It’s no secret that, over the past few decades, Taiwan has become a regional and global leader in promoting gender and sexual diversity. Here, artists and activists routinely push the boundaries of what it means to be human, with all the messy, beautiful, complex attachments and relationships that this entails. While much of the recent movement focus has been on marriage equality and family life, there are a number of artists challenging this narrow purview. Ning Wen, a Taipei-based artist, is someone whose work makes a forceful case that—no less than birth, marriage, and death—sexual relationships and dynamics are important milestones in life worth documenting and celebrating in their own right. His latest Sex Story exhibition dealt with this theme.
Despite the generally open-minded atmosphere of Taipei, this project wasn’t without its hiccups. While his exhibition was entirely legal, Ning Wen ran into at least one complaint that led to him having to make the case for his artistic vision to local police. Still, he’s undeterred—encouraged to have to the chance to showcase his work even in these circumstances to these enforcers of social propriety. Despite the potentially controversial subject matter, though, his work isn’t just about sex itself exactly or the merely pornographic, prurient side of contemporary art. It’s about what happens between real people before, during, and after sexual exploration and encounters. I spoke with him about this ongoing project.
毫无疑问，过去数十年里，台湾就性别和性多样化的话题上，举世瞩目。在这里，艺术家与活动家们站在同一联盟，以美丽的、多彩的、丰富的人际和恋爱关系，不断推动着人类生存意义的边界。尽管近来所举办的运动主要围绕婚姻平等、家庭生活展开，但仍有一部分艺术家尝试持续突破这一狭窄的范畴。居住在台北的艺术家宁文（Ning Wen）正在用自己的作品极力证明：性关系和性别的流动性，是和人类出生、结婚以及死亡同等重要的事情，值得被纪念与庆祝。他最近的“性爱摄影”（Sex Story）便是围绕该主题展开。
Neocha: During our conversation at your exhibition, you talked about how the before and after of sex is something some of your works hoped to highlight: the care of showering together, for instance, or the immediate distancing that occurs after climax. What does it mean, to you, to decenter the “money shot”?
Ning: For photographers, certain moments have their own kind of romantic draw, particularly the pre-shoot and its aftermath. In these moments, it seems, the space and objects themselves become the true subjects of desire.
Before shooting begins, there is simply the serene, empty set, but it is rife with metaphors. Ropes, toilets, body piercing tools, etc. become something like the mosaic blur of an adult film—sensual in their mystery. Meanwhile, the vacated scene after sexhas all kinds of smells, objects, and emotions which linger. Sometimes the most naked relationships and stories between people develop only after the climax.
Although in the mainstream erotic image market, the key shots are almost always the “meat shot” (close-up genital intercourse) and the “money shot” (ejaculation, orgasm shots), to me, the moments that are unique to photographers consist in emotion and fantasy. So, when I shoot these other elements, people are no longer the subject; desire is.
Perhaps the climax shot is like the waves hitting the shore. Full of force, fecund, fleeting, and often attention grabbing. But what fascinates me more is what remains stranded when the tide retreats.
在主流情欲影像市场上，关键镜头几乎都是 “Meat shot”（性器交合特写）与 “Money shot”（射精、高潮镜头）。但那些空景，其实也充满浓烈的幻想色。所以我在拍摄这些另类的关键镜头中，人不再是主体，欲望才是。
Neocha: Is it true, then, in your view, that as Foucault once remarked, “Sex is boring”—and that what’s really at stake is what accrues around sex?
Ning: Maybe because I am a person with a low libido, in my life experience, I often feel that sex itself is lifeless, while I am born through various sexual experiences. For example, in the process of participating in handjobs, sex work advocacy, rope binding, BDSM, erotic photography, and workshops designed to help better understand our bodies, I found that these experiences are not only physical pleasures, but, far more so, explorations of the self and taboos.
Sexuality is often seen as the most intimate part of the individual, but it also communicates the most pervasive problems in society. For example, during the more than two years of my Amateur AV Interview project, issues ranged from the individual body to the social body, including childhood sexual abuse and misogyny, the confessions of sex workers and consumers, depression, BDSM, and the role of the virtual. They reveal, say, the world’s two-dimensional eroticism, or the erotic undercurrents of the Hong Kong demonstrations… It turned out that what I was exploring was not about porn or erotica itself, but looking back at life experiences through these.
宁文: 可能因为我是低欲望的人，在生命经验中，我常觉得性是死的，却又在各种性经验中诞生自我。像是“手天使”（NGO Hand Angel，一个台湾的障碍者性权团体）、“性劳推”（T S I W R A，兴产业劳动者权益推动协会）、绳缚、BDSM、性爱摄影、还有一些跟身体对话的工作坊的过程中，发现这些经验不止于身体愉悦，更多是对自我、禁忌的探索。
Neocha: You also spoke of transforming the gallery space into a kind of porn studio, where models and sex workers facilitated the artistic event and process. Can you discuss the reasoning behind this, and what, if anything, surprised you about the outcome?
