Artist Mariko Passion sat on the raw wood floor during her performance held as part of LES Gallery Sensei’s group exhibition, “Milk and Night” this September. Passion talked about her life as a sex worker while opening a large can of dried milk. She scooped out handfuls of the creamy white substance, iridescent under the dimmed lights.
Women have had job security in the art world—largely as prostitutes who are subjects for works within the Western canon. Mary Magdalenes in Renaissance paintings may be case one, but there are countless other examples, from symbols of society’s modern transformation in Impressionist artworks to Picasso, Pop Art and on to Jeff Koons. Women artists on the other hand have not had such a secure place in the art world. Passion broke a taboo by speaking directly about her “day job,” giving voice to the very many “Mary’s” historically depicted in paint or marble. Her honest discussion about the commerce of sex triggers a re-examination of the restrictions to agency and full self-definition for all women in the arts.
Handily, the same month of the exhibition and Passion’s performance, the Brooklyn Rail addressed feminism in the arts, with artist and writer Kara L. Rooney as guest critic. She invited twenty-two artists, writers, critics, historians, cultural theoreticians, and curators to reflect on gender disparity. I hoped a reading of the twenty-three essays, including Rooney’s overview, on the current economic status of women artists—prostitutes and professors alike—could help articulate the issues sparked by Passion’s piece. Five esteemed artists and academics many of whom has been active in feminist causes over several decades including Mira Schor, Nancy Princenthal, Nancy Azara, Susan Bee, and Ann McCoy confirmed in their essays that they have witnessed scant progress for women in obtaining benchmarks for artistic respect such as equal representation in galleries, collections and major arts institutions. Micol Hebron’s essay describing her on-going Gallery Tally poster project, which crowd-sources a gender-based census of commercial art galleries’ exhibition programs, backs up their conclusions with hard data. Sales of work by women in the arts currently bring in $0.12 to the dollar compared to men, much less than even the $0.77 to the dollar women earn in other fields. Past strategies and tactics have produced slim results.
In her introductory essay, Rooney asks, “What is it about the art machine that lends itself so conspicuously to the male, white perspective? And how, as women, men, trans, queer, or otherwise self-identifying individuals do we combat current (and often invisible) systems of control in a neo-liberal capitalist art world?”
As she performed Passion deftly wove reference to the exhibition’s title, “Milk and Night” into the materials and narrative of her piece. “Baptizing” herself with the powdered milk, she told the story of her start in the business of selling access to her body for money and drugs.
The show’s title is a phrase from the writings of French philosopher Helene Cixous. One of the co-curators of the show, artist and writer Katie Cercone explained in an interview about the exhibition, “‘Milk and Night’ is a metaphor for poetic border crossers, those that see beyond the fragmented disunity locked into our psyches by colonial imperialism, slavery, sexism, and xenophobia.” Passion crosses borders of propriety and convention in her art challenging inter-twined moral and legal codes. She may at anytime have to pay the price for this: social stigma and/or jail time. Shades of the same slut-shaming attitude directed at Passion exert itself below the radar in one of our most esteemed arts institutions. New York Times critic Martha Schwendener asserts in her essay “After Some Advances, A Backslide,” “If MoMA has showcased merely a handful of women in their sixth-floor contemporary galleries, there’s something wrong with MoMA, not women artists.” Her argument echoes the standard objection to society’s tendency to blame the victim in cases of sexual harassment and rape—or arrest the prostitute and not the john.
Passion reshaped the white mounds in front of her on the floor into parallel lines of would-be cocaine as she spoke about her reasons for working as a prostitute: an available source of income and, more philosophically, a way to “sooth” a working class male population in need.
In Cercone’s essay, “10 Divinations on Hip Hop As Sacred Medicine: Blood Time, Sex Rituals & Ancestral Communion of the Mother Tongue,” she celebrates and reclaims erotic energy as a spiritual and healing force. In the West, this energy is often usurped and commoditized for advertising, entertainment, pornography and prostitution. Cercone proposes, “Today when we address the governing myths and symbols of popular culture—titts and ass, bad bitches and low down dirty dawgs, cougars and lambs, pimps and hoez, mammies and madonnas, thugs, warriors, vixens, kings, and queens—we must consider them in relationship to both ancient, life-giving God and Goddess archetypes as well as to living, historically situated human beings.”
In Passion’s case, she is choosing her profession, rather than being coerced, and she manages the business of her own body. In Rooney’s introductory question, she refers to the “invisibility of systems of control.” The equation of sex for money can have many unspoken, unacknowledged variables. Artist, writer and professor Lisi Raskin’s essay is titled “UPDATING (THE) USES OF THE EROTIC from Georges Bataille and Jean Genet to Audre Lorde and bell hooks.” She looks directly at the intersection of power and the erotic. bell hook’s work is considered by Raskin as an “[invitation] to demarcate existing power structures, asking each of us to take stock of our role in collusion and subjugation, and [map] the coordinates of a space that embraces all bodies within a goal of liberation and transformation.” Ultimately Raskin urges us to think about how to connect erotic power with emotions to rewire our culture’s craving and appetite for pain and suffering.
Passion spoke of the moment in her life when she realized she wanted to make a change to protect herself from dangerous clients and stop using drugs as an emotional escape. She turned to meditation. She has more recently moved away from drugs and works with her clients to help explore their needs and desires through self-reflection, as well as sex. At the close of her performance she led the audience in a meditation on the powers of the heart center.
Writer Laura Raicovich asks us to consider the positive potential of being in darkness—or night—representing the state of not knowing, in “Do I Stand in Darkness or in Light?” Her piece is boosterism for collaboration between diverse “tribes” in a search for a future whose shape has yet to be defined. She hopes we can “reclaim the interdependence that has been leeched out of us and to upend oppression.” Critic Wendy Vogel closes down Raicovich’s wide lens to focus on the molecular level of gender in her essay, “Riding the Fourth Wave in a Changing Sea.” As with Raskin’s discussion of emotion, eroticism and exploitation, Vogel digs deep into our assumptions of what constitutes gender; is it how we act, how we are expected to act or is it hormones and anatomy? It turns out the one immutable hard core service women provide is reproduction, not sex. Vogel proposes that all of the components of gender definition are no longer set, but fluid and changeable. This is the new relativity. She concludes, “As female-identified artists and cultural workers continue to work in a political context where they experience not only a wage and visibility gap and a retrenchment of their reproductive choice, but also a redefinition of feminism’s scope and terms, it’s … vital to embody the fourth wave as they would like to see it.” The case of Passion’s candid and articulate performance about the realities of commerce and the body functions as a raking light for the essays. Rooney hoped that her section in the Rail would collectively offer a space of resistance. Passion inhabits that space using her vulnerability as strength.
(Full disclosure: Cercone and I were two of four curators of “Milk and Night.” She and I also exhibited work in the show and we each have an essay in Rooney’s Guest Critic section of the September 2014 issue of The Brooklyn Rail. Azara showed her work in the exhibition and contributed an essay to Rooney’s section. Rooney exhibited work in “Milk and Night.”)