To say that life is suffering is fatuous. In the age of the apocalypse, environmental collapse, political toxicity, and economic injustice, reducing suffering to a given is platitudinous and ethically sketchy at best. More interesting, and more important, is acknowledging the ways in which we actively cause suffering, and then even more critical is the need to interrogate the ways in which we cultivate and have even grown accustomed to luxuriating in suffering, our own and others.
The art of Nayland Blake offers one of the most pressing meditations on — and invitations to interrogate — the circulation of pain in contemporary American life. A retrospective of their work at the new Institute of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles, one of the largest recent exhibits for the artist on this coast, foregrounds such an invitation by showcasing Blake’s frequent use of bondage equipment, chains, images, and video of discomfort and pain, and periodic gruesome glimpses of self- and other-inflicted suffering.
Blake had already established themself as an artist willing to push boundaries, particularly around our understanding of queerness, same-sex desire and love, racism, and prejudice. Since beginning to exhibit their work in 1985, Blake’s reputation for provocation has only grown. But, I contend, Blake’s work is never just shocking for shock’s sake. Blake is not simply a provocateur. And the elements that have characterized their work for decades, particularly those involving sex toys and sadomasochistic practices, emerge in this retrospective as part of a forceful aesthetic and political theory.
Upon walking into the exhibit, you cannot escape the sounds of various clinks, slaps, thuds, and whines, all coming from Blake’s video installations which (for me) comprise the highlight of the show. One of the very first you see upon turning left into the exhibit (unsure if this is the right way to go, but I do so out of habit, always going left) is Correction (2004), a set of multiple horizontally placed video screens about five feet off the floor. On every screen, the artist sits bare-chested, looking slightly off into the distance. Periodically, with no discernible pattern, someone comes from off screen to slap Blake across the face and then quickly moves on. Blake barely flinches, but we hear their breathing, which accelerates a bit with each slap before slowing down again in anticipation of the next blow. I look more closely and notice that Blake’s nose is mic’d so we can experience not just the visual strike but also their somatic reaction through inhalations and exhalations that fluctuate with the experience of pain. Weirdly, as I linger in front of the monitors, the breaths start to sound like the swooshing of an embryo as rendered through ultrasound; I wonder what Blake imagines is birthed in their — and now our — experience of their “correction.”
I return to this installation several times, awaiting the next blows, staying longer as the time between slaps seems to lengthen. Suddenly, a T-shirted man appears on the screen and pauses slightly before delivering a sound strike across Blake’s face. He moves off screen and, unexpectedly, my dick twitches in my pants.
I say “unexpectedly,” but I think I might be lying. I have to call bullshit on myself. Didn’t I also say that I returned to this video, multiple times? I did. And I did so on two different trips. I wanted to see Blake slapped. I wanted to see him corrected. And so did my dick.
Not everyone will have this experience, but the force of Blake’s work is how it makes us complicit in scenes of the infliction of pain. Not quite torture porn, Blake’s work nonetheless actively invites us to experience the delights of hurting, of watching others be hurt, of watching Blake themself suffer. The aesthetic value of the work, though, is that it doesn’t stop there.
Take Gorge (1998), for instance, one of the most famous of Blake’s videos. In it, another bare-chested Blake sits in a chair while a black man, also bare-chested, feeds, and then seems to force feed, the artist a series of foods and drinks. A clock in the background ticks off the hour of Blake’s feeding, and an old pop tune — “Do the hop, hop, hop” — plays annoyingly along. The video is, pun intended, deliciously disturbing. We wonder what food will be offered, and then forced, down Blake’s throat next; we imagine the unseen table of food laid out like a torturer’s implements, visible to the victim but not us.
But is this torture? The black male feeder offers a food item, some cake, and then a glass of wine. The gesture is at times almost loving, certainly sensual as the feeder rubs the back of Blake’s head, then his torso, encouraging him, almost like one would an infant eating, sucking at a teat.
And then hop, hop, hop, I return to the video later and see the black man take a large piece of watermelon, holding it against Blake’s neck like a collar, tearing pieces off, standing behind the artist and stuffing juicy bits into their mouth. He tears off even bigger handfuls, hop, hop, hop, fingering the melon, squeezing it before shoving it into a mouth that starts to seem to want to resist. Has the coaxing of food into the artist’s mouth, almost an hour into the video, turned form care to torture? Has the gentle gesture of offering food become a form of punishment?
