Masculine, virile, and sexual are three words that come to mind when considering the use of semen in artwork. In many ways, these pieces can feel like a contest of masculinity, yet each varies in its meaning and purpose. There are many considerations when discussing these works; ideas of sex (from the male perspective) and gender take the forefront of viewers' thoughts when engaging with them. By using their own sperm, these male artists produce large amounts of ‘offspring,’ speaking to their own virile bodies. These works indicate a sexual act and, in doing so, pose questions—is viewing a sexual act? Do audience members participate in a sexual deed when looking at these works, and in which cases do these participants engage in a queer event? These lines are blurred and feel entirely subjective. Regardless, these works posit compelling notions about the exposure of semen to the public. Starting with Vito Acconci’s seminal work Seedbed and concluding with Faith Holland’s subversive Ookie Canvases, this article explores works that have been created with sperm.
Vito Acconci, Seedbed (1972)
This work was performed for eight hours, two days a week for a month, at the Sonnabend Gallery in New York. Acconci hid below a large gradual ramp that filled the room during each performance. While lying under the ramp, Acconci repeatedly masturbated while narrating his fantasies aloud based on the museum goer’s footsteps above him. The work connected the artist and audience even though they remained invisible to one another. The title, Seedbed, refers to Acconci ‘spreading his seed’ on the gallery floor. While the performance was met with mixed reviews, it elicited strong emotions in those who participated. Some were said to have fled the room as quickly as they walked in, while others playfully stomped on the floor to see the artist's reaction. Others found the work aggressive and hostile. Seedbed is often viewed as the most significant live artwork of the 70s, which Marina Abramovic re-performed in 2005 at the Guggenheim.
Andy Warhol, Cum Painting (1978)
Cum Painting is simply a canvas with semen on it. Warhol was known to repeat the phrase “Sex is so abstract.” This idea is mirrored in the abstract representation of semen in this work. The white canvas is interrupted only by the sizeable yellow-brown blob at its center. This work was completed around the time that Warhol was also creating his Oxidation Paintings and Piss Paintings. These works were in response to the sex politics of the time that were undergoing an ideological revolution. Traditional views of sex were being challenged alongside sexuality and gender roles. The brazen display of semen worked in tandem with the freedom of sex. These works have also been read as satire and Warhol’s way of criticizing a society whose beliefs about right and wrong are skewed by machismo.
Antony Gormley, Body Fluids (1986-92)
Antony Gormley is well known for his inventive sculptures that explore the human experience. This theme is present in all his works, including his series, Body Fluids, which features paintings created from Gormley’s semen and blood. One work from this series that features Gormely’s semen is Loss. This work is simple in nature and features a charcoal outline of a human figure alongside the yellowish drops and splatters of semen. One such yellow splatter rests at the crotch of the figure and streaks to the bottom of the paper. Gormley considered these fluids to be life materials and felt a level of sacrifice in giving them up. This work poses an interesting question in a world where sacrifice is often linked to discomfort, pain, and suffering. Can sacrifice exist independently of suffering? While blood exiting the body is often painful, there is an inherent pleasure in the release of semen. Can this really be considered a sacrifice?
Mario Castillo, The Ancient Memories of the Mayahuel’s People Still Breathe (1996)
For decades, Mario Castillo has mixed his paints with his own semen. He began the practice in 1965 but didn’t make it public until seven years later. He has mixed his semen with both tempera and acrylic paints, doing so to be present in his works and to imbue his paintings with more life and energy. Castillo’s works are colorful and rife with detail; they easily invite the viewer in for a closer and extended look at their absorbing figures and patterns. They are, in a literal sense, filled with life. Castillo has spoken on the influence of Marcel Duchamp present throughout his work. This inspiration comes as no surprise, considering that Duchamp himself used his own semen in his 1946 work Faulty Landscape, which has been cited as the first contemporary work to utilize this technique.
Jordan McKenzie, Spent (2007)
Spent is a series of 55 paintings made from Jordan McKenzie’s semen. To create these works, McKenzie would ejaculate onto a sheet of drawing paper and then cover it with a layer of carbon dust. Once dry, the excess carbon dust had been brushed away, and a black imprint of where the sperm fell was left behind. McKenzie has said that he views Spent as a type of diary and feels that these works are a way of using his body to draw. When the works were displayed in 2008 at a London gallery, there was an uproar of disapproving voices, including a local priest who said he would be praying for the artist. The pushback to these works is interesting, considering that by this point, semen’s use in artwork was nothing new. McKenzie felt that his works were misunderstood and has continued to create other works using his semen.
Faith Holland, Ookie Canvases (2015)
Among this male-dominated list is one female artist whose appearance is pleasantly surprising. Faith Holland’s Ookie Canvases are works made of cum shots sampled from pornography and through submissions to an anonymous Dropbox. Holland took these shots, isolated them from their backgrounds, colored them, and collaged them together, often layering the shapes. The result is an abstract yet intricate digital painting filled with color. Each cum shot acts as a brush stroke on the canvas and feels reminiscent of the work of Jackson Pollock. Holland’s interest in using semen stems from the imbalance of pleasure that appears in media, particularly the sex industry. Male pleasure is almost exclusively centered at the expense of female sexual enjoyment and orgasm. On her website, Holland says, “By using cum shots, I can appropriate the phallus to infiltrate a male-dominated medium.” In doing so, Holland also assumes the society-given power that semen and its ties to masculinity possess. Her works ultimately question gender while revealing the endemic absence of female pleasure in popular media.
In many ways, these works feel as though they are simultaneously interrogating and reifying traditional ideas of masculinity. To some viewers, these works may have the same effect as receiving an unsolicited dick pic. They feel aggressive because of their prolific, public, and sexual nature. Can we detach the sexual implications of these works from the artists’ claimed meaning? It seems easy to dismiss semen art as another example of men being “genetically” obsessed with sex, to the point that they ‘can’t control themselves.’ But this perspective is just another example of the way our binary views of gender hurt all of us. Artists have used semen in a variety of ways, but the resulting works are deeply personal, intimate, and intriguing.
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