Ben Terakes and I are housemates. And in the way that sharing any living space with another person means a bricolage of furniture, books and trinkets, there are traces of Ben and his practice throughout the apartment. He once described his work as being on a domestic scale, and indeed, when you pass the living room bookcase, there, standing idle next to a copy of J.G. Ballard’s Crash (1973) is a clay, phallic object (dildo-like in size and shape) painted the colours (aqua blue and orange) of the National Football League’s Miami Dolphins, who, when Googled, appear better known for their cheerleading squad than the team itself. All of this seemed relevant to my discussion with Ben about pornography and contemporary art. Which is to say, Ben’s practice is both sprawling in its conceptual focus and deeply focused in its obsession with finding the sexual in the everyday. For the sake of some logic, the conversation began at some kind of beginning.
Toby Chapman: I wanted to start the conversation by asking you about an early work which was in fact exhibited at your undergraduate show. It was a text-based banner which read I WANK IN THE SHOWER AND CUM BEFORE I’M HARD. I think it speaks to a number of elements of your practice that relate to porn or sexuality. It speaks of a kind of carnal lust rather than love. It takes a private and intimate moment, and places it starkly in a public space. At a base level, I think the definition and parameters of pornography are probably based on manners rather than morality. Do you agree? What was your experience in the context of this early work?
Ben Terakes: Ah yes, it caused heaps of problems. The college (Sydney College of the Arts) threatened to pull it down, as it was deemed offensive. Ultimately though, it was a great experience. Fellow students made badges and printed t-shirts with the slogan on it, and at least two lecturers vehemently defended the work. In the end, I had to make it a performance, in which we hung the banner at 6 pm on the night of the opening, so that at least some people saw it. Student services never ended up cutting it down though, a big storm hit the following night, so I’ve always joked that God pulled it down for them.
I think that work was extremely simple, nothing was thrown in to complicate it, like I do these days. It’s a proclamation of inadequacy not provocation. I don’t think it even really questioned social morals. I mean, most people just laughed when they saw it, some even patted me on the back, like we’d just played a game of footy.
But I certainly think the role of the artist (or at least some artists) is to act outside morality, or at least question social morality. I think the negotiation is as simple as ‘doing no harm’… then go ahead and do what you need to do. I’m really not sure that there are any parameters beyond that.
TC: More recently your exhibition, BRIGHT END OF THE WORLD (2012) dealt with peripheral sexuality and pornography, particularly zoophilia. What do you think the function of porn is?
BT: Looking at porn from an art-making perspective I think it operates both socially and morally. That is, to look beyond the obvious function. It connects people, especially those with transgressive sexualities… I’m not here to decide whether this is good or bad. Morally I think porn functions in the same way. At it’s best I think porn can test morality in the same way art can… But again I’m not here to decide if porn has a good or bad outcome on social morality. Though, I think it CAN ask the right questions sometimes.
In terms of that show, I was totally captivated by this case in Enumclaw (2012) in Washington state in the US, where a guy died from having sex with a stallion. I’m sure everyone around me got really sick of hearing about Enumclaw! I think I had some sort of epiphany while I was researching the case. It was the first time I ever looked at the internet as a way of connecting people.
I guess I mean more than just through social media and other forms of communication. It really connects people, in a real sense. I totally understand that this can have negative effects on people and even the world, but the simple gravity of this connection is surely worthy of exploration. No doubt we will discover more about humanity through these connections than we’ve ever dreamed.
Researching cases like the one in Enumclaw has definitely broadened my personal definition of porn. If pornography is anything that gets someone off (I guess that’s my definition) then I think there is probably no end to the breadth of images to be found, and then again no limit to the amount of people who are connected via this content. It’s strange how I’ve never been interested in ‘internet-based work’ in the past and now somehow, I find myself in a position where it would be very hard to work without it. I still feel as if I’m not making work about the internet… but maybe I’m just kidding myself.
TC: Following BEOTW you started experimenting with readymade sculptures, or at least sculptures that were conceived as readymade forms, in particular homemade dildos. What was your initial attraction to working with these objects?
BT: The dildos started as shits, and the shits started as dildos. It’s like the chicken and the egg to me. I think there is something incredibly important to humanity that at some point we decided to create and mass produce fake shits… to make us laugh? In the same way, I think dildos are one of the most fascinating inventions for humans. They are both just incredibly human objects. They are funny and can be a little scary.
