Controversial Sexual Art: A Brief Survey


Controversial feminist artist Betty Tompkins, of ‘70s-era Fuck Paintings fame (extreme close-ups of couples having sex, taken from vintage porn stills) is being celebrated in a new exhibition at FUG (Foundation University Gallery) in New York City. Real Ersatz is on view through October 18 and will feature new work from the artist that continues to explore medium, scale, technology, and more. Tompkins is joined by a number of artists whose works have stirred debates and, in some cases, legal action regarding obscenity and the public. Here are just a few of those creators. Feel free to share your personal favorites, below.

You know your art is controversial when you get sent to a labor camp. Performance artist Cheng Li endured just that after having unsimulated sex with a female performer in front of an audience at the Contemporary Art Exhibition Hall in Beijing. He was sentenced to a camp for one year for “disturbing public order.” Said artist Guo Zhenming of Li’s performance: “He (Cheng) was using his art to criticize the current situation in the art circle, where people seem to lose their principles. It is his way of expressing irony that art today is over-commercialized.”

This is part of a vocal projection that visitors to New York’s Sonnabend Gallery heard in 1971 when they visited Vito Acconci’s performance Seedbed:

I’m doing this with you now . . . you’re in front of me . . . you’re turning around . . . I’m moving toward you . . . leaning toward you. . . . I’m turned to myself: turned onto myself: constant contact with my body (rub my body in order to rub it away, rub something away from it, leave that and move on): masturbating: I have to continue all day—cover the floor with sperm, seed the floor.

Acconci masturbated, hidden below the floor, narrating his sexual fantasies as visitors wandered through the space. From an interview with the artist:

This piece was considered controversial for the time. Can you recall your motives behind it? What were you attempting to convey? VA: It wasn’t about ‘conveying’; it wasn’t that there was a theme, a meaning, that you could phrase in some other way – in writing, say, in talking – and then you demonstrated it in some situation, in some activity. The aim was in the opposite direction: you set up a situation, you performed an action, so that you – and others, the receivers – could see what complex, what mix of meaning and themes might possibly be stirring inside. In the case of Seedbed: I didn’t want to be a point, a target, a focal-point in front of visitors to the gallery – so I would disappear into the architecture of the room, I would become part of the floor – therefore a ramp was built, so that I could be under the floor, under the space where visitors walked – I crawled around this space, it’s highest point was two, two and a half feet high, I crawled around under visitors’ feet — once I had titled the piece Seedbed (a synonym for floor, under current, sub-structure), I knew what my goal had to be: I had to produce seed, the space I was in should become a bed of seed, a field of seed – in order to produce seed, I had to masturbate – in order to masturbate, I had to excite myself. I could hear visitors’ footsteps on top of me, I could build sexual fantasies on those footsteps, those sexual fantasies could keep my activity going, keep my masturbation going – but the visitors had to know what I was doing, so, just as I heard visitors’ footsteps on top of me, they had to hear me under them – so I spoke my fantasies aloud: I came, a visitor might think I was doing it just for her, just for him – my goal of producing seed led to my interaction with visitors and their interaction, like it or not, with me…

Robert Mapplethorpe, photographer and Patti Smith BFF, was at the center of a censorship debate in 1989, thanks in part to this photograph of the artist inserting a bullwhip into his anus while gazing at the camera. It’s “unapologetic representation of autonomous gay male sexuality” drew controversy during his show The Perfect Moment due to the various works’ homoerotic and sexual themes. The images didn’t jibe with the Corcoran Gallery of Art in Washington (one of the hosts on the exhibition tour) and members of Congress. The American Family Association got involved, and a debate about censorship and obscenity laws grew from there.

Photo credit: Kapoor Studio

Anish Kapoor’s Dirty Corner, installed at the Palace of Versailles, was described by the artist as “the vagina of a queen who is taking power.” And that was all it took for the public to vandalize it and deem it reprehensible.

Megumi Igarashi, aka Rokudenashiko, has been arrested twice for her vulva-themed artworks — including a 3D scan of her own vagina that she emailed to supporters of a crowdfunding campaign to build a kayak modeled after, once again, her vagina. “Japan is still a society where those who try to express women’s sexuality are suppressed, while men’s sexuality is overly tolerated,” she has said of her work. Broadly recently sat down with the artist to talk about the incident: “I didn’t think I was doing anything wrong, let alone I’d get arrested.”

Artist Paolo Schmidlin depicted Pope Benedict XVI in drag (Miss Kitty) and took on the Queen of England, making her X-rated and dubbing her Porno Queen. Weirdly enough, the statue was unveiled for a show in Madrid, Spain by King Juan Carlos.

Bodily secretions, condoms, blood, and lingerie littered Tracey Emin’s My Bed. “Well I spent four days in bed. And I was feeling at a very low ebb,” Emin explained of the work. “And, for two of those four days I was asleep and I didn’t wake up. It was about the breakup of a relationship with someone I was really in love with. And it was also about my own sort of desperation; it was very romantic in lots of ways.” Although the installation lacked naked bodies or obvious sex acts, it still proved to be controversial. “We don’t need to see two figures fucking or fighting. With the bed, we can see the used condoms, the stains on the sheets and all the detritus of love and sex,” said Emin.

Actionist art collective Voina (“War” in Russian) hosted an orgy at the Timiryazev State Biological Museum in Moscow called Fuck for the Heir Puppy Bear! (words plastered on a black flag that served as their backdrop). The slogan refers to Dmitry Medvedev, the Prime Minister of Russia whose last name means “of the bears.” Said one member of the event: “This is a portrait of pre-election Russia: everybody fucks each other, and the puppy bear looks at that with an unconcealed scorn.”