Last night was the opening of "Preservatif" at Stockholm in the Fortress Building in Milwaukee. I've known about the exhibition for weeks, and was looking forward to seeing how on earth it was going to come together. The intrigue: the exhibition is made out of 21,000 pounds of donated, expired condoms. Woah.
In my head, this exhibition was a giant pile of unwrapped condoms thrown on the floor in different patterns, or something along those lines. I did not expect the fine craftsmanship that went into many of the works, or the variety of other materials that were used in tandem with the condoms. Additionally, there were several pieces whose conceptual merit gave me shivers as I wandered through the exhibition. Not to mention the space itself, which seemed the perfect venue for hosting the work of 23 different artists.
Stockholm, an event space in the Fortress Building
I was impressed, not just by the quality of the show, but at the amount of questions that the exhibition raised (no pun intended), as condoms, it seems, are usually at the butt of every joke (again, no pun intended).
First question: Why was the opening of this show on a Monday (December 1st)?
Answer: The scheduling was no accident. December 1st happens to be World AIDS Day. This connection was perhaps the most apparent in a piece by Kim Hindman entitled, Keep it to Yourself.
Kim Hindman, Keep it to Yourself, 2014
The piece is actually four arrangements of hand drawn images of different sexually transmitted diseases such as Gonorrhea and Chlamydia. Its simplicity reminds us of the dual function of condoms as birth control and as a barrier against STDs.
Second question: Why are there so many expired condoms in the world, anyways?
Answer: I don't know. I don't manufacture condoms. But this piece by Tara Bogart can perhaps explain why condoms aren't used as often as we might think they are.
Tara Bogart, Desire Tabulations, 2014
On first glance I thought this piece was hilarious. Portraits of men were placed opposite from bowls of condoms. Some of the bowls were full, like this one above. Others were almost empty, or had only a few condoms in them. I thought it was quite brave of these men to reveal how much sexual activity they had had over the past year. But then I realized that the amount of condoms in the bowl is not a good indicator of how much sex a man has. Men don't use condoms for a variety of different reasons. Maybe they are married. Maybe they are trying to have a baby with their partner. Maybe they are sterile. This piece, and my initial laughter at the piece, made me think about the pressure men are faced with to have many sexual partners.
Third question: Why are condoms so taboo, anyways?
Answer: Your guess is as good as mine, but it seems to stem from the fact that sex, in general, is rather taboo, and usually talked about in secret rather than as a natural, necessary part of life. No one portrayed this better than Kim Dickey in this piece, a quilt pieced together from the back pockets of jeans.
Kim Dickey, Rest Assured, X Boyfriends, 2014
This close-up reveals a hidden condom in one of the pockets. I actually had a lighthearted argument with a guy next to me as to whether or not there is a condom in each pocket. I never found out the answer, but my guess is yes. To me this piece indicates the secrecy of sex, and the way its secrecy leads people to hide a milieu of important sexual information from their partners, friends, doctors, etc. This piece was one whose conceptual merit literally stopped me in my tracks.
Fourth question: How much semen can a condom actually hold?
Answer: This much.
Demitra Coupolos, Public Safety Test, 2014
Demitra Coupolos' piece tested the boundaries of the material makeup of condoms, revealing their strength under extreme duress. If ever you've doubted the durability of condoms, well, doubt no more (although, the use of expired ones is still not recommended).
Fifth question: What would feminist artists and art historians think of this whole thing?
Answer: I couldn't help but laugh and think about feminists like Linda Nochlin, author of "Why Have There Been No Great Women Artists," and Judy Chicago, creator of the most vile piece of art on the planet, The Dinner Party.
Judy Chicago, The Dinner Party, 1939 [source: The Brooklyn Museum]
Chicago's piece is a womb-shaped dinner table set for powerful women from history, complete with a hand-crafted vagina at every place. I hate it with an intense passion despite its significance to art history. Chicago probably would have hated this piece by Melissa Dorn Richards with an equal passion.
Melissa Dorn Richards, Tent, 2014
This giant phallus could be seen from any point in the room, clearly referencing phallic art historical monuments and men's domination of the art world (or at least, that's what Judy Chicago might think). Phallus or not, it seems to be comically referencing the tradition of the phallus in art history rather than celebrating it. There is also the obvious fact that it is made by a woman. Additionally, it is still part of the larger exhibition, which, as a whole, felt feminine. I mean this in the stereotypical sense that it quite felt vulnerable. From the blatant vulnerability of a room full of strangers looking at sexually charged objects, to the more specific vulnerability of pieces like Dickey's and Bogart's, the exhibition did not feel like a masculine playground, but a meeting of the sexes, lunging forward together in a battle against sexual taboos and STDs. Women can also realize that an increase in sexual education about condoms can only benefit them.
In reading the literature about this exhibition I learned that "preservatif" is actually the French word for condom. Knowing this, it seems fitting (pun?) that these condoms were preserved to be used in this exhibition. That was the other great thing about this show, how every artist took the medium of the condom so seriously. I advise you to take this show seriously as well, and go check it out before it closes this Friday. It's free! Unless you want to make a $5 donation, which goes towards a good cause. You'll also get some free condoms! Use them wisely.