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Adventures in the skin trade

The opening of A Different View: Artists Address Pornography was an unusually crowded affair, but the exhibition is an invitation to think rather than just look.

A Different View: Artists Address Pornography is admirably ambitious. It is always tricky to shoehorn a lot of artists into one big theme and suggest they are addressing it. And to tackle a theme as touchy as pornography – well, curator Linda Tyler is doubly deserving of praise. Although men are the main producers and consumers of pornographic imagery, the majority of the artists in this serious and substantial exhibition are women. Unfortunately, it is, on the whole, an anticlimax.

Fa’a fafine: In a Manner of a Woman (2004-05) by Shigeyuki Kihara

There are some good bits. Peter Madden’s Fourteen Artefacts from the Museum of Creep (2013) includes paper collages – in one, a photo of a copulating couple is spliced with fragments of a rather toothy tiger – and some tiny plastic skeletons demonstrating different sexual positions. Madden’s technique of cutting up magazine images and putting the fragments together in new configurations may seem facile, but he does it with considerable finesse. His artefacts do not come across as especially creepy, but they are beautiful.

Amelia Hitchcock’s videos are also pleasantly simple. The Muse (2013) restages the Rokeby Venus of 17th-century Spanish painter Diego Velázquez – famously attacked by suffragette Mary Richardson in 1914 – with a reclining male rather than female nude. He appears to be enjoying himself, watching a pornographic video that is too small and blurry for us to appreciate.

What counts as pornographic is somewhat blurry, as reactions to Miley Cyrus and Robin Thicke’s recent shenanigans demonstrate. Where do we draw the line? I am not sure this exhibition has an answer. 1970s-style performance pieces – female artists baring all – seem at odds with the complexity of the issue, and are embarrassingly naive. It is also risky to include a number of young and unproven artists. On the other hand, some of the more established figures don’t look so hot, either. Yvonne Todd, Rohan Wealleans, Judy Darragh – not their best and juiciest by a long stretch. Liz Maw’s paintings feature nudes and sexual organs, and an Esma Kazal photograph has a backdrop of sex toys, but it is unclear how they are addressing pornography. And it is hard to see how the vaguely phallic shapes of Reuben Paterson’s glitter painting have any real connection to the commodification of sex, as the wall label maintains.

The text that accompanies Shigeyuki Kihara’s Fa’a fafine: In a Manner of a Woman (2004-05) is also a bit off. Three photographs show the artist clad first only in a grass skirt, then nude, and thirdly with male genitals visible. The claim the images are therefore “anything but seductive” makes surprising assumptions about the sexual orientation of the viewer.

Kihara does, however, address pornography, and this is also, literally, true of Lauren Lysaght’s Adult Section (2013) – a heartfelt and hard-hitting monologue about the industry’s evils and the excuses people make for it. Unfortunately, Lysaght’s patterned fabrics – a somewhat fraying way of invoking domesticity – aestheticise and negate the words.

But this is one of the difficulties with making art to “address” something. If that is all you are doing, is there any point in separating it from the social context in which it is relevant and confining it to an art gallery, for the benefit of an audience that is already, in the main, well-informed and endowed with a social conscience?

Additionally, long explanatory texts – impeccably researched and informative, although occasionally blandly academic (the female body as “a contested site” and all that) – suggest the art can’t address a political topic without literary support.

Cathy Dressing (2009) by Richard McWhannell

Considering so many of the works deal with tangential issues around sexuality and gender, the non-inclusion of artworks that more explicitly address pornography seems perverse: Fiona Pardington’s bold plus-size photographs taken from old soft-porn magazines; Ian Scott’s Model series, which created an almighty ruckus in Christchurch in 2007; Derek Henderson’s photos of young model Zippora Seven, which tiptoe precariously along the fuzzy line between objectification and celebration of the female form. These kinds of “are-they-aren’t-they?” images would have made a profound and challenging difference to the exhibition.

Instead, Tyler has opted for more abstruse, concept-laden works. I can see her point. The funniest part of the project is it is bound to attract a lot of visitors to the gallery. Certainly, the opening was an abnormally crowded affair. It is clearly part of Tyler’s game to titillate a wider audience with the prospect of porn-as-art. Their heads will droop when they are confronted not with a spectacle of breasts and vaginas but incoherent images that are merely the residue of even more incoherent concepts. The idea is presumably to invite them to think rather than just look. Either way, the exhibition is not quite as stimulating as it could have been.

A DIFFERENT VIEW: ARTISTS ADDRESS PORNOGRAPHY, Gus Fisher Gallery, Auckland, until October 12.

Click here for reviews of Auckland Theatre Company's Lord of the Flies and Centrepoint Theatre's Rewena, and this week's Take Five column.