The war on sex

IN 1870, at the height of Victorian prudery, two young men were arrested in a London theatre. They were in women’s clothing, extravagantly made up, and flirting outrageously with anything in trousers. Their crime? ‘Incitement to sodomy.’

As their trial progressed, it became clear that their arrest was part of a plan hatched at the highest levels of the British government to crack down on’ sexual immorality.’ Unfortunately for the prosecution, ‘Fanny’ and ‘Stella’ also had connections with the rich and powerful, through the sexual underground which flourished beneath the veneer of Victorian respectability …

See my review of Fanny and Stella by Neil McKenna in the July 2013 issue of Australian Book Review.

Playing with knives

‘The cover of Shirley Hazzard’s The Great Fire shows a vast and terrible conflagration. Flames reach high into the sky, devouring the air and seeming to set the wide river alight. In the distance, an eerily familiar pair of ghostly towers rises above the smoke …’

See my review of SHIRLEY HAZZARD by Brigitta Olubas in the June 2013 issue of Australian Book Review.

This (hitchhiking) life

Once upon a time I was very familiar with the cars of other people. During my twenties I hitch-hiked everywhere. It was the public transport of my generation. At major intersections there would be a queue of us patiently waiting our turn to be picked up. You learned that travelling with a girl was easier. You learned to hide your pack behind a bush until a vehicle stopped. You learned to be agreeable and not to argue. Sometimes I made up stories about who I was, for the pleasure of lying without guilt or consequence.

I told one driver I was a zoologist, recently returned from studying tigers in Sumatra. There was an illicit thrill in making up convincing answers on the fly with zero knowledge of tigers, Sumatra, or any aspect of zoology whatsoever.

 ‘They mate for life,’ I said, ‘making nests high in the trees. There are less than 600 left now because of deforestation. We’re working to create reserves for them.’

’Good on you,’ said the driver. ‘Best of luck with that. I had no idea …’

I was suddenly filled with shame. It was like a bad taste in my mouth. There were no more stories about Sumatra or Antarctica or studying to be a nuclear scientist.

I remember an elderly couple in their 1960s car, gilt with chrome, perfectly maintained, the wrinkled seats still smelling of polished leather. The wife opened a tin box and took out sandwiches of white bread which they chomped on contentedly. After a while I realised they were not going to offer me one. A Thermos flask of tea then appeared, the cap turned over to become a cup. After testing the temperature with her little finger, the woman leaned over to let her husband sip the tea while he drove, as though she were feeding a baby. The old Ford was suffocating and I was glad to be dropped off at the next town. It felt as though I had been kidnapped and whisked back in time.

 There was the Scotsman driving north who asked me to read the signs at every intersection. He couldn’t read, he confessed. Every time he took an unfamiliar route, he picked up a hitch-hiker to navigate.

There were nurses in short skirts driving mini cars, playing loud music and smoking furiously.

But the lift I remember more than any was with a farmer, the car littered with straw and bits of machinery.

‘I can only take you 15 minutes down the road,’ he warned.

 I jumped in without a thought. It was almost dark and threatening to rain. He was going to visit his wife, the farmer said. He hadn’t seen her for a while and there was lots to tell. The tractor engine had blown a gasket but he’d found a replacement in the barn. A cow had given birth to twin calves, and that wasn’t the half of it. His wife was a music teacher, he said. They had almost nothing in common but were happy from the start. The car pulled off the road though a stone gateway. It was quite dark, no moon in the sky. Against the black sky I could make out the blacker outline of a church steeple.

‘She died six years ago,’ he said, answering my puzzled expression as I got out. ‘I come up a few times a week to have a chat and keep her company for a while.’

The car rolled on into the dark cemetery, its lights soon swallowed up by the shrubbery and looming yew trees.

I have stayed grateful to those kindly strangers who invited me into their cars. They were an important part of my education. Those brief encounters were the beginning of an important lesson: that other lives existed beside my own.

(First published in The Australian, 27 April 2013)

The girl with antlers

I often think of the girl with antlers.

Decades have passed since I first saw her, yet when I close my eyes she is there in every detail. Her face is oval, framed by falling hair, and almost pretty. I’m not usually drawn to a pretty face, preferring stronger lines or even jolie-laide like Charlotte Gainsbourg, but there was something special about the girl with antlers.

It was her expression I think: a knowing half-smile as she looked at you, as though in possession of some mysterious, wonderful secret.

She might be the younger, more mischievous sister of the Mona Lisa as described by Pater: ‘older than the rocks among which she sits; like the Vampire, she has been dead many times, and learned the secrets of the grave; and has been a diver in deep seas, and keeps their fallen day about her.’

Her breasts are bare and from her head grow two extravagant antlers. She bears them with pride, decorated with wild flowers which hang down in garlands entwining with her hair. The image has a quiet power as well as beauty, drawing your eye back again and again. It fascinates – in the original sense of fascinere, of casting a spell.

