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Every so often, an exhibition comes along that looks at a familiar thing so strangely that the audience, delighted in their confusion, turns toward one another and begins to ask questions.
Such was the case at the opening of After you’re done, an exhibition at Pioneer Works featuring Sarah Sudhoff’s portraits of devices that measure sexual response, and a photo from Jo Broughton’s series of empty porn sets. The photographs of the devices — all used by the Kinsey Institute, a nonprofit dedicated to the scientific study of human sexuality — prompted fervent speculation among the audience. The devices’ comically technical names — “Vaginal Photoplethysmograph II”; “Biothesiometer”; “Mercury-in-rubber Penile Strain Gauge” — gave little clue as to how exactly they worked. The audience was happy to guess. Theories, coupled with complicated hand gestures, passed through the crowd like a game of telephone.
The curators Macushla Robinson and Andrea Klabanova considered titling the show “Lovers of the world unite, but who cleans your dildo?”. Both titles point to sexual activity that is usually seen as aromantic, such as sexual research and pornography shoots, rather than the sex between two romantic partners. In a refreshing twist, Sudhoff and Broughton examine the overlooked labor and roles in these industries: the research subject rather than the neatly finished report; the person who cleans the porn set rather than the film director. Their work is well paired for this exhibition. Neither artist shocks or sensationalizes. Instead, they cultivate a clinical aesthetic that provokes curiosity about a topic likely to engender disgust or nonchalance in another’s hands.
Sudhoff began her Wired series at the Kinsey Institute in 2011. Much of her previous work transforms repositories into accessible archives. In one collection, she photographed stained fabric from trauma scenes that cleanup crews removed and stored in warehouses. In her photographs, the bloodied fabric catalogues the moments just before and after death. Another series looks at the surprising lifecycle of medical biohazard equipment. After being autoclaved, the sterilized, melted syringe and IV bags are incinerated, and the ash is collected and mixed into cement.
It’s unsurprising that Sudhoff was drawn to the Kinsey Institute Collections, one of the largest collections of print materials, photographs, and artifacts relating to sex and gender. In 2010, she visited the institute to document its history. While sitting in a conference room, examining pornography from the late 1800s and rare medical textbooks, a graduate student walked into the room and began to wash a dildo at the sink. Sudhoff was shocked to realize research on human sexual responses was still being conducted. This offered a chance to look at the archive in the making. She returned the next year to photograph the research subjects. When access was pulled, she photographed the research devices instead.
Selections from this series line two of Pioneer Work’s three gallery walls. Half of Sudhoff’s photographs show devices on a flat surface, the camera directly above them, as though the viewer is looking down to grab or clean them. The other devices are captured in full or three-quarter portraits, as though one is walking up to them. The photographs alternate, and as you scan them you toggle between the role of researcher hovering over the device and the participant. The experience of imagining oneself as both, so rapidly, is unsettling in its intimacy.
Broughton’s large photograph, “Nurses,” from her series Empty Porn Sets (1995-2007), takes up the entirety of the exhibit’s third wall. When Broughton was 17, she arranged a work experience through Thurrock College, expecting to be placed with a fashion studio. Instead, she found herself in a porn studio where she worked as a lighting assistant. Later, Broughton took a second job cleaning the porn sets. “It would disgust the average person,” she said, describing the process of cleaning bodily fluids from the sets. “But you started to feel a sort of humanity.” Eventually, she began photographing the empty, used sets.
Looking at “Nurses” feels as though one has walked into a room just after its occupants have left. A hospital bed, with a sky-blue blanket, is at the center of the image. Tubing and a crumpled white coat hang from racks. By the time one notices the ivory dildo left next to a mug, the room is already a set of domestic tasks. The bed must be stripped, the floor swept, the clothes washed and folded.
Broughton could have easily shot scenes aimed to provoke the disgust she knew most people would feel upon cleaning the sets. But disgust pushes the viewer away, and neither Broughton nor Sudhoff indulge in this. In Broughton’s series, the beds are almost always made, and the worst stains obscured. And Sudhoff’s portraits of medical devices look as orderly as school photos. It may be the photographs’ clinical aesthetic that is so effective at pulling the audience in. At least during the opening, the audience leaned in closer and closer, asked each other questions, then turned back to stare at the photographs.
After you’re done continues at Pioneer Works (159 Pioneer Street
Red Hook, Brooklyn) through November 12.