In May this year, the Singapore Art Museum (SAM) issued a clarion call for photographs of bare female bottoms – that’s right, rear ends, backsides, derrières, whatever you want to call them. They needed to be submitted by women, and would be compiled for an artwork by Cultural Medallion winner Amanda Heng’s Singirl: Let’s Gather online project.
This local contemporary art equivalent of James Montgomery Flagg’s I Want You poster got everyone butting heads and garnered hundreds of shares on Singapore’s favourite purveyor of local news, Mothership. In response to the usual laments that art is incomprehensible to anyone other than a small group of arty-farts, we decided to sieve through the comments on Mothership’s Facebook page (on a post made on 18 May) to see if we could add anything to the discussion out there on Heng’s controversial request.
If you were upset about the artwork, read on before you get your knickers in a twist, as we attempt to bring up the rear in this fascinating discourse.
Comment #1: “As a woman I feel offended at this. This is not art. What is the difference between these photos and those on the pornographic websites?” — Lee Chin
Mothership commentor Hill Cheong added this pithy quip, “those taking upskirt photos will say it’s art too.”
Funnily enough, Hill might be interested to know that in 2017, the Daily Beast reported a Texas court as actually ruling that upskirt photos could very well be in the nature of art. And on this fairly respectable-looking site, there is a separate section dedicated entirely to ‘upskirt photographs’ under the misleadingly innocuous category of ‘Wall Art.’
So what gives?
We’ll be the first to admit that the lines between pornography and art are not always clear. Multimillion dollar artist Jeff Koons quite literally turned his own sexual encounters with his porn star wife into art pieces, to great commercial and critical acclaim. The works were framed as a statement against the shame and false modesty associated with what’s essentially a normal human function.
Closer to home, Indonesian artist Agus Suwage and Davy Linggar’s 2005 installation Pinkswing Park led to death threats from Muslim extremists, even though the genitals in the work were covered up with white circles.
As STPI Creative Workshop & Gallery puts it, “The installation depicted a male and female model in a fantasy world reminiscent of the Garden of Eden. The figures, nearly nude, surrounded a pink swing placed in the center. Artists in Indonesia constantly fight for freedom of artistic expression, and the media proclaimed Suwage’s work to be sacrilegious towards the story of Adam and Eve, insinuating the couple’s use of the pink swing in erotic and sexual activity. It was also violently protested by the Front Pembela Islam, also known as the Front of the Defenders of Islam, and Suwage was faced with a potential five year jail term for producing “pornography”.”
So yes, in a nutshell, it is quite possible for a work of art to have elements in it that can be construed as pornographic. Academics offer some instruction on the differences between the two, but they are not always conclusive. Lynda Nead in her article, The Female Nude: Pornography, Art and Sexuality offers the view that pornography has always been historically defined in relation to other forms of cultural production i.e. “we know the pornographic.. in terms of what it is not.” The female nude in particular is something which stands at the centre and margins of “high culture.”
Nead goes on, “It is at the centre because within art historical discourse, paintings of the nude are seen as the visual culmination of Renaissance idealism and humanism. This authority is nevertheless always under threat, for the nude also stands at the edge of the art category, where it risks losing its respectability and spilling out and over into the pornographic.”
Sometimes, the distinctions between fine art nudes and pornography can be driven by the medium of expression – paintings which are valued as singular and unique creative products, are accorded a higher status than photographs which can be viewed as ‘low-end’ reproducible products of mass technology. Yet other definitions refer to the subjective reception by the viewer – an artistic female nude might be perceived as a desexualised kind of aesthetic appreciation of the female form, whereas pornography has at its core, the aim of sexual arousal from an entirely commercial point of view. In Peter Webb’s book, The Erotic Art, the distinctions are made between (artistic) eroticism and (pornographic) obscenity – the former being associated with emotions while the latter involves purely sexual acts. Nead further observes that supporters for state intervention on pornography often argue that pornographic representations incite violence against women, whereas presumably, artistic renditions of female nudity are not likely to have the same socially undesirable effects.
