PRINT Summer 1993


The pitcher fingers the brim of his cap, he brushes dust from his brow. His cleats grind into the mound, he plants himself solidly into that little hill. The batter, the one in red with a thick plastic cap on, shifts, a thousand times checking his grip. The runner also in red inches away from the canvas bag on first, a teasing dance full of bravado. The pitcher winds up his arm, the batter poises to swing, the man on first throws his body toward second. In an instant the batter pauses and the pitcher pivots. The runner is nailed at second. The execution of the perfect fake.

Her slick, seallike head moves in a stretch, the woman in this tape, smooth as shrink-wrapped plastic. When I first saw Head I had only one thought: I thought this girl must be one hell of a ride. That was what the tape asked for, it seemed to instigate or invite this kind of bravado, these pumped-up visions of domination and sexual slavery. If Cheryl Donegan were in a cartoon the bubble might read, “If I had a woman like that. . . .” And the response might be, “You couldn’t handle her.” As in the all-too-tasty movie Basic Instinct, a woman with that much appetite, with the ability to enjoy sex on a par with the fictive lust of men, is dangerous. How many times have men in books and movies said to one another, “A woman like that would kill you”?

The character Cheryl Donegan invents could easily be accused of the same. In Head Donegan studies what pleasure looks like. The piece is incredibly direct. A woman—the artist—approaches a green plastic bottle with a plugged spout sticking out from one side. She pulls the plug free, and a white milkish fluid begins to stream through the hole. The frame is filled with her head and upper torso, pert breasts bound in a leotard. Her dainty gloss-dipped lips part as she catches the liquid in her mouth, vertically lapping it up. Sometimes she spits or drools the stuff back into the open top, sometimes she swallows. After a time the flow begins to ebb; just a thin trickle is left. So she starts to suck at the hole, lick around it. Lick the bottle up and down. Who or what the bottle is, is open to one’s own particular fantasy.

We’ve seen this before. We’ve seen women crouched waiting to receive. Head makes us confront our own pornographic histories—all those women we saw live on celluloid exhibiting insatiable hunger and receptiveness. And they always loved it, always asked for more. And if we didn’t in some way believe them, buy the fake, then the viewing experience would deflate, would become nothing but embarrassing instead of just a little. In the Sadeian Woman and the Ideology of Pornography, Angela Carter defines the roles traditionally assigned to men and women in this genre: “Man aspires; woman has no other function but to exist, waiting. The male is positive, an exclamation mark. Woman is negative. Between her legs lies nothing but zero, the sign for nothing, that only becomes something when the male principle fills it with meaning.” Head could be seen as an ironic illustration of this tenet—a critique of how willing audiences are to buy into the idea of a woman faking it, and of how pornography seems to invent a sex beyond our reach.

Donegan’s tape has the tease level of a fan dance, where every- thing is suggested and nothing is revealed. She is conventionally beautiful, and the work would surely function differently were she not. Androgynous enough to hook in both men and women, Head allows the viability of the homo- erotic within essentially heterosexual perimeters. The role she plays mimics that of a sex-industry worker, whose choreographed purr and bounce fake you into believing that what she does feels good. Head leaves you thinking about who owns women’s pleasure whether it’s made by men, or by a woman’s own body.

The tape speaks to a cyclical relationship to pornography in the culture, a relationship directly relevant to Donegan’s own generation. Born in 1962, she is one of an age group that grew up with cable porn, sex after AIDS, and the recovery of a more permissible pornography as a substitution for acts no longer possible. Perhaps the most provocative aspect of Donegan’s small collection of video works—Head is the best of them—lies in her simulation of total abandon, which we’ve been taught is totally forbidden. Head delineates just how scripted sex may have become, and how far many of us have traveled from real taste and touch. Head is what pleasure looks like when it turns into illusion.

Collier Schorr is an artist and writer who lives in New York.