‘The Porn Identity’: Vienna exhibit sheds the shadows


You look around nervously as you approach the ticket counter. What would people think if they saw you going into a place like this? Even the woman at the counter seems to be looking at you funny. What kind of guy would come here in broad daylight?

You can’t shake off the paranoia, as though you’re paying for a peep show in a seedy part of town. But you’re in one of the smartest sections of Vienna, walking into a posh cultural institution to see one of the most talked-about art exhibits in recent memory: “The Porn Identity,” an over-the-top exploration of sexual imagination.

In the city where Sigmund Freud explored the dark recesses of consciousness that no one ever talked about, the exhibit aims to shatter the taboo about smut, which is somehow everywhere and nowhere.


Pornography is huge. It remains one of Southern California’s biggest industries and generates $100 billion a year in revenue worldwide. And though derided, ignored and confined to the darkness of the living room or hidden behind the blackened windows of the adult movie store, porn has been so influential in pop culture that it has taken on the character of cultural artifact, if not art.

“Pornography is one of the biggest economic sectors, but it’s never discussed publicly,” says Angela Stief, a curator and art historian at the Kunsthalle, a building in Vienna’s celebrated Museumsquartier where the exhibit will be up until June 1. “It’s something which is hidden. We transfer it into the public or into the exhibition hall and therefore you can maybe ask the question why you haven’t been talking about it.”

By moving porn out of the realm of the private, it loses its impact, Los Angeles filmmaker T. Arthur Cottam shows in his 2002 short film “Pornographic Apathetic.” In it, actors sit at a table and stare at each other blankly as they engage in a bout of listless dirty talk.

“Who are you?” says the woman, flatly.

“I’m the handyman,” the man replies.

“Are you here to fix my plumbing?” she asks.

A few profanity-laced lines later, the man continues in a dull monotone. “This is so hot,” he says, not sounding at all like he’s enjoying himself.

“It feels good,” she says dispassionately. “Wow. You make me dirty.”

The piece makes you laugh while illustrating one of the paradoxes of smut: At its core, it’s rather idiotic and boring.

You see the seamy underside of the adult entertainment industry in Angela Bulloch’s 1992 installation “Baby Doll Saloon,” which lists the rules for the talent performing at a New York strip club, informing the women that “management reserves the right to fire you without notice or reason” and admonishing them to “try” not to bring their drugs to work.


Even if you don’t agree that pornography degrades women, you certainly can’t deny that it exploits them for profit.

But the exhibit also includes an interesting counterpoint in Louisa Achille’s 2003 documentary, “The Naked Feminist,” which chronicles the rise of female entrepreneurs and directors, some of them former performers, as powers in the porn industry. “The difference between erotic and pornographic is in the lighting,” says one woman interviewed in the film.

Several pieces celebrate porn’s frivolity as well as its pervasiveness in art and popular culture.

A phallus protrudes from the seat of an exercise bicycle in a re-creation of Dada artist Marcel Duchamp’s 1913 “Bicycle Wheel.” A bronzed pair of a naked woman’s legs spread wide from the front of a Playboy pinball machine in Ed and Nancy Kienholz’s 1980 “The Bronze Pinball Machine with Woman Affixed Also.”

The statue of a kneeling naked woman from the milk bar in Stanley Kubrick’s 1971 science fiction classic, “A Clockwork Orange,” serves as the exhibit’s emblem, illustrating “Porn Identity” exhibition books, guides and posters.

At the exhibit’s center is a forest of TV monitors showing X-rated films as well as suggestively edited clips highlighting awkward moments from innocent 1930s movies in an attempt to “explore the limits between art pornography and film,” as Stief put it.

In the constantly changing cascade of old and new porn flicks shown on the bank of monitors called the “Rainbow Wall,” you see not only moments of copulation between two or more actors but hairstyles, camera angles, poses, textures and fashions of now and then, a historical catalog of sexual fantasy and imagination.

Walking around the exhibit, you see silver-haired businessmen toting briefcases and turtleneck-wearing artistes seriously pondering each piece, as well as groups of college students giggling nervously, some blushing, some laughing aloud.

You relax, not so worried if someone else sees you. You’re just another art lover.