Today, everyone with a smartphone is a photojournalist, able to capture all the strange, weird, tragic and funny moments of life on earth. Which means, it’s hard to find even tiny intimate moments that aren’t well-documented. When a former president gets his email hacked and portraits he painted of himself in the bathtub are released online, when pregnancy centers post graphic educational videos focused on the vagina of a woman as she gives birth on YouTube, we’ve arrived at a time when there are few moments that escape the collective gaze of online viewers. Moments of real intimacy are becoming elusive.
However, it seems, photographer Clayton Cubitt has found one. The genuine moment of a woman’s delight. The ecstatic moans captured are not faked for a porn film, or are the highlights of a celebrity sex tape, nor were they recorded by a boyfriend and released online as a cruel form of revenge. Instead, the controversial art project “Hysterical Literature” focuses on a woman alone, in front of a camera, reading from a book until she’s eventually overcome by an orgasm.
Some critics debate if it’s porn. It’s not.
Some wonder if it’s fake. Sure doesn’t look like it.
Some describe it as genius. They’re right. It’s pretty awesome.
Set against a black backdrop, an attractive woman sits at a table covered by a white tablecloth. Shot in black and white, the presentation is simple and allows the viewer to focus on the woman and the words she’s reading.
Rather than present them as objects of sexual satisfaction, as they would be in porn, the women involved in this art project are the subjects of their own erotic satisfaction. They choose what books they read, as well as the selected passage from the book. While they read aloud, their minds focus on the well-crafted sentences and verses of the literature, their breathy voices pronounce the words in a calm and deliberate cadence, but their bodies slowly begin to tingle with the teasing pleasures leading up to climax. Breathing shifts, words are mis-spoken or dropped, their bodies squirm, smiles spread, hands wipe perspiration from the face, and eventually, their entire focus shifts from the intimacy of the words to the intimacy of their pleasure, from their minds to their bodies. It’s captivating to watch. Imbued with all the great guilty pleasure of voyeurism.
While the women ascend to orgasm, the viewer is allowed to witness what porn never seems to offer, a woman experiencing the throes of intimate ecstasy. In western culture, the female orgasm is a moment not usually celebrated, sometimes faked, often misunderstood, hidden or forbidden, and it’s typically only shared with a lover. In these videos an orgasm becomes a shared social moment witnessed anonymously online. The clips are breathtaking, powerful advertisements for intimacy in these days of extinct privacy. The genius of the project is how self-awareness and controlled personal “branding” fall away and are replaced by full immersion in the rhythmic heavy breathing of a woman’s pleasure.
Speaking with the DailyDot.com, the photographer behind the project, Clayton Cubitt said, “I’m quite fascinated with the concepts of control and release when it comes to portraiture, especially in this modern era of social networking profile self-portraits and Instagram, when everyone has a well-practiced notion of personal branding. What’s left for the portraitist to capture? One can shock the sitter out of that plastic smile. I’m attempting to lead them back to something real.”
Addressing the sensual aspects of his project, Cubitt said, “Yes, most press (especially online) tends to focus on the sensational, and that’s part of the whole experiment for me. What I’m interested in is the battle the individual has between mind and body, and where the front line is, and how I can manipulate it. Further, I’m interested in how cultures draw a dividing line between acceptable and forbidden, between high and low, between what can be applauded and what must remain hidden. This project is pushing boundaries in all those directions.”
The first woman to participate in the project, alt pornstar Stoya, posted on her Tumblr page a personal recounting of her experience, “I’ve chosen a section of Supervert’s Necrophilia Variations. I’m fascinated by Supervert and their (his?) body of work. I went with the Necrophilia-themed volume because I’m currently in an oddly non-morbid obsession with something triangulated by the way an orgasm affects brain chemistry, the reasons behind the French nickname of ‘la petite mort,’ and why my mind goes completely blank when I’m at the height of a sexual experience.”
