The Bay Area is no stranger to the provocative. Nary a rally, street fair or Sunday stroll exists without the backdrop of a few naked men in cock rings and pink faux-hawks. Taco trucks are protested with “puke-ins.” And spectators can always drop in to the monthly porn wrestling matches at the Armory if dinner and a movie is too passé. With this cultural mentality as a frame of reference, it’s not enough for a sexually explicit art performance to merely be shocking for it to have lasting gravity.
This is why I approached the culminating performance in Femina Potens April Artgasm series on birth, conception, and motherhood with both excitement and trepidation. Sadie Lune’s “Biological Clock” was a multi-part project, the grand finale of which involved a queer insemination ritual/gangbang that would hopefully lead to Lune’s pregnancy. (As of today, she’s not sure if it took. Lune decided not to test before the end of her cycle, “to spare myself further emotional roller coasters”).
As a self-avowed multimedia artist, sex worker, and pleasure activist, Lune’s art flouts conventional behavior and aesthetics, with intentional affronts to public/private spaces, and is all the more demanding for the way it implicates the viewer in its maneuverings. On the importance of witnesses at the event, Lune said, “They were an extension of the action, an amplification of it. I wanted their energy, their feelings, their bodies to be part of the creation, because I feel like I have been created and shaped by so many people’s ideas and actions and influences and the people in the room are all representative somehow of those influences.”
Never having participated in or witnessed a public insemination ritual, I was unsure what to expect. A day before the event, I got an email from Sadie’s assistant. In it were directions on how to dress, behavioral etiquette, and this snippet:
“This performance ritual will be sexually explicit, and as participatory witnesses, I invite you to join in raising the erotic energy at the relevant time (you’ll know when). This can look like sensual thoughts and intentions, fooling around with your date, asking someone cute if they want to make out, masturbation…”
It was at this time I realized it was probably a mistake to have invited my ex-girlfriend. Nevertheless, we followed the emails instructions, dressed ourselves in fertility colors, and surrendered our phones before entering the brightly lit Michelle O’ Connor gallery in the mission.
Around fifty witnesses sat on the floor around a circle made with real grass. Green, purple, and silver candles surrounded the circle, which were the colors we were also wearing, per instruction. Above the circle/stage hung a large knitted uterus, draped with pearls, and the walls showcased a series of pictures of Sadie’s cervix, as well as pictures of her being fisted. Below that, audience members were encouraged to leave sentiments, prayers, and emotions on post-it notes, some of which included, “More DILFs,” “Ecosex Revolution,” “Goddess speed little sperm!” and the quixotic, “Less baby making duh.”
A dozen or so helpers, referred to as handmade-ins, flitted about in varying states of nakedness, offering coconuts, trays of mango, chocolate, snap peas, and deviled eggs, sometimes feeding them directly to our mouths, while David Bowie’s “Changes” played on the loudspeaker.
The ritual began with a handmade-in’s a cappella rendition of Bjork’s “Big Time Sensuality.” Next came a different handmade-in’s impassioned speech on the myth of the “biological clock,” followed by the smashing of an actual clock to bits with a hammer. Other ritualistic elements ensued, some whimsically invented (group kegel exercises, scattered eggshells, partner staring contests), others re-contextualized from different cultural practices (chanting “Om” in unison, burning palo santo). “I like to pick up bits of magic all over: Buddhism, Paganism, Ancient Greek Mythology, science, astrology, intuition, and many more sources,” said Lune. After that came the main event, which was announced with much fanfare by a trans handmade-in: “And now,” she intoned with gusto, “it is time for The Sex.”
At this point, Sadie and Oberon, her child’s queer father-to-be, separated like a Jr. High prom—the female handmade-ins attended to Sadie, and the male faginis attended to Oberon. Despite the encouragement from the handmade-ins, and the calls to participate, very few people actually did anything other than watch. There was some light kissing, some ankle rubbing, and one lesbian who got completely naked while her girlfriend went down on her, but most of us remained simply voyeurs.
After twenty or thirty minutes of craning our necks to take in as much of the queer orgy as we could (there’s really no prime seating at a gangbang), Oberon left the circle, then the room. While we were waiting for him to, um, deliver his seed, the handmade-ins and faginis told jokes and embarrassing sex stories to bide the time. Once the sperm was brought back to the circle, each handmade-in took turns inseminating Sadie with it, and finished by bringing her to orgasm for the second time that evening. While they were doing this, they formed a tight circle around her, which seemed to serve the purpose of creating a protective and safe space, despite the public surroundings.
The night wore down with some guided meditation, where we were told to think of our favorite tree. The first word that came to my mind was, “succubus” which is not a tree at all, and not a thought conducive to conception. As I tried to banish my “tree,” I was pushed gently backward onto the floor, where we all remained for the next several minutes. A group sing-a-long rounded off the night, along with anointments of scented oil and spritzes of rose water.
All in all, it was a night heavily laden with symbolism, and it felt much more like a familial gathering than a sexually explicit art show, one that relied on literally and figuratively queering one’s conceptions of conception, and on a powerful message of reinvention.
Paradoxically, motherhood is often divorced from sexuality, which was a cultural aspect Lune wanted to confront in her performance. “Our culture is still painfully schizophrenic around sexuality, and blatantly so around motherhood, where in most cases the act of sex itself brings the undoing of the person’s capacity for sexualization. The archetype of the MILF, or hot mom, is still more the stuff of fetish than cultural norm….Mothers are expected to hide their sexual selves, lest they be seen as gross, unseemly or suspect, and sexually empowered women often feel the need to hide their status as mothers from other sexually open adults.”
Indeed, modern womanhood leaves little room for celebratory rites of passage. Nobody throws you a party when you start staining your Osh Kosh B’Goshes, for instance. And period shaming doesn’t end at puberty, as is indicative of most advertisements that try to disguise menstruation as slow-motion beach twirling. If anything, a tremendous amount of bodily shame is the “gift” associated with the major milestones of womanhood: puberty, wedding diets, pregnancy (Maternity spanx, anyone?), and menopause. There’s certainly no ritual for conception, and many times birth itself occurs while women are drugged up and on their backs in a clinical hospital setting.
For women who don’t fit the socially sanctioned ideal of motherhood, creating new rituals and meanings out of a dialogue aimed to exclude them is a thing of beauty. Some of it was silly, of course, (What is a womb walkie talkie? Why was Sadie’s snake so prominent in the proceedings?) and predictably woo-woo San Francisco, but that was also kind of the point. Besides, the sentiment was heartfelt and outshined the more superficial aspects of performativity that threatened to tilt the performance toward the farcical. Even my ex, who at one point during the performance whispered, “I kind of hate you right now,” left the gallery brimming with conversation about the place of ritual in our society.
Coming within close proximity to such a primal act is certainly jarring, and personal to the point of exhibitionism, but what veered the piece away from pure sensationalism was the sense of community involved. It’s one thing to collapse our notions of conception and motherhood, but Lune did so while also always supplying a nourishing alternative.
When asked why she decided to make the conception public, Lune said, “Artistically, I felt compelled to create a space for a demonstration with my body as the point of contact between cultural ideas about personal sexuality, public entitlement to the bodies of sex workers, and de-sexualization of motherhood. Spiritually, I wanted to stack the odds in my favor with as much energy from as many loving collaborators as possible. Also, it felt really scary, really big and really fun to think about, and I think that emotional combination is important to listen to in life and in art.”