And what are we seeing here, especially with the black man forcing watermelon into what looks like the mouth of a white man? What master/slave dynamic has been flipped? What exactly is the relationship between feeder and fed? And what do we do with the fact, when we discover it, that Blake themself is also part black, even if not visibly so? Then we realize that Blake has submitted to this experience, just as with Correction, and recorded it to share, and that we are returning to the video again and again to see what suffering is inflicted, what suffering is submitted to, next.
The racial and queer dimensions of this work demand attention, particularly as race and queerness permeate the exhibit and intertwine in complex ways. The bondage equipment, with leather cuffs and chains attached to various poles and fixtures, speaks to sexual subcultures of kink but then also veer into histories of slavery as drawn drapes of chains are hung uncomfortably next to black images of bunnies, recalling Br’er Rabbit, the trickster character given widespread popularity in 19th-century America by Joel Chandler Harris and then used in the now (somewhat) suppressed Disney film Song of the South. The bunnies, cute as they can be, are images of both the hunted and the sexual (prey that reproduces rapidly), and they dredge up racist images of black folk who were hunted, lynched, and flayed alive while being demonized as sexually promiscuous. A Bugs Bunny lookalike becomes sinister in this context, a childlike object of deep unease. These images then circulate back to the various bits and pieces of bondage equipment, leather goods likely purchased at sex shops, items you might imagine playfully slipping around your own neck or ankles until a little bunny hop hop hops up to you, eyeing you as its nose twitches, and you wonder, What the fuck am I doing? How am I supposed to respond to this mix of images, items, experiences?
What do I do with my twitching dick?
Putting Blake’s work into a larger context of aesthetic and cultural production — which his work invites — helps approach such questions. Blake famously co-curated the mid-’90s exhibition In a Different Light, which focused on emerging trends and traditions in “visual culture, sexual identity, and queer practice.” His introduction to the volume documenting the exhibition, “Curating in a Different Light,” is one of the most important treatises on queer aesthetic practice from the end of the last century. In it, Blake smartly traces the influences on queer art of the women’s movement and feminist art, as well as Duchamp and Fluxus — all of which inform and inspire a set of queer practices that are simultaneously political while reliant on ephemera, cast-offs, and the refuse of a larger culture that doesn’t see the value of objects, ideas, and activities typically associated with women, racial minorities, and queers. From Duchamp, Blake purports, queers also take the power of reversal, of upending — and then take it one step further: the urinal as art object also becomes a fetish object for some queer men, an object around which the bourgeois can be shocked but also around which some queer pleasures, encounters, and associations are built.
Such reversals and transformations of refuse, of the often refused, reveals the constructedness of naturalized and normalized social and cultural formations, most notably family. Blake’s theorization here is worth quoting in full:
Queer people are the only minority whose culture is not transmitted within the family. Indeed, the assertion of one's queer identity often is made as a form of contradiction to familiar identity. Thus, for queer people, all of the words that serve as touchstones for cultural identification — family, home, people, neighborhood, heritage — must be recognized as constructions for and by the individual members of that community.
Blake seems to delight in the tension between the reuse of the refused and the creation of community and tradition, and the contributors to the exhibit and its catalog played with multiple concepts — void, self, drag, other, couple/family, orgy, world, utopia — twisting them inside out, transforming them, revaluing them as fodder for queer practice and possibility. Such practices invested in transformation often grappled with difficult material — and difficult objects. Think of that urinal: its aestheticization into art was shocking to Duchamp’s contemporaries, and its transformation through queer practice into an icon of public sex might also push the comfort zones and boundaries of present-day homos (not to mention straights) invested in fantasies of acceptance and normativity, or of what Lisa Duggan and others have called homonormativity. Similarly, in their more recent exhibition, Blake’s work with costumes and sex equipment, metal poles and restraints, celebrates queer fantasies of play, power exchange, and making pleasure where one can.