Dildos are extremely domestic objects to me—maybe the ultimate domestic object. They’re hand-held, battery powered, ergonomic, waterproof, easy to clean! It’s hard to imagine a more perfectly domestic object… They are, obviously, sexually charged too. I’ve always found the connection between sex and mundane domesticity really fascinating, for the same reasons I’m fascinated by home-made or DIY porn. You’re invited to witness a sex act in a private domestic space, but these videos can be extremely mundane! Men opening and closing blinds to let more or less light in on their partner, DURING sex… I mean, they’re great, simple performance works.
That combo of the domestic and the sexual can be a scary place too, I think this insidiousness is very important. You can only laugh so much before it all gets a bit uncomfortable. I try to emulate that in my work.
TC: You recently built your first website which includes a page titled RESEARCH. It contains a selection of images sourced from the Internet – women, rocks, asteroids, some furniture. Can you explain how you decided on this selection of images? I’m particularly interested in this webpage in relation to a concept that we’ve discussed before; the mental disease of Aphasia which affects individuals’ abilities to properly categorise subjects, images or objects. Foucault described the aphasiac as being so aware of similarities or gradients that they are unable to make distinctions or decisions, often leaving them literally unable to speak. How does this concept speak to your collation of images, and perhaps also a new work you are producing, PORNSTARS?
BT: I think the Internet inspires/forces this type of aphasia on the user. I began working in an office full-time a few years ago, and am exposed to a huge amount of web-based imagery because I sit in front of a computer screen eight hours a day. I began collecting images in lieu of making work in a studio—simple images that appeal to me on a certain level; mostly women, yes, but these don’t really reference pornography at all. The women featured here are always clothed and sit alongside other incongruous images; chimpanzees, famous boxers, asteroids, stars and even furniture. There is no way I could sit here and explain to you why these images are significant to me or each other. The only link is me, and the only reason they could possibly be read collectively as art is because I call myself an artist and they exist together only on my website.
I think your eyes are always searching for something attractive, something to hold your attention/captivate. And perhaps that’s the only reason these images are there, together.
Ideally I’d like to be able to tell you that I want my art to be the perfect mess that porn can be, full of incongruities and mistakes that needn’t be explained. But I also like the simplicity of porn, the minimal, clean sets and the way it answers every question we ask of it. It’s always interesting trying to come to grips with both aspects.
The PORNSTARS work is so new; I mean, I’ve been working on it for years but I think it’s only barely coming together now. I’ve been collecting the names of porn actors and actresses for years, and I think ultimately I will show just a big, hand-written list on butchers’ paper. I want to honour them somehow, but simply. I’ve also begun assigning colours to each of the four or five hundred names; incongruous colour categories. So I think some kind of colour chart made using bingo markers will be shown alongside the names. I suppose the bingo markers are the domestic/mundane complicator to the names?
TC: You’ve mentioned previously that the photographs of female celebrities often included in your works function almost like witnesses. Can you expand on this idea of ‘witnessing’ as opposed to viewing, and what the relationship of the witness might be within the context of watching porn?
BT: I think the act of looking or gazing is very important to my work, as I enjoy that voyeuristic aspect. But I also need to be watched; I like to have witnesses. I think to a degree all artists get off on that. I’m not so sure of how these images work at the moment. I’ve shown images of women sourced from the web before—Jennifer Love Hewitt/Kylie Gillies—they have been witnesses, I think, to the work going on around them. They are hard to categorise. They aren’t artwork, but they often HAVE to be around the work. I guess they’re forced to witness the work or the work being made, perhaps in lieu of an audience. I used to do a lot of live performance work – perhaps these celebs are around to watch now. I suppose instead of me or the paparazzi spying on them I am using them to spy on me.
A witness doesn’t ask to be present to see an action, they simply see it. In this way the girls view the works in passive silence. They could be likened to a third person in a room watching a sex act, or like the camera on a porn set. There are the players and the viewer, and then there is this passive watcher, almost forced into the room. They add a level of complication to the work, like asking “why is that person at my party?”
