If you happened to scroll through the “casual encounters” listings on Craigslist earlier this month, you may have come across an ad with the following header: “I want you to play with my toys.”
Local artist Laurenn McCubbin placed the ad, and the toys in question were her own creative spin on “masturbators”—the mass-produced, disembodied replicas of women’s and men’s sexual anatomy sold by adult retailers for the purpose of stimulation.
In the case of the Craigslist ad, the objects were silicone facsimiles of McCubbin’s body parts—her mouth, breasts and vagina—with the genitalia purposefully moved to different places.
The pieces are visually arresting, if slightly disorienting. There’s a life-sized double of McCubbin’s breasts with a vaginal opening placed strategically between them. There’s also a replica of her face, peaceful and cherubic, with an erect penis coming out of her mouth. The objects are soft and pliable, and if you’re anything like me, you’ll want to touch, stroke and fondle them. Which is exactly the point.
McCubbin, age 42, recruited people to interact—and have sex—with the toys in an effort to mimic the kinds of interactions that sex workers have with their clients. But there was a catch: She wasn’t seeking payment, rather she wanted to watch and document the interactions people had with her avatars through whatever medium participants wanted, including photographs, video and drawings.
The toys, the Craigslist ad, email responses from interested men, video and photos of people interacting with her silicone likenesses are all part of McCubbin’s Master of Fine Arts thesis show, Auto Erotic Ethnography, currently under way at UNLV’s Donna Beam Fine Art Gallery. (Full disclosure: I’m a member of McCubbin’s thesis committee, although I would be writing about this show even if I wasn’t.)
- Auto Erotic Ethnography
- Through April 1, Donna Beam Fine Art Gallery at UNLV, 895-3893
This isn’t the first time the theme of sex and commodification has figured prominently in McCubbin’s artwork. Her midway show at UNLV last spring, Speaking to Las Vegas in the Language of Las Vegas, was a direct confrontation with what she sees as Vegas’ paradoxical, and some might argue vexed, relationship with sex. While sex is everywhere in the city, from billboards to nightclubs to Yellow Pages filled with escort ads, McCubbin contends that Las Vegas is, actually, “an incredibly close-minded place about sexuality.”
In Speaking to Las Vegas in the Language of Las Vegas, McCubbin took a widely familiar scene on the Strip—men handing out handbills advertising escorts—and dramatically reconfigured it to start a dialogue with the city about the role of sex work in the local economy. She set up her own website, called Lady Biz, created her own “hooker cards,” with images of actual sex workers that she had interviewed and drawn, and took to the Strip to gauge and record the responses of passersby.
In her new work, McCubbin moves beyond the peculiarities of Las Vegas’ sexual economy to explore and document the wider circuit of production and consumption that drives the sex industry, laying bare the often unexamined processes of sexual commodification.
In this show, McCubbin inserts her own body into the process. “I love the disembodiment of female and male forms in sex toys,” McCubbin says. For her, these objects are “desire boiled down to its rawest square footage.”
Yet McCubbin’s show is about more than just sex. It also explores the boundary between artist as detached observer and artist as intimate participant in the social world she examines—which helps explain how a silicone replica of McCubbin’s ass ended up on display in an art gallery.
Finding manufacturers that might be willing to assist with the mold-making wasn’t easy. After several unsuccessful attempts to enlist the support of mainstream sex toy manufacturers, McCubbin turned to local sculptor Miguel Rodriquez, who helped render McCubbin’s body in sculptural form.
The mold-making procedure was much harder and more physically demanding than McCubbin had expected. Particularly challenging, she says, was the mold of her face. Rodriquez had to first cover her face with a coat of alginate, which was followed by a plaster and burlap mother mold. While this dried, McCubbin’s mouth was held open with a paper towel roll in place of what in the finished piece would be a penis. McCubbin, who wasn’t able to swallow, found herself gagging on her own drool. “It was terrifying,” she recalls.
McCubbin received hundreds of emails from men—they were “all dudes,” she says—who read her Craigslist ad and wanted to play with her toys. Many of these men also sent pictures of their penises along with messages about what they’d like to do with McCubbin and her avatars. “Well that sounds exiting, titillating and downright hot,” wrote one man. “I would pay generously to participate in something like you’ve described,” indicated another. “Details, please!” another man responded.
“I didn’t expect to get that many responses,” McCubbin says, admitting that she was emotionally overwhelmed by all the replies. She quickly realized that, much like a sex worker, she would have to screen the respondents to ensure her safety should she choose to meet these strangers. In the end, almost none of the men who responded to the Craigslist ad wanted anything to do with her pieces once they saw pictures, because McCubbin had fundamentally transformed the very idea of a masturbator into objects that question gender identity. She eventually found seven people to interact sexually with the toys (including a latecomer from Craigslist), all of which is documented in the show.
As I walked through McCubbin’s Auto Erotic Ethnography earlier this week, I turned to a young woman standing next to me and asked what she thought of the show. She giggled nervously and then offered two words: “It’s bold.”