THE ART OF SEX / THE SEX OF ART
A Spotlite on MARNE LUCAS
By Lori Zimmer
Everything about artist Marne Lucas is sexy–her former life as fetish model Gina Velour, her pin-up photography, or her career as an artist and activist, but most blatantly her role in The Operation, in which she and her co-star have sex on infrared film. Marne Lucas’ life and career is all about sex–celebrating it, teaching it, and protecting it.
Marne, 42, exudes sexuality without trying, yet in personality, Marne is not an exhibitionist. She doesn’t vie for attention or dominate social situations, but in her art, she demands your gaze. As Gina Velour in the 90s, she was a regular subject for fetish photographers Richard Kern, Charles Gatewood and Steve Diet Goedde, who also shot Dita Von Teese in her early days. Even in her recent more natural and organic self portraits (after she dropped the stage name), the focus is still there. She doesn’t ask you to appreciate her beauty, but instead requires it, as she poses nude everywhere from the forest to Philadelphia’s Eastern State Penitentiary.
When Marne had sex on film for her and Jacob Pander’s film, The Operation (1995), she knew that her performance transcended typical “porn.” The borrowed infrared camera transformed the fleshy pinks of sweaty sex into marble and veins. Taking place in a medical theater, a patient is wheeled in by a surgeon, with a host of observers high above, all clad in radiant hazmat looking suits and masks, with puffs of white as the bodies gave off heated breath cast against Marne’s black wig. In the 12 minutes that follow, Marne–as Gina Velour–in her role as The Surgeon engages in steamy sex with Otto Wreck in his role as The Patient. The hazmat suits are removed, and glowing bodies emerge, pulsing with white hot blood through white hot veins. (Heat registers as white and cooler areas are black, especially where moisture, body fluids can be seen rapidly cooling on the surface of the skin.) The Surgeon whips out the Patient’s luminous penis, and goes to work. The film is both arousing, and eerily scientific, clearly illustrating the true heat of passion, revealing the body’s response to pleasure–with the release of white hot heat coinciding with the release of desire and orgasm. I watched the film side by side with Marne in her home office, with my awkward feelings being subsided by pure fascination. I am a person who enjoys porn, its purpose to get the job done, but this was something different. The pair were like two ancient Greek statues, getting it on after museum hours were over- -meshing the erotic, with art, but not under the sometimes-hokey genre of “Erotic Art.” It is because Marne just gets it.
Marne is in such command of sex and sexuality that she has the ability to use it as a tool to convey any meaning she wants. Sounds easy, but it’s much more difficult than one might think–just as girls trying to smolder can instead come off as trashy, it requires a certain level of sexual awareness and comprehension. Marne is one of those rare individuals that is able to harness sexuality, and master the fine line between sexy and slutty in her work. The woman is amazing, we can only hope her next step is to teach us all how to be more like her.
Lori Zimmer: I’ve seen 90s clean cut Marne modeling pics, posed as a young cute mom with children. What made you transition from catalog modeling into becoming the epic Gina Velour?
Marne Lucas: I worked as a fashion model from age 17 to 28. Anthony Rush Ledbetter was the first photographer who approached me to model professionally, to which I reacted with some offense as I saw no intellectual value in it. He successfully encouraged me to pursue modeling so that I could afford to make art, which led to working in Europe for a while and then back in the US. What I liked about the work was making easy money with a flexible schedule, so I could work on film projects while waiting for bookings. Catalog modeling isn’t all that interesting, but I kept myself entertained by learning the technical aspects of photography along the way. Gina Velour was my quitting strategy. All I did was grow my hair into the iconic Betty Page style, dye it black and start posing nude for magazines while promoting The Operation. This is a deal breaker for being a commercial product! I was published as Gina Velour for a solid five years on both sides of the camera. Throughout my entire modeling career I’d always posed nude for fine art photography. It kept me sane and balanced out feeling like a commercial product of advertising, which for me was more degrading and less honest than porn. My role as the Muse has always been equally important as being the photographer; it deeply informed my development as an artist. I find posing nude for photographers and artists to be freeing, meditative and inspiring, and is something I still enjoy doing. I’ve posed for erotic photography luminaries Steve Diet Goedde, Richard Kern, Charles Gatewood and Natasha Gornik. Nowadays I pose more for drawings and paintings by such artists as Heyd Fontenot, Henk Pander and Charlotte Eschenlohr-Seidl.