TC: Thinking about another psychological position in your work, you’ve titled a forthcoming exhibition ANOTHER (MOSSY) GARDEN – a reference to Vladimir Nabokov’s Lolita (1955). Can you explain what drew you to this book, and in particular this excerpt?
BT: Humbert (the protagonist of Lolita) is a man, but he acts on impulse like a boy. There is a childish teenaged aspect to him that makes him more palatable to the reader; we sympathise with his lecherousness. The work I’m creating at the moment is problematic, in that it’s new, and I’m unsure how it’s all working together. I think the only tie that binds it, is the pubescent male. When speaking plainly, I think the teenage boy sees sex in everything, and every experience. And this sex is new and so complicated. It is potentially fun and funny, but is also scary and threatening. The joke could always be on you. I think these are all the things we’ve been talking about around my work at the moment.
TC: I’m interested in the conflation of sexuality and the mundane in your work. It suggests a general presence of pornography in our society. Slavoj Zizek has written about an overall ‘privatisation of public space’ in the sense that the public domain is becoming a place for private activities. As an example, he speaks about a growing trend of ‘public porn’ – porn filmed in or on public services (trains, trams, buses, city squares, etc). In a very Utopian sense contemporary art is also part of the public domain. What has been porn’s impact on art?
BT: Sex is domestic and mundane; well, sex can be domestic and mundane. Homemade porn, as I said before, can be really interesting. I think this is true for public porn too, I mean it’s almost not real porn in that there is a lot going on here besides the sex act, often instead of the sex act.
It is true there may be more porn in our society; there is certainly more porn freely available. Society has allowed porn to be more diverse than ever before, as I said there often isn’t a sex act involved or even nakedness. Chican is a good example; a Japanese term which describes ‘public groping’ porn. There is really only rubbing and touching through the clothes in a public space. It’s extremely mundane. Nearly always in chican, a woman pretends she doesn’t notice the man touching her, and the witnesses to the act (often on public transport) also pretend not to notice. It makes for very strange, sometimes unsettling pornography.
Again it comes back to that connection between sex and the mundane and how these two subjects can be insidious, or even threatening. I think this type of mainstream porn skirts the edges of morality; it’s a mine for new artwork. But I also think that much beyond this lies a pretty dark place, a place which doesn’t have any bearing on my work or any interest to me. It’s a place that, instead of questioning social morality,ignores it or smashes it to pieces. It leaves no room for work to be made around it.
TC: You’ve often created or recreated sets or stages from porn film shoots. Can you speak about your interest in porn as performance?
BT: Porn can be read as some of the most interesting performance art. It’s only that we don’t deem it art that it cannot be called performance, I guess? And I’m really unsure how I feel about the crossover anyway—like artists who make porn, or pornographers who [claim to] make art. Obviously home video porn is the most relevant here, as it’s as old as home video art and I think the two have been moving forward in tandem. I think some of the most interesting and valuable performance art has all the hallmarks of homemade porn. Simple single shots with simple lighting and often repetitive actions, with very little dialogue.
If you look at Paul McCarthy’s or Mike Kelley’s early performances, or more recently Tony Schwensen’s, they all have these hallmarks. They don’t put too much emphasis on anything other than capturing the action. They often use unadulterated domestic space to document the actions, which although amusing and even funny at the outset have somewhat threatening undertones.
As my own interest in making performance waned and my excitement for creating objects intensified, I became really interested in making sets or sites for action. Initially I built some theatre flats in front of an audience as part of a performance weekend at Artspace years ago. Since then my sets have taken many different forms. Initially, I made a small-scale diorama of a domestic lounge room in which a dog and a cat figurine copulate on the carpet. More recently I have made larger scale installations like Porno pond (or Emperor’s Garden Chinese Restaurant) (2013), which references the classic Chinese restaurant water feature as a site for a sex act. At the moment I’m building some portable glory holes, similar to simple theatre flats with a hole drilled out. They are stages for human interaction, and yet they aren’t real glory holes as they don’t serve anonymous sex. They just complicate the sex act, maybe they imply a barrier to the act.
Ben Terakes was born in Sydney, Australia. To date, his practice includes painting, embroidery, performance, and most recently, sculpture and installation. To describe his work as...
Toby Chapman is a curator and arts manager currently based in Sydney. Toby received a BA (Art History & Theory and Film Studies (Honours) from...