How My ‘Sexts’ Became a Work of Art

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I had ten minutes. And I’d promised not to make a mess.

I tore off my clothes and smeared honey on my chest. Grabbing my phone with sticky hands, I sucked in and snapped a selfie. Honey dripped onto the carpet. Shit. I lunged for the baby wipes. In six minutes, a large security guard named Julio would come knocking, and I hadn’t sent a single message yet. Who knew sexting could be so stressful?

But it was all for art’s sake. I was participating in renowned performance artist Karen Finley’s latest piece: Sext Me If You Can at the New Museum.

The “interactive performance installation” went like this: Upon commissioning a painting ($200 to $500, depending on size and materials), you were scheduled for a private, ten-minute sitting on site. During this time, you could anonymously text any number of naughty words and images to the artist. She was stationed against the lobby’s glass wall, publicly interpreting your racy messages as a painting; Finley performed for the audience gathered inside, as well as onlookers outside (from whose vantage her phone screen, receiving said sexts, was also visible). The artwork was displayed for the brief duration of the exhibit, after which you could bring your commission home once it came down.

Karen Finley's finished painting.

Finley is known to push boundaries like this. She belongs to the “NEA Four” — the group of solo performance artists whose grants were notoriously revoked by the National Endowment for the Arts in 1990, after their work was proclaimed “obscene.” At the time, mudslingers dubbed Finley “the chocolate-smeared woman” in reference to her performance We Keep Our Victims Ready (1989), in which she applied chocolate to her naked body to represent the degradation of women.

But the artist is best remembered for political, deeply visceral monologues in the style of Victims. Often employing nudity and food in her performances, Finley explored topics such as rape, abuse, abortion, AIDS, and her father’s suicide. In 1998 came The Return of the Chocolate-Smeared Woman, Finley’s fiery rebuttal to her conservative critics, detailing their imagined sexual exploits. Concurrently, the Supreme Court ruled against the Four, upholding the vague “decency clause” minted in response to their art.

The props.

Sitting down with Finley to discuss Sext Me before the exhibit opened, I was struck by the statuesque redhead’s commanding presence. Personal issues of fidelity aside, she says, “What I’m concerned about is the shame that occurs with people expressing themselves. What’s the big deal?”

“It feels like we’re in the fifties,” Finley adds, exasperated with society's "squeamish nature" around sexual images. She feels it's healthy even for young people and politicians like Anthony Weiner to express themselves through sexting. Citing teenage suicides like Amanda Todd's and the Steubenville High rape case, where the distribution of personal images came at grave cost, Finley concludes, “If we didn’t feel so shamed about the body and sexuality, people could not feel sexually and emotionally blackmailed in this culture."

Her goal with Sext Me was to deconstruct this stigma by placing taboo personal images in an art context, where nudity is more socially acceptable. “But I don’t want to necessarily remove it from being sexual and say, ‘Oh, it’s just art,’” she adds. (A selection of Finley’s paintings from the New Museum series can be viewed here.)

Sext Me If You Can first debuted at the Miami Project Art Fair in December. Finley recalls that, while she received many explicit images during her sitting there, “Women were more playful than men. Women had masks. They were sending pictures of, like, a chicken …  It was much more subtle and imaginative.” Among her favorites: “A picture of a woman’s toenails. Blue toenails. Just sitting in the museum.”

I, too, wanted to impress Finley with my performance. Because my sexting skills are pathetic (“Keep going … ” Copy. Paste.), a less traditional approach was necessary. After days of deliberation, I decided to pay homage to Finley’s performance Shut Up and Love Me (2001), during which she rolled around naked in honey.

I showed up to the museum with a bottle of honey, baby wipes, a ruler — and no concrete plan (mutual performance is the whole point, I thought). When I was unexpectedly told to check my bag, my panicked cry startled the bookstore cashier. “Please,” I begged. “I’m hopeless without the honey!” They apologized, insisting nothing could be brought into the room. Museum rules.

I sprinted to the bathroom and undressed, determined to take at least one honey-coated selfie in the few minutes before my sitting. Bottle poised, I heard my name through the stall. They’d decided to make an exception. Back to plan A.

A “sext worker” showed me to a small room on the museum’s basement floor, painted white and outfitted with only a mirror, built-in vanity and a chair. She told me if I wasn’t out in ten, the security guard would remove me. My panic resumed: It was show time.

When I finally texted the sticky tit pic to the number provided, I followed it with, “Oops, sorry, I meant to send that to someone else.”

Then, “BTW you like?”

I snapped a picture of the bear-shaped bottle, side-by-side with the ruler (“Because I could hit your sweet spot, you know … ”).

Next: goo dripping from my lips (“I want to eat you raw, honey”).

“Wow,” Finley wrote back. “Love the honey.”

I gathered the used baby wipes into a pile next to the uncapped honey and took a photo (“Now look what you made me do … ”). Just as I pressed send, Julio knocked loudly.

Sext Me If You Can was presented as part of the New Museum’s “NEA 4 in Residence” series (running May 3 through June 28). The program revisits Karen Finley, Holly Hughes, John Fleck, and Tim Miller, examining the impact of the early nineties culture wars on contemporary performance.