LZ: Is Gina Velour still around, or just a vixen of the 90s?
ML: She’s still kicking around in her stilettos a bit…but I keep her on a very short leash. I chose my alias for The Operation as a humorous nod to the porn genre itself, to afford myself a private life, and also because it sounds as good as it looks in print, it rings abstractly like “vagina.”
LZ: The Operation was created on a tiny budget, in a ridiculously short amount of time. It was perhaps ahead of its time, and has since been praised by Jerry Saltz in last year’s exhibition “Hotter than July.” Shot with regular film, it could be conveyed as just porn with a sexy medical spin on it. What do you say to critics who dub it as porn?
ML: It’s true that The Operation would not have its magic without the Film Noir-esque, heat-sensitive infrared technology. While it’s a 12:50 film, it feels like a much longer dreamlike piece, as you are watching real-time changes in the heating and cooling of the surfaces of the bodies. Men and women’s vascular and anatomical differences are beautiful to see here. The surfaces of the bodies seem as if they are made from constellations of stars; there are no special effects used. You can see breath, you can see deep into the glowing throats, white hot eyeballs, saliva cooling into a black slick and the molten-glass looking cock is pretty spectacular. Sure, there have been people who have reduced the project to being “porn,” that is, until they see it for themselves. I’ve had intense reactions
from viewers at screenings who are self-defined as being categorically opposed to pornography, but after they watch The Operation, they anxiously ask me if it’s ok that they love the film and want to buy a copy!
LZ: How did you come up with the concept, and then cast yourself as the star?
ML: I was 25 years old and very much a “Good Girl” when I collaborated with Jacob Pander on The Operation. We were very interested in erotica and had been discussing why porn was not very interesting, so we brainstormed on how we could make something better, like the old adage, “If you don’t like something, do it yourself!” We were fans of arty Andrew Blake porn, loved 60’s B-films, weird old sexploitation & sci-fi films, but there just wasn’t anything that spoke to our generation. We were post Chernobyl-era twenty-somethings with big imaginations and early video cameras, and at that time, Jacob and his brother Arnold, aka The Pander Brothers, were well-published comic book artists. I spent years in their studio, jamming to techno music, watching them draw crazy Amsterdam landscapes strewn with evil corporate characters conspiring against the greater good. Jacob brought up the idea of using IR technology to shoot an erotic scenario with. We both loved the aesthetic of clinical medical settings and voila!–we built a set pretty much overnight in his father’s art studio. Our closest filmmaker friends doubled as cast and crew. Appearing in the film was not something I ever thought I would do! Although I grew up in a pretty liberal culture in Portland, Oregon, where there are more places for sex workers to be employed per capita in the U.S. than just about anywhere else. I wasn’t a stripper myself, but was the nude model/artist type without hang-ups about the body. When we were casting the film we asked our edgier theater-type friends to be in our film with no pay, and for the sake of making some really cool art. We couldn’t find a couple to volunteer. They either wanted money we didn’t have, and it didn’t seem okay to ask folks to have sex with strangers for free. We quickly realized that the only way to to make the film was to do it ourselves; which was not a consideration until the 11th hour and the camera was on its way and the sets were built. I had a long-term boyfriend that I had to discuss the film with–he opted not to appear in the film with me–and my collaborator and I had previously dated and were close friends. It was both a practical and creative decision; then great chemistry, new eerie IR video technology and a simple sci-fi patient vs. surgeon erotic scenario that overcame the simple porn construct.
LZ: How did the critics take it?
ML: Our first screening of The Operation was at the 1995 New York Underground Film Festival, where we won “Best Experimental Film.” We were too broke to attend the festival so a random stranger went up to accept the award for us. It was shortly after that we had the “Aha! We really have something here!” kind of moment. We continued to win awards around the world and have enjoyed an enormously positive reaction to our film. It’s been called the best porn film of all time by writer Susannah Breslin, which makes me smile. This project has been a rather intense journey for me as it was my version of a ‘thesis project’ in my self-taught path as an artist and was also very public ‘coming out’ as someone who didn’t shy away from personal risk-taking. That film opened a lot of doors for me. I traveled for the next few years internationally to film festivals, I spoke to sold out crowds at the ICA in London before I even had a clue as to what the ICA was. The Whitney asked us for a copy for review for possible inclusion in the 1997 Biennial. I still have the letter, right next to the rejection letter, that stated that after lengthy deliberation they could not include it. It’s funny to think that at that time, I knew nothing of the art world, I was too busy making music videos. If only I had that kind of ease in racking up awards and reactions to the work I make now!