The French term, “la petite mort,” means “the little death.” It’s a typically French allusion to the transcendence a person experiences during an orgasm. French writers and critics such as Roland Barthes have explored the connections and contrasting impulses of sex and death, and have suggested that “la petite mort” can also be used to describe the goal of literature. Metaphorically, it’s the feeling one experiences reading a great book, similar to how an orgasm overcomes a person. The French are funny that way, they’re kind of the world’s experts on the subjects of sex and art. As Stoya suggests in her use of the choice phrase, this art project teases this idea, and explores the connection of mind to body and how each vies for control in any given moment of earthly experience as one hurtles toward death. However, during an orgasm, the surprise of sensation braids the mind and body together and overwhelms them both in a sort of pleasurable “little death” when all there is to feel or think about is the mindless and heightened bodily awareness of pleasure, a transcendent rapture of life’s yin to death’s yang. Orgasms defy death’s ghostly grip.
Stoya describes the project’s appeal to her, “Sexually speaking I really enjoy things that I can’t predict and things that are new to me. This attempting-to-read-aloud-and-maintain-composure while being sexually stimulated game is new. The video camera adds a dash of exhibitionism which I always appreciate.”
She recounts in greater detail the moment-to-moment changes that lead to her orgasm, “As I start reading, my disbelief is suspended. I forget what is about to happen. The first touch on my thigh sends all available blood to my vulva. I continue to enunciate properly, focusing on the text. I’ve broken a sweat. If this goes on for much longer my hair will be plastered to my head with perspiration as though I’ve been working out or engaging in acrobatic man/woman penetrative fucking. I stumble over a word, my concentration breaks as I go back to pronounce it correctly. Neither the Hitachi or the woman wielding it will be denied, but in the interests of art (and because this feels so beautifully filthy I don’t want it to stop yet) I hold out as long as I can. This section of the world that I’m inhabiting slows down, zooms in. Like a stretched rubber band it suddenly contracts, and I am lovingly punched with an orgasm.”
What Clayton Cubitt leaves to the imagination, but Stoya reveals, is the “secret” of the produced orgasm. Underneath the table, the photographer’s female assistant uses a Hitachi vibrator to bring the women to climax. Keeping the action offscreen not only makes the project tasteful, discreet and artistic, it focuses the viewer’s attention where it should be focused, on the pleasure of the orgasm.
Speaking with Salon.com, Clayton Cubitt described his approach: “Everything is only one take, straight through, no edits or second takes. I keep filming after the session is over, and often there’s a quite interesting conversation about the experience of the sitter, but I have no plans to publish those just yet.”
When asked by Salon.com what is the “artistic vision” behind the project, Cubitt answered, “The title is a winking reference to the quack Victorian medical theory of ‘hysteria’ in women, and the vibrators and hydrotherapy treatments used to ‘cure’ them. On an individual level, I’m interested in the battle the sitter experiences between mind and body, and how long one retains primacy over the other, and when they reach balance, and when they switch control. On a larger scale, I’m interested in how society draws a line between high and low art, between acceptable topics of discussion and taboo ones, between what can be worshiped and what must be hidden. This project touches on all these themes, while also just being really fun to watch.”
Writers dream of moments when their words intimately touch the reader, lifting them up and out of their day-to-day reality, transporting them to a higher plane. Now, aided with a bit of technology — in this case a powerful Hitachi vibrator — this desire to provoke the reader with profound intimacy is fully realized. Although the words alone do not provide orgasm, it will be hard to separate them in memory.
Photographers chase after elusive moments of spontaneous authenticity wherein a person reveals their hidden self in a way previously unseen. They yearn to capture life as it is lived and experienced without a thought of pose or presentation.
This project marries these two artistic impulses into a stylized and sexy commentary on intimacy in a time when everyone is prepared to be rather self-revealing online. Playing with the line of control and self-revelation, Clayton Cubitt fixes the viewer’s focus on the moment when a person lets self-consciousness fall away, forgets their social role and identity, gives up posturing and experiences a moment of full release.
Running opposite to narcissism and egocentrism, it’s an elegant reminder of how lucky we are to occasionally forget ourselves in one of nature’s greatest gifts, something as simple and life-affirming as an orgasm.