You arrive at the Musee d’Orsay and you are expecting to see Gustave Courbet’s controversial L’Origine du Monde. You expect to be confronted with an oil painting of a women’s vagina. Except, instead of standing in front of the work, no longer separated by the thin shield of glass, a frame and electronic barrier, you witness the real thing. Artist Deborah De Robertis sits in front of you, her legs spread, dressed in a gold sequined dress. For a second the gallery visitor looks to the painting and the vagina in front of them. The visitor assistants begin ushering De Robertis out of the gallery and finally the police arrive to drag her away, arresting De Robertis on charges of "exhibitionism."
This was in 2014. Two years later in January 2016, De Robertis was arrested and charged with public indecency and exhibitionism after lying naked in front of Manet’s Olympia.
The room that houses the painting was closed off to the public; De Robertis was arrested and kept in prison for two days. The painting, which displays a woman lying naked on a bed, was part of larger exhibition at the Musee d’Orsay entitled Splendours and Miseries: Images of Prostitution 1850-1910. In light of this, Robertis opined at her trial that it is a "total hypocrisy" to be removed from the Musee d’Orsay when the entire exhibition displayed hundreds of paintings and photographs of naked women.
While De Robertis spent 24 hours in a police cell for Miroir de l'Origine, De Robertis spent 48 hours in police custody for Olympia. Part of this time, De Robertis explains, was spent in a psychiatric ward. De Robertis’s lawyer informs me that this is a typical technique to intimidate the subject. De Robertis opines that intimidation and censorship are symbiotic, both an insidious violence to the artist’s freedom of expression.
This month, De Robertis will find herself in court on charges of "exhibitionism" for her performance I Want You To Lick My Ketchup that took place in Paris three months ago. In a conversation with De Robertis, she informs me that the charge is "always exhibitionism." (The charge seems ironic in light of the environments in which she is normally arrested.) This time, however, is the first time that De Robertis will face an actual legal case. Having been arrested previously, she has never had to face an actual court. Yet, at the end of the month, she will go on trial for these charges with the representation of French lawyer, Tewfik Bouzenoune, who is currently working to redress laws of exhibitionism and public indecency in France.
De Robertis is not the first artist to be arrested for her art. There are handfuls of artists who have had to confront the law as part of their artistic practice and there are hundreds of artists who have been curtailed and silenced at the hands of censorship. China’s feminist five have just been released after months in prison and we are all aware of the brutal treatment of Pussy Riot: activists and artists who have been hounded by the state for simply having something to say.
Across the history of performance art, stories of arrests, trials and court orders abound and this continues to this day. In 2014, Megumi Igarashi, a Japanese artist from Tokyo, was arrested on charges of obscenity. She used a 3-D printer to model her genitalia and then sent the data to someone that she was working with on the project. According to Igarashi, the data was related to a project where Igarashi builds a kayak shaped like her vagina, modeled from the 3-D printer data. There was outrage at the arrest and Igarashi was released a week later after successfully appealing her imprisonment. Five months later, Igarashi was arrested again on the premise of displaying an obscene object. Igarashi was indicted and charged with "obscenity display," "obscenity electromagnetic record," and "obscenity electromagnetic recording medium distribution." She was released on bail and her trial began in April 2015. Igarashi could face up to two years in prison and fines of up to 2.5 million yen (roughly $20,900).
These works and the artists who created them have set figurative and legal precedents. Yet, it is De Robertis’s confrontation with the museum and its associated policies and politics that provoke further questions about the relationship between art, the female body and the law. Deborah De Robertis’s unfaltering body of work powerfully highlights and challenges the gazes used to objectify the female body, especially within the history of art. She has herself said of the event, "The museum is perfectly happy to use nudity when it comes to encouraging people to come to the exhibition, and there are even pornographic films being shown in the museum, but when it comes to a contemporary artistic performance like mine, they don’t recognize it as art, and they censor it." While this is of course an argument about which bodies the Musee d’Orsay allows into the museum, this argument is also about which bodies it allows in and through which mediums. If Courbet is licensed to portray a close-up rendering of a vagina in a painting in 1866, why is an actual, live, cis-gendered female body not allowed to do the same in 2016?
The inclusion of departments dedicated to performance art, live art and dance within galleries across the globe continues to increase. Performance is now a regular part of most gallery programming. Tate, MoMA, The Whitney, the Van Abbemuseum as well as many more galleries and cultural institutions dedicate whole departments to performance, dance and live art. Performance now circulates on the art market with increasing appeal and desire. Tino Sehgal sells his work for extortionate amounts of money and with huge, unprecedented legal back and forth. In general it takes intricate and nuanced legal methods to acquire performance art. Once the work is acquired into the collection, displaying and curating works of performance offers huge financial and logistical challenges to the museum. How do we staff these durational events? What are the health and safety implications? How do we produce marketing campaigns for these performances? Copyright issues are pervasive and questions of intellectual property rights are difficult and often require conversations that are rarely had in galleries dedicated to acquiring stable, permanent objects such as painting and sculpture.
So at a time when the gallery is desperately trying to include and facilitate ephemeral, immaterial pieces of performance art (works that seek to challenge the object-obsessed gallery) why have these women and their bodies been rejected through the auspices of the law? Of course, they are not legally supposed to be there. Deborah De Robertis was charged with exhibitionism, but her performance had also not been "curated" or "programmed" into the "official" gallery rota and she had not followed the authorized administrative routes. In this sense, in the gallery, the law is a divisive force: It is used to include while simultaneously excluding and rejecting other performance works from the grounds of the gallery.
So while it is important to understand De Robertis’s nudity as a statement about the censorship of the female body or as "feminist protest statement," it is also a comment upon the programming, acquisition and curatorial choices of the museum. Indeed, Robertis has commented upon this herself, detailing that her performance was "an opportunity for the Musée d'Orsay to reconsider its position and review its politics and policies." One such policy is: Whose bodies do we allow within the hallowed echelons of the art gallery?
Indeed, with performance art now a gallery staple, why remove Robertis from the building? The rejection of Robertis’s body suggests a wider desire, which already exists across cultural and social history, to subject women’s bodies to pervasive surveillance and control. Yet it also suggests the tendency to arrest those who don’t sit within an established regime: the activists, the guerrilla artists, radicals, dissidents and political anarchists. The clue is also in the etymology of the word "arrest." The Latin "restare" means put a stop to, but arrest also means "to stop the life of." By arresting these artists, they not only take them into custody or put them under warranty, but they stop the life of their art. They put a stop to their bodies entering the public spaces of the museum. On an even more problematic level, for performance art which trades on being live, fleeting and ephemeral, we deny the life of these works: we remove the liveness from these performative actions, we arrest and suffocate the vitality, energy and political potency of these actions. We deny their entrance into art history.
More from BUSTBryony White is a writer and researcher based in London, UK. She has written for Apollo, Full-stop, The Learning Pig, The Quietus, Potluck and Funhouse Magazine. She is also a contributing writer for the Google Cultural Institute and has worked in numerous curatorial roles at Tate Modern and elsewhere. She is due to commence a AHRC funded PhD in September 2016 exploring the relationship between performance and the law at King's College London.