City Paper – Art feature, “Fetish”

From the May 2, 1997 issue of the Washington City Paper.

In Search of the Missing Kink

DCAC’s “Fetish” prompts questions about what drives the bondage market.

By Virginia Vitzthum

David Page’s Nosewheel is the dark centerpiece of “Fetish,” a 10-artist show at the District of Columbia Arts Center (DCAC). A fitted, black body suit is suspended horizontally from the frame of a delicate 7-foot-long tricycle. Its theoretical occupant hangs belly down, head pulled back. A breathing tube curves up from the bag’s blank face and arcs over its back, and a large fin droops down from its feet, brushing the two back wheels. It’s a nightmare Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, built to roll a bound and blinded rider face-first into the water. Yet despite its horrific function, the piece also has a benign Rube Goldberg silliness and a spidery grace. Like all of Page’s work, it is built to fit his compact body, but at the opening May 2 he will occupy his full-body Retro Straitjacket. He won’t be mingling.

Michael Hunter’s black dress of nylon and leather is another piece occasionally inhabited by its artist, who clearly enjoys cutting a wide swath. The gown’s bustle juts out 2 feet on each side; monstrous mutton sleeves end in chain-mail cuffs. The imperious outfit is topped with a foot-high headdress of leather, metal, and feathers. Whether adorning its 6-foot-2 creator or a mannequin (as it will be when displayed for “Fetish,” which runs to May 25), the metal-studded ensemble possesses architectural scale, like a small annex to a Victorian torture dungeon.

“Fetish” jewelry includes Lauren Schott’s earrings and bracelets of gold, silver, and nails (their tips facing out), John Hattleberg’s necklace of penis-shaped pearls, and Eric Margry’s rubber and sterling bracelets. Curator Linda Hesh has built leather vests studded with gem nipples, and Tracy Rose is displaying her silver adult-size pacifiers. Straying furthest from the theme are Richard Ross’ wall boxes crammed with “the detritus of society”; for this show, however, he offers up a salaciously defaced teddy bear. Carl Tese’s Voodoo is a leggy end table of chicken feathers and mahogany, and Rosemary Covey’s gothic wood prints include Nkonde, which depicts a wild-eyed maiden cavorting with a tiny skeleton.

In early March, eight of the “Fetish” artists came to dinner at their curator’s house, where they showed slides of their work and designed a promotional postcard. They turned out to be a tightknit group: Six of them share body fluids with another member of the group. Page, who makes constricting helmets as well as the full-body numbers, is married to Baltimore jeweler Schott. (Her bread and butter is that most enduring fetish item–wedding bands.) Rose and Ross just moved from Northeast up to Baltimore together. Hosts Hesh and Margry, both jewelers, are another married couple. Tese, a furniture maker, and Hunter are each happily coupled, but not with anyone in the show.

“I was surprised how easy this show was to curate. I guess all my friends are perverts,” says Hesh. Curating is a natural for the bossy ex-New Yorker, who regularly makes citizen’s arrests of aesthetic criminals: “You should cut your hair,” “That couch is hideous.” In the language of S&M, B&D, or pro wrestling, Hesh is a top, but a nurturer top, the kind of dominatrix who’d recommend a good salve for those cuts.

She is also a supremely competent organizer: A few weeks after the dinner, 1,000 postcards are in the mail, dildo ‘n’ leather purveyor Pleasure Place has been enlisted as sponsor, and the show has grown a performance wing. To make more “Fetish,” performance art promoter Kim Chan and DCAC director B. Stanley have organized Saturday afternoons of poetry, dance, and performance in DCAC’s black box theater.

The highlight of the series, say Chan and Stanley, is local performance artist Sherman Fleming’s re-creation of a piece he’s done twice outside D.C. Burning candles drip from a rack onto Fleming, who is down on his hands and knees, wearing a thong. Above and beside him, a reclining woman is suspended in a harness over a reflecting pool, with water splashing continuously over her. The piece ends after several hours, when the wax has formed a cast of Fleming’s body. Stanley, who has run the theater/performance troupe Theatre du Jour for 15 years, characterizes Fleming’s piece as both more old-school, object-producing performance art (now everyone does videos) and refreshingly mysterious. “It’s not so obvious. There’s no blood, no sexual stuff, because that’s the easy way out….You know, just go out and pull the lamb’s head off.”

According to Stanley, Fleming has experimented extensively to find wax with a low melting point and body-coating oils that repel heat. Such sensible precautions suggest that Fleming, like the other pleasant, personable artists in this show, is not enslaved by sexual deviance. Though some of their art alludes to it, none of these people appears stuck in the loop of true fetish, endlessly lunging at an out-of-reach carrot. The specificity of want (it has to be that shoe, that script, that movement) means the fetishist must keep trying, over and over, to get it right. And the compulsion to repeat a detailed action not only constitutes a psychiatric diagnosis, it’s also how hell is often depicted–some pointless ritual performed through eternity.

