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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.
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 Kink.com, 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 Kink.com 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.
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.
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.