I don’t recall where I found the picture. In an antique shop in a Welsh country town one winter’s afternoon perhaps, or pressed between the pages of a book in my grandmother’s house. Wherever it came from, the picture hung on my wall for years while I was a student, alongside a nude by Mapplethorpe, a black-and-white photograph of Debbie Harry, and a landscape by Caspar David Friedrich. Somehow, in moving house, moving relationships, moving country, the picture was lost and I forgot about it for years.

I was in my thirties before I saw her again. Visiting a lawyer in Canberra on some business or other, I stopped enthralled as I entered his door. There she was: the girl with antlers. It was the very same image, hung in the hallway as though to announce the resident spirit.

I was running late. There were documents to sign in triplicate and deliver somewhere or other by 5 PM. Only as I rushed out, hurriedly shaking his hand, did I ask the bearded lawyer about that picture of the half-smiling girl, with honeysuckle, daisies, and eglantine hanging from her horns.

‘Ah, you know about her . . ’ he smiled, waving and closing the door behind me.

I have searched Google and Bing, Yahoo, and even Wolfram Alpha, but no search engine can find her for me. In scandinavian mythology, I learn, there was a goddess who ran with the reindeer herds, clothed only in furs and with spectacular horns growing from her head. She was a figure of potency and awe. A kind of Artemis. A search for images of ‘girls with antlers’ brought no more luck, delivering manga drawing to me, some pornographic curiosities, but mostly pictures of arty Tumblr girls, posing with horns held to their heads. My curiosity is shared, it seems, if not always in the same way.

I have never found that picture which so fascinated me. I often think of her, convinced the image has some meaning I can’t quite place, some ancient cult-like significance of which I am unaware. Perhaps I’ll never find her again, but if you see her, be sure to let me know.

Emperor Vladimir

We are all exiles. In time if not in space, we are inevitably parted from what is most familiar and dear to us. ’Loss’ is stamped in all our passports.

Vladimir Nabokov understood exile better than anyone. Heir to a wealthy, landowning family in Imperial Russia, he escaped the Communist revolution of 1917 to a life of genteel poverty in a Berlin boarding house. Scratching a living as a tennis and language tutor, he built a reputation by the 1930s as one of the best Russian writers alive. With his Jewish wife, Vera, Nabokov fled from Germany to France, and then to the United States. His father, a prominent liberal, was shot by a right-wing assassin in 1922. His gay brother, Sergey, was murdered in a concentration camp in 1945. Loss, then, was something Nabokov understood all too well …

In the September 2012 issue of the Australian Book Review, I write about Vladimir Nabokov and a new collection of essays on him by Brian Boyd, Stalking Nabokov.

For see the review-essay in full, see the September 2012 issue or subscribe at ABR.

Image: Rozhdestveno, seat of the former Nabokov family estate in Russia.

DO YOU REMEMBER THEM ON THE TELEVISION NEWS? Stumbling down gangplanks onto our shores, with flickering cubes of light instead of heads. Wearing strange clothes and eating stranger food. They harboured terror and disease. They were said to sacrifice their children.

How did it come to this . . ?

See my review of Robin de Crespigny’s The People Smuggler in the latest issue of Australian Book Review, featuring a gorgeous cover by Bill Henson.

Rennie Ellis vs The Anti-Sex League

An exhibition of prints by Rennie Ellis at Mossgreen Gallery features photographs taken in the clubs of St Kilda and the Cross. Strippers on stage and off. Drag queens. Exotic acts (think naked dancer, snake). The equally exotic moustaches of the MCs.

The years since Ellis died in 2003 have seen a surprising resurgence of the Anti-Sex League in Australia. Who would have thought? Another of the surprises which the twenty-first century sprang on us. In George Orwell’s 1984,  the Anti-Sex League worked to combat ‘sexcrime’ – any sexual activity apart from ‘intercourse between man and wife, for the sole purpose of begetting children, and without physical pleasure on the part of the woman’. These words might have been written in the fourth century by that original killjoy, St Augustine. As we know the spirit of the League lives on in fundamentalist religious cultures today, where a raped girl is stoned to death for ‘adultery’ with her attacker. Even in the United States, the current hot issue in national politics is not employment or the economy, but whether President Obama will allow Americans to receive contraceptive advice under private health policies, if their employers regard it as ‘sinful’.

‘Absolutely revolting . . .’

Remember back in 2008 when the Rosyln Oxley Gallery was raided by police, and works by one of Australia’s most respected artists seized? (Bill Henson also had to endure the Prime Minister of the day, Kevin Rudd, calling his work ‘absolutely revolting’ and of ‘no artistic value’.) No case was found, so the NSW Government changed the law so that ‘Artistic Purpose’ is no longer a defence against a charge of pornography. The Federal Government has been dogged in pursuing an Internet Censorship Filter – sold to the public as blocking child pornography (who could argue?) –  but now extended to a growing list of sexual and other material claimed to ‘offend against the standards of morality’. Since then we have also had the hysterical attacks on legalisation of marriage for all people, and the sacking of ministers and political candidates in Queensland and New South Wales for ‘non-regular’ sexual behaviour. OK, you want to know, don’t you? Visiting a gay brothel (NSW) and attending a ‘swingers’ party’ (QLD).

