Consensual Art

Tracey Warr

Cyril Lepetit, Infidélité Respectueuse
Wharf, Centre d’art contemporain de Basse-normandie, Caen
23 April – 19 June 2004



In Cyril Lepetit’s exhibition, Infidelite Respectueuse, orifices, phalluses, penetrations and body hair were recurring images and themes. Entering the exhibition we first encountered a fountain set in a brass circle surrounded by a grass circle (a pudendal image in itself). On either side of the water jet two footprints were moulded into the brass so that the viewer must imagine both the artist’s body and their own standing pleasurably over the jet. Next we entered the installation, Pendre des Libertes, a reconstruction of the artist’s adolescent bedroom with its single bed, its red walls encrusted with toys and comic book imagery, redolent with the influences of expressionism and pornography. We felt a rush of teenage naughtiness as we were enticed by a short wooden ladder to climb out of the window into another space beyond, where we were confronted with a large drawing of a vulva, rising like a full moon and the promise of adult sexuality. In another work we climbed a phallic shaped ladder to reach a cluster of sweets on the ceiling. Lepetit’s installations frequently require the participation of the viewer’s body, both literally and imaginatively. His work engages with sexual pleasure, sexual liberation and sexual comedy. He draws on the sexually steeped vision of Marcel Duchamp who famously claimed ‘I want to grasp concepts with the mind the way the vagina grasps the penis’.


Lepetit argues that the image of sexuality is liberated but sexual behaviour is not and this is what he is addressing in his work. His work is not politically correct. It bucks against current trends towards the sanitisation of sex. It made me wonder am I witnessing the artist wanking or am I, the viewer, being seduced into making a sexual adventure and enquiry alongside the artist?

In a bid to try to answer the questions Lepetit’s work posed for me, I revisited the writings of some female critics on the subject of the phallus. In the British Library I was reminded that there is still a section known as ‘cupboard books’ – texts that are deemed sexually dubious (books on the Viennese Actionists reside in this cupboard for instance). The Bodleian Library too has a ‘special’ section (which

included the Marquis de Sade when I was a student) which had to be read under the supervision of a librarian. It was never clear what ‘issues’ the librarian might be there to supervise or what it was that they might do in the event of that issue arising. I am currently working at a contemporary arts college in the UK where there are health and safety strictures relating to ‘dangerous texts’ and ‘nudity that may cause mental distress’. Remembering all this, I began to feel that Lepetit may have a point. The permissive society has a lot of hang-ups.
A simplistic equation of penis with phallus and macho with male is still extant in Western critique. Pierre Renoir allegedly declared, ‘I paint with my prick’. Griselda Pollock and Rosalind Krauss are amongst critics who have analysed the hegemonic myth of Jackson Pollock as the macho artist. Yves Klein’s Fire Paintings involved his wielding an enormous fire gun in the direction of naked female models in order to capture their images – with apparently no sense of self-parody. In Laura Mulvey’s analysis of the male gaze in ‘Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema’(1989) women’s bodies are positioned as objects of scopophilic or fetishistic voyeuristic pleasure and the female body becomes a phallic fetish. But in contemporary visual culture male and female gazes motivated by diverse sexualities are directed at the fetishised bodies of both men and women.
Amelia Jones’ argues in her 1994 article, ‘Dis/playing the phallus’, that the phallus, originally a non-gendered symbol of generative power in nature, is appropriated by some male artists to express their masculinity and masculinize art. The phallus becomes a symbol of male power and genius. However, considering the work of Yves Klein, Robert Morris, Vito Acconci, Chris Burden and Bob Flanagan, she argues that the power of the phallus is problematized by a discernible uncertainty on the part of these artists in their relationships to their own masculinity. In Acconci’s Seedbed (1972) the sounds of the artist masturbating under the gallery floor were relayed to the audience and in Trappings (1971) he dressed up and played with his penis like a doll. Jones argues that Acconci is exposing his own vulnerability and she reads Burden’s work as parodying the heroic in Crucifixion and Shoot. She also asks candidly what is my desiring position as heterosexual female viewer:
I can only continue to stress the ambivalence and undecidability of any male subject’s relationship to masculinity. For masculinity, like any subjected pose, is a condition whose significances and radical or regressive effects are contingent on the contexts in which it is produced and in which it is read. And my relationship to masculinity, as a feminist but also as a heterosexual, is one of ambivalence itself: I have a critical disdain for certain of its aspects, but a flagrant and irrepressible desire for others (Jones, 1994: 578).

In an article written in 2000 Mignon Nixon discusses the phallus with reference to the theses of Jacques Lacan and Melanie Klein. She also argues that the phallus encapsulates masculinist tendencies of high modernism but that its appearance in the work of a range of women artists parodies patriarchy. She discusses this in relation to the self-made phalli in the work of Yayoi Kusama, Louise Bourgeois and Eva Hesse and argues that they are mocking the posturing of earlier male artists.

In ‘Grabbing the phallus by the balls’ (1997) Paula Smithard discusses the role of the phallus in the parody of patriarchy in art in the work of a range of recent women artists including Helen Chadwick, Tracey Emin, Sarah Lucas and Sam Taylor-Wood.
In Wood’s video work, Brontosaurus, for instance, a naked man dances with his penis swinging ludicrously. We hear an elegy instead of the dance music he is moving to. In his room there is a tiny rubber toy Brontosaurus perched on a speaker. The phallus is equated with extinction, pathos and bathos rather than power.


