Having made pornographic films in which a neo-Nazi skinhead jerks off onto a copy of Mein Kampf, or in which an alien zombie fucks dead people back to life, Canadian artist and filmmaker Bruce LaBruce is no stranger to the idea of obscenity. Known for employing these pornographic tropes as larger political or contextual vehicles, Bruce’s most recent exhibition, Obscenity, which opened last week at The Hole gallery, is certainly no exception. i-D’s Arts Editor and Hole head honcho Kathy Grayson spoke to Bruce at the opening of his exhibition and perfume debut about sex, scent, and what it means to be obscene.
What are some of your favorite fragrances out there, commercial or conceptual?
I always liked Chanel No. 5 as a kid, mostly because of the famous 70s Catherine Deneuve commercials for it in which she talked about dabbing it on the back of her knees. My mother always had a bottle of Lanvin's My Sin on her dresser, which I thought was pretty racy for a farm wife, and I liked to smell it and wear it secretly. And more recently, I love Alan Cumming's celebrity fragrance, Cumming. I like that it has leather and whiskey as ingredients, and I love the cheeky commercial he did, which is kind of a parody of women's sensual perfume ads.
I was so psyched that the press release had the word "nun-sploitation." Can you explain that to me?
“Nun-sploitation” was originally a sub-genre of the 70s exploitation film movement. It generally involves the sexualisation of Catholic nuns who are traditionally supposed to be celibate, and is characterised by an over-the-top, softcore treatment of these "brides of Christ". In 2011 I had an exhibit of photographs at La Fresh Gallery in Madrid that included highly sexualized photos of well-known Spanish artists and personalities (including Rossy de Palma and Alaska) dressed as nuns and priests that were either nude or posed sexually and wore the "hostia", the holy wafer, over various orifices and erogenous zones. It was meant to be a representation of the intersection of sexual and religious ecstasy, as well as a symbol of censorship. It caused quite a stir, provoking weekly protests in front of the gallery. Someone actually threw an explosive device through the front window, which didn't go off, thank God.
Do the Madrid project and the photos in this show tie together? Were they made at the same time?
The reaction to my Obscenity show in Madrid was so strong that I decided to set the idea aside for a while, and in the meantime I made a couple of movies, Gerontophilia and Pierrot Lunaire. Then I decided to revisit the Obscenity idea by making a perfume by that name after realizing that the word “scent” is embedded in “Obscenity.” I got my amazing jeweller friend from Hamburg, Jonathan Johnson, to design the limited edition bottle cap and Obscenity brooch. He then introduced me to the very well regarded Hamburg-based perfumer, Kim Weisswange, who helped us design the fragrance. For the photo ad campaign, I revisited the nun-sploitation theme, but with a more subtle and "commercial" approach.
Do scent and sex have a strong relationship for you?
The word perfume comes from the French root "fume" - smoke - and where there's smoke, there's fire! I think most people are turned on sexually by scents and smells. Certain body odours can be very sexually stimulating. We purposefully chose certain ingredients for my Obscenity perfume that are associated with occult or religious rituals, including vetiver, labdanum, and oud, and others that are considered aphrodisiacal, including patchouli and sandalwood. The point of Obscenity is that there is no conflict between the religious and the sexual, and in fact they should be completely complimentary. The fragrance is meant to stimulate you sexually, but it also literally contains water from Lourdes, so it also has religious notes and perhaps even healing properties!
In terms of obscenity, have you ever been shocked/repulsed/offended by an artwork or otherwise?
After having made pornographic films in which, for example, a neo-Nazi skinhead jerks off onto a copy of Mein Kampf (Skin Flick), or in which an alien zombie fucks dead people back to life (L.A. Zombie), it's pretty hard to shock or offend me, but believe it or not, it can still happen. My work is never mean-spirited or nihilistic, so sometimes a work of art that merely tries to add to the misery of the world by presenting something horribly violent without any sort of redemption or political consciousness will repulse me.
In the commercial for the perfume can you tell me some about the inspiration and the references in it?
The Obscenity commercial, which features Jonathan Johnson's wife Katja-Inga Baldowski as a figure skater, is meant both as a parody of perfume commercials and as a poignant and sexy promotional product. Many perfume commercials flirt with an edgy and sensual female sexuality, but I've pushed it a little bit further. She is a pure and almost virginal-looking figure skater, and yet she gets drunk in a bar and becomes melancholic. When she goes home, there is a beautiful black man in her bed, and he initiates what appears to be some rough sex, inspired by Mike Nichols' early seventies film, Carnal Knowledge. The whole idea of the Obscenity perfume and campaign is to produce a serious, high-end fragrance, a set of promotional ads, and a commercial that work within the framework of the perfume industry, but which push the limits a bit further than they are generally pushed. There's a soupcon of political incorrectness in the mix.
Psychologically how do you think obscenity functions in society? Is it more than a cultural taboo?
Obscenity is a relative concept, and as I've tried to articulate with my Obscenity shows, one person's obscenity is another person's romance or sexuality or fetish or fragrance. When Canadian customs confiscate my work and send me a notification that it has been seized because it is regarded as obscenity, they're obviously not looking at the work of art in any sort of political or conceptual context, as I've intended it. Even though my films are sometimes very pornographic, there's always a romantic and/or political aspect to them, but certain people can't get beyond the obvious signifiers of "the obscene" or "the pornographic". But context is everything, and with my Obscenity work I've attempted to recuperate the word as something sensual and mystical and redemptive.