Ning: From my Sex Story series to Amateur AV Interview series, I tried to develop invisible images, like hushed taboos and confessions. However, the object developed through this solo exhibition is no longer just people but also extends to space. The process is full of surprises and upsets, such as “tea party” urinals, semen landscape paintings, rope binding projections, body writing, human dogs…
In fact, none of these subjectivities were “performers” that I specially arranged, and some of them were originally live audiences. This time around, through participatory art, participants gradually changed the tonality of the space, moved the boundary between the public and private spheres, and allowed for the invisible appearance of the space. I feel that this boundary is like an invisible wall. Desire becomes a kind of material, and space becomes sculpture.
In the beginning, everyone quietly listened to my guidance through all this while viewing my works. The space was still the “exhibition space” in the gallery. Then, someone began to test the boundaries, and the space gradually turned into a basement darkroom, slowly developing an invisible latent image. Finally, each corner has a different erotic practice. Everyone habitually picks up their mobile phones to produce custom erotic images, like a Twitter museum. The space changed from displaying images to producing images, and gradually became a “set.”
Between seeing and being seen, the audience becomes the work; and the segmented images produced become mirrors of this participatory film. Participants move between “consumers” and “producers,” and at the same time shuffle between the identities of director, photographer, interviewee, and viewer, reconstructing relationships such as bodily boundaries, sex/gender, and imaginal power.
What surprised me the most was that in the last week of the exhibition, even the police joined in as part of the participatory creation! After public power intervenes in eroticism, it lays bear a process of extracting “sex” from taboo, release, and suppression. I began to extend my thinking: Is the real danger the sex or the violation of the freedom of others? How does power exercise the reality of repression in the name of morality? How did porn become taboo? Sexual taboos in relation to history, culture, politics, religion, imperialist expansion… Many norms that are taken for granted, the more you understand the context behind them, the more surprising they became. At the end, I held a farewell ceremony for the exhibition.
宁文: 从“性爱摄影”系列到“素人AV面试”系列 ，我试着去构建一种不可见的影像，像是社会的禁忌、个人的独白这种平日难以流露于表面的内容。对象不再只是“人”，而是扩展到“空间”。过程充满许多惊喜与不安，比如以尿液代替茶水的激斗、精液山水画、绳缚投影、人体签名本、人形犬等等。
Neocha: In your work, you talk about the mysterious absence of sex photography relative to, say, marriage or funeral photography. And yet, you then bring this work, unlike most of those photographers, into a museum space. All this suggests a kind of re-contextualization of the space itself, in contrast to traditional gallery and museum models. Can you say a bit more about this?
Ning: Almost everyone can produce images these days, but many still turn to professional photographers to record important moments in their lives. It seems that photography is not just about producing images, but professional photography as a kind of ritual, written into the experience along with important moments of life.
However, these rituals have become taboo when it comes to “sex.” So, I created a “sex photographer” profession, releasing a series of virtual interviews, websites, exhibitions, and so on, using the approaches of “professional photography” as a concept and mode of artistic collection.
This program is not limited to sexual orientation, gender, or body, and includes all kinds of desires: vanilla sex, foot fetishes, rope bondage, human urinals, BDSM, wild nudes, fetish… I photograph all these desires, good and bad, as taxonimized by Gayle S. Rubin’s sexual class system, as if it were a scale of highs and lows, forming a movement of desire. However, these notes are not fixed, and different desires may switch classes depending on temporal and spatial backgrounds, becoming an ever-changing organic process.
Although the identity of “sex photographer” was born from the art space, I hope this persona is not only an artistic project, but also someone who participates in society in more diverse manners. In fact, I am very grateful to the participants who authorized the exhibition for honestly revealing the diversity of desires. The whole process felt confessional; some approached psychological counseling; some felt it was a social movement, possibility.
该系列不限性向、性别、身体，包含各种欲望的表达形式：香草型性爱（vanilla sex）、恋足、绳缚、人形小便斗、BDSM、野裸、恋物等等。我拍摄关于鲁宾（Gayle S. Rubin，美国人类学、女性学教授）所提及的性阶级制度中好与坏的欲望，好像是高高低低的音阶，共谱成一首关于欲望的乐章。然而这些音符并不固定，不同欲望会在不同时空背景下切换阶级，成为一个不断变动的有机状态。
Neocha: Much of your work really flies in the face of a kind of traditional, static, one-sided viewing experience. In particular, your decision to upload whatever unfolds in the gallery on your website suggests a kind of inchoate, ongoing, and processual approach to work. How do you see your role as artist: facilitator, collaborator, mediator, voyeur, or something else?
