Culture Wars at Arthouse?

by Noah Simblist March 9, 2011

photograph by Laure Leber

A couple weeks ago, Austin’s Arthouse presented its second round of exhibitions in its newly renovated and expanded building. Opening night was packed with people moving back and forth through installations by Lisa Tan, Michelle Handelman, Graham Hudson, Marie Losier and Nathan Baker. Walking through these exhibitions, it seemed to me that Arthouse might actually live up to its ambitious rhetoric and become a contemporary art space that was experimental, challenging, sophisticated and cosmopolitan.

However, in the week that followed, Michelle Handelman’s video installation was closed down for certain periods of time without explanation. Then the looped video was presented with limited screening times. I heard rumors that a board member was offended by the film’s content, essentially considering it lewd and pornographic, and was concerned about underage viewers as well the impact on current and future donors. I asked Sue Graze, executive director of Arthouse about the rumors and the changes in the video’s screening. In her emailed response, she stated: “Arthouse Board members did not object to the content of the Handelman video but rather their concern was that it was being shown during our teen programs on Wednesday evenings and Saturdays. I believe Michelle Handelman did not create the work for children.”

Whether or not the board objected to work, its content is being treated as if it is objectionable on some level. The film is no longer screened while the Arthouse teen programs are in session in the building. In their effort to make the video inaccessible to teenagers during certain hours, Arthouse is also making the video unavailable to adult viewers during those hours, which include Wednesdays from 5-8 p.m., Saturdays from 10 a.m. – 2 p.m. and one Saturday a month from 10 a.m. – 6 p.m. Additionally, the continuous-loop presentation created by the artist was altered from a video installation to a more traditional cinema experience with a finite start and end time. These measures go further than the original opening night policy, which (in keeping with many other museums) placed a sign warning viewers of the sexual content of the installation at the entrance.

Michelle Handelman/Amelie Chabannes

Michelle Handelman’s installation Dorian, a cinematic perfume (2009) is a four channel video installation that is meant to loop for 63 minutes. According to Handelman “the piece was designed so that that people can go in and out at any time, take a hit of the perfume and walk away with a piece of the story.” It is a queer retelling of the Oscar Wilde story The Picture of Dorian Gray. Originally published in 1891, Wilde’s story tells the tale of the title character who comes to believe that beauty and the pleasures of the senses are so important that he sells his soul to ensure that a portrait of him ages instead of his own body. The novel was originally criticized for being “unclean, effeminate and contaminating,” mostly because of its homoeroticism. Handelman’s video is lush, hallucinogenic and filled with layers of symbolism that allude to both Wilde’s biography and the story’s content. It includes scenes with nudity, the implication of a hand job, same sex kissing, drag queens, simulated sex with a strap-on and a gilded butt plug.

At one moment in Handelman’s video, the performance artist K8 Hardy delivers a diatribe to the camera from the stage of a nightclub. “What gives you the right to judge us?” she says. “Are we a little too excessive? You don’t have the guts to get up here on stage…fuck all of you…clearly you think that you’re better than us…go ahead and snicker!” These phrases are spoken from a position that is well acquainted with marginalization and accusation and they predict the very reaction that Handelman’s video did indeed receive.

photograph by Laure Leber

By altering and limiting how and when Handleman’s work is viewed, the board and staff raise a complex set of questions related to the exhibition of sexual material in contemporary art spaces–especially that with queer content. Ironically, this is the same kind of controversy that Wilde’s novel generated in the 19th century. It also is related to the very public controversy surrounding David Wojnarowicz’s piece Fire in My Belly (1987) which was pulled from the recent Smithsonian exhibition Hide/Seek: Difference and Desire in American Portraiture. That particular controversy prompted many museums–including Arthouse–to show the video in protest to its censorship.

The rush to shield children, including teenagers, from Handelman’s work is a typical knee jerk reaction to difficult material. Handelman said to me that the notion that the piece shouldn’t be accessible to anyone under 18 was absurd. “That’s putting an X rating on the piece, which is so unbelievable because there is no explicit sex…‘Dorian’ is far tamer than ‘Skins’ which any kid can watch on MTV.”

In Fort Worth a number of schoolteachers refused to bring their students to see a 2008 Kara Walker traveling retrospective for fear of its sexual content. When I spoke to its curator Philippe Vergne about this, he stated that not all art is for everyone, some art is targeted to a particular audience. This is a time when many museum education departments are seeing increased funding, even at the expense of curatorial departments. It is easy to raise both public and private funds for exhibitions that “open up young bright minds” with benign content but less so to support artworks that address the complex adult problems of our society.

video still

This dustup also brings up the authorship of exhibitions. Should curators have absolute freedom in the research and implementation of exhibitions? Should the artists that are commissioned also have this freedom? Should board members participate in programming decisions? As the 2007 MASS MoCA fiasco with Christoph Büchel makes clear, the first and most important thing is for there to be a clear agreement between artists and institutions about their concerns, budgetary and otherwise, at the outset. The primary work that boards do is development. They raise the money to give artists and curators the ability to fulfill the mission of the institution. While we have to be realistic about the ideological motivations of public and private funding sources, curators and artists should not have to cater to them.

Austin is at a tipping point with The Blanton, Visual Art Center and Arthouse all in newer, bigger buildings. This cultural development has been concurrent with urban development–both predicated on the notion that Austin is growing into a nationally recognized urban center and a magnet for those interested not only in new forms of music and film but also contemporary art. But as Austin comes of age it must also recognize that bricks and mortar are not enough. It must also develop the sophistication to deal with difficult issues in an open and transparent way. Arthouse will start this process with a panel discussion on March 24 about Handelman’s piece and the issues of queer sexuality and censorship that it brings up.

At one point in Dorian, a cinematic perfume, K8 Hardy says, “I have grown sick of shadows.” This is a line filled with both history and allusion. LGBT identity is often kept in the shadows or the proverbial closet. The strategies of artists and activists like ACT UP, Robert Mapplethorpe and Felix Gonzalez Torres included various ways to make the invisible seen and the silent heard. While Arthouse in no way went to such extreme measures as those that extracted Wojnarovicz’s offending content from Hide/Seek, there were similar ideological strains at work. I can only hope that such gestures can only lead to more work and more dialogue about these issues that can be seen and heard.


Noah Simblist is an Associate Professor of Art at Southern Methodist University and is currently pursuing a PhD in art history at the University of Texas, Austin. He is also the Curatorial Fellow at The Visual Art Center where is co-curating Queer State(s) with David Wilburn, set for the fall of 2011.



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[…] a Cinematic Perfume, at the Arthouse at the Jones Center in Austin. The details have been covered: Noah Simblist on Glasstire (Simblist also talked at Arthouse’s panel discussion), and the artist Michelle Handelman on […]


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