Interviews, Rants, Feelings & Opinions

“NSFW: Female Gaze” at the Museum of Sex

October 10, 2017

The NYC Museum of Sex’s current exhibition, NSFW: FEMALE GAZE, showcases female artists who are exploring sexuality on their own terms, and reclaiming the role of the muse. Here, Alisha Wexler talks to one of the show’s artists, Giulia Marisco, about Instagram art, representation and erotica. Cover image by Joanne Leah

Many of us are familiar with the term “female gaze.” If you didn’t learn about it from reading the work of feminist film theorist Laura Mulvey in college, it’s likely you’ve come across a think-piece that celebrates how (some) art and media is starting to tackle topics from women’s perspectives.

It’s no surprise that the contemporary art world is––as it has been for centuries––male-dominated. Women are frequently depicted by male artists as calm and tamed, their skin soft and hairless, their limbs limp and delicate. In art, men have delineated the physical ideal of female beauty, especially in the erotic realm.

Lissa Rivera

To challenge this passively pretty role, contemporary female artists have frequently used their own bodies in their works as a way to reappropriate sexuality and desire, and subvert what is often called the “male gaze.” The New York City Museum of Sex’s current exhibition NSFW: Female Gazeco-curated by VICE Media’s Creators, and open through April 2018—highlights the work of some (28) such female artists.

The exhibition posits that we need a re-examination of the male gaze not because of the way men see women, but because a male-centric worldview affects how women see and project themselves.

John Berger’s book of art criticism Ways of Seeing (a rite-of-passage-read for anyone studying, working in, or interested in art) outlines this phenomenon: “Men look at women. Women watch themselves being looked at. Thus she turns herself into an object – an object of sight.” Aware of how they’re expected to be seen, women learn from an early age to be painfully aware of their appearance, criticizing and modifying themselves as they grow up. Though Ways of Seeing was written in 1972 and analyzes mostly classical art and dated advertisements, Berger’s words still ring true today.

Nona Faustina

So what exactly does the female gaze look like? The sheer diversity of perspectives represented in NSFW is a testament to how there really isn’t one way of seeing. Through a range of mediums—from illustration and embroidery to film and social media –each artist in the show offers a unique portrayal of the female experience. As a totality, the exhibition works to question beauty ideals, challenge normative gender roles and sexuality, address the intersections of race and gender, and celebrate the complexities of female identity.

The artist Giulia Marsico, whose humorous, erotic collages are featured in the exhibition, specifically caught my eye. In her work, Marsico censors sexual imagery with the absurd juxtaposition of a random object. Her Instagram (@scientwehst) not only serves as a place to display her work, but also as a nexus for calling out the platform’s arbitrary, archaic, and often sexist censorship policies. In her words, Marsico’s work “attempt[s] to test the limits of censorship on social media and confuse the male gaze.” Below she and I discuss her work further.

Giulia Marsico

Alisha: Do you think erotic art from a woman’s perspective makes people uncomfortable?

Giulia Marsico: Eroticism is subjectively experienced. To me, watching a veiny tattooed hand holding a glass of whiskey is erotic. But if we are talking about art and expression with nudity or sex, I definitely think it makes people uncomfortable.

Why do you think that is?

Unless you’re living under a rock, you know that women are still sexually oppressed. Our culture values male pleasure more than female pleasure. It’s fucked. However, we continue to fight against these double standards that stop us from relishing in our sexuality without judgement. Erotic art is just one of our weapons.

Giulia Marsico

Can you describe how you integrate Instagram into your art practice?

In a way, Instagram was a catalyst for my work. The collages I created were in response to censorship guidelines on social media, specifically Instagram.

Why do you think it’s important that we continue to question the way women are represented in art and media?

Shit, there are so many things wrong with how the media represents women, I don’t even know where to begin. Probably with the underrepresentation of women on TV. Or maybe the unrealistic beauty standards? The perpetuation of negative stereotypes. The portrayal of women as incompetent or helpless. Until we are all valued as unique and complex beings, we should always question the intent of the media and how it represents us.

Alisha Wexler is a writer and social editor living in New York City and working in the art world. 

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