Published  21/08/2007

'Destricted': sex as performance art

'Destricted': sex as performance art

Directed by Marina Abramovic, Matthew Barney, Marco Brambilla, Larry Clark, Gaspar Noé, Richard Prince and Sam Taylor-Wood

The creators of 'Destricted' describe the production as a set of 'explicit films'. The seven short films that make up 'Destricted' are, in fact, about sex, but the term 'explicit' should be understood in a specific sense: each short was conceived and directed by a controversial name in the contemporary visual arts scene and is an artistic interpretation of pornography, not merely showing sexual acts but showing sex in a particular way and presenting sexual relations as performances.

Of the seven 'directors', whose previous works bear some relation to the filmed branch of the visual arts, only two of them can be called 'filmmakers' in the traditional sense of the word: the American Larry Clark (b. 1943), who is best known for 'Kids' and 'Ken Park', and the French-Argentine Gaspar Noé (b. 1963), who created the polemic French film 'Irreversible'. Throughout their careers, both artists have dealt with and explicitly portrayed sex. The Italian Marco Brambilla (b. 1960), director of the Hollywood-style 1993 action movie 'Demolition Man' and the TV series 'Dinotopia', could also be considered as a filmmaker, but he has dedicated most of his career to video art.

The other artists who contributed to 'Destricted' are not professional filmmakers. The Serbian Marina Abramovic (b. 1946) is a pioneer of performance art; the American Matthew Barney (b. 1967) is one of the most provocative video artists working today and creator of the monumental art-film project 'Cremaster cycle'; the American Richard Prince (b. 1949) is a provocative painter and photographer who has posed questions of authorship in his oeuvres through reproductions and controversial self-remakes; and the British Turner Prize nominee Sam Taylor-Wood is a leading video artist and photographer whose work has centred on human emotions.

The diversity of the contributors is apparent in the films they have made. Unlike other feature films composed of related shorts (for instance, the classic 1962 Italian film 'Boccaccio '70' and the 2002 American film '11'09''01 - September 11'), in 'Destricted' each short is a completely independent entity and requires viewers to search for the creator's individual point of view rather than a relationship between the parts for a sense of coherence.

In a collection, one can find objects or themes that make up a 'complete set', but most often, the only 'summary', or definition, of a collection is the collection itself. Inherent to the idea of collecting is a tension between the singularity of each collected piece and the overriding concept that guides the collector. As such, 'Destricted' is a genuine collection; just like pictures in a museum, the particular images shown in each film are placed together by the power of an encyclopaedic intention, rather than by an organic principle.

'Destricted' developed out of a special project that was started in 2004 by Neville Wakefield, a curatorial adviser of the P.S.1 contemporary arts centre in New York; Mel Agace, an architect, film editor and author of 'The sex book'; and Andrew Hale, a musician and producer. Responding to an invitation to create an 'explicit film', the artists placed an erotic tale into a visual cinematic medium. The seven works offer different points of view on how sexual relations can be 'aestheticised'. The differing viewpoints reflect different approaches to the body.

Abramovic's 'Balkan erotic epic' deals with the merely ritual dimension of sex and shows old Balkan traditions, all of which refer to the relationship between sexuality and the natural movements of the world (such as crops and the weather, the human body and the trees, and the body and the soil). In this short, the body and the sexual act are not different, for instance, than the rain or the animal's defecation.

Barney's 'Hoist' presents the creation of a man-machine entity (a man anally connected to a Caterpillar truck) in which the sperm assumes a constructive role.

Brambilla's 'Sync' is a traditional edition-effect film: a rapid presentation of a montage of sex scenes in mainstream and pornographic movies.

Clark's 'Impaled' is a documentary in which the filmmaker interviews young men to choose one to have sex with a porn star.

Noé's 'We fuck alone' shows, with stroboscopic effects in image, two characters in situations involving masturbation.

Prince's 'Housecall' is a kind of 'meta-porn'. For this short, the artist emulated traditional porn aesthetics and shot a typical porn movie scenario (a doctor visiting a woman has sex with her using medical instruments).

Taylor-Wood's 'Death valley' features a man (in fact, an American porn star) masturbating while he contemplates the American desert.

Pornography casts sex in its Olympic, almost athletic, dimension. Pornography is always centred on the sexual action of the body; the movements, the physical performance and the carnality are the main facets of the genre. In 'Destricted', one can see how each artist created a particular form in which to experiment with this concept. In this sense, Clark's 'Impaled' is the most compelling of the shorts. The documentary raises the question of why a 'normal' person would want to have sex in a pornographic way. The most important parts of the performances in this short are the characters' utterances. The candidates talk about sex and about the sexual act they would like to practise with their porn-star partners. When, finally, the sex scene is shown, the dimension of pure action has already been stripped bare and deconstructed.

It is notable that in a collective film with pornography as its theme, the subject of masturbation is the central approach of five of the seven artists, all of whom created their shorts independently. Only in Clark and Brambilla's works are people shown having sex with another person. In Barney's work, a peculiar character called 'Green Man' establishes his link with the machine by means of plastic using sperm from masturbation. In this experience, sperm, grease, plant, man and machine are parts of the same action of self-sufficiency in the sexual relation. This approach points to the idea of performance as an individual action. Even if Noé's characters use the other as stimulation - a man in his apartment and a woman in her flat masturbate as they both watch to the same film on TV - he inverts the apparent mechanics of the project and reveals its real logic: pornography-as-art becomes art-as-pornography. The question, then, is of the relationship between artistic pleasure and stimulation. In Taylor-Wood's 'Death Valley', the porn star masturbates in a desert while looking into empty space. There is no reference to a desired object; there is only the action. The pleasure of the pornography is in the action itself and, sometimes, the pleasure of the art goes the same way.

Alexandre Werneck


'Destricted' (2006) premiered in London in September 2006 at Tate Modern and was released on DVD in the UK at the beginning of 2007. Following some special screenings at international film events (the 2006 Cannes Film Festival Critics' Week, for example), 'Destricted' was released on the commercial film circuit in Paris on 25 April 2007.

P.S.1 is a 35-year-old arts centre associated with the Museum of Modern Art in New York. It is the oldest and second-largest non-profit arts centre in the US. For more information on P.S.1, see Studio International, 'P.S.1, MoMA, New York' and

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