Interviews

A Performance Artist Chronicles the History of Pornography in the Public Sphere

In her new solo piece, Mette Ingvartsen unravels taboos onstage by reenacting key moments in the history of porn.

Mette Ingvartsen performs “21 Pornographies” (2018) (All photos by Jens Sethzman, courtesy of the artist)

In her new solo piece “21 pornographies,” recently staged at Performance Space New York, the Danish dancer, choreographer, and performance artist Mette Ingvartsen explores the many ways in which pornography has seeped into the public sphere. Performing both nude and clothed on a sparse stage, Ingvartsen simultaneously acts out and narrates moments inspired by what she felt were three crucial moments in the history of porn: the darkness and parody of Marquis de Sade’s 1785 novel 120 Days of Sodom; the legalization of adult “sex comedy” films in Denmark in 1967; and the weight of the sexualized violence and torture that pervades modern warfare. In “21 pornographies,” she seeks to broaden the definition of “pornography,” to draw attention to how the narrative structure of typical porn films — based around repetitive excitement-building and climax — is mirrored in day-to-day consumerism, including forms of media that are typically less overtly sexual.

Since 2003, when she also established her dance company, Ingvartsen has become known for work that questions the representation of the body, the nature of human agency, and the seldom discussed relationship between dance and sexuality. The latter includes her series “The Red Pieces,” to which “21 pornographies” is the most recent addition. This series, performed around the world since 2014, explores the relationship between sexuality, nudity, and the public sphere. It includes pieces like “69 Positions,” in which she places a naked body in the middle of an audience to question the boundaries between public and private space; and “7 Pleasures,” in which 12 performers move together to question the nature of nudity, politics of the body, and sexual practices.

Mette Ingvartsen performs “21 Pornographies” (2018)

Hyperallergic spoke to Ingvartsen about “21 pornographies,” how it studies sexuality through movement, and its influences from Marquis de Sade’s 120 Days of Sodom, war, Susan Sontag, and more.

Elyssa Goodman: What has putting together this piece shown you about the lines between pornography and obscenity?

Mette Ingvartsen: I’ve discovered how power and its abuse are connected to pleasure or desire. That’s been disturbing in working on the piece but also interesting to understand. It puts us into the piece’s topic, the questions around brutality and abuse of power but also their relation to sexuality. One of the last things I got to after doing research were questions around war pornography, which for me is the most extreme place where an interlinkage between power, abuse of power, and sexual abuse, unfortunately, shows itself as complex material. I was thinking about how to stage those questions in a performance that wouldn’t be too literal or obvious, but would also still query how these depictions of violence would occur.

Mette Ingvartsen performs “21 Pornographies” (2018)

EG: Had you not anticipated dealing with these topics at the start?

MI: I knew at the beginning of 21 pornographies that I didn’t want to work on a project that looked at how pornography is these online, mainstream images that are easy to access, but rather on pornography as a way of considering the world. Even a news-produced image or its circulation could have pornographic structure. I was looking at how climax-building was used also in other images, like how television series are built in a relationship between excitation and frustration and do cliffhangers so you want to see the next episode. I started looking at pornography considering structures of tension and how modern effects of capitalism operate a bodily stimulation of affect and desire. It’s very often a desire to buy something. But if you say pornography is everything you can’t make a performance about it because everything is also nothing. I came back to looking at specific moments in pornography’s history.

EG: How did you decide what parts of pornography’s history you wanted to focus on?

MI: I wanted to look more from a historical perspective because pornography was also a written form. What I realized looking at this written form was that it also connected to the imaginary and to fantasy. Theater is all about the imaginary, how you can produce potential worlds through language and actions in space. It was also connected to the text of a Susan Sontag lecture called “On Classical Pornography,” in which she discusses Marquis de Sade’s work as a form of social critique that functions through parody. Marquis de Sade’s 120 Days of Sodom is a reflection on questions of institutions of power, their misuse of power, and how this is related to sexuality. I thought my performance could also be a social critique using humor with something absolutely horrible, so the piece is one of the darkest I’ve ever made.

That’s why the other important moment in history I examined was in Denmark in 1967, after the liberation of the pornographic image. The films made in the 1970s were very light and easy access to sexual experimentation. But they were mostly made by men and still peculiarly objectified women’s bodies. They were also the moment where the pornographic image became commercialized. The naked, sexual body became a product. That was important because that’s a time we’re still in.

The third part of the performance deals more with war pornography. Sexualized torture has existed throughout history. But the circulation and depiction of those images radically changed after soldiers had their own recording devices. Each of these three historical moments are fictionalized in the performance. One is far in the past, one is in the more recent past, and one we are somehow still living but has history despite being clearer today than hundreds of years ago.

Mette Ingvartsen performs “21 Pornographies” (2018)

EG: What was your definition of pornography in assembling the piece?

MI: I’ve called the piece “21 pornographies” because I think our notion of pornography is too narrow. For me it’s about how images operate on our bodies. In conventional pornography that attempts to make you hot and give you an orgasm, this reflection on how the imagery operates isn’t here. I’m trying to create space to see this. I’m also staging how images of the sensual or erotic body are shown, which exposes the power mechanisms at work. I found it interesting to look at how various structures of excitement and frustration perpetuate endless consumption, designed from a physical logic of addiction. You could say with pornography that’s also the case. It’s a certain mental dopamine stimulation that depresses upon deprivation.

EG: What first made you want to experiment with dance and sexuality over a decade ago?

MI: Early on, I was thinking how many dance performances operate through the erotic, sensual, desiring gaze, but often implicitly. I was annoyed that it’s underlying, not outspoken. I thought, what if we make it outspoken? Then there’s an opportunity to start looking at something else. For instance, in 7 Pleasures, there’s one scene where we’re a mass of bodies moving over the space and each other. It’s extremely sensual and explicit because the bodies are naked and the genitals are in the face, but it also appears as this wave of material moving in the space so you have a very strong sensation of looking at movement. By making explicit the sexual and erotic, it can actually almost disappear. I’m interested in how movement operates kinesthetically and what the excess of movement can do when we look at it.

Mette Ingvartsen’s 21 Pornographies ran at Performance Space New York (150 First Avenue, 4th Floor, East Village, Manhattan) from October 3–5, 2018. 

 

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