To come back to the central question of whether Heng’s art is pornographic, it’s clear that there are a number of ways to approach the question – the tests set out above are just a small selection of the ideas that have been heavily researched in the field. Regardless of which definition one chooses, arguments can be made both ways. One thing that is clear, is that the definitions are often fluid, drawing meaning from the context and time in which the works are made.
Comment #2: “AWARE wants to ban this exhibit” – Sakthi Velu
How then should women respond to a work like Amanda Heng’s? Should it automatically repel anyone who identifies with feminist causes? Does it matter that the artist is herself a woman?
Well, it kind of does.
From one perspective, it’s a question of ownership. If the object is yours and you do with it what you wish, on your terms and with full consent, there is a sense of agency in that act of use. From another perspective, it is possibly unfeminist to use patriarchal means to challenge existing hierarchies – as feminist writer and activist Audre Lorde put it, “the master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house.”
Carmen Winant, in her article Our Bodies, Online takes a closer look at sexually explicit art made by women artists about female bodies and argues that this is not necessarily inconsistent with a feminist worldview that privileges equality between the sexes. She says that feminism can be viewed as a “spectrum of things” and that there as many feminisms as there are women. She contends that women can protest against sexism through a “personal choice of objectification” by taking deliberate control of the “master’s tools” (e.g. porn, Instagram, high-end fashion advertising, lifestyle magazines) to dismantle the “master’s house” (patriarchal expectations of gender). One example that she cites is the practice of Amalia Ulman in her 2014 work Excellences & Perfections, which saw the female artist post hundreds of hypersexual selfies on Instagram to spoof and perform a stereotypical vision of social media sexiness. Winant’s take on this was that the artist “reveled in the very exhibitionism that she sought to critique,” gaining almost 90,000 new followers in the process and an exhibition at the Tate Modern, essentially beating the patriarchy at its own game.
What does AWARE think of Amanda Heng’s work? Kelly Leow, AWARE Communications Manager had this to say:
“We welcome Amanda Heng’s efforts to challenge the image of the ‘Singapore Girl’, a Barbie-like figure whose hyperbolically retrograde, racialised femininity has helped perpetuate all sorts of blatantly sexist and Orientalist takes (like this one from 1990). The stickiness of such tropes, both in popular imagination and in practice – Singapore Airlines until today maintains extremely regulated standards of appearance for their flight attendants – shows how much work it will take for artists and activists to dismantle them.
We do agree with some commenters that the image used to announce the project could have featured a far more diverse range of bottoms (in terms of body type, race, etc.) to more accurately represent the call for ‘all shapes and shades’. However, the criticisms that such an art piece is somehow equivalent to the sort of imagery we see circulated on Telegram and pornography sites – i.e. non-consensually shared nudes – are unfounded. Those comments seem to be based on an inability to interpret context and consent – concepts that are integral to understanding both art and online sexual harassment. Ideas around female artistic agency and the subversion of the male gaze are very complicated; there tends not to be much consensus on them amongst feminists. But one thing that’s for sure is that we need a far wider range of female representations in our culture than are currently available.”
Comment #3: “Reminds me of Pinaree Sanpitak in Singapore 2011” – Anak Sin
Anak here knows their art, that’s for sure, because Pinaree Sanpitak is one regional player whose practice is well known for her focus on women’s bodies, specifically the breast. Her breast stupa works pay homage to the supportive, sacred and nurturing qualities of womanhood while offering a zen-like appreciation of female strength.
She’s not the only Southeast Asian artist who explores these themes. Balinese artist Murni’s childlike, cartoony renditions of sexual violence in flat two-dimensional form, are whimsical but with sinister undertones.
Said the young female collector who purchased the above work (and wished to remain anonymous), “the funny thing about Murni’s works is that conservative people in Bali claimed they were pornographic when she first started making them, but in fact what made them so shocking was that they were painted by a woman – erotic artworks by foreign men were already common in Bali at the time.”
