There’s a tradition of artists taking libraries as their subjects. Martha Rosler put her book collection on view at New York’s e-flux space in 2005-06; Meriç Algün Ringborg, in a 2013 project for New York’s Art in General, created a “Library of Unborrowed Books,” volumes that had never been checked out from the collection of Manhattan’s members-only Center for Fiction.But let’s talk about sex, shall we?Cubitt’s been shooting his videos (there are currently nine) since 2012, and his site says they’ve been watched over 30 million times. But this is the first time they’re appearing in an art museum. Cubitt hasn’t gone without notice in the art world. He’s shown work in group shows at Larissa Goldston Gallery and Envoy Gallery (both in New York) while also working as an editorial photographer with clients like Vogue and Rolling Stone. According to his website, he’s done advertising work for Converse, Microsoft, and HBO, among other corporate clients.
One of his readers is an “adult performer,” one works in fashion, one is an actress and comedian, and several are artists. Stoya, the “adult performer,” reads an excerpt of Supervert’s book Necrophilia Variations, which the author’s website describes as “a literary monograph on the erotic attraction to corpses and death.” (Supervert also has a book about the “erotic potential of alien life.”) Alicia reads from Walt Whitman’s poem “Leaves of Grass.” Solé reads Toni Morrison’s Beloved. The selections are not exactly Fifty Shades of Grey, to Cubitt’s and the performers’ credit.The videos are both funny and hot. The contrast between cerebral and carnal is amusing. To avoid any associations with pornography, the videos are in staid black-and-white. The project also provocatively touches on female desire and sexual pleasure, which, as feminist critics and theorists have often pointed out, tends to make people, uh, uncomfortable.
Cubitt is also a commercial photographer who has shot portraits of subjects ranging from New Orleans mayor Ray Nagin to artists including Dan Graham and David Byrne, and musicians including Ninja from Die Antwoord and rapper Rick Ross. According to an “FAQ” page on the project’s website, the orgasm videos aim to “short-circuit the practiced poses of modern media-savvy portrait subjects.”“Hysterical Literature” isn’t the first artwork to show women experiencing le petit mort, as the French call it. Gianlorenzo Bernini’s The Ecstasy of St. Teresa (1644-47) is the greatest example. But actually, it’s hard to think of others.