Beyond Duchamp, Blake’s forerunners and inspirations stretch to the private and iconoclastic assemblages of Joseph Cornell, the challenging sexual and gender trips of Kathy Acker, and the porn-as-art video of Jack Smith — all the while bending aesthetic practice toward a grappling with the allure, the challenge, and the erotics of the sadomasochistic. Along such lines, I detect even a bit of Chris Burden lurking in the background, especially in that artist’s videos when he has himself shot in the arm (“Shot in the Name of Art”), or slithers in his briefs across a street littered with shards of glass, his hands tied behind his back (“Through the Night Softly”) — videos that critic David Deitcher calls “self-punishing, endurance spectacles.” Even more challenging are the resonances with the films of Kenneth Anger, such as Scorpio Rising, which blend images of leather biker boys, hazing rituals, sadomasochism, and flashes of Nazis, all set to a soundtrack of pop tunes from the early ’60s. Anger brings into close proximity gay leather culture, fan photos of Marlon Brando, fascism, and pop icon Ricky Nelson (the poppiest of pop!) to show us simultaneously how queers remix dominant cultural productions for their own pleasure making, but also perhaps how an insipid and mind-numbing pop culture might stultify us while the fascists take control. A very Frankfurt School critique lurks here. But Anger is also gesturing, as sociologist Klaus Theweleit does in Male Fantasies, to the proximities of fascism and what we now call toxic masculinity, and the ways in which cultures of male dominance support bigotry, prejudice, and the embrace of authoritarianism.
Blake pushes such proximities even further by stripping down the elements so that we are left with more acute and particular collisions to ponder. The plethora of biker and Nazi images (not to mention those of Christ and his disciplines) in Scorpio Rising become, in Blake’s work, the simpler, almost elegant scene in Gorge, with the artist sitting in a chair, being fed and forced, all to the tune of one pop song seemingly on a loop. Critic Ian Berry interprets the film this way: “[T]he divide between care and punishment becomes blurred as the intricacies of nurturing, intimacy, and submission are exposed.” Yes, but more. In contrast to Anger, Blake’s work is not just an assemblage of unsettling juxtapositions: Nazis, Jesus, Brando — the low-hanging fruit of aesthetic shock and awe. Rather, in their videos and artworks, and in their amassing of rigid and industrial bondage poles with soft leather cuffs, Blake asks us to consider how any pleasure we experience is already gained through the suffering someone else experiences. Our joys are built on other’s sorrows. For Blake, such does not constitute an ontology of the fundamental intertwining of pain and pleasure; I don’t sense Bataille as a forerunner here. Instead, Blake seems all too conscious of how ideological structures have created this world. The gestures to and reuse of racist images throughout the exhibit demand to be read politically. In Gorge, the whiteness of the artist, the blackness of the feeder, the hop hop hop resonating with the images of bunnies in the exhibit — all of these coalesce into meditations on the intermeshed, and racialized, circulation of pain and pleasure in our culture. For how long has our culture fed on the labor of black folk, and how is that relationship now coming to choke us? Layering in Blake’s own blackness, how does that culture also continue to savage black folk, even as it tries to reverse (even if just symbolically) some of the damages already done?
Still, perversely, there is pleasure, however complex, in pain, in suffering, in the infliction of them on others — and in the way we allow them to be inflicted on us. Blake understands that queer sexual subcultures have often made a survival tactic out of stealing pleasures where they can be taken, even from the unlikeliest of sources. Indeed, for Blake, sexual subcultures are pedagogic; as they put it, “I am interested in how they teach each other about pleasure. This is something that has become more explicit since the advent of AIDS.”
