Paris, 2017, 21 pornographies, Photo: Marc Domage.
Mette Ingvartsen, 21pornographies
October 3 – 5, 2018
New York, NY
In 21 pornographies—Danish choreographer Mette Ingvartsen’s solo show at Performance Space New York—Ingvartsen played an army general who, after shitting on the floor, screamed at a young woman to “EAT IT!” Ingvartsen also played the young woman, kneeling in submission, shoving her fingers down her throat to gag herself. She conjured lavish settings à la the Marquis de Sade in an extended monologue recalling episodes of sexual violence (she eventually toured us through psychedelic sex caves, basements full of dead bodies, and a stark cyborgian future, but Sade received the lengthiest imagining). As she described how one imaginary child was to be ritually punished, Ingvartsen began to undress. Naked, she donned a black hood, evoking Abu Ghraib imagery; she borrowed from ’70s pornography while dancing a dance of seduction; she spoke of bloody soldiers pissing on corpses while she urinated on the floor, then gently wiped her hand in the piss and caressed it over her face; all this against a social backdrop where sex and power have never been more politically central—the day after I saw 21 pornographies, Kavanaugh’s Supreme Court position was confirmed.
“Pornographers,” writes Angela Carter in The Sadeian Woman and the Ideology of Pornography from 1978, “are the enemies of women only because our contemporary ideology of pornography does not encompass the possibility of change.” It’s a bold opening; other critics are tempted to place a period after the first six words. Reconsidering Sade’s literature, Carter suggests that pornography’s failure is not a failure of morality but imagination, something that Sade had in abundance, and which critics of pornography often lack. “Pornography,” Carter continues, “involves an abstraction of human intercourse in which the self is reduced to its formal elements”—exactly the process Ingvartsen employs, herself reduced to formal elements.
During the post-show discussion, Ingvartsen admitted that she had left out queer or more progressive forms of pornography to focus on her central question: “What is it that is political about sexuality? Which to me,” she added, “is obvious.” There’s no ambiguity regarding the sexual politics of 21 pornographies: it invests in pornography as a performance of power. As such, pornography requires three roles: the dominant, the submissive, and the observer for whom the power structure is enacted. Ingvartsen inhabits all three roles; her power play adopts the demeaning and perverse positions sampled from pornographic sources, while describing the action as if she is directing it. Through an appropriation of smut, she grants the historically-objectified individual autonomy over her own objectification.
Ingvartsen’s ideas connect via freeform associative links, like opening separate tabs on her internet browser—as she later explained, “the mind of this piece is a mind you can only have after the Internet,” where pornography has thrived. The work, and the audience, is so steeped in reference that the immediacy of flesh is always thrust into degrees of conceptual separation, making it often banally funny.
Like Sade, Ingvartsen is interested in pornography as parody, and parody as social critique (although the term “parody” lacks the grotesque sting that Sade’s work inflicted). But our Internet minds have been immunized against shock (much as audiences have been immunized against performers pissing on stages), which makes the work of parody difficult. What is the function of social critique when Ingvartsen says herself that the politics here are “obvious”? Can a social critique be said to have changed anything if the response from the audience is only confirmation of what they already know?
Despite the subject matter, 21 pornographies isn’t gratuitous—Ingvartsen’s narration remains dispassionate. This refusal of gratuity actually tempers the horrors of the pornographic; we may be uneasy, but remain comfortable in the beauty of Ingvartsen’s cruel scenes. It’s the same way we abhor the fictional-yet-familiar violence in Hulu’s The Handmaid’s Tale while simultaneously salivating over all that beautiful cinematography. The seduction of the image undermines our outrage, and as Ingvartsen approaches her climax, her grand finale, she inhabits a strikingly beautiful image: spinning naked in a cloud of smoke, holding a staff of light over her head, her face shrouded underneath a black bag while lighting designer Minna Tiikainen’s fluorescents crackle and strobe around her. Ingvartsen’s sexualized nakedness is shattered and obliterated by light.
Ingvartsen once wrote, in response to Yvonne Rainer’s famed “No Manifesto ,” the inevitable counterpart: a “Yes Manifesto.” Where Rainer wrote, “No to seduction of spectator,” Ingvartsen wrote, “Yes to conceptualizing experience, affects and sensation.” Sensation is welcome, but only once conceptualized; the body needs permission from the mind. In one sense, a sexual politics underlines that imperative; the mind is always consenting to the experiences, affects, and sensations of the body. In another sense, there is an authoritarianism over the body, permitting only the “idea” of sensation, while tossing unmediated sensation back to its lowly place in the cultural hierarchy where feeling (and pornography, and dance) belong.
In Angela Carter’s estimation, Sade lost his nerve at the final hurdle in his book Philosophy in the Boudoir. His protagonist Eugénie, who has enacted all manner of perversions, saves the grandest violation for her mother, the Madame de Mistival. Eugénie rapes her mother, then sets a syphilitic on her, then sews up her mother’s vagina with needle and thread. Right at the moment of climax, when pleasure might uncontrollably overtake Madame de Mistival, the mother faints. Sade, Carter writes, couldn’t allow the mother, in such a humiliated state, to come. “If he could have allowed himself to violate the last taboo of all, and allow wretched and abused Madame de Mistival to experience pleasure, then the terms of his vision would be disrupted. Transcendence would have crept in. He might even have to make room for hope.” For how else can satire really transcend and change us unless it reaches the most world-shattering heights?
Ingvartsen’s formality and intelligence grant her autonomy over pornographic material, yet they also force her to examine sex (or power) from a calculated distance. For Ingvartsen, the pornographic, as a tool with which we might radically reimagine our sexualities (and our distributions of power), only reinforces what we know all too well.