A Kodak award was rescinded after discovering the content of The Operation, after offering it to us at the Chicago Underground Film Festival. The Edinburgh Fringe Festival pulled our film at the last minute for fear of search & seizure by police. The film was seized by customs in the UK and Australia where we were to have screened it. So the film has had a very healthy festival life, with lots of controversy and cult status but is-–if I may say humbly–still without peer. The common reaction at this year’s “Hotter Than July: A Sexploration” show in NYC was that it was a brand-new film, which is quite a compliment 15 years after it was made. The only negativity I’ve experienced for many years is mostly from artist peers and art writers who feel compelled to relegate my persona or my work to the realm of “porn.” I’ve been pre-censored by grant panels for their assumptions about either my past erotic work, or who they perceive me to be. I’m serious about making work and serving my community, but I’m not the least bit interested in defending accusations about objectifying the body or women. I’m 42, not a young bratty art star posturing for attention. I make work about the body because it moves me. I’m doing it for myself, not for a reaction by the public. I’ve got no regrets about having made The Operation, it changed my life in a very positive way.
LZ: Your involvement with the sexy side of life has also lead to activism, with Danzine. How did you become involved, and has it influenced your art work?
ML: For me, there’s no personal separation between being an artist and an activist. As George Orwell said, “The opinion that art should have nothing to do with politics is itself a political attitude.” Equal access to healthcare and housing are more important than art, but both activism and art-making feed my soul. Danzine was a Portland, Oregon, sex-worker and harm-reduction health organization and magazine. I started out as a volunteer documenting Danzine events, then co-curated the “Sex by Sex Worker Film and Video Festivals,” which were the first of their kind, with founder and director Teresa Dulce. I later served on the advisory board and then finally as co-archivist. In 2005 we participated in “At the Mercy of Others: The Politics of Caregiving” a project by the Whitney Curatorial Fellows, and was a particularly reaffirming experience. For that show, Dulce and I created the “Danzine Retrospective,” an installation given its own space, that chronicled ten years of the non-profit, magazine and the people it served. The installation recreated “Switzerland” a confidential room at the (now defunct) non-profit where our clients could show and enjoy art, books and film & video. We were able to exhibit the art works of a marginalized population and show the successful efforts of stigmatized health programs, such as needle exchange, while being recognized by a major art institution. Danzine developed my diplomatic personality skills to make creative solutions in bridging the gap between an agency and the diverse communities it served; and allowed a more tenacious version of myself to evolve, which can’t be bad for any self-expressive art career. I don’t think that all of my work needs to be overtly political, but there’s an ideology to my work: community-building, acceptance and a non-judgmental approach to the body are usually just below the surface.
LZ: Artistically, you reach one boundary by shooting sex pin-ups, then delve completely in the other direction with Eco-Baroque. Do you think the two are inter-related? Is there one you prefer over the other?
ML: Sex + Nature = ML. I find the idea of Nature and Sexuality to be hard-wired from the same starting point; it’s so much bigger than us and we can’t escape it. The self-portraits, the pin-ups of men and women, and my artist portrait series are all informed by a fascination of intimacy and the expression of it. I do love that I am able to explore separate aspects of my work: the pin-up photos are deeply intimate collaborations with my subjects who are often friends, while the more sculptural aspect of the Eco-Baroque work is a way for me to explore my relationship to Nature and environmental issues.
Eco-Baroque is an invented genre with artist Bruce Conkle; a hybrid of “natural wonder” meets “Louis XIV decadence”. Our “Warlord Sun King” installations include sculpture, photography, drawings, light, video and sound; so I get to work with my hands building objects, which is immensely satisfying. Our influences and inspiration include Louis XIV & Versailles, Calder, Dali, Native American culture and William Blake; and materials such as moss, crystals, coconuts, burls, gold leaf, fountains, reflections, dioramas, chandeliers and hallucinogenic imagery found abundantly in nature.
