Art confronts female sexuality, power and porn

 

Ruth Power’s ceramics are inspired by an odd source: Japanese tentacle pornography. But the unconventional results are fascinating

CAN ART change things? Maybe the question should be: do things ever change? Looking at Ruth Power’s ceramic works, I wonder. Power’s concerns, expressed through tantalisingly beautiful yet disturbing forms, are with the nature of female sexuality, power and pornography. A porcelain torso is wreathed with tentacles; there are also delicately shaped faces, breasts and vulvas, but tentacles are everywhere.

Power is a final-year student at the National College of Art Design, in Dublin, and her work raises the age-old issues of sexual double standards and the objectification of women. Having left these questions behind when I went beyond my 20s, I mistakenly believed that few people thought that way any more. Power’s researches prove that they do, her work forcefully brings the issues home and, although she is a student, her beautifully crafted and finished pieces display considerable maturity.

Now 22, Power was born in south inner-city Dublin. She grew up in Knocklyon, wanting to become a zoologist, but, opting to go to NCAD, and hoping to combine her interests in science and art, she became fascinated with the potential of ceramics. This work, she says, “began when I typed ‘tentacle’ into Google Images. Ninety per cent of the images that showed up consisted of violent tentacle pornography.” Japanese tentacle porn became popular in the 1980s, when an animator named Toshio Maeda got around stringent Japanese laws forbidding anatomically explicit drawings by looking to 19th-century art. He drew inspiration from Hokusai’s The Dream of the Fisherman’s Wife, to show women being raped by octopuses. The genre became an explosive success.

Power used her discovery as a motif to explore her curiosity about being a woman growing up in 21st-century Ireland. Her sculptures are cast from her body. “We are conditioned to hate our own bodies,” she says, “and, despite casting my body to defy any body shame that I have, I still, to my disappointment, felt immense pressure to portray my body in a conventionally attractive manner.”

She also found the research for her work “tough going, constantly being reminded of how misogynistic porn has become. I know not all porn is misogynistic, but, according to my extensive research, most is.”

The aesthetics of Power’s work are important to her, and she is fascinated by the conflicting reactions it evokes. “Some shudder, some think it is beautiful. All too often, while online debating issues such as the ones discussed, I have been dismissed as a ‘fat, ugly, jealous, feminist bitch’. Perhaps, in this culture, something needs to be beautiful in order to be heard.”

This idea also makes me realise how fat and, yes, ugly women in our society are silenced, an issue of aesthetics that affects art itself. Despite the much vaunted convention-defying agenda of performance art, most of its successful female proponents are slim and attractive. “I am not antisex,” says Power, “but protest about porn and you are sure to be called a prude.”

As we discuss images of strong and sexual women, Power refers to Lady Gaga and the dress she wore last year made from raw meat. I remember the Czech-Canadian artist Jana Sterbak and her 1987 meat dress, Vanitas: Flesh Dress for an Albino Anorectic, and I realise that, no, nothing changes, but, so long as artists continue to remind us of things we may rather forget, there is hope.


The NCAD degree show is at 100 Thomas Street, Dublin 8, from next Saturday until June 20th