Perhaps evoking Orwell’s Anti-Sex League doesn’t seem so far-fetched. The most terrifying aspect of 1984, after all, is not political, but the State’s attack on the very existence of private life.

Currying favour with evangelical swinging voters (not the QLD kind) is part of the story, but current policies reflect genuine convictions among politicians too, many of whom have strong religious beliefs. Yet what lies behind this belief that the government has a right to judge and control essentially private, personal activities which do no harm? To  poke about in its citizens’ pants? (What blogger and sexual commentator, ultra-hedonist, calls the panicked ‘gagging response’ to forms of sexuality which make them feel uncomfortable.) We see here, surely, the conviction – familiar from two thousand years of Christianity – that the body and sex are intrinsically shameful, and the more that sexuality varies from the ‘norm’, the more shameful it is, and in need of control.

How curious and sad it is to view the human form in this way, for we are our bodies – embodied beings – and turning against it in this way is a kind of self-hatred, a hatred sometimes turned against others.

Rennie Ellis’s photographs are a refreshing contrast to these attitudes.

The images in This is the Show  (large silver-gelatin or C-type prints) are extraordinary, intimate portraits of people who worked in strip clubs during the 1970s and 1980s. Ellis was a superb photographer, both technically and as an artist. (It’s no surprise that his works hang in overseas collections as well as at the National Gallery of Australia, National Portrait Gallery, and many State collections.) They are wide-eyed, entirely non-judgmental images, delighting in the variety, idiosyncrasy and beauty of people and their behaviour in all its forms.

Some images show the ‘exotic dancers’ backstage, matter-of-factly chatting and smoking as they prepare for the show, entirely comfortable with their nudity. The relaxed grace of their limbs is like that of the ballet dancers in Degas’ backstage paintings. Some show the club entrances with their marquee lights and signage: ‘Action shows!’, ‘A Thrill a minute!’, followed by a bathetic ‘Warm inside’. Other photographs reveal a delicate beauty, as in Lady Medina 1977, a poignant close-up of the naked stripper, her face glistening with make-up beneath which a rash of spots can be made out. Dark eyes stare out at the viewer, as if to say, ‘Yes, I am a person, just like you.’

In contrast to the Anti-Sex League and its real-life followers, Rennie Ellis’ attitude – implicit in these images and all his work – lies in the words of the Roman writer, Terence, which Bruce Chatwin revered and chalked up boldly on his wall:

I am human; nothing human is alien to me.

The shock of MONA

What is the most shocking thing about Hobart’s Museum of Old and New Art?

David Walsh’s extraordinary new museum has received its fair share of media coverage since being opened a year ago. This often focused on its cost ($75 million of Walsh’s own money) or the ‘scandalous’ nature of some exhibits, such as Greg Taylor’s Cunts: A Conversation pictured above (controversy which the museum seems to delight in). More eruditely, there has been furious debate about whether the collection is simply a rich man’s Cabinet of Curiosities or whether it truly ‘helps us to lead better lives’ (the quaint, almost Stalinist view of the civic function of art argued by philosopher, John Armstrong in Island magazine).

MONA is an exhilarating place to visit. There are any number of reasons for this. The dramatic buildings and site. The eclectic, unblinking nature of the opening exhibition on sex and death: ‘Monanism’. The fact that one can freely take photographs. The irreverent comments by Walsh himself about some of the exhibits. And not forgetting the bar in the basement …

But what shocked me most was the difference made by the absence of any labels or directions whatsoever about how to view the exhibits. Our initial encounter with each artwork is totally unmediated by contextual ‘noise’. Not even the barest detail.

In other galleries, we can ignore the patronising ‘explications’ often displayed next to art works, but cannot help checking the title, the artist, the date. Yet even these interfere with our experience of the work, filtering what the eye sees through everything we may happen to know know about Rothko, about the development of perspective drawing, or Caravaggio’s tempestuous life.

Is that painted carven head from an Egyptian tomb? An anatomical model from the Renaissance? Or a new piece by Damien Hirst? Even the artist’s name or a date mediates how we perceive a work, instead of leaving the individual’s eye to see and sensibility to react.

All you could want to know about any work at MONA is on hand by checking the iPod guide, but this becomes a secondary and optional act to seeing itself. This naked, exhilarating encounter with the artworks at MONA is the museum’s most shocking revelation for the visitor – one which which will long outlast any philistine outrage over the poignant line of pudenda in Taylor’s ‘conversation piece.’