“When you look closely,” she continued, “the sexual images are far from pornographic in the strict sense – in that they were not made to serve the male gaze. Her expressions of sex and the female body were funny, awkward, shameless, even grotesque – and that’s what makes them powerful. The fact that Murni had the gall to paint them when she did, makes a bold statement against the stigma surrounding both a woman’s desire and her freedom to reclaim her own body. This painting to me is the perfect example of that statement – the open vagina shows that she is welcoming the sexual act, and that there is no coercion or domination. To me, the clock symbolises her taking control of how and when she can enjoy sexual acts.”
Coming back to SAM and Amanda Heng, while the museum apologised if offence had been caused by Heng’s work, it nonetheless stood by the artist in its official statement that “(the work) hopes to start conversations on recurring themes of gender perceptions, women’s position in society and feminine beauty standards.”
SAM declined to provide us with a comment in addition to the public statements already issued but perhaps its actions speak louder than any words can. A decade ago, the museum was embroiled in a censorship controversy over Simon Fujiwara’s artwork, which was eventually pulled from the Singapore Biennale 2011 (read more about it here). Fast forward to 2021 and we see firm support expressed for the artist in question.
Comment #4: “Got elephant trunk exhibition for guys?” – Ameer Aljohari
Well Ameer, that’s a rather optimistic framing of the subject, but we take your point. Why not extend the premise to male body parts, in order to make a statement about male identity?
It’s a fair enough point, but the potential counter arguments go something like this: on balance and as a whole, women’s bodies just haven’t been treated the same way as men’s. Women are often subjected to an objectifying, sexualising gaze regardless of whether they want it. Do some women exploit their sexuality to gain favour or an edge in social or work situations? Certainly, they do. But a good number of ladies also have to deal with the unwanted male gaze, and the construction and interpretation of their bodies in ways that are inappropriate. It is entirely possible for both of these states of being to be true. So, while there is nothing to say that men’s privates can’t be on display in art works, because men’s bodies aren’t typically treated or viewed the same way as women’s, there is a different connotation involved when they do emerge.
Thai artist Vasan Sitthiket is one regional player who doesn’t shy away from the naked male form.
In Singapore, Teng Nee Cheong’s nudes, both male and female, have been celebrated for decades, and so have Jimmy Ong’s charcoal works.
More recently, in Jerome Kugan and Yang Zhong Da’s show Strange Bodies: Queer Show 2020, held at Grey Projects, aspects of the naked male form were adapted into “cheeky re-visualisations of slang, insults and queer codes as differently formed bodies.”
So what’s the difference then? Is it the fact that Amanda Heng’s work involves a mere compilation of photographs of ordinary people? Is it a perceived lack of the ‘artist’s hand’ that makes her collection of quotidian female buttocks so potentially distasteful?
Comment #5: “Religious groups coming in 3,2,1…” – Wing
At first blush, aggressively sexual works seem at odds with religious beliefs. However, not all religious art collectors shy away from such works. A pair of established collectors we spoke to (who wished to remain anonymous) offered the view that religious beliefs serve the function of informing the context in which nudity may be viewed:
“Art appeal has always been subjective, and no two pairs of eyes see a piece of art in exactly the same fashion. Some art is provoking, some emotive, some contemplative and some even repulsive to viewers. Personal conviction plays a great part in how we view nudity in art. Our Christian faith sets a clear line between sexual immorality and sexual purity. Lustful thoughts as a result of viewing nudity in any form will lead one to commit a sin and so it takes a maturity and purity of the heart and mind to confront controversial art.”
If you stayed with us to the end of this article, you might be pleased to know that the story is in fact, just beginning! SAM is organising an online talk on 26 June featuring Amanda Heng herself, on the incendiary Singirl: Let’s Gather artwork. Hear from the artist directly, and sign up for the talk here.
Amanda Heng’s Singirl: Let’s Gather is part of Wikicliki: Collecting Habits on an Earth Filled with Smartphones, an exhibition presented by Singapore Art Museum at National Gallery Singapore from 22 Apr to 11 Jul 2021.
If you’re interested in the works of Jimmy Ong, get in touch with FOST Gallery here.
If you’re interested in the works of Vasan Sitthiket, get in touch with Yavuz Gallery here.
Featured image by David Deluvio, via Unsplash.