At London’s Institute of Contemporary Arts, a group exhibition surveys the issues of sex work through the voices of sex workers themselves and contemporary artists who make them their subject.
TEXT: Herbert Wright
IMAGES: Courtesy of various
In its grand 1820s premises on the stately avenue leading to Buckingham Palace, London’s Institute of Contemporary Arts presents “Decriminalised Futures”, a show about sex work. Don’t expect any romanticised cliché of tragic beauty and vulnerability in the sleazy city, nor smutty visuals masquerading as art. Instead, the exhibition, curated by Elio Sea and Yves Sanglante, gives sex workers themselves a voice. What they convey, directly as artists or in collaboration with others such as filmmakers, is both intensely personal and political.
This is a show with agendas, broadly matching those argued by the contemporary UK advocacy group SWARM (Sex Worker Advocacy and Resistance Movement), who are quoted on the gallery walls. The fight for sex workers’ rights goes back at least 200 years, and the call for decriminalisation of sex work is referenced in the show’s title. Its 10 exhibited works present a range of issues that reach across gender, sexuality, disability, migration, the meaning of work, and survival itself.
That may all sound heavy, but in the first work upon entering the show, Aisha Mirza has created an inviting and intimate installation space to linger in. It is adorned with plants, faux fur, and a mirror above which dominatrix props hang, and the work’s title, the best dick I ever had was a thumb & good intentions (2022) is written across a wall. The next work is Unsustainable, a graphic novel by Danica Uskert and Annie Mok, printed in zine format and left in piles on a plinth for visitors to take away. The autobiographical graphic novel tells the story of adult performer Uskert’s own emotional struggle with self-doubt, abuse, the toxic messages of clients, despair, and love. Beside it, an uncredited “research station” called pxr•mxt•r (2022) is merely a bare table, chair and research material including official UK documentation, indicating the cold reality for immigrant sex workers.
In just three works, the show has taken us from boudoir to bureaucracy via a surprisingly sensitive individual narrative, but there’s more to come. Two artists offer purely pictorial work. Three gorgeous litho prints by Khaleb Brooks celebrate her body in stark black-and-white, while Still Life for Sex Workers (2020) by Hanecdote is a small, hand-embroidery showing objects on a red table-top. Candles, a flower in a vase, and fetish tools crowd up beside a pile of books whose titles spell out sex worker priorities, such as ACTION, COMMUNITY and SAFETY. This simultaneous personal intimacy and engagement with the big issues is something that extends through the whole exhibition, and is ultimately the defining characteristic of “Decriminalised Futures”.
Other works are screen-based. A small screen runs a dystopian video adventure game by Cory Cocktail. Elsewhere in the show, Mythical Creatures (2020) is a beautifully shot film by performance artist Liad Hussein Kantorowicz. She walks through an English garden strikingly dressed as a punk-fairy with pink hair, red gloves, lace and a clear plastic coat like that worn by a Blade Runner replicant, while she gives a clear, articulate and passionate account of the protest in Israel-Palestine against the Israeli ban on engaging prostitutes.
Kantorowicz’s film is sandwiched between two room-sized installations in which film is the dominant medium. A big double screen showing Yarlli Allison and Letizia Miro’s This is Not for Clients (2021) creates a narrative with disembodied computer animations and a photo montage, while a commentary is spoken over a doomy soundtrack, echoing the early format of video artist Hito Steyerl, which frankly now feels dated. Miro is a London-based Spanish sex worker, so when she says things like “I was alone in the game of survival”, it is clearly autobiographical. By contrast, the various black-and-white short film portraits of American sex workers in Stone Dove (2021) by filmmaker Chi Chi Castillo and video artist May May Peltier are real footage, and need no video tricks to take us into their minds. We see the filmed subjects not at work, but rather, being themselves. One of them talks of sex work as a means to fund bail for their boyfriends, another proclaims “f**k the police”, but a third describes the work in terms of “taking control”, and something that liberates and enables her.
Perhaps the most successful of the works in “Decriminalised Futures” is the installation eje (2022) by artist Tobi Adebajo. In eje—meaning blood in Nigeria’s Yorùbá language—you step into a room bathed in red, the colour simultaneously creating a womb-like warmth and referencing the traditional red light ubiquitous to sex work. Three booths with curtains echo the “private” booths sex shops may offer to see porn films, each showing a different video loop starring a Nigerian sex worker shot simply but stylishly in a studio. In one, she is with her child. With merely imagery of her lips and food. The second film conveys desire and sensuality. The third is about the challenges of working with a disability, represented by her bandaged knee and a crutch. All carry a commentary (spoken in a strangely posh English accent). At one point, she declares that “if you cannot acknowledge this is work, you are not free”. The installation and films work not only because its messages are clear and its imagery cool and attractive, it also creates a dream-like spatial environment. Like the intimacy of Mirza’s installation, you feel strangely comfortable here, but Adebajo’s is more immersive.
Politicised shows can take on an “in-yer-face” hectoring tone from which many may turn away from. But the recurrent thread of personal intimacy woven through “Decriminalised Futures” tends to temper its strident yet vital messages. In the emotions of sex workers, from anger to pride, and their situations from vulnerability to shelter, we sense their humanity. That contrasts the de-humanisation at the heart of the client-worker relationship. As humans involved in struggle, their agendas deserve attention. The take-away from this show’s rich variety of creative work is that sex workers’ lives matter.
16 February – 20 May 2022
Institute of Contemporary Arts, London
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