However a mocking or abjected use of the phallus goes back to Greek theatre and is not limited to the work of female artists. It appears also in the work of some male artists, notably Tetsumi Kudo. And Lepetit is certainly problematising pat masculine/feminine dichotomies and gendered hierarchies in his comic use of the symbols and status of masculinity and the male artist.

In Fakir Lepetit is encased in a golden lycra suit and seated on a bed of phalli. The suit is phallic – his head is enclosed and blinded within the glands and from his groin extends a four metre proboscis abjectly begging to be stroked, blindly looking for something to connect to. The fakir has to charm his own trouser snake. This work reminds me of Paul McCarthy’s messy assaults on masculinity – his phallic pinocchio noses, self-boxing and men in drag assaulting and assaulted by sausages and other food stuffs. But Lepetit’s work does not have the acid sarcasm of McCarthy’s. Instead he draws on a childlike sense of play, naivety and naughtiness. Lepetit’s Hairy Exhibitionist wears a chest wig and is an unruly, inappropriate body irrupting into the sanitised spaces of the city or the office, or a mixed jacuzzi in Japan where the taboo of body hair is pronounced.

In Fontaine Chantante, filmed in the bucolic gardens of the Dartington Hall Estate, the naked artist straddles a stone swan fountain. His long hair obscures his face and his gender. Is he Zeus mounting Leda? His gyrations are accompanied by the rural idyll of early morning birdsong and a sweeping view over manicured landscaped and topiaried gardens.


A proximity of food and sexuality occurs in many of Lepetit’s works. In Help Yourself naked male and female go-go dancers are gradually exposed as clubgoers eat the prawn crackers dispensed at the bottom of transparent tubes. In Cousin Chocolate unsuspecting members of the public are invited to sample chocolates, some of which have had pubic hairs carefully inserted into them. In many works Lepetit asks us to consider himself the artist as exhibitionist, manipulator, seducer or innocent or all four at the same time.

The psychoanalytic model described in Lacan’s ‘The Signification of the Phallus’ reduces the body to a mere object of symbolic inscription and ignores the possibility of the subversive power of sensory, corporeal experience. Lepetit and other recent artists’ work challenges the postmodernist assumption that definitions always rest on a negation or repression of the subject’s antithesis.

Helen Chadwick’s work in particular seems relevant to a consideration of Lepetit. Like him, Chadwick has a penchant for fountains and for imaging the proximity of disgust and desire. Her Chocolate Fountain with its central phallic stamen and its bubbling smelling chocolate is both desirable and repulsive. Her Piss Flowers are decorative sculptural forms enacted by the ejection of bodily waste fluids, and her Fruit Rage in Edge 92 in Spitalfields imaged pollination, ripening fruit and decay all at the same time.
In the performance The Ceiling of Art Lepetit persuaded a series of women to allow him to lie between their legs with a palette and small canvas as they stand clothed and he makes a painting of their imagined genitalia. The first painting is completed with Lepetit lying on the floor, for the second painting artist and model ascend to the first platform of a scaffold, for the third he and another woman rise to the second platform and so on until he reaches the ceiling.
Lepetit’s action parodies Michelango painting the Sistine Chapel but the object of his adoration is the secular female orifice – Courbet’s Origin of the World. The video of the performance begins with the crush of tourists in the Sistine Chapel gaping with heads thrown back. Lepetit – the artist – too looks up and imagines the woman’s unseen vagina. The model looks down, straddling the artist, and sees him painting and imagining. As artist and each model engage in eye contact the act of painting appears as a sublimation of touching in a consensual male gaze. The artist’s ability to charm the women into posing for him is an essential part of the performance. He is prostrate and prostrated and she is erect. She is also an easel, holding the small canvas wedged in the V of her parted legs. When the artist finally reaches the top platform of the scaffold and the ceiling the series is completed, he descends, exhibits the paintings on the walls and removes his own clothes. The seven small paintings resemble abstracted landscapes and are finally packed away into a specially prepared carrying wooden box.
Is this an even-handed exchange and dialogue between artist and audience – artist and model? Are we being manipulated, fooled, taken advantage of or is this consensual art? Lepetit’s work punctures the notion of an engagement with art as some dry, objective, academic exercise and emphasises the viewer’s participation as gendered, corporeal, desiring, sexualised, scopophilic. The responsibility for desire and reading in this process lie somewhere between and across artist, artwork and viewer.


Jones, Amelia (1994). Dis/playing the phallus: male artists perform their masculinities. Art History, 17 (4), Dec, 546-84.

Lacan, Jacques (1958). The Meaning of the Phallus. In Mitchell, Juliet & Rose, Jacqueline, eds. (1982). Feminine Sexuality. New York/London: W W Norton, pp. 79, 83-4.

Mulvey, Laura (1989). Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema. In Visual and Other Pleasures. London: Macmillan.

Nixon, Mignon (2000). Posing the phallus. October, 92, Spring, 98-127.

Smithard, Paula (1997). Grabbing the phallus by the balls: recent art by women. Everything, 21, 5-9.

The book - Lepetit, Cyril (2004). Infidelite Respectueuse published by Wharf - includes essays by David Medalla, Arnaud Labelle-Rojoux, Liu Yung-Hao and Pierre Giquel.

  Tracey Warr is a writer and curator. She is editor of The Artist’s Body (Phaidon, 2000).