay about misogyny and literature, culture matters. Creating alternatives to traditional porn would be a good thing. The problem is: you can’t control how people see. And you can’t stop those who want to see women being assaulted on film from doing so. Not without laws restricting pornography.

Madison Young performing ‘Radical Slow’ at Grace Exhibition Space

Radical Slow was part of 21st Suffragettes: International Performance Art by Women, the spring season at GES. It runs through May 13 and celebrates the 2001 performance art festival of the same name curated and directed by GES director Jill McDermid. At the Radical Slow performance, McDermid told me that 21st Suffragettes performances have drawn large numbers of men bearing cameras. “A lot of the performers are getting naked,” she said and confessed that the profusion of photographers has caused her to be more proactive with their management. That men should be taking pictures of naked women isn’t surprising. Would women be taking pictures of naked men at a celebration of men’s performance art? Call me old fashioned, but I don’t think so.

21st Suffragettes resumes at Grace Exhibition Space (840 Broadway, second floor, Bushwick, Brooklyn) on April 29 with a performance by Arahmaiani Feisal, and continues through May 13.

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Natalie Axton

Natalie Axton is writing a book about the history of pole dancing. She is the founder and editorial director at Critical Read.

10 replies on “When Honey-Coated Nude Performance Art Loses Its Sting”

  1. RE: “There are writers more talented than Young who can’t get books published. There are artists with more to say who will not be produced in New York.”
    →There are many, many artists more talented that deserve the PR that Hyperallergic can give….

    1. I agree in part. But I think there’s more to this performance’s poor review than negative attention. Mediocrity being called out as such, pointing out a lack of training (formal or otherwise) and why there is no tension in this piece/it doesn’t work/too long/unclear is powerful for more than any single artist. My BFA included a 2 year concentration in experimental theater – and it’s as important to criticize the work that doesn’t work as it is to exalt the ones that do in this genre. Far too often that only happens in the confines of a studio – outside the theater doors between few people or in our heads. Experimental Theater is limited by it’s poor execution more so than it’s limitations or lack of creators being able to get the audience they need. If anyone finds a way…any way, it’s experimental theater. Sometimes this is the biggest problem. Thank you hyperallergic for being so candid.

  2. Frankly, I think I have seen far more than enough performances that consist mostly or solely in “get naked and get covered in some substance”. It seems like everything since Meat Joy that has done this has seemed boring and even a bit trite.

  3. Madison Young’s performance piece looks really dumb, and I agree with the assessment of how it fails as a piece of art. But this review is as much a critique of submissives’ and sex workers’ agency and artistic power as it is of this specific performance by Young. There are plenty of nuanced arguments to be made on the relationship between sexually-informed performance art, kink, and pornography, but the TL;DR of this article is that her bad art is bad because of who she is.
    “But it takes no artistic talent, no training, no intelligence to get fucked on camera.”
    “In a performance, without a dom present, Young has nothing at stake. Great performance artists always do.”
    These are really dehumanizing statements that assume an understanding of interiority of the artist that the author could not possible have. Being a sexual submissive or sex worker has nothing to do with one’s level of intelligence or artistic practice. The author seems really uncomfortable with sex work and this article reads like a slut shamey hit piece.

    1. Please don’t misunderstand the author. If you truly are being honest with yourself, then you would have understood the context of what she said and have accepted it as an accurate assessment.

      1. I’m so embarrassed by my reading comprehension sometimes. Good thing there are mansplainers to set me straight.

  4. Tina B., if you are reading this, I’d like to discuss a business proposal with you on Facebook or Skype.

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