I stumbled into an interesting version of such pleasure taking on the afternoon of my second visit to the Institute of Contemporary Art to see Blake’s retrospective. I met a friend in Silver Lake who wanted to visit the Tom of Finland Foundation house, dedicated to the 20th-century gay and S/M erotic artist. I didn’t know it existed, but was eager to see what the foundation was about. And it’s largely what you might expect. We climbed up a winding street in increasingly suburban Silver Lake and came upon a house pretty much surrounded by a large privacy hedge. This must be it, I thought. And indeed, after entering the gate, we were greeted by a transman in leather pants who escorted us throughout the tour. The house, owned by a lover and business partner of Tom, is part gallery, part artist colony, part business office for the foundation, and part residence for the lover. The foundation hosts artists-in-residence, who, like Tom, are committed to the creation and promulgation of erotic art. Their art works, and Tom’s, are everywhere. Cocks, cocks, cocks, in multiple sketches, drawings, paintings — a fetishist’s feast. I even snapped a photo of a penis made out of the small mirrors found on spinning disco balls and hoped that no one used it on anyone, or themselves. More impressively (maybe), I got to hold an actual copy of a Physique Pictorial, Bob Mizer’s midcentury skin mag posing as muscle zine, this edition with one of Tom of Finland’s drawings gracing its cover. I quite literally felt that I was holding a piece of queer history. Then we toured the grounds of the house, the extensive backyard built into a hill overlooking a swath of L.A. County skyline. We delighted in the, ahem, “cock pit,” and a lovingly outfitted “Pleasure Park,” based on images in Tom’s work. We were assured that the sex parties held here are amazing.
I won’t argue that Tom of Finland is an inspiration for Nayland Blake. But I imagined a curious affinity, especially when I saw the drawings Tom made of whips and chains, and a leather belt being slid off a cop’s pants, ready to descend on the anticipating and quivering buttocks of a bound tough guy. Blake’s work references sadomasochistic practice, and Tom of Finland was among the first porn artists to popularize such images. And as with Blake’s work, there’s more here than meets the initially lascivious eye. Looking at the fetishized images of cops, construction workers, sailors, bikers and other toughs, I don’t think as Anger would of Nazis; instead, I think of a young guy in mid-20th-century America, trying to get off covertly in the bushes, cruising for like-minded boys in Pleasure Park, but also someone who wouldn’t mind being found and raped by the patrolling hot cop — not just because the young guy is riddled with internalized homophobia, but because fetishizing that cop is a sexual and psychic survival strategy. When you don’t have positive images of your sexual desires, when you can’t see yourself and your erotic and intimate interests mirrored in the world around you, you turn the possible basher into a potential lover. That’s surviving. And I wonder, for all the boys hauled away to jail by patrolling cops (even now), how many were also blown by those cops, themselves looking for a little connection, a little flesh, a little pleasure?
We leave the foundation house, and my friend tells me as we walk back down the hill to Sunset Boulevard that he wanted to have some in-depth and intellectual conversation about Tom of Finland and his work, but instead he is thinking more about how much fun it would be to have a sex party in the Pleasure Park. Such a thought seems sufficiently “critical” of the experience we’ve just had. This is, after all, porn. I’m reminded that Tom of Finland is rumored to have said that he knew that a piece of art he was working on was “good” if he himself got a hard-on while drawing it.
We get back down to Sunset, and it occurs to me that Nayland Blake’s work provokes the cock twitch, but it doesn’t let you stay in your pants. Fatuous as this may sound, that might be the difference between art and porn. But let’s not stay with simple differentiations. Blake doesn’t.
Back at the Institute, as I circle around the exhibition, hopping past the bunnies, the chains, the leather straps, et cetera, I come to a final video, Starting Over (2000), in which we see the artist dancing in a nearly 150-pound bunny costume, pounding the floor as he takes complex directions from his former lover. Blake clearly struggles to obey the commands. You can hear the claps of his tap shoes resonating throughout the exhibit space. What are we seeing if not the tortures of love, the desire to follow someone’s lead at times, the pain inflicted by someone who supposedly cares, the difficult dances we put each other through?
Yes, for sure, but the bunny costume also links this private moment, this sadomasochistic dance among lovers, to the images of racialized violence and suffering throughout the rest of the exhibit. The personal and political intertwine. The circuits of power and pleasure seem to be everywhere, inescapable, linking the costumed dances of your bedroom play to structures of violence and racism.
How do we understand this intertwining? Blake doesn’t offer many immediate answers, though others have attempted to address this interconnection in other media that romances the sadomasochistic. In the digital pages of this venue, Walter Benn Michaels once mulled over the “contract porn” of Fifty Shades of Grey, in which a woman contracts with her boss to be his slave. For Michaels, someone long attuned to the forms of economic relationality as they are reflected in the forms of narrative, the increasing popularity of such contract porn runs parallel to the contract neoliberalization of contemporary (e.g., gig) employment, in which more and more folks enter (with little choice) into short-term contracts that trade the comforts of long-term security for quicker, dirtier, and often more painful forms of servitude. Michaels catchily calls this arrangement “neoliberal masochism.” We very well might read some of Nayland Blake’s work, especially videos like Gorge or Correction, as a form of contract porn with neoliberal masochistic tendencies.
