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  Arts Culture Analysis  
Vol. 8, No. 2, 2009
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Robert J. Lewis
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deconstructing sexual art



In describing an evening of performance art, Mirror columnist Matthew Hays writes: "And then, there’s Joy’s Pig Heart. This is Joy’s exploration of the dual sensations of desire and disgust. She dances with an actual pig heart, rubs it all over her body and then rips it apart, penetrating herself with a part of it."

Reaching for a kleenex, I thought to myself: We have come a long way from Giotto's Adoration of the Magi, but is it art," I asked the very persuasive and obliging Jesika Joy during a midnight interview that took place in her green garden after the Fall.

ARTS & OPINION: Between you and your confessor, do you regard yourself as a legitimate artist? If yes, why? If no, do I presume you’re doing this to make a living? Noting that one should ‘never’ have to apologize for making a living.

JESIKA JOY: I guess this depends upon how one determines legitimacy. My first inclination might have been to say that one’s legitimacy as an artist is based upon the level one attains in their practice and the seriousness with which one pursues their work. Understood in this light I would have to answer both yes and no. I have a tendency to set high standards for myself and so I am left in a position of potentially never fully attaining the status of “artist.” But such thinking can be immobilizing. Instead, I prefer to think about art-making less as a destination and more as a process. In this way, art becomes one of the many means I use to think through my relation to others and the world I inhabit – a thinking through that is in constant dialogue with my academic and spiritual practices as well as my political commitments. I feel most “at home” in my work when I understand it as just another way of doing feminism – a project I have been engaged in since I was 14. When the question legitimacy shifts from external measures of success to the honesty and integrity though which I pursue my work, legitimacy itself becomes a mute point.

ARTS & OPINION: From early Greek sculpture to the present, nudity has been a permanent feature in the visual arts. Do you feel part of this great tradition? And beyond that, do you think you’re evolving it in your own fashion?

JESIKA JOY: I think the nude has operated differently during different artistic periods but when it comes to Modernism I would have to say no – I do not feel I am part of this tradition. I work against it – I am its ugly-beautiful opposition. The Guerrilla Girls, a group of anonymous female artists who wear guerrilla masks to stage political interventions, created a now famous poster where they Photoshopped a guerrilla head on an art historical nude by Ingres with a caption that read: “Less than 3% of the artists in the Met. Museum are women, but 83% of the nudes are female” ( This statistic, updated to 2004, would suggest that 97% of all female nudes in the Met. Museum have been created by men (an unfortunate fact that is similarly replicated in other major galleries). I think it is fair to say then that the female nude in the history of Western art has been a) over-represented and b) over-represented from a specifically male perspective. The female nude proliferated during Modernism but when we remember that many of these representations were produced before women were legally recognized as “persons” and all of them before women secured basic reproductive rights, we must ask what is at stake in these images? What kind of ideologies do they reproduce? Who are their intended audience? How do they function to seduce the viewer? None of this is to discredit the beauty and merit of naked girls (or boys) in the museum but it is to say that nudity in my images operates differently from that of Modernism just as the nudity in Modernism operates differently from that of the early Greeks. My project is aligned with feminist, performance, and body-art traditions – all of which do not content themselves with trying to “capture” the nude as a object from afar. Instead, we become the work itself …you still get to look at your pretty nude but now she’s mouthing off. And you are forced to see her differently.

ARTS & OPINION: Are you suggesting that the feminine nude, from its first appearance, has been in the service of men’s baser instincts? And since men have always been in control of the market place, they’ve been able to set the agenda: getting (paying) women to strip down and be immortalized on canvas?

JESIKA JOY: We might argue that during those times when access to naked females was limited, the posing of men in their place was more in the service of homoeroticism. But to answer your question directly – “yes.” Men have not only set the agenda by paying women (whose economic opportunities have been limited) but through being the ones deciding upon the content of the image. I might add that it is not simply appealing to men’s baser instincts as if sexual representation were an inherent problem. I am concerned with questions of authorship – who gets to “author” whose body and along what terms?

ARTS & OPINION: Is part of your mission to reveal the hypocrisy and naked truth of the male agenda vis-à-vis the nude? They wax intellectual over the artistic merit of the nude but it’s arousal that brings them before the ‘work.’ And what you’re doing, is sticking this fact (tits, ass, vagina) in our faces?

