(Originally published in the San Francisco Bay Area Reporter, 1993)
Sheree Rose has been involved in the S/M scene for many years. Her ongoing documentation of her participation in the evolution of this community includes depictions of the visceral body, its damage, adornment and punishments.
Both jokey and risky, her work promotes the belief that your body belongs to you, as something with which you can experience and learn issues of control, rather than being an alien space at some spiritual remove. From her perspective, the personal, the political, life and art meld into one intimately historical project. She discusses these issues and her current San Francisco exhibition here.
Elliott Linwood: How did the 100 Reasons show at the Lab come about?
Sheree Rose: Its genesis is based on a poem that Mike Kelley read in one of his performances. Bob Flanagan and I thought it funny that he named 100 different fraternity paddles in it, since we were involved in spanking kind of activities in the S/M community. Bob’s surprise anniversary party for us on Halloween two years ago included that reading, but Mike spontaneously suggested I spank Bob in front of all our friends while they counted. It was very funny and I’ve continued with this project.
I’d been doing documentary photography of the L.A. S/M scene all along. Photographing people’s bruises was a more interesting aspect of the nude to me, since beautiful bodies in great lighting was about all there was until then. I found these other bodies arousing for very different reasons and was lucky enough to find people who trusted me to make images of them. When they were presented at Rosamund Felsen gallery in L.A. as large formalist pieces, the project caused quite a stir.
When I became uneasy about showing this work, because of how it could be construed as pornography, Bob came up with the idea of its current presentation. It is sexually explicit, in that it shows female and male body parts, piercings, tattoos, etc. – which was actually less interesting to me to see in large format than through Bob’s little peep boxes.
These box constructions have a lot of meaning and create a different experience of the work. Instead of something so blatantly up there on the wall for everybody to see and exploit, it’s more private, intimate, and it involves the audience in a voyeuristic, active role – they have to bend over, peek into and push a button to light up the image inside box.
Did you decide to frame each shot the same way?
At first it was about the act itself. But then the issue of posing reared itself. These were all done spontaneously. I feel like a wildlife photographer. I’ll go to parties or events where I know things will happen. I’m a part of this underworld, though it’s becoming above ground and exploitable.
I eventually became interested in the surroundings because, to be honest, I don’t remember the names of all the people I’ve photographed since I only caught their rear end and they might not have wanted to be known. So the background info in the images helps me remember the situation. These hints and details entered the compositions gradually.
There’s lots of gender information.
That’s because many of these people are cross-dressers, etc., and, though I’ve never counted, there feels like some odd sense of parity in the body of work. Though I’m such a voyeur, I’m also an active participant in the series.
That’s why I’m protective of these things, and the work is so pure in some way. It started off as documentarian of an interesting subculture, wanting to make sure it was preserved somehow. This show is actually a very small selection from a huge collection of work I’ve done over the years.
That you can see the imprint of the hand of the author in your work is astounding.
It’s funny since I started off only photographing poets. At least a quarter of all the rear ends, I have bruised myself. It does have this jokey correlation to it, but you don’t have to know all that to enjoy the images.
To clarify some of the transpositions in your life, is Bob Flanagan your slave and does this translate as housewife? Do you bring home the bacon?
We had an intense role reversal when we first met. He was just a poet in those days. Our work grew out of our lifestyle. I’ve always had a job and Bob’s always been pretty ill, so he’s never been able to work a real 9-5 job, which was fine with me. He has in fact been my secretary, housekeeper, maid, love slave, chauffeur for my children, whatever.
As a dominatrix, have you ever felt that you’ve lived in the shadow of the bottom because that position happens, in this case, to be occupied by a male?
We’ve both been dealing with this. Can somebody in this society who’s a woman be truly dominant? I’ve never wanted the situation where it was only dominant in the bedroom. I wanted to be more on top of things, in every way.
However, submissives are very willful people, even making the decision to be that way. This is the reality. Bob’s Fuck Journals (Hunaman Press) came out of my telling him to write about every time we had sex for one year, for instance. Some of the original copies were burned by the printer, but the rest were literally smuggled into circulation.
That was the start of us doing our life as our art. I’m very proud of Bob, and there certainly is that issue of a woman in this society finding it difficult truly being a top.