Gallery 400 Blog


India Karianen connects surveillance, sex, and pleasure in "Let Me Be an Object That Screams"

India Karianen reflects on the initial reaction in viewing Puppies Puppies Sauron (Bataille Solar Anus) and addresses public surveillance of sexuality and discomfort with public displays of sexual content. After visiting the exhibition Let Me Be an Object That Screams curated by Matt Morris, Karyn Sandlos ART 101 class dove deeper into the relationships between subjects and objects using the exhibition as a catalyst for conversations. 

Subject vs. Object and the Power of the Gaze

India Karianen

What is a subject or an object in terms of a group or individual labeled “other”, and how does an external or internal gaze operate to keep said individual or group within the constraints imposed by American society regarding sexual behavior? This paper will examine this question and how the general conversation about it is complicated in the world of art. Just thinking about this question can cause some internal discomfort depending on one’s upbringing, and whether or not an individual decides to resist the authority imposed by “the gaze”; for some, “sex” is treated on about the same level as cursing, you don’t talk about it, you don’t think about it, and you most certainly don’t act on your desires. Outside influences that become a part of our internal conscience make us regulate our own behavior, which complicates the question of who is the subject and who is the object in any given piece of art. 

  Every day there are various invisible forces operating to control the sexual behavior of every American citizen that eventually become internalized so that we feel ashamed of certain sexual activities deemed outside of American social norms. Here I will introduce the panopticon, a model prison tower designed by Jeremy Bentham, an English philosopher. This tower is composed of cells arranged in a semi-circle around a central guard tower. There a guard may, at any time, listen in on a prisoner’s conversations and see what they are doing without being seen or heard. Sturken and Cartwright (2017), drawing on the work of Michel Foucault argue, “Inmates live in a constant state of knowing they might be under watch at any time, internalizing the guard’s gaze” (p. 109). 

  When thinking of sexual behavior in American society, there are various panopticons that dictate to us what we may or may not do or have done to us in the pursuit of pleasure. This takes the form of laws where, for example, in 1998, “Police arrest John Lawrence and Tyron Garner in Lawrence’s private apartment and charge them with having consensual sex in violation of Texas’s ‘Homosexual Conduct’ law” (Lambda Legal). The law was since struck down as unconstitutional; however, even in a situation where a same sex couple is looking for an apartment, it is better to say “She/he is my best friend” because there are still people that see fit to be nosy when it comes to the subject of what happens between two consenting adults behind closed doors, and use that knowledge to make life harder.

Currently there seems to be a misunderstanding regarding anything that involves what would be considered kinky sexual practices, which involve the consensual use of pain, restriction of breathing, bondage, etc. to enhance sex. Even though there may be clear consent given, BDSM (Bondage, Discipline, Sadism, and Masochism) is often prosecuted by the law as violence, leading anyone who is involved in this sort of practice to keep their activities a secret. Puppies Puppies artwork titled Sauron (Bataille Solar Anus) at Gallery 400 shows a man engaged in autoerotic anal stimulation along with “The Eye” of Sauron from J.R.R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings. The Eye of Sauron is a perfect example of the panopticon because it, like the guard tower, has an unimpeded view of everything, instilling fear and obedience in all under its gaze. I believe Sauron (Bataille Solar Anus) is about how laws try to regulate what we do in our private lives, and the fear of being seen can either be an exciting catalyst in resisting “the gaze” or it can cause us to police ourselves even when there is no danger of being seen. Sturken and Cartwright (2017) point out that, “Modern power is not something that negates and represses human subjects so much as it produces them” (p. 109). Usually, we are indirectly guided to be a certain type of citizen, rather than intimidated by use of force.

Puppies Puppies, Sauron (Bataille Solar Anus), 2016, digital video, 1:14 min. loop

Looking at Sauron (Bataille Solar Anus) was a very uncomfortable experience for me. My first words when seeing the exhibit were literally, “What the fuck is that?” Although I knew what I was seeing, the real question in my mind was, “Why am I seeing something in an art gallery that would normally be seen on a pornographic website; how am I supposed to feel about this?” In American culture, sexual ideas are everywhere in public spaces, such as advertisements and television shows. Nevertheless, when talking about any engagement of sexual activities in private it seems that one is supposed to feel shame about urges and actions that are completely natural. So when I saw the video, I instantly recoiled, I was not able to keep my full gaze on the video for more than a few seconds because I felt like I was morally perverse for viewing this video in a public space. In “Puppies Puppies”, the man objectifies himself in the pursuit of pleasure, and the viewer becomes the subject having the power of seeing while not being seen by the man in the video. This brought to mind how we are all objects under the gaze of our government, which decides what is and is not socially acceptable from a position of invisibility.
In conclusion, I have argued that there are societal norms and rules that govern what we do with our more intimate time. Complicated and conflicting feelings arise when looking at art that has a sexual tone as even just thinking of the idea of sex, in general, can be very uncomfortable. As outside influences tell each of us what to think of this particular subject, we internalize the gaze of those that make the rules, and we then govern ourselves accordingly even when there is nobody watching. Artists such as Puppies Puppies create work that resists the power of the gaze by bringing a very private subject into a public area. In doing so, they create a safe space that normalizes the discussion of sensitive material. I hope to see more art works such as this one that challenge societal norms about surveillance, sex, and pleasure.

Sturken, M., and Cartwright, L. (2017). Practices of looking: an introduction to visual culture (3rd ed.). London: Oxford University Press.