Contemporary Art

Sex and Subversion in the House of the Sleeping Beauties

By Sotheby's
From 14 February to 28 March, S│2 London will present House of the Sleeping Beauties; an exhibition touching upon the concepts of the erotic, the body, surrealism, performance and theatricality in art from the 19th century to the present day, accompanied by a reprint of Yasunari Kawabata’s 1961 novella of the same name. Read on to discover more.

I n Kawabata's novella, House of the Sleeping Beauties, the main protagonist, Old Eguchi, entering the later stage of life, is surrounded by memories and regrets. He is encouraged by a friend to visit a special ‘house’. This house, run by an indifferent madam, seems to guide men in the winter of their life through to a new phase, a stage of accepting and transitioning into death.

Through the experience of sleeping alongside sedated young women, each visitor to the house becomes confronted by the stark contrast of youth and old-age, beauty and approaching death. Through these transformative visits, memories and emotions which have long been buried or seemingly forgotten are forced to the surface. Through his signature economical use of language, Kawabata provides just what is needed to create a world of suggestion and ambiguity, allowing the reader only just enough to insinuate the recesses of Eguchi’s mind. As the story develops, layers and layers of his physiological state are revealed. These hidden aspects of the mind—desire, aggression, fear, hope—are what make Kawabata’s character universal in many ways. There is no ultimate conclusion in the novella, only suggestion of eventuality.

A purposeful looseness is what ties this novella to the current exhibition at S│2 London. Many of the artists in the exhibition defy classification and are not able to be placed within one school of thought or artistic sphere, and this is also what ties them together. Francis Picabia, Joseph Cornell and Marcel Duchamp will be exhibited alongside artists of the sixties and seventies such as Renate Bertlmann, Ulay, Natalia LL, as well as Keith Vaughan, Wally Hedrick, John Tweddle, and Kurt Seligmann who have remained on the edges of mainstream art.

Through exploration of the boundary between the unconscious sleep state and the moment of being woken, Kawabata’s story makes allowances for the perverse and the obscured. Artists Pierre Molinier and Andrew Sherwood shine a light on people’s hidden realities. For Molinier, it was the erotic and fetishistic expressions of his own life. In 1965, the artist began to make autoerotic self-portraits and photomontages in his Bordeaux apartment.

These photographs feature Molinier and occasionally other models dressed in women’s lingerie and engaged in erotic and sadomasochistic acts. The figures in his works are often collaged into vertical or radially symmetrical configurations. With the aid of a wide range of specially made ‘props’, dolls, various prosthetic limbs, stiletto heels, dildos and an occasional confidante, Pierre Molinier used his body as a vehicle for his work.

Andrew Sherwood has documented various countercultural scenes with intimate detail. During the 1960s, he was based in New York and worked with Andy Warhol. During this time, he did a series of portraits of Warhol Superstar Jackie Curtis and of George Harris III (aka Hibiscus) who was part of the San Francisco- based queer performance group The Cockettes. Embracing drag and other experimental practices, The Cockettes staged now legendary midnight musicals at the Palace Theatre, performing jubilant, inclusive and rebellious extravaganzas.

There is a clear sense of gender in Kawabata’s novella, but the typical male/female roles are not necessarily at play. Whilst it seems archaic that the characters visiting these seemingly unconscious and therefore ‘powerless’ women are only men, the men are depicted as weak, frail and unable to perform. Rather than adhere to any normative ideas of gender or sexuality, the works of Renate Bertlmann, Walter Pfeiffer, Friedl Kubelka and ULAY (amongst others in the show), twist and play on traditional notions. In René Ou Renée - Onanie (René Or Renée – Masturbation) from 1977 by Bertlmann, the artist proposes a melding of sexes as evidenced in the title of the work: René and Renée being the male and female forms in the French language of the original late Roman name Renatus, meaning to be born again. Here, in a signature self-portrait, the artist mimes the physical motions of (male) masturbation as a woman, using a linguistic pun to refuse to differentiate between sexes.

Swiss artist Walter Pfeiffer takes a celebratory position when looking at the human body and sexuality. For over thirty years, he has explored the erotic, festive and intimate territories of daily life; and is recognised by the mainstream and underground alike. Walter Pfeiffer’s work pioneers a whole iconography which incorporates the performative aspects of disguise and drag along with portrayals of male sexuality and homoeroticism.

A prevailing characteristic of his work is the way in which such eroticism flirts with a certain delicacy, as flowers and still life imagery feature as key constituents of his aesthetic. German artist ULAY works in a radical methodology, operating at the intersection of photography and the conceptually-oriented approaches of Performance and Body art. In White Mask, he performs for the camera, applying white make up to his face, and through a series of images, depicts the stages of transformation.

Friedl Kubelka has had many monikers: from 1965 to 1969, she studied photography, and began film-making, at the Graphic Instruction and Research Institute in Vienna as Friedl Bondy. In 1978, she married Peter Kubelka, an Austrian filmmaker and theoretician, and changed her name to Friedl Kubelka. She is also known for her architectural photography, fashion photography and friendship with Franz West as his unofficial photographer. In this exhibition, Kubelka’s Pin Up series from the 1970s are presented.

From first glance, these images are unapologetic and it is from this stance that they can be read as taking a feminist stance, confronting the male gaze. However, knowing that they are self-portraits and furthermore, for the consumption of her own lover at the time, the photographs begin to operate on many other levels, seeping into the erotic. It is Kubelka’s own control of the image that makes these works both deeply intimate and unabashedly powerful.

Each visitor is invited to enter multiple reveries, discovering both the familiar and the unknown: House of the Sleeping Beauties features works from twenty-eight artists in a range of media, including paintings, sculptures, drawings, photography and prints. The works are linked by a thread of suggestive eroticism and memory, bound within an all-encompassing dreamlike haze. Each work is immersed in a dusky-blue gallery, teasingly obscured by midnight blue translucent curtain partitions, so that what might ordinarily be tangible is just beyond full comprehension – like remembering a dream.

CLICK HERE to view the full exhibition.

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