Monica Bonvicini, No More #1, 2016, (c) Monica Bonvicini and VG Bild-Kunst. Photo Jens Ziehe, courtesy the artist

In the crossroads of art and porn

Text by Mia Granhøj

On the occasion of the 50-year anniversary of the legalisation of image-based pornography in Denmark, the Art & Porn exhibition at ARoS focuses on the relation between art and pornography. Review by Mia Granhøj

The Sex-Paralysappeal piece from 1936 by surrealist artist Wilhem Freddie is a good example of how art not only can reflect reality but also have the ability to form an ideology. With his art, Freddie was a catalyst for the legalisation of picture pornography in Denmark.
The exhibition Art & Porn is therefore initiated with Freddie’s famous sculpture – a woman’s bust, which has various mounted items and a penis painted on her cheek.
The sculpture was received with great shock in 1936 and was confiscated by the National Police together with other works by the artist. These were later featured in the National Criminal Museum. This incident resulted in a fine of 100 Danish kroner, yet Freddie dramatically chose to spend 10 days in jail instead. Years later Freddie reproduced copies of the forbidden works. The discussions and the court cases, which all followed in the wake of this episode had great influence in making Denmark the first country in the world to legalise image-based pornography in 1969.

Wilhelm Freddie: Sex-paralysappeal, (copy 1961) ©Foto: Moderna Museet_Stockholm.

Pornography in all forms

Pornographic limits have become fluid since 1969, and the boundaries of what is generally accepted as art have likewise been moved considerably. The Art & Porn exhibition attempts to shed a light on how art has contributed to moving the accepted boundaries of society’s changing norms. The exhibition is partly presented in a chronological manner and deals with many aspects of pornography such as sex, art and society, incl. liberation, public pornography, minorities and the distribution of porn. Although the exhibition neither paints itself to be a tribute nor a criticism of pornography, it is clear that most of the works tend to problematize the porn industry and its stereotypical representations of gender and sexuality. In many of the works of the exhibition, there is an intelligent use of pornographic elements and references, where female sexuality is especially presented in a different way than in mainstream pornography and the general media.

Anna Uddenberg, Rich Rose (2017), installation. Courtesy of the artist and Gaga, Mexico City and Los Angeles. Foto: Omar Olguín.

Feminist pornographic representations

As the emancipation of women was underway, art began to be about the body, seen in new and unheard-of ways. Many feminist artists, who in the 60s and 70s worked on reclaiming the female body, are represented at the exhibition. Carolee Schneemann’s poetic, crackling and hyper-experimental 16-mm film Fuses (1964-68) shows explicit sex scenes between Schneemann and her lover seen from a female heterosexual perspective. The exhibition also features Lynda Benglis’ iconic advert, Centerfold (1974), which was originally featured in the art magazine Artforum as a reaction to Benglis being passed over by the magazine. In the photo, Benglis poses naked with a huge dildo. Another work that attempts to represent the female gender and the sexual act in a different way (and feminist way) is Pipilotti Rist’s video Pickelporno (1992). Here the gender differences are almost eradicated as a result of Rist’s camera movement, which makes it difficult to see who is caressing whom. Schneemann, Benglis and Rist represent themselves in an interesting subject/object-position and undermine the traditional role of the man as the powerful initiator and the woman as the passive muse.

Versatile works

Art & Porn also shows works that get deep under one’s skin. The documentary The fall of Communism as seen in Gay Pornography (1998) by William E. Jones is a good example of this. Here Eastern European young men are shown auditioning for an older western porn producer. It reeks of unequal power relations and the participating young men are clearly and significantly affected by the discomfort of the situation. This work is in stark contrast to Katja Bjørn’s beautiful video Gargoyle Room (2016), which shows gentle and soft sex scenes between swingers in a swingers club somewhere in Denmark. The exhibition also features Bjørn Nørgaard and Lene Adler Petersens Kneppemaskiner (1969) and Jeff Koon’s classic photo-series Made in Heaven (1991), which is considered to be the first work to severely breach the gap between porn and art.

Jeff Koons, Wolfman (Close-up), 1991, oil inks on silk screened on canvas.

Astrup Fearnley Collection, Oslo.

Peephole and porn cinema

One of the works, which probably made the biggest impression on me (both bodily and mentally), was Mika Rottenberg’s surrealist video instalment Lips (2019). To see the video, one has to press their eye close up against a small hole between some depicted rich red lips. This peephole situation requires the viewer to enter a voyeur position, which suddenly made me very self-conscious. Behind the red lips is a breathtaking kaleidoscope of bums, tongues, lips and ponytails mixed with absurd colourful squirt. It almost felt like I was about to get hit in the eye with this colour-exploding body-part-orgy.