Ning: My role in this work is not fixed but fluid, like the rest of the audience. Together, we switch between multiple identities, such as director, photographer, and viewer, in our works. And I am like a viewer who has been there for the longest time, seeing the work evolving from nothing at all and slowly growing into an individual with a very different personality from me, and then dying unexpectedly. Finally, at the farewell ceremony, I took a photo of the exhibition.
Neocha: In some of your works, including the VR piece, you interviewed anonymous porn amateurs about their experiences. Can you speak a little about anonymity and how this freed some of your interviewees?
Ning: I think sex can be public art or it can be a private collection. In the Amateur AV Interview project, I opened up to the participants the choice of freely choosing anonymity, vocal change, and revealing what’s beneath the mosaic blur. The focus of this work is not to deal with sexual desire, but to use the form of a fake interview to construct an imaginary that transcends the framework of one’s own identity, body, and gender.
The participants in Amateur AV Interview are not adult film actors, but “amateurs” who live within taboos. In fact, in these short three years, I can feel the movement within certain forbidden boundaries. But no matter how the taboo moves, there are always unpopular stories. This reminds me of the fables and mythology that Walter Benjamin mentioned in The Storyteller. Those AV fantasies and taboo stories under the table, although there are often marginal and taboo in various cultures, can more honestly reflect the collective subconscious of an entire generation.
In VR, I create an inner space that allows interviewees to express themselves and feel at ease with their “nakedness” through the “reversed panoramic mosaic”; at the same time, I also allow the off-screen audience to re-examine themselves and their voyeuristic “nudity.” In addition to being visually mosaic, narrative is also mosaic. The stories of everyone in the work are cut up and reassembled, like threads of different textures now spun into a new web. The viewer can see the outline of the story of the overall era, but cannot peep into the privacy of the individuals concerned.
A interviewee once told me that he was both worried and excited during an interview. While worried about the secrets being disclosed, he is excited about confessing his story. There were even other interviewees who brought friends to watch the VR, but these friends didn’t know that the pixelated person was him. It seems that mosaic blur has become a thin veil for the viewer and an interviewee through which they can play with taboos. If it’s too much or too little, it will lose its beauty.
Neocha: 在你的一些作品中（这当中也包含你的 VR 作品），你有采访了那些参与情色表演的匿名素人关于这次体验的看法。能否粗浅地为我们介绍这些匿名者吗，以及他们是如何从这次展览中得到释放的？
宁文: 我觉得性爱可以是公共艺术，也可以是私人收藏。在“素人AV面试 ”系列中，我让参与者选择开放，可以自由选择匿名、变声、选择需要反转马赛克的部位等等。作品的重点不在于安放性欲，而是以“虚拟采访”的形式，建构出超越自己身份、身体、性别等框架的想象。
“素人AV面试”系列 的参与者并非 AV 演员，而是生活在禁忌之内的普通人。其实在这短短三年间，我就可以感受到禁忌界线的移动。但无论禁忌如何移动，依然有些“不入流”的故事发生。让我想起瓦尔特·本雅明（Walter Benjamin，德国思想家、哲学家）在《说故事的人》中提到的寓言、民间传说。那些台面下的 AV 幻想与禁忌故事，虽时常存在各个文化边缘、禁忌之处，却更能诚实地反映了时代的集体潜意识。
在 VR 中，我通过“反转全景马赛克”，创造出一个自我、内在的“赤裸”空间；同时，让画外观众重新审视自身窥淫“裸体”（Nudity）的欲望。而除了视觉上被马赛克，叙事也同样被马赛克。作品中每个人的故事都被剪碎重新拼贴，像是一条条不同质地的线，交织成一整张全新的网。观者看得见时代下的故事轮廓，却无法窥视其中个体的隐私。
Neocha: Who are some of your own influences and inspirations? How do you view your own projects vis-à-vis the wider artistic and cultural context in which you work?
Ning: If the “dying self” is a person, he is the most influential. Often when I make seemingly absurd decisions in my life, I think back to my former self and ask for his opinion. Because in the face of death, all obstacles will become small, and the choice becomes clear.
Besides, I think amateurs, actors, conservatives, police, family, people who have hurt me, and people who have loved me, they are all my inspirations.
Currently I feel like I’m in an ambiguous, fluid, and uncertain stage of exploration. I try to chart a new path between contemporary art and erotic film and television. For example, some works may be suitable for the artistic space, and some works are better suited for pornographic film festival in various countries.
Neocha: Finally, where do you see your work going from here? What do you hope to explore going forward?
Ning: At this stage, Sex Story and Amateur AV Interview are just a starting point. No matter what form it eventually takes, I think I will continue to execute these until I die. It took longer to develop the parts I can’t see yet. In the end, it is no longer that I take ownership of the works worth exploring, but rather let the works lead me to explore. Through porn and erotica, in addition to exploring something external to yourself, you also delve more deeply into yourself.