JESIKA JOY: Yes, the critic and art historian do wax poetic but this is not limited to the nude. While the formal properties of a work, its relation to other artistic movements and the socio-economic climate within which it was made are critically important areas of investigation, they do not incite intense affect on their own. It is the emotional ties we form with images that bring us before the work – whether these ties are based in anger, joy or arousal. While Freud would argue that all art-making and viewing is sublimated sexual desire, other psychoanalytic perspectives argue that our feelings result from the unconscious need to incorporate the art object into psychic-selves or to keep it out. Either way, art viewing is a deeply personal process that cannot be understood through the intellect alone. But I am not responding to art theory in my work. I am responding to popular culture. We are saturated in sex and there is something repulsive in its spiritual poverty.

ARTS & OPINION: In other words, you want to make the case that depicted or enacted sex (arousal) can be presented artistically and in some cases, can stand alone as works of art? If yes, how will my response be different if in both cases I’m aroused?

JESIKA JOY: This is a good question – one that I still haven’t found an answer to. I am guessing your asking about the distinction between porn and art or between feminist representations of sexuality and those that reproduce sexist ideology. Really, I think it is impossible to draw concrete lines or argue there is an inherent distinction. Post-structural strategies for reading art have displaced the author and image as sites for meaning production. In other words, the author’s (or artist’s) intention in creating work does not determine the final meaning of the piece nor does the work’s content or form. Meaning is found, rather, in the reading – in the viewer who comes to the work with their own cultural and emotional baggage and accesses what they see. Certain readings become dominant based on their popularity or the cultural capital backing them up. This is to say, artistic intention or content alone cannot be used to distinguish between art and porn. Some argue that the attempt to separate the two is a classist and moralizing project wherein we label what we like as “art” (or erotica) and what we don’t as “porn.” (As a note: I have no problem with moralizing – we live our lives through making value judgments between right and wrong. Refusing to do so is pathological). Others argue that art can be distinguished from porn through the viewer’s contemplation. This reading is closer to my own and considers more carefully how the role of the viewer shifts vis-à-vis its cultural object. One can read art as one reads porn but their discourse would be impoverished compared to the viewer who reads it as something to contemplate. Trusting that she can rely on the covenant between artist and viewer to seriously engage with the work, feminists using sexual imagery play with cultural cues to encourage viewing experiences closer to their intention knowing, however, they do not have full control.

ARTS & OPINION: So let’s segue to your body, which was your first foray into art if I’m not mistaken. I’m thinking of the work where you you’re holding a cigarette in one hand, breasts are squeezed tight in a leather vest, naked legs are wide open, vagina exposed and enclosed by what looks like a complex, multi-coloured abstraction. First of all, what brought about the realization that your art could be more effectively represented on your body compared to conventional canvas? Was this work intended to be viewed live and/or photo only?

JESIKA JOY: In high school I did drawing, painting and sculpture. When I started making art again during my Master’s I was interested in graffiti art and painting. But the use of my own body was immediate as soon as I picked up the video camera. It felt natural and inevitable. I think this is because I was a competitive gymnast as a child then in high school I competed in synchronized swimming. Both sports involve performance – the explicit use of the body in a theatrical way. While I do sometimes miss painting, I can’t imagine I would ever leave body-based performance behind. I enjoy the way the discipline is both intellectually and physically demanding. This feels very genuine to me. While all my work is performative, some of it is designed for live audiences, some for the video camera and others work as performative photographs. (By performative I am referring to implicit or explicit role-play that often involves the body, costume or gesture). It does occasionally happen that I create a live performance which I then recognize would be more effective on camera or decide to adapt a photo shoot to video but the work you are referring to was designed as a still photograph.

ARTS & OPINION: So let’s concentrate on performance body art. First of all, do you feel sexy (aroused) during performance?

JESIKA JOY: I think this question might demonstrate a misreading of my practice. While sexuality and desire are operative in my work so is anger, despair, angst and hope. Any arousal I feel in the creation of work needs to be understood in relation to the politics and other emotions that are being conveyed.

ARTS & OPINION: Can an audience member ask you to position yourself to better view the artwork that you are?

JESIKA JOY: Absolutely! You wouldn’t hesitate to ask a professional ballet dancer to throw more pirouettes in his choreography. Nor would you hesitate to ask a symphony conductor to put more emphasis on her percussion. So what would make you think it is somehow inappropriate to ask a performance artist to position herself differently? This, for me, is the absolute embodiment of respectful audience engagement.