Mika Rottenberg, Lips (Study #3), 2019, collection of Kaitlyn & Mike Krieger, courtesy the artist and Hauser & Wirth. Installation of Art & Porn, ARoS.

Foto: Anders Sune Berg.

In the exhibition, there is also a small porn cinema, where the audience can approach a touchscreen and choose from nine different art films. The interesting thing about this constellation, however, is that the people who were in the cinema (while I was there myself) did not dare to choose a movie, which resulted in the same movie with Marina Abramović simply playing again and again. The spread of pornography, of course, does not mean that sexual shame has vanished.

Too lax curating

Unfortunately, the exhibition does not really go in depth with an otherwise interesting but also very difficult definition-issue in regards to how far erotic art can go before it is considered to be pornography. When is it about eroticism, sexy art or artsy pornography? Perhaps this is because it no longer makes sense to talk about porn and art as two isolated regimes of representation, which the title of the exhibition also insinuates. It is as if Art & Porn leaves an elusive overall impression despite the otherwise very concrete title. Some of the rooms of the exhibition appear to be too full and some artworks seem directly out of place. A tighter curatorial hold with slightly fewer, yet spot-on works would have been preferable. Simon Fujiwara’s total-installation does not hit the mark. Jesper Fabricius’ workshop restored in a glass case, certainly does not do this either. I also struggle to see how Marina Abramović’s legendary performance Art Must Be Beautiful, Artist Must Be Beautiful (1975) is in any way linked to pornography? In this video, Abramović uses her body as a tool to release herself from social and institutional factors that dictate how art and women should look.

In some of the exhibition rooms, there were also technical issues, which meant that I wasn’t able to see Mike Bouchet’s video installation nor the video work by Valie Export. The former, a gigantic mosaic of porn movies in mini format from 2011, and the latter, a video documenting Valie Export’s famed Touch Cinema from 1970, where Export allowed men to touch her breasts in a box behind a curtain.

Mike Bouchet, Untitled video (2011), edited version, courtesy the artist, Marlborough Contemporary and Galerie Parish Kind. Installation of Art & Porn, ARoS.

Foto: Anders Sune Berg. 

Despite the technical issues and curating which was slightly too loose, Art & Porn is an extremely relevant exhibition with over 40 Danish and international artists whose works point out the broad-spectrum and complex relationship between porn, sex, art and society. Although we currently live in a ‘pornofied’ culture and perceive ourselves as free thinking and liberated people, we still have numerous rules for what is considered to be acceptable and unacceptable behaviour in regards to sexuality. It is in particular women who are subject to guidelines and dogmas that determine how they can allow themselves to behave sexually. Several of the works in the exhibition seem comfortably disturbing in regards to some prevailing structures and mechanisms in the patriarchal society. Many of the exhibition’s artists use their art to work towards a culture where women cannot be shamed for being sexually expressive. The censorship we experience today does not come from the state, but from multinational companies that, among other things, dictate that no female nipples should be visible on social media. There is still a fight to be fought and Art & Porn at ARoS is at least trying to create space for discussion and reflection.


The exhibition was created in a collaboration between ARoS and Kunsthal Charlottenborg. Art & Porn can be seen at ARoS from May 29 to September 8, 2019. The exhibition will then be moved to Kunsthal Charlottenborg, where it can be experienced from October 5 to January 12, 2020.

Participating artists:
Anna Uddenberg, Annie Sprinkle & Beth Stephens, Amalia Ulman, Arthur Køpcke, Betty Tompkins, Biba Fibiger, Bjørn Nørgaard & Lene Adler Petersen, Carolee Schneemann, Gaspar Noé, Cindy Sherman, Elmgreen & Dragset, Hanne Nielsen & Birgit Johnsen, Hans Henrik Lerfeldt, Jeff Burton, Jeff Koons, Jesper Fabricius, Katja Bjørn, Larry Clark, Lawrence Weiner, Linder, Lynda Benglis, Maja Malou Lyse, Marco Brambilla, Marilyn Minter, Marina Abramović, Matthew Barney, Mika Rottenberg, Mike Bouchet, Monica Bonvicini, Per Kirkeby, Peter Land, Pipilotti Rist, Ryan Mcginley, Sam Taylor-Johnson, Sarah Lucas, Simon Fujiwara, Susan Hinnum & Sarah Young, Suzette Gemzøe, Tom of Finland, Ursula Reuter Christiansen, Valie Export, Wilhelm Freddie, William E. Jones, Wolfgang Tillmans.