Antwerp, Belgium

View of “Glory Hole,” 2013.

View of “Glory Hole,” 2013.

“Glory Hole”

LLS 387 Ruimte Voor Actuele Kunst

View of “Glory Hole,” 2013.

As a critic, I am normally hesitant to use such words as memorable or exceptional, but when I visited the alternative art venue LLS 387 Ruimte voor Actuele Kunst to see the exhibition “Glory Hole,” these were exactly the words that came to mind. Before visiting, I was skeptical of the show’s premise: The space would supposedly be transformed into a “darkroom”—here the term refers not to a place where film is developed, but a room, like those sometimes found in gay bars or movie theaters, where customers can go to have sex. It seemed like there was a good chance the show would turn out to be nothing more than a tacky gimmick. On the other hand, the inclusion of artists such as Wolfgang Tillmans, Elmgreen & Dragset, Zoe Leonard, Robert Gober, and even Auguste Rodin suggested a more serious purpose, as did an ambitious program of film screenings, performances, and public talks.

When I visited, I was guided by one of the show’s curators— which felt almost necessary, since the white-cube space had been changed into a labyrinth of extremely dark, narrow corridors. One of the first works I encountered, The Bronze Age, 1875–80, a beautiful statue by Rodin representing a naked man, set the show’s tone. For anyone used to seeing this sculpture in Antwerp’s open-air Middelheim Museum, its presentation in “Glory Hole”—in a dark box with light very narrowly focused on the naked bronze male body—seemed to reveal something previously unseen. Instead of just an incredibly crafted, realistic sculpture, the work embodied a frank acknowledgment of male sexuality. Apparently, this statue is an icon for the gay community.

Two works by Gober made clear that in this context, queer issues could be either explicit or implicit. Nothing could have been more in-your-face than his set of three prints Untitled, 1991, depicting genitals in shades of red, blue, and green. Yet through repetition, the image became nearly neutral, like wallpaper (a medium that Gober has also used). The other work by Gober was the well-known Drain, 1989. As with the Rodin, clever presentation and shrewd lighting gave this tin pipe a totally different weight. Installed at the height of a glory hole in a real darkroom meant to be used for anonymous sex, and with barely any light on it, Drain took on the aura of something dangerous or, perhaps, exciting.

What exactly happens in a darkroom was shown in a continuous loop from Carlos Aires. The artist filmed, with an infrared camera, the activities of a group of men going at it in a real darkroom and mixed these images with footage filmed in a haunted castle at a fun fair. In combination with a sentimental rendition by Nat King Cole of the Spanish song “Quizás, Quizás, Quizás (Perhaps, Perhaps, Perhaps)” the wild mix of images seems to suggest a parody of nature documentaries, which are often likewise filmed using infrared photography.Apparently, this was the first time that Mister Hyde 1/Darkroom, 2004, could be exhibited without having to be withdrawn from public view; in three previous exhibitions, the video was removed after complaints about its explicitness. And maybe this was the biggest triumph of “Glory Hole”: It created an environment in which such activities seemed perfectly normal. Pieter Boons, Ulrike Lindmayr, Sam Sterckx, and Hans Wuyts, who together curated this small but impressive show, succeeded in creating an environment in which implicitly LGBT-related works and even those that might be totally without sexual content in a different context became overtly sexual, while explicit works from the likes of Gober, Wolfgang Tillmans, gelatin, and Fabrice Hybert showed their tender, sensuous side.

Jos Van den Bergh