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Vol. 6, No. 4, 2007

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Alex Waterhouse-Hayward

sex as art as sex


For some, her body is a wonderland; for the artist, it’s both canvas and palette. Her accomplishment is not without precedent. When art was in its infancy, man's first canvas was his body onto which he applied colour and piercings. Jesika Joy goes back to the roots of this original impulse in order to find herself, and pay homage to the dictum that art is the site that truth and beauty invent so they can exist. She makes her feelings towards her sexuality the focus of her production. Does she deserve serious consideration as an artist? Peter Goddard reviews her work, some of which was shown for the occasion of the 2007 Montreal Underground Film Festival.[ed.]



© Jesika JoyIt's just over 40 years since the last great erotic-art shock in town, when the "Eros '65" group show at the Dorothy Cameron Gallery was busted by the police for its sexually charged content. The gallery closed. Cameron's heart was broken. The artists were made famous.

Cops rarely do that sort of thing any more. But their absence shouldn't lessen the sexual sizzle or challenge of tonight's exhibition of new video work by Jesika Joy at the Trinity Square Video gallery.

Forget the show's wordy title, "(Mis)recognizing Desire — Desiring (Mis)recognition." This is a watershed exhibition, raw, ranting, lubricious and too clever by half. It may or may not make Joy's career — now 28, she's also a PhD candidate at York University in social and political thought — but it should go some way to shake off the complacent stupor now found in a lot of Toronto galleries.

Quite simply, Joy is upping the ante on how artists must deal with sex. "Most of my work," she says, "is an aggravated sexual encounter with the viewer." It begins with her revealing her body as the sexual object of desire. She's all mouth and luscious red lips in the 2006 video Untitled (Camera Blow). In Water (2006) she's a cool seductive face found floating just beneath the surface of water in a bathtub. In Subject to Subject (2006) she's a body in a black jacket writhing as a bare foot pushes down on her face and her chest. In Dear God (2006), she's a disembodied voice.

© Jesika Joy

Then there's I Don't Even F-----g Love You (2006), where's she's entirely naked, holding a plucked dead chicken in front her genitals, while she gyrates like a stripper with the last pastie chucked away. The dangling chicken head represents Joy's incursion into the kind of action more likely found in all-male strip clubs. Needless to say, the whole thing is one enormous hoot.

In one sense, Joy is merely the latest in a long line of artists whose body becomes the palette for sexually informed art. Recognizing this, she's framing her work with video pieces from two other women video-makers. One is I'm Not the Girl Who Misses Much (1986), Pipilotti Rist's deftly funny riff on The Beatles' White Album tune, "Happiness Is A Warm Gun." And Quenched, (2003) is Emelie Chhangur's multi-levelled portrait of a young woman shown crouching in some shadows, as her lips are drenched by a geyser of water, its drops soaking her clothes.

Rist, the veteran Swiss-born video artist, and Chhangur, a savvy local curator and artist, shaped their work within the context of art history. (Rist evokes modernist sculpture, Chhangur recalls Renaissance religious iconography.) Not Joy. She's all the history she needs. As she reveals herself as the object of sexual desire, she seeks to control how the viewer gets to enjoy her goodies.

"It's impossible to engage with something that's sexual without involving an interpretation that's also political," she says. "People can desire me and see what I do as pornography. But there are other ways to see me as well.

© Jesika Joy

"But I do think that my work depends of my desirability. That's why I'm feeling a great urgency to produce work for as long as I have the viewer's gaze. I have to do this kind of work now because I'm not going to be as (physically) fit later on. I used to be very sexual. I'd have group sex, or go to clubs and pick up men. Now I'm pretty close to being celibate and that's because of the work. I treat my body as my most important tool. I exercise daily. I try to watch what I eat.

"My work is an extension of how I experience myself in the world. I always carry a video camera around. Subject to Subject occurred to me as I was going over to my friend's house one night. It's very much about a lived experience, based on how I felt at the moment. That's really me moaning in the video. I was sexually excited and afraid at the same time. Much of what I feel in my lived life is very intense in terms of politics and my sexuality.

"What happens in my work happens with control. I lost control of myself in Subject to Subject but not in Camera Blow. I got the idea for it after going to the Metro, the porn theatre on Bloor St. I'd go to distract the men looking at the screen, by getting them to look at me instead."

In the three-minute looped video, the artist's parted lips rhythmically move closer and closer to the camera, gradually envelope the viewer's gaze, while her gaze remains steadfast on your eyes.

"I am servicing you, but I am not just servicing you," she explains. "It also seems I am watching how all of this happens."


This review is reproduced with permission - Torstar Syndication Services.


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