Superior Goods and Household Gods: Art, or pornography?

Polly Checkland Harding

Castlefield Gallery’s exhibition uses controversial methods to question the politics of desire – all as part of Wonder Women 2015.

Superior Goods and Household Gods will be “kind of sparse”, according to one of its curators – but the ideas it touches on are not. A 20-minute conversation with Matthew Pendergast, co-curator of this exhibition (with artist Sarah Hardacre), ranges from female body builders to advertising, by way of pornography and psychoanalysis. To explain: this is an exhibition that uses sculpture, collage, performance and video to explore consumerism and desire. It’s not prudish, either – from a fast-moving collage of pornography by Suzanne Posthumus (“loosely censored,” says Pendergast) to a body builder “Posedown” on preview night, the boundary between art and obscenity will be heavily interrogated.

The boundary between art and obscenity will be heavily interrogated

Take a piece by British pioneer of feminist art, Margaret Harrison, as an example. She has recreated a painting of Hugh Hefner in a bunny girl costume, which was lost when her 1971 solo show in London was shut down by police after just one day on the grounds of indecency. “The original piece disappeared, no one knows where,” says Pendergast, who uses the story as an example both of the gender imbalance in how eroticism is judged (would a woman in a bunny costume have caused such a stir?), and of how authorities regulate what we should and shouldn’t desire.

This is where the influence of advertising comes in. Pendergast describes a video work for Superior Goods and Household Gods by Adham Faramawy as “kind of like an exercise video.” In it, a man who is “pudgy, with a weird moustache” does a workout “tackle-out.” The video is shown with a settee opposite, recreating the way adverts appear on the screens in our homes, but its subject, that man with the weird moustache, also subverts advertising’s aspirational emphasis. Here, Pendergast references the historically underhand tactics of Edward Bernays, the man who invented Public Relations, relating how Bernays paid actresses to smoke on a suffragette march and then had them photographed by press as a way of increasing the number of women who smoked (which, at the time, was relatively low).

Desire feels like something that’s fairly fallible here. What will be interesting is on what side Castlefield Gallery’s audience will think the artworks fall; whether they highlight and subvert the often dubious ways in which we are influenced, or become part of the problem. Come to the preview night on Thursday 5 March, watch a female body builder pose against an amateur male (the artist of the work), and decide for yourself.

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