[I was asked to write this for the website of Nottingham Contemporary, but as far as I know it was never published there.]
When I conducted a walk-through tour of Marc Camille Chaimowicz’s exhibition Jean Genet, Act 1, I did so from a position of astonished disappointment. For me, Jean Genet was the great queer writer of the Twentieth Century—making no compromise with either public taste or with the self-consciously ‘respectable’ subculture of a gay minority. I had been reading his novels since my late teens, thrilled by their rudeness, the power of their prose (even in translation), their celebration not of gay identity but of the sexiness of masculinity, their Chinese boxes of infinitely promising transgressions…
For sure, I felt, any exhibition based on the work of this man was going to frighten the horses. In the event, this one did carry a warning. Nottingham Contemporary had made a little notice saying:
Visitors passing beyond this notice will find material on display, which they may consider indecent. No admittance to people under 18 years old.
Sad to say, this was not at the main entrance to the gallery but guarded its innermost sanctum, the little windowless room off the study room at the back. On one wall there was a photograph of a naked young man with an erection. The drawers in the Cabinet of Curiosities also had some interesting photographs of tattooed Russian prisoners. A separate cabinet of objects extracted from the bodies of prisoners was rather coyly labelled as if they had all been swallowed, when it was quite clear that many of them were more likely to have been rectally smuggled.
However, apart from some resonant photographs of the male body by Wolfgang Tilmans, the main body of the exhibition had more or less ignored the scandalous Genet. When Chaimowicz appeared at Nottingham Contemporary in person, I asked about the apparent erasure of male-male desire from his exhibition. Both he and his interlocutor Michael Bracewell seemed surprised I had raised the issue at all. They went on the defensive. Instead of just saying, ‘This is a personal show and that isn’t the aspect of Genet that interested me’, Chaimowicz said ‘I don’t think Genet would have been happy to be ghettoized.’ Well no, but nor would he have wanted to be sanitised. (I have spent all my working life fighting against this pernicious idea that the expression of same-sex desire must have the effect of diminishing any artist.)
So in my tour I tried to redress the balance. I asked that my audience be warned about ‘adult’ content, and that parents with children be steered away from us. But it was never going to be that easy. A Wednesday afternoon is not the best time to present ‘adult’ material in a free-access space. By the time we came we came to the last room, my impression was that there were children running about all over the place. But, as years of working in gay studies have taught me, despite constant pressures to censure oneself, there is always much that can be said.
Beginning the tour, I knelt on a pre-dieu to acknowledge Genet’s adversarial relationship with Roman Catholic culture and read out my own poem ‘Jean Genet in Norwich’, in which the writer goes cottaging in that most genteel of English cities. Beside an executioner’s bell which Chaimowicz had borrowed from Nottingham’s Galleries of Justice, I read from Genet’s love elegy to a condemned man (just one of his many expressions of desire for murderers) and in front of Wolfgang Tilmans’ photograph ‘Anders Behind Leaves’ I described a passage from Genet’s novel Querelle of Brest in which, during a sexual act, Lieutenant Seblon is sacramentally humiliated by becoming smeared with excrement.
In Jean Genet, Act 2, by various artists, among exhibits referencing the Maghreb and Palestine, I talked about famous occasions when Genet deliberately compromised his anti-imperialist politics with lusty expressions of desire for the uniformed men who police empires.
Although I had to hold back from actually quoting some of Genet’s more forthright expressions, by the time we had made our circuit of the exhibition spaces I felt I had, at least, brought to a somewhat emasculated exhibition a whiff of Jean Genet’s rampant eros.