As tends to be the case with the Museum of Sex, the current exhibitions offer a hit-and-miss experience. The relatively tiny museum, located at the corner of 5th Avenue and 27th Street in Manhattan, houses a couple regular displays (one room dedicated to how various animals copulate, another showcasing the museum’s permanent collection), but there’s always space for two rotating features, which vary widely in terms of execution and content—hence the current exhibitions, “Hardcore: A Century and a Half of Obscene Imagery,” and “Splendor in the Grass: A Kinesthetic Camping Ground.”
While both exhibitions have one very obvious common denominator (sex), they explore the topic in almost polar opposite ways. The former does so historically, looking chronologically at archives of pornography that date back to a time when the idea of sexual expression was pretty much nonexistent in the public realm (we’ll get to exhibition number two later). Walking through these displayed archives proves a genuinely fascinating experience, especially as it does an excellent job of revealing various precursors to our modern day conceptions of what’s sexy.
For instance, altering photographs to achieve sexual ideals has been practiced for ages. Today, Photoshop accounts for many of the sexualized images we see in places as mundane as subway cars and billboards—and don’t think for a second that higher-end porn doesn’t involve a good bit of editing to make the subjects more attractive. Thus, it shouldn’t come as a surprise that people back in the late 1800s felt that their pornographic photos could benefit from extra touch-ups.
Basically, porn-inspired masturbators did what anyone in the 21st Century with Photoshop would have done—they cut and pasted to create the naked bodies of their dreams. In one collection of erotic photographs found in a Brooklyn brownstone from this period, it was clear that someone had taken to them with scissors, selecting faces from certain photographs to paste atop the bodies from others. If porn was more out in the open back then, the first people to have done this could have certainly benefited from a patent of their genius idea.
Of course, sexual repression was an underlying theme of the “Hardcore” exhibition. It made sure to detail the anti-porn crusade of Anthony Comstock, the man behind the Comstock Act of 1873, which made it illegal first to mail contraception and then was amended several years later to forbid the mailing of all “lewd and lascivious material” (aka, all kinds of porn).
So that porn collection found in the Brooklyn brownstone—it was actually found in the walls of said brownstone, as Comstock had made it his mission in the 1870s to destroy all the erotic content he (and those on his side) could get their puritanical hands on.
This included same sex materials, which were lacking in this MoSex exhibition—but not by any fault of the museum’s. Same sex porn was largely destroyed over the years, not just via Comstock’s crusade but because it was deemed unnatural by many cultures. Considering the United States Supreme Court just made same sex marriage legal nationwide, it makes sense that 19th Century attitudes about this genre of erotica were proportionally backwards.
Further showcasing historical precursors to modern day ideas about porn, “Hardcore” made a point of touching on the “exotic,” a category of porn that was sought after even before the internet thoroughly globalized the industry. Today, people are fascinated by “other cultures” (to put it not-so-crassly). Straight, white guys love to watch Asian chicks getting it on, to name one, popular stereotype (and to put it crassly).
Centuries ago, this manifested in “anthropologists” traveling to foreign lands and bringing back pictures of these lands’ naked inhabitants. In other words, disingenuous people went to other countries pretending to be anthropologists so they could coerce people there into posing naked for them. How horribly sleazy…at least we can take (dis)comfort in the fact that the sex industry never changes.
In complete contrast to “Hardcore,” the museum’s second temporary exhibition, “Splendor in the Grass,” explores sex haphazardly, almost like a 12-year-old boy trying to exact his first hand job. The second in a series of “Kinesthesia Art Commissions” at MoSex, the first being Bompas & Parr’s Funland (the boob moon bounce from which has made it into the museum’s permanent collection), Studio Droog’s attempt at making sensual “art” interactive feels like it was thrown together at the last minute. Quick, guys, we have to get this MoSex thing ready! Let’s, uh, pitch a few tents, grab some mirrors, get a fog machine, and…that should do it!
Yes, this exhibition literally relies on smoke and mirrors to make an impression on museumgoers. Set up like a camping trip, “Splendor in the Grass” (named after the line in the Wordsworth poem) consists of multiple tents, each of which are meant to provide sensory experiences for those who enter. The first one, dedicated to “self exploration,” is made up of multiple mirrors strung together in such a way that they never quite stay still as you’re examining yourself. This makes for a sensation of dizziness that precludes actually looking at the mirrors for long enough to examine anything.
The next tent over features a semi-amorphous blob draped in a green, prickly material that visitors are invited to graze with their hands, creating a tingly sensation that’s helped along by creepy, whispering commentary that seem to emanate from this amorphous blob—oh, wait, it’s supposed to be the form of a reclining woman? Yes, you can tell for sure now that a little, red, laser-size dot has lit up where “her” nipple should be.
These are followed by three other tents, one of which offers a Twister-esque game without any instructions or logic to it, another of which is filled with the smoke part of the whole “smoke and mirrors” display, and the last of which had something to do with body heat but was apparently broken when my friend and I tried it out (so the “park ranger,” or the exhibition’s supervisor, concluded when nothing really happened after we went inside). Lastly, there’s a faux campfire displayed on the wall that cycles through erotic pictures, making it look as if these frolicking, sexing people are being slowly roasted away like marshmallows.
Ultimately, while “Splendor in the Grass” relies on a lot of materials, sounds, and colors to engage museumgoers, “Hardcore” doesn’t need to because the idea behind it was actually well thought out and interesting. Hopefully the artists at Studio Droog have a much better understanding of sex than what their exhibition portrays—for their partners’ sakes.