Monday, 15 October 2012

Naked men, sex, condoms, orgasms. Interested?

Greece. No special warnings required. (Photo: mdtili on Instagram)
So many 'keywords' in just one title... I wonder, will this post be read by more people than usual precisely because of its title or the photos that illustrate it? It´s quite possible, yes. Most of us cannot resist titles or images like these and the ‘promise’ behind them. Sex attracts; nudity does too.

Cultural institutions – well, the people working in them – are equally attracted to these subjects and sometimes they are actually willing to work on them, looking for the most imaginative associations. Who would have ever expected to find an exhibition on “love and passion on the coast” at a Fisheries Museum in a small coastal village in Belgium? It was called Zeerotica and it presented mermaids, mythological sea monsters and their intimate lives; seafood aphrodisiacs and the lovelife of fishermen; erotic images of more than a century of life at the beach.

The curator of Zeerotica said in an interview that, despite what people might have expected, this was not an obscene exhibition, it was, actually an exhibition for the whole family. There are different ways of handling these subjects, as all others, as there are different interpretations of what might be obscene or shocking or pornographic. Apart from the curatorial decisions, one must also consider marketing options. And culture marketeers, just like everyone else, cannot resist the temptation of using (or even ‘abusing’) certain subjects in order to attract more or new audiences.

Two upcoming cultural events were news recently. Both will open this week. Both deal with spicy issues. Both have designed provocative marketing campaigns. But, the more I think about it and read people´s comments, the more I feel there is a fundamental difference in their approach. Which will probably also be reflected on the outcomes.

"Mr.Big" by Ilse Haider, at the entrance of the Leopold Museum. (Photo taken from Delirium Clemens:)
The exhibition Nude Men opens next Friday, the 19th, at the Leopold Museum in Vienna. One reads in the museum´s website: “Previous exhibitions on the theme of nudity have mostly been limited to female nudes. With the presentation ‘naked men’ in the autumn of 2012 the Leopold Museum will be showing a long overdue exhibition on the diverse and changing depictions of naked men from 1800 to the present.” At the museum entrance, “Mr. Big”, a male nude model by Ilse Haider, attracts attention and publicizes the exhibition. It´s not a painting, it´s a photo; so it´s more ‘real’, not simply ‘art’, if you know what I mean... Across the city of Vienna, people may see two different posters: one rather ‘traditional’ – showing Egon Schiele´s "Preacher" – and another one, less ‘traditional’, the work of  French artists Pierre & Gille, entitled “Vive la France” (again, a photo...).

Posters of the Nude Men exhibition (Images kindly made available by the Leopold Museum) 
I followed the discussion on the museum´s page on Facebook regarding this latter poster. People were able to vote on the version they liked best. The museum was actually forced to present a censured version of the various options (due to Facebook rules that led to the elimination a number of posts), but they were promising their fans that all would be ‘out in the open’ both in the streets and in the actual exhibition. There didn´t seem to be any other concern here, everybody seeming to be in a good mood and looking forward to the exhibition. Once the posters were out in the streets, according to the Lepold Museum Head of PR, Klaus Pokorny, people did start complaining, especially parents who didn´t like to see the poster next to their children´s schools. Last Thursday, the museum put once again the poster on Facebook (the special Facebook version), not just to defend their option, but rather inviting people to talk about it: “Regarding our exhibition, we are showing naked men... Nothing more, nothing less. We are now discussing if we should have covered the sensitive parts, just like here on Facebook. Is the depiction of a penis something absurd for our society?”. It didn´t take long for people to react and, once again, the dialogue was quite open and good humoured and concentrating on the actual issue, which was: is it not OK to show something like this in a public space?
Censored version of the Nude Men poster on Facebook.
Two days before the opening of Nude Men, on the 17th of October, Don Giovanni premieres at the English National Opera. I´ve found out about it after receiving in my news feed, among hundreds of other articles, one entitled Opera and orgasms (I couldn´t resist...) And it was not so much about Don Giovanni, as about the poster: an open condom wrapper next to the words "Don Giovanni. Coming Soon."

(Image taken from LATimes).
According to a ENO spokeswoman who talked to the Evening Standard, “the theatre wanted a smart and catchy ad-campaign for the opera. We came up with this idea which we think is brilliant, funny and captures the idea of Don Giovanni in a witty way”. They don´t convince me. I think it´s a poor idea, even a lazy idea, probably aiming at shocking and nothing more. And this actually seems to be a general line in the way the ENO is trying to approach ‘new’ audiences: they try to necessarily make it sound sexy. An iniatiative that aims to bring new people in is  actually called Undress for the Opera... There is a very passionate video with director Terry Gilliam telling us why opera is fascinating, but was that (deceptive) title really necessary? When all they actually want to say is “This might interest you. We have some cheap tickets here for you to try it out. By the way, come dressed as you like” (actually, a lady commented in a newspaper that for her teenage daughters going to the opera for the first time was an excuse to dress up...).

Going back to the Don Giovanni campaign, reactions on Facebook, although not coming for the campaign´s target audience (where is it actually? do they know about it? have they seen the video? do they realise it´s for them?...), show that some of ENO´s actual fans also feel that this is just talking and trying to sound forcibly sexy. They even think that people already come to the opera dressed as they please. Other people seem to find it funny. On Facebook, the ENO has answered its critics saying that “Overall we've had a very positive response to the Don Giovanni ad campaign, with most people seeing the funny side and agreeing with us that the ads capture Don Giovanni in a witty manner.”  It does sound a bit like an ‘official’ response.

In my view, the difference between the two campaigns is that, although both aim to reach larger and maybe even ‘new’ audiences through popular and sexy subjects, the Leopold Museum tries to be rich and creative in its approach, while the ENO makes it look and sound banal and lazy. And I believe that this will actually influence the outcome. Maybe not... I am sure that after the openings there will be more discussion, both in the press and on Facebook, hopefully including the views of those who are actually targeted with these campaigns. In case there is no other form of summative evaluation carried out by the promoters, it will certainly be interesting to follow these informal discussions.

Special thanks to:
Klaus Pokorny, Head of PR at Leopold Museum, for kindly sending me the posters and answering my questions;
Inês Fialho Brandão, for bringing Zeerotica to my attention;
Spyros Gryllakis, for his help with the german translations.

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