ARTS & OPINION: If during a conventional exhibition, the audience can look at a work from the perspective of his/her choice, does the same hold during your body painting exhibitions?

JESIKA JOY: Most of the time performance art is exhibited in gallery spaces without fixed seating. Viewers are invited to walk around the performance to view it from different perspectives provided they do not interfere.

ARTS & OPINION: Viewers are obviously interested in the sexual aspect of your art, otherwise they would frequent conventional exhibitions. The implication being that the appreciation of art and arousal are compatible. And yet, I suspect that if the Mona Lisa produced erections, it wouldn’t be regarded as a work of art. Based on the feedback you’re getting, have you been able to bridge the great divide?

JESIKA JOY: I often exhibit my performance and video work in traditional exhibition spaces; video festivals, gallery screenings, multi-media festivals and literary nights. In this way, my viewers do frequent conventional exhibitions – this is how they find out about my work. And while the Mona Lisa doesn’t do much for me, Picasso’s blue period gives me a hard on every time. In any case, viewer feedback has taught me a lot about the strengths and shortcomings of my work. Most female artists and intellectuals feel a certain resonance with what I do. I think this is because we often have experience negotiating being seen along terms that are not congruous with our own self-image. (This happens to everyone but it is more accentuated for women, people of colour and the queer community). Female viewers tend to pick up on the double messaging – they see a bloody exposed vagina and read porn criticism, they see a passionate exchange between a bride and a dead goat and read intimacy and sacrifice. Men who haven’t had the same experiences or who aren’t familiar with feminism might instead read sex on the rag and bestiality. Unfortunately, we live in a culture that does more to hone our “skills” for reading pornography than it does our skills for reading contemporary art so this can be frustrating. And I am left wondering if I am doing enough.

ARTS & OPINION: How do you answer detractors who accuse you of playing Andy Warhol art games: He wanted to prove that Americans were the least discriminating art buyers on the planet so he blew up a mass produced – which is the opposite of art – Campbell’s soup wrapper to 10 x the original size and sold it for thousands of dollars – and of course made his point. You’re savvy enough to know that there are a lot of people (men) out there who feel uncomfortable about themselves taking a direct interest in erotica/pornography, so you make it respectable for them by packaging it as art – much like Playboy did in the 50s 60s, mixing serious articles and interviews with naked women. Your comments:

JESIKA JOY: For me, your description of how Warhol’s work operates is incongruent with your comparison of my work to early Playboy. You suggest, and I agree, that Warhol mimicked or played on aspects of popular culture in order to make an artistic and/or political intervention. Making erotica or pornography respectable through the inclusion of serious articles and interviews is not the same thing – it is not an artistic act that exists as an end in itself, as artistic experimentation or political observation. Playboy was interested in profitability. In this way, while my work might share something in common with Warhol’s art games, it is the antithesis early Playboy. As a further comment, I disagree with your position on men being uncomfortable with taking a direct interest in pornography and erotica. To the extent that they are this becomes part of the discourse around consuming pornography rather then being akin to any kind of actual sexual repression (as Michel Foucault might argue). My aim is to encourage discomfort – to trouble the representational violence and heterosexism found in most mainstream heterosexual pornography. By producing seductive work infused with disturbing imagery I hope to render explicit what is in fact disturbing about traditional pornography.

ARTS & OPINION: With the exception of installation, works of art are for sale. When you designate your body as canvas in the service of art, is it for sale? If not, why not? Could I temporarily place the art work that you are in a commercial building or next to my fireplace? If not why not?

JESIKA JOY: With the exception of apples, fruit is for sale. When you designate your apples as oranges, are they for sale?

ARTS & OPINION: What viewer response satisfies you most?

JESIKA JOY: I am most satisfied with a viewer response that does not just recognize the politics that are operative within my practice but that recognizes what else is at stake in the work. These would be interpretive responses that take seriously the existential questions that arise through the images I create – questions concerning the meaning of life, the nature of death as well as spiritual approaches to these matters. I am also interested in viewers who take seriously my play with intimacy – what is the nature of self in relation to other and what might this tell us of love as an ethical principle or social practice? In this way, I am interested in a viewer response that recognizes the sensitivity and emotional vulnerability present in my work by looking past what is perhaps at first most apparent.

For more of Jesika's art and philosophy, visit her website at:, and for a review of her art by Peter Goddard.

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