More specifically, Gorge resonates with Lauren Berlant’s meditations on what she calls “slow death,” or the stealing of whatever pleasures we might be able to take from the toxic dumps piling up around us. The burger we stuff in our mouths, the salty fries, the (diet) soda, the fast food that tastes so good, are all slowly poisoning us, even as they also offer a moment of pleasure and respite in a world too fast, too painful, too stacked against us. We gorge on the consumer bounty that suffocates us. The circuits of pleasure and power are inscribed on bodies within economic regimes that variously deploy surfeit and deprivation, plenty and precarity, pleasure and suffering — constantly correcting us to accommodate the accumulative desires of corporations and capitalism.
But in Blake’s case, for whose profit are such circuits deployed? For the people in the videos, or for us, the viewers? What do we gain from auditing the contractual pain Blake submits to? Then I remember: art isn’t a contract; it’s an invitation. I go back to stand in front of “Starting Over.” I watch this video, mesmerized for a bit, cast back in my memory to my own lover at the time, years and years ago, his arms tethered above his head to the exposed pipes in a basement. I pick up a wooden paddle and strike his buttocks, once, twice, again, but I can’t take my eyes off his face, his beautiful face, grimacing in pain, then smiling, and I’m in love, deeply in love. He submitted to this. We both did. And I will hurt him again and again, and he will hurt me. But the pleasures will also be somehow more intense, if we can learn to manage the tortures we inflict on each other.
Yes, these are pains and pleasures to which we are actively and knowingly submitting. Our relationality is volitional, as is Blake’s, in the case of their artwork, their videos. But in such volition, in such submission, we have the opportunity to feel and reflect over the many involuntary ways in which we are forced to submit, and the ways in which we participate in systems that suppress, repress, and oppress. I take the invitation offered by the retrospective and allow Blake’s work to stay with me, walking down Sunset, heading home, going to bed, waking up in the middle of the night with an erection, taking a shower, kissing my lover goodbye for the day, and then watching the pain on a colleague’s face as I try gently to offer some constructive criticism. I don’t want to hurt, but I do. I could go on and on. Over the years, I have received and caused pleasure and pain, some consensual, some not, some expected, some surprising. I discover more profoundly how I am always part of the problem, part of structures that immiserate others — the clicking “Buy Now” on one website triggering simultaneously the pleasurable rush of an expected package and the crippling pain of someone else’s barely tolerable wage labor in a distribution center. Again, I could go on and on.
I can only become more conscious, more aware, more deliberate in my choices to mitigate the pain I inflict, the pain inflicted on me. With my lover, our biggest goal will continue to be, as it has been, to acknowledge and attempt to delimit the tortures of the systems through which we — both queer, one of color — move through the world. And then to bring that possibility of mitigation to anyone else we can.
What is the spectrum of suffering from the personal to the political? What continuum of pain from the private to the ideological and back again plays over our bodies? At its best, these are the questions that Nayland Blake’s work moves us toward, that it provokes us to grapple with. Blake has said in an interview with another critic, “I hope that people are willing to give the works time, to allow them to unfold beyond the time that they may actually be looking at them. Of course the viewing of art is a narrative experience. I think the problem arises when we forget this.” The narratives of Blake’s pain, his submission to suffering as attention, care, and a little bit of cruelty makes demands on us: demands that we attend to the histories of suffering from which we still benefit, and also to the forms of suffering to which we continue to submit and that we inflict on others. To survive this slow death, to ease our suffering, we sometimes have to love the pain just a little bit, hoping the loving will allow us to be gentler with each other, more understanding, more aware of the beauty despite and through the pain.
Jonathan Alexander is Chancellor’s Professor of English at UC Irvine. He is the author, co-author, or editor of 16 books, including Writing Youth: Young Adult Fiction as Literacy Sponsorship (2016) and a critical memoir, Creep: A Life, a Theory, an Apology (2017), which was a finalist for a Lambda Literary Award. He can be reached through his website: https://www.the-blank-page.com/.