Photography, Obscenity and a Public Intervention


Paint bomb attack on Larry Clark photograph at C/O Berlin

The photography gallery C/O Berlin has recently experienced a paint bomb attack on a publicity image which depicts a woman’s genital area and which is poignantly displayed in full view of the public above the entrance of the gallery. In the photograph by the American photographer Larry Clark, just above the subject’s pubic hair is a small tattoo which reads ‘Larry’. The tattoo fulfils an important function in the photograph as it reads as a type of artist signature. Yet rather than signifying the authenticity of the photograph, here, ‘Larry’ didn’t make his mark on a work of art, but rather, he made his mark on a body, a female body.


Paint bomb attack on Larry Clark photograph at C/O Berlin

The tattoo literally re-inscribes the old orthodoxy of female subject ‘captured’ by the male photographer. ℅ Berlin quite consciously selected this image for their main publicity as it immediately introduces the viewer to Clark’s contentious and highly voyeuristic body of work. Placing the work above the entrance of the gallery is an obvious provocation to the public, as if to suggest that entering the gallery is metaphorically entering the body of Clark’s subject. The image seeks to forebode the experience of viewing Clark’s work: a highly intimate and personal encounter with those he photographs. Similar to the visual aesthetics of pornography however, here the body is entirely fragmented, cropped, even displaced from any social or political context with the exception of the word ‘Larry’.


Anti-obscenity law caricature, Ferdinand von Reznicek, 1899 (“Ach Quatsch! Religion und Sittlichkeit sind nur fürs Volk. Ich muss das wissen, mein Schatz ist vortragender Rat im Kultusministerium.”)

The paint bomb attack raises a number of interesting questions. In the first instance, what and/or who was attacked? The photograph? The anonymous subject? The photographer as the person responsible for the representation? Or the gallery, as the institution responsible for displaying the work to the public? And who was the potential attacker? A group or an individual opposed to the representation of the naked body in public places? In the context of Berlin’s complex history, this attack is particularly relevant. In 1900, following a crackdown on urban vice emanating most notably from Berlin’s illustrious nightlife, the parliament of Imperial Germany under Kaiser Wilhelm II put in place an ‘Obscenity Law’, also referred to as Lex Heinze, which stated the following: “Imprisonment of up to one year and a fine of up to one-thousand Mark, or one of those punishments, will be enforced on those who … are in the possession of, sell or distribute obscene [unzüchtige] writings, images or representations in places that are accessible to the public, including their exhibition …” This law, written in the archaic language of a crumbling empire, illustrates that Berlin, before Paris, London or New York, has historically been at the forefront of navigating the question of what constitutes obscenity. Art, may it be photography, painting, theatre, cabaret, consistently pushed against these definitions to the extent that Berlin remained a hot bed for subculture and radical art until the 1930s. In other words, Berlin has a history of seeking a definition of obscenity in view of the public.


Paint bomb attack on Larry Clark photograph at C/O Berlin

With regard to Larry Clark’s photograph, rather than looking at the paint destroying the image, it might be useful to consider what the paint actually contributes to it. In this context, the red colour of the paint bomb signifies a woman’s menstrual cycle, or, metaphorically speaking, the blood signifies the lived condition of the female body. Visitors to the gallery will be vividly confronted with this metaphorical blood as it drips from the image on to the steps of the gallery. This new version of Larry Clark’s photograph bears similarities with the work of feminist artist such Carolee Schneemann or, more recently, Yurie Nagashima.


Yurie Nagashima, This Time, undated

The intention of the attackers – if they even be called that – might never be known. They might have been a group of radical interventionist, seeking to highlight the pornofication of the female body. A cynic might even say that the gallery is ultimately profiting from the extra publicity produced by the German media (and of course this blog) which results in more awareness of the Larry Clark exhibition. The answers to who threw the paint bomb for what reasons will likely remain unanswered. Yet what can be deduced from the attack is that the image clearly had an affect on an individual or a group, to the extend that they went through the trouble of throwing the paint bomb. In other words, the image caused a reaction which outweighed the financial, physical, psychological and legal ramifications of being caught. The paint bomb not only functions as an homage to the vulnerability of the body, but it also functions as a reminder that a definition of obscenity – particularly in Berlin – is a constantly shifting, unpredictable and sometimes contradictory discourse.

For more on the relationship between art, the female body and obscenity, please read Linda Nead’s classic book The Female Nude: Art, Obscenity and Sexuality. Other recommendations can be found in our online bookshop.

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3 thoughts on “Photography, Obscenity and a Public Intervention

  1. Thanks for this post. It saddens me that art of any description is vandalised. The artist had something to say about women, which should be respected by all. The vulnerability of the body – in particular womens bodies – has been highlighted by this malicious attack. You raise very valid observations about the law and art – Australia has also been challenged by definitions of obscenity [see: http://www.abc.net.au/lateline/content/2007/s2253234.htm%5D

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