A FEW THOUGHTS ON WHAT HAPPENS WHEN ART RESEMBLES REALITY TO SUCH A DEGREE THAT YOU RUN AWAY

This happened when my boyfriend and I visited the exhibition The One & The Many by Elmgreen & Dragset in the Submarine Wharf in Rotterdam, September 2011.

We step into what looks like a rundown public toilet with a couple of urinals, three toilet stalls and a dirty sink. It looks real, except from the pipes of the urinals which instead of disappearing into the floor twist and turn spaghetti-like on the floor and connects the urinals to each other.
On walls and doors are drawings and graffiti with lewd messages and contact numbers, referring to public toilets as venues for anonymous (paid) sex within a male homosexual environment. For example: Mature Gentleman pay pocketmoney for blowjobs! Write time:

While taking a closer look on the scribbles on the walls, we hear the door close behind us. We turn around - and with a click, the light turns off. The room is pitch black, and somewhere in the darkness we hear the sharp, metallic sound of a zipper being undone. After what feels like a long time, but was probably just 5-6 seconds, the light turns back on and right in front of us we see two boys standing on the dirty floor. These two beautiful teenagers are looking seductively at my boyfriend. One of them, a black boy with close-cropped curls and almond-shaped eyes, stands behind the other - a pale and delicate looking boy - with an arm around his body. His hand slowly slides up across the other's smooth belly underneath the shirt, their eyes still directed at my boyfriend. Neither of them takes any notice of me. They continue to caress each other, more zippers are unzipped. I know that they are acting, but I am taken aback by their display of sexual behaviour and the open invitation to my boyfriend to join in the game. They look (only) at him, and he in turn stares back at them and it turns into a strange, silent staring contest that seems to go on for ages.

Then one of the boys steps out from behind the other and takes a few steps towards us. He reaches out and places a finger on my boyfriend's chest and lets it slowly trail down across his shirt towards the edge of his waistband. The room is charged with an odd sexual tension which is flowing across the borders which usually divide the space of the viewer from the space of the viewed. I find myself in a strange position between being a visitor watching a live art performance and being a private person whose personal boundaries to a great extent are being crossed. In the beginning I look at the boys the way I would look at any other artwork – almost trying to sustain a distance through my gaze. But the tension engulfs all four of us and it seems impossible to keep the position as a distanced viewer. Even though I am obviously not a part of the threesome.
At this point my boyfriend says something like “Err, I think we have to go now”, and we quickly head for the door (which I in a fraction of a second feared to be locked!) and step out into the real world again. Or at least the real world as defined by Elmgreen & Dragset.

This experience was both convincing and confusing - in the situation, valid norms and rules seemed to be put out of force. For a visit to a gallery or a theater, the visitor's role is traditionally defined as a viewer. However, in the situation in the toilet, topics such as personal boundaries and modesty and even homophobia come into play. The setting of personal boundaries is an aspect of everyday life, but in a situation like this, respect for the artists and the work means that you let them do what seems to be the plan and artistic intent. Perhaps fearing the risk of destroying the work by interrupting it. In this case however, a reaction would not have been an interruption, but rather an addition to the performance – this work turns the viewers into performers themselves and confronts them with their own reactions.

Had this been a real life scenario, we would have left the toilet a lot earlier, but it wasn't real life and I know that the two guys were actors from Ro Theater. But in spite of this, we couldn't bring ourselves to stay and let the situation unfold. In the moment it was impossible to distance ourselves sufficiently from the situation to just watch, when we – or, my boyfriend that is – suddenly got bodily involved through the more than suggestive touch. It was so in your face, so blatantly sexual, that it was just too much to handle.

I guess the actual crux of this private performance was the question of how far the situation would have gone, had we not fled the room as we did. Looking back, I wish we had stayed longer to see what would have happened and at which point they would have stopped, if we didn't. I also wish I had had the guts to enter into a dialogue with them, I am very curious to find out what would have been said.

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