“Forbidden to Forbid” at Goswell Road, Balice Hertling, Paris
Can desire, freed of all restrictions, really dismantle society and capitalism? The answer was emphatically yes for many involved in May 1968 and the years of civil unrest that followed, which gave birth to the gay and women’s liberation movements in France. Family, morality and reproduction were seen as bourgeois and repressive by Marxists and sexual revolutionaries alike, with some declaring that it should be ‘forbidden to forbid’. This exhibition, explores a counter current of artists who, while remaining committed to ending oppression, questioned the idea that desire is an inherently revolutionary force waiting to be unleashed, or that sexual freedom will free all subjects equally. This includes artists working in the immediate aftermath of ’68 – Claude Farraldo, Lionel Soukaz, Pierre Klossowski and Pierre Zucca – alongside recent works from Oreet Ashery, Beth Collar and Giles Round, which express ambivalence about freedom of many kinds. The ironies of the title highlight the central problems that would emerge in the liberation ethos – it’s a rule against rules, a prohibition against prohibitions. Revolutionary groups would soon confront their own internal conflicts and laws. Just as the phrase implies a contradiction, so this exhibition is a speculative attempt to tease out complications in the idea of sexual and gendered freedom.
The show includes the work of experimental filmmaker Lionel Soukaz, a pivotal figure in the French gay liberation movement. Amor (2006), is untypical of his output, focussing on moments of tenderness left out of his earlier militant work. It is composed of off-cuts from his most militant and visceral film, IXE (1980) made over thirty years before, which had been designed to outrage the censors. Although at first seeming nostalgic for the era of gay liberation, the use of music in Amor is reminiscent of Kenneth Anger’s ironic soundtracks which present scenes of transgression as romanticised and commodified – an illusory form of freedom – whilst the onscreen sex in Soukaz’s film is more silly, playful and non-committal than it is revolutionary. Indeed, in his work Soukaz has often expressed reservations about the utopian promise of free sexual expression – his most famous film Race d’EP (1979) ends by warning homosexuals against the false liberations of gay ghettos and the risks of assimilation – while in interviews he has been quick to accuse ’68 of tending towards machismo and homophobia. But as evidence of the gentle, open-ended sexuality left out of an earlier combative, militant film, it’s arguable that Amor shows that, on occasion, the means of protest could be seen to engage in a macho, heroic form of politics. Oppositional struggles can sometimes resemble the very thing that they oppose.
One dominant line of thought linking sexuality to anti-capitalist politics after ‘68, was the argument that industry deadens the emotions – a claim which, according to artist and philosopher Pierre Klossowski, gives no account of how capitalism harnesses desire. His final book La Monnaie Vivante (1970) – published just two years after the protests – makes the radical counter claim that capitalism, far from repressing desire, is in fact the product of the erotic forces within us all. Simply ending restrictions upon eroticism would not be enough to change this system. His erotic drawings, as well as the soft-core films and photographs he made with Pierre Zucca, repeatedly return to the same images, indicating quite how difficult it is to separate desire from its objects – to truly unlink passions from commodities. But the photographs also undermine their own erotic effects. Theatrically staged, with mannerist gestures and vignetting which looked outmoded by the 1970s, they emphasise Klossowski’s argument that sexuality does not provide access to some unmediated, authentic experience outside of the system of representations, illusions, signs and other exchangeable objects. (Throughout the exhibition anachronism recurs both in the works, and in the strategies of display.) La Monnaie Vivante, would go on to influence Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari’s Anti-Oedipus (1972), Jean-Francois Lyotard’s Libidinal Economy (1974) and Michel Foucault’s History of Sexuality (1976), books central to gay and leftist thought in that decade.
Oreet Ashery’s video Party for Freedom (2013, commissioned by ArtAngel, UK) is a hilarious collage of slapstick, sexual orgies and news footage. Through comedy and absurdity, she shows how the 70s logics of liberation and free love have fed into and been manipulated by anti-immigrant, far right Freedom Parties in the Dutch and Austrian parliaments. Lazily watching all of this is one of Giles Round’s figures (Winter in New York, 1967, 2018), which appears to be permanently on strike. They resemble Smurfs, which have been seen by some as symbols of socialist cooperation, and by others as representing totalitarian sameness. Whatever the case may be, Smurf society is unambiguously almost all male, perhaps indicating that the image of the worker/proletariat remains masculine across the political spectrum. Yet each sculpture is perforated with several holes, reminiscent of theorist Guy Hocquenghem’s claim for the democratic potential of anal eroticism because that hole does not differentiate between the sexes (although ironically this theory put gay men at the vanguard of sexual politics). Left over from the previous show – titled ‘1967’ – they form a curatorial joke on those moments of continuity rather than rupture in history. Beth Collar’s drawing of a disgusted looking crusader is based upon the logo for the British right-wing tabloid newspaper the Daily Express: an ambivalent figure of the moralising aspect of claims to liberate.
Archival materials include advertisements for Claude Farraldo’s (1973) a cult post-68 film in which a man opposes all rules by leaving his job, abandoning his workmates and giving up language itself. The resulting picture of an urban caveman – who communicates only in grunts – descending into cannibalism, incest and the murder of a policeman, presents an image of the rejection of norms as ambivalent and potentially solipsistic. Alongside this is ‘Activite Sexuelle: Normal’ a zine on the theme of sexual freedom, published by the punk Bazooka group in 1976, just as the promise of social revolution appeared to be faltering. Often seen as part of an apolitical generation after ’68, the group’s contesting of ossified ideas, including those of the 68-ers themselves, could conversely be seen as precisely in the spirit of that earlier moment. In challenging the view of desire as inherently transgressive, transformative or liberating, the works in this show also tell us something about our culture’s love affair with notions of action or agency, particularly in relation to sexual politics. They offer a complication and attenuation of the sometime virile politics of revolution.
Curated by Paul Clinton