It’s obvious to me that my gaze is pretty damn sensual when it comes to most things. I’m either going to approach most of my art with a sophisticated but sexually nuanced filter; or I’m going express a juvenile sense of humor with tongue-in-cheek references to things that strike me as sexual. I could not choose one over the other, they are both satisfying major elements of my personality and interests. Did I mention I was a Libra?
Elements of my erotic photography are found in Eco-Baroque, for example, the photo “When The Forest Isn’t Looking” was taken in a Pacific Northwest forest of burled trees–a recurring theme–where a single tree splits into two figures that look like they are screwing. That image has not been photo-shopped, it’s a real tree, standing there boning its pregnant twin from behind, for all to see.
The self-portrait series definitely crosses over, “Marne Lucas Self-Portrait as ‘Portrait of Reputation Holding A Portrait Of The Sun King, as played by Bruce Conkle’” is a reenactment of French Court painter Jean Nocret’s painting “Fame Presenting a Portrait of Louis XIV to France.”
I’d have to say that humor runs through all of my work; and also collaboration. I think my years of working in film primed me for playing well with others. I’m such a worker-bee as an individual artist, but I also thrive on collaboration and am lucky to have found incredibly original and talented artists to work with; our creative energies blend and blossom into bigger things. I consider my portraits to be collaborations, I’d be nowhere without people, they are my canvas, and they trust me and let me in so that I can make an honest portrait of them.
LZ: It seems like there is nothing you can’t do, what is your next project?
ML: This summer I’m developing and shooting tests for a multi-channel video/sound installation with filmmaker Jacob Pander, again exploring newer IR video technology. This project will be a nice bookend to our infamous film with a more formal piece that delves into Nature, Culture and the Body; but not in an explicit manner. We will be working with contemporary dance choreographers for some the Body segments, which I am really looking forward to. The project will show in Portland in 2012.
Bruce and I will be showing an elaborate Eco-Baroque installation in Los Angeles in 2012, an expansion of “Warlord Sun King.” NASA is supplying amazing solar video for us to use. Our ideas tend to exceed our means, so that means lots of testing out new materials and skills; that combined with crazy road trips to the Sequoias and the Bristlecone Pine Forest for inspiration!
Along erotic photography lines, I’ll be showing “Mandwich: Redux” in May 2012 at Sin City art gallery in Las Vegas, curated by Dr. Laura Henkel. The next few months I’m shooting all new hot men for the series, and I’m psyched to be collaborating with so much new talent, since I tend to want to photograph a few favorite people often over the course of many years.
Marne Lucas is an artist, photographer, film maker and model who splits her time between New York, Portland and a multitude of beaches.
Written by Lori Zimmer
Photography by Marne Lucas, Basil Childers & Kevin Wayne Focht / Courtesy of Marne Lucas
Design by Marie Havens
“MLSP Projection,” Photography by & Courtesy of Marne Lucas
“MLSP Hotel Room,” Photography by & Courtesy of Marne Lucas
“MLSP Pearl Necklace,” Photography by & Courtesy of Marne Lucas
“Philadelphia State Penitentiary,” Photography by & Courtesy of Marne Lucas
“Marne Swimming Pool,” 2009, Photography by Basil Childers / Courtesy of Marne Lucas
“MLSP Lichen Anklepanties,” Photography by & Courtesy of Marne Lucas
“MLSP Ecola Forest,” Photography by & Courtesy of Marne Lucas
“MLSP as Bianca Jagger,” Photography by & Courtesy of Marne Lucas
“MLSP Knife Shop,” Photography by & Courtesy of Marne Lucas
“The Operation,” B&W IR Film Still, Photo of Patient and Surgeon. Courtesy of Jacob Pander and Marne Lucas.
“MLSP Burl, NYC,” Photography by & Courtesy of Marne Lucas
“The Operation,” B&W IR Film Still, Photo of Otto Wrek. Courtesy of Jacob Pander and Marne Lucas.
“MLSP Hotel Room 2,” Photography by & Courtesy of Marne Lucas
“MLSP as ‘Portrait of Reputation Holding A Portrait Of The Sun King, as played by Bruce Conkle,’” Photography by & Courtesy of Marne Lucas & Bruce Conkle
“MLSP Backstage,” Photography by & Courtesy of Marne Lucas
“Marne Lucas,” Photography by Kevin Wayne Focht / Courtesy of Marne Lucas