This year, I spent my summer holiday in Naples, where the museum of archaeology contains a collection of erotic and at times pornographic artefacts from Pompeii and Herculaneum. Discovered in the early 19thcentury, these pieces were hidden away in a secret cabinet so that the wider world would not learn about the perversities of the Romans, and almost 200 years would go by before the collection was opened to the general public (except, that is, for a brief period in the Swinging Sixties).
We are talking about a marble figure with a hard-on under its toga, a small penis talisman and similar pieces that seem perfectly innocuous to present-day audiences –and a sculpture of Pan copulating with a goat, which is now the museum’s most famous object.
I was reminded of this little treasure trove of ancient erotica when visiting Sidsel Meineche Hansen’s exhibition End-user at Kunsthal Aarhus –a kind of speculative archaeological study of sex and desire in the future where Virtual Reality and robotics mesh with the porn industry indirty business.
The exhibition includes the VR installation works No Right Way 2 Cum (2015) and Dickgirl 3D (X) (2016), where visitors can put on a VR visor to take up a virtual position between the legs of a female-looking avatar, Eva v3.0, whose squirting orgasm hits you rightinthe face –or you become a ‘dickgirl’penetrating an amorphous clay creature with a luminous, electric blue dick. The agenda here is an overtly queer-feminist game of perspectives in which visitors sink into other bodies and look out through the eyes of others. Not that you truly surrender to the simulation, that is. VR technology still has some way to go as far as stimulating our sense of empathy is concerned.
The exhibition is the first in the series Pre-order I-III, a collaborative project presented by Kunsthal Aarhus, KW Institute for Contemporary Art in Berlin and the National Gallery of Denmark in Copenhagen. Mixing existing works with new commissions, the exhibition series focuses on the development of a sex robot as a ‘minimum viable product’available for pre-order.
In Kunsthal Aarhus, the works address the development of the sexbot prototype and the ambivalent relationships of ownership found among producers, product and end-users–or at least this is what the presentation materials state. The latter point is mostly left hanging as a prompt for a conversation that does not materialise in the works, even though that would have been interesting in an age where many speak of ‘users’of art and culture. Perhaps the theme will be unpacked further later on in the exhibition series.
An anatomical drawing of a doll figure with posable joints shown alongside some watercolours of skulls inform us that we are at the sketching stage in the development of the aforementioned sexbot. The central piece in this context is the sculptural work Daddy Mould (Dead Reproduced) (2018): a fibreglass mould of the kind used to produce a sex doll. Split in two, the back of the mould is placed on the floor, looking rather like a comfortable recliner when seen from a distance, while the front part, complete with ample bust area, leans against a column in a classic, slightly bent over take-me-from-behind pose.
The moulds are empty shells that reflect our notions about the robot as an empty figure; as something that looks human on the outside, but which is all wires, microchips and sensors underneath, meaning that it is not a creature with any rights and that there is no need to show it any respect. This is where we touch upon some of the ethical issues raised by the development of robots and artificial intelligence. Questions of affect and emotion become insistently presentto the visitor, ably assisted by a loud cyborg-like growling that fills the room –but you’ll need to look to the signs to make out that the growls form a transhumanist manifesto that is both beautiful and quite touching –signed‘Your ambitious human offspring’.
So where is all this taking us? Perhaps sexbots will prove revolutionary for humanity’s more-than-human desire, but the whole issue also looks rather like the production of a slave army of sex workers, or a new capitalist class, as Sidsel Meineche Hansen puts it. As wildly proliferating and problematic as these thoughts and deliberations are, they maintain a subtle, subdued presence in the exhibition itself.It allows forcritiqueand curiosity to co-exist in the work of what seems, to my mind at least, to be an artist who is steadily continuing her own education with a view to being able to intervene. This seems like quite a sensible queer-feminist task to undertake with our little future in mind.