Charver with Art; or The Body Is Gone

I had a serious wanking-in-public phase some ten years ago. Now, bringing this back-to- mind I have to ask myself, why on earth did I, a shy blue-eyed angel-boy, risk my ‘good kid’ opinion just to get a shot of adrenaline in my head supplemented by a shot of spunk from my cock? No, it wasn’t for Art. I wish it was. It was because sex in public is, and always will be (until the very end of this prudish, straightlaced and sad world), a human being’s natural need. From natural need develops social phenomenon. And from social phenomenon develops a desire to symbolically represent this reality – in other words, a twisted mind’s creative urge some call art.

First an elucidation on why Stuart Sandford’s recent work, documenting gay cruising grounds in Europe, and his image for the Bloc Billboard are particularly significant. His photos often border on the public-private debate; he edges the subject, crosses the line, makes the spectator confused. It is a matter of his art’s base and super-structure. Such is the case with the ‘Venice’ billboard. Its significance reaches out beyond his previous works, which have explored the male body, or rather a cultural projection of it. This time the body is gone. The usual object of mapping is no longer there. Background becomes Object. It’s a shift from portrait to landscape. But all the same, there is Stuart’s trademark double meaning. This Venice cruising area, looking like any place, anywhere, receives its base and super-structure. The base is very plain. Just bushes one may say, mere sand, no big deal. But the super-structure is what really smacks you. The bushes and the sand become something close to institution after comprehending all of the following:

There should be men there doing their nasty pleasures, seeking a trade, becoming a trade, performing either the act of devoted desperation or simple fellatio. But we’re not going to get that. Neither in this billboard nor in Stuart’s series of landscape photos and videos probing the same subject. This is the moment when the story becomes unreservedly sad. It is close to the moment we get from the snapshot images of Dean Sameshima who made a series of photographs of sex places in Los Angeles[i] . Dowdy buildings on dowdy streets. Padlocked doors. Cabin 2768 closed in 1995. The sun pouring down like it’s five minutes to Armageddon on Hollywood Boulevard. Nostalgia is a common element of both Sameshima and Sandford’s art. Nostalgia is the feeling penetrating the mind, fingering the brain, rimming that hole in a continuum of time whilst looking at those photos. For these are the places where men hunted for love. Not just for trolling[ii]; neither a casual blow-job nor coital intercourse with a married cab driver. Bungee-jumpers without the bungee. Cruising areas were always sovereign space for the queer. Also, a state of mind so sensitively described in one of Justin Chin’s poems:

Lick my butt, I will lick yours then.
We will take care of the world’s shit later

But are we actually considering a real social phenomenon or rather an overconfident or even cock-sure judgment? I believe the proof lies somewhere there in Berlin’s Tiergarten, where in the 30’s SA thugs bunked-up before having to send the rest of the cruisers to Dachau just a few years later; they are now scattered on the streets of Eastern Europe where forbidden pleasures used to be cultivated in war-time-ghettos, in a true anus mundi. Or perhaps today, in Queens New York, where lucky hipsters may blow to their sheer
disbelief a closeted Hassid. Cruising areas were the setting of classless and raceless activities of bum bandits, the unconscious revolutionaries of arse.

Imagine it’s 1952, you’re a well off WASP, living with your unaware wife and children in an Edwardian house, you pretend to enjoy your life and believe you really like the new Queen, but at heart you just crave for fucking men. What do you do? You cruise. You cottage. You gag for it with any stranger who just wants to get his knees dirty. Never underestimate the capacity of sex for social-change. Remember Pasolini’s Teorema[iv] ? If that’s not a phenomenon then what is it?

Stuart’s Venice beach, a place where one could once get a blow-job, suntan and sunstroke at the same time is now abandoned. There’s no one left there. And I don’t mean the actual absence of men on the billboard. The institution of public sex-place is withering. The queer of today have joyfully deserted spots like this, instead choosing dating websites, naively trusting they are now civilized. Not quite. In this particular sense Stuart’s frequently voyeuristic art becomes more in the manner of an archivist.

Most gay men now prefer to select and to be selected. They publicise themselves and their cocks like in some sort of advert. Many queers are now logged on dating websites harshly demolishing the frolicking pleasure of getting fucked in a local park. Now it’s just teens and twinks. Oldies and daddies. Muscle and leather. Categories. Sorts. Classes. Men voluntarily put themselves into groups of membership users like they have become products in the local ASDA.

This billboard however possesses a culture jamming factor. But I’m not going to write about the Billboard Liberation Front[v] because Stuart’s piece is not really about that. There is a certain reference though within his Bloc project heading in that direction. Culture jamming has been characterized as a form of public activism, generally in opposition to commercialism and the vectors of corporate image. This is one of the crucial shifts in the “shag me in the bushes movement” and of what has happened to it in recent years. It has become part of a corporate image. Today there is always someone getting his share from a human being willing to fuck. And I don’t mean a threesome. One pays. One may log in. One may browse.

I’m sure Stuart is utterly happy showing you a billboard that sells nothing. Just nostalgia. At least that’s what comes for free. His work is just like looking back in time. Like re- visiting the house you were born in all those years ago. It looks the same but there’s something different. Something is lost.


[i]Dean Sameshima, Wonderland, 1996/97
[ii] There are a number of Polari used in this text. Polari was a form of cant slang used in the gay subculture in Britain where it was used to disguise homosexual activity from potentially hostile outsiders. There is some debate about how it originated.
[iii] Justin Chin, Bite Hard (Manic D Press), 1997
[iv]Pier Paolo Pasolini, Theorem (Teorema), 1968. Terence Stamp plays a mysterious figure who appears in the lives of a typical bourgeois Italian family. He engages in sexual affairs with all members of the household: the devoutly religious maid, the sensitive son, the sexually repressed mother, the timid daughter and, finally, the tormented father. The stranger gives unstintingly of himself, asking nothing in return. Then one day he leaves, as suddenly and mysteriously as he came. Unable to endure the void in their lives, the mother becomes a nymphomaniac, the son an artist, the daughter a catatonic and the father a sexual prowler. The servant, on the other hand, appears in the last scene casually performing a miracle. On its release, the religious right and the Vatican criticized the film’s sexual content. The Left considered it “ambiguous” and “visionary”.
[v]The Billboard Liberation Front is a group of “culture jammers” devoted to ‘improving’ billboards by changing key words to radically alter the message, often to an anti- corporate message.

© 2008 Lukasz M. Maciejewski