On Friday night, in a residential basement near the Morgan Avenue L stop, I saw more penises than I’d seen during every previous night of my life combined. It was not an orgy. It was the opening of “Explicit,” a two-day show at DIY space Morgan Avenue Underground that posed the question, “Can art and porn intersect?” It’s not a new line of inquiry, but it was given topical and technological urgency by Show Me More, a display of the dick pics of some 300 unwitting men, solicited on online dating sites by an anonymous feminist art collective called Future Femme.
News of Show Me More prompted a mini-circus of international press, ranging from skeptical to dismissive to outraged. But the opening was a relatively tame affair, thanks to a strict door policy. Owing to the exhibit’s “sensitive nature,” the gallery explained, the opening was limited to those over 18, with photo ID. Those who had not RSVP’d were turned away at the door.
Downstairs, I was greeted by a bottle-blonde gallerist wearing a 2 Chainz T-shirt over black tights, through which a shredded pair of black lace underwear was visible. She asked that I not take any photographs. Behind her, an entire wall of the gallery had been rendered brownish pink by a grid of dick pics, hung orderly but not lovingly.
There was little variation between the dicks. Almost all were erect, circumcised, shot at close range from their owners’ point of view, without identifying details. Two men had the bright idea to present their penises next to measuring tapes; another used a can of Gillette shaving cream for scale. Two other penises were shot from below in a manner that seemed intended to present the dick as a colossus, with the viewer underneath, possibly for the purposes of a blow job. My favorite was the penis cradled by a Playstation controller.
The Future Femme member (“Artist D”) who had solicited photos on the gay hookup app Grindr chose not to display her photos. Instead, she included text from the violent, misogynistic messages she received once it was revealed she had posed as a gay man. (More than one wished her a female-genital-mutiliation-style clitoridectomy.) Interspersed between the disembodied erections, the effect was nauseating.
Critics were quick to compare Future Femme to “revenge pornographers,” the cruel people (mostly men) who publish intimate photos of oblivious exes on free public sites like U Got Posted or the now-defunct Is Anyone Up?, accompanied by identifying information such as name, hometown, and links to social media accounts. But despite all the ethical hand-wringing and heightened security measures at Morgan Avenue Underground, the dicks on view were essentially indistinguishable. No one apparently spotted his betrayed penis during the show’s less-than-24-hour run and took legal action against the artists.
This, after all, is the advantage of the dick pic, as male sexting currency. It’s safe sext, at least compared to the portfolio of semi-nude, nude, and explicit photos used to provide a 360-degree exposure of women on revenge porn sites. The dick pic is more explicit than, say, the butt-selfie, but it can also be more easily separated from one’s self. Huma Abedin did not recognize her own husband in crotch shot form. Thanks to the dick pic, men may compartmentalize their desirability, while women — more comprehensively objectified — must wear theirs around all day. This is why it was easy for Future Femme to gather so many pictures. Their artist statement only hinted at a message about power and gender, but it might have stumbled upon this one: Sexting, like all sex, is still a riskier proposition for women than it is for men.
As the night wore on, a thin crowd of polite twentysomethings offered joking commentary about the “artists’” use of light and shadows before filtering through to a backyard, where they could drink bodega beers out of sight of all those dicks. A screening of Destricted, a collection of erotic art short films, followed the exhibition after dark, and I made it through less than ten minutes. I sneaked out as one of Marina Abramovic’s male performers humped some soil in a comically literal interpretation of Balkan mythology. The exhibit wasn’t necessarily porn, but it had expertly re-created the feeling that follows watching too much of it: a sudden aversion to naked flesh.