Torture pioneer Page says that, indeed, his sexual bent is not that bent. “You read books like Erotic Power and Different Loving, and you realize nobody ever realizes their fantasy sexually, so to express it artistically is a better goal.” He may not be one of the differently loving, but he is full of fun facts about their favorite practices, especially the compulsion to be encased and swaddled: “In mental hospitals, they’d wrap people in wet linen sheets. The sheets would shrink as they dried and comfort the person.”

Though Page makes the distinction between private and artistic obsession, he may be more simpatico with a particular group of outliers than the other artists in the show. “The first time I saw a picture of Houdini [in a straitjacket], I said, ‘Wow, I want one of those.'” Though he hedges about just how much he likes being wrapped up, Page insists the art’s the thing, not sexual gratification. “If you just want to get off, you can get something cheaper….I do have some customers who buy because [restraints] are their thing, but I want to sell to people who are impressed with the object. Selling to the others is preaching to the choir.”

Hunter also refuses to be tucked into a subculture: “Costumes are a fetish for me; drag isn’t–though it’s something I’ve done professionally.” Though he allows his dress was “built for my own pleasure,” he claims that it’s lighthearted dress-up pleasure, nothing like the Angora torment of drag forefather Ed Wood.

Hesh and Rose completely eschew the pathological side of fetish, as their work celebrates the wholesome pleasures of, respectively, nipple sensation and sucking. One of Rose’s silver pacifiers is a squash ball-size sphere with a tiny nipple. “I can’t get it in my mouth,” she admits, “but I have TMJ.” Another looks more like a standard baby pacifier in silver, with a heart-shaped shield covering the face well beyond the mouth.

Her pieces hang from the neck like rave-kid accessories, to which her double pacifier most amusingly refers. It’s perfect for a pair of womb-seekers to suck away at in a 180bpm trance, their smiley-faced chests 10 inches apart. But Rose says she can’t say whether her sexual preferences inform her work: “I can’t separate me from the societal thing of the moment of silence, the infantilization. I mean, I don’t have a personal sucking collection or anything.”

Hesh’s three vests, which she says “depict nipples being stimulated,” flirt with functionality and feature stones set in metal disks that lie against the chest. The first has two pink tourmalines surrounded by aureoles of metal rivets. The jewels “represent the tingly feeling,” Hesh explains. The other woman’s vest has big gold spirals, suggesting “nipples being twisted.” The man’s vest is rougher still, with jagged holes allowing actual poke-through. Like Hesh’s vests, Margry’s inflatable bracelets bring off rude wit simply and ingeniously. Margry has wound silver in delicate spirals, through which inflated inner tubes (some black, some pink) bulge lewdly. Like the other pieces in the show, their work reflects an obsession with beautiful, well-designed things.

Chan offers her definition of the show’s theme, saying that a fetish is “a person, an object, or an action. And there has to be an element of obsession, of pleasure.” Once she and Stanley decided to add the Saturday performances, Chan also had little trouble rounding up participants: “I just asked people I ran into….My latex partner, Cristina King-Miranda, will MC the poetry afternoon [May 17] in her blond wig, and she’ll have [Stanley] on a leash.” According to the press release, May 10’s “extravaganza” by dancer/performance artist Reggie Crump (aka Little Monstah) features “S&M airline stewardesses” and “freaks, whips, etc.” Fleming’s waxy buildup closes out the series May 24.

Stanley says fetish is “a private thing–you don’t want everyone to know about it….The show invites us to think about what our fetishes are.” Yet setting Page and maybe Fleming aside, “Fetish” seems simply and cheerfully pro-sex. Perhaps it’s because images of bondage, whipping, and even pedophilia have been so thoroughly absorbed into the popular culture that the shame has been drained out of them. Any love that dared not speak its name 25 or even five years ago won’t shut up now. (Furtiveness has never been more attractive.)

But perhaps there is some covetous fascination left. At dinner, as wine loosens the artists’ tongues, they begin to swap secrets. So what is the best fastener for rubber?

“Super glue.”

“PVC comes with its own glue.”

“Go to a marine supply place. Get cement. Cement it first, then stitch it. They’ve also got great cleats and pulleys.”

“Oh yes, and grommets. The best grommets.”

“Who’s your latex supplier?”

“This is my first time with latex….Nobody I’ve talked to knows how to work with it.”

“The glue guru lives in Pennsylvania, you know.”

“Lock-Tight is good.”

The whole table murmurs rapturous assent, like Homer Simpson dreaming of a doughnut: “Mmm, Lock-Tight…”

The dirty little secret of the fetish artists is in the light. The objects of their desire are corporeal, and they’re certainly obscure. But what gets this group hot isn’t forbidden or even sexual; it’s finding the best tool for the job. And unlike pre-Lo Humbert Humbert or David Cronenberg’s dead-end Crashers, fulfillment is within their grasp: Lock-Tight has an 800 number.