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Hysterical Literature, The Orgasm and Reading


From the photographer Clayton Cubitt comes this project that explores the limits of art and sexuality in a series of aphrodisiacal videos of women reading.

Enters Alicia. The scene is sparse, in black and white, like in an old photograph. Alicia looks at the camera, introduces herself and opens a book. Leaves of Grass by Walt Whitman. She begins reading. “Song of Myself”: I celebrate myself and sing myself / And what I assume you shall assume / For every atom belonging to me as good belongs to you… But her reading becomes increasingly fluctuant; Whitman spills over in her breathing, is interrupted by the rhythm of her voice and she rocks with all of her body… With almost 11 minutes having passed, we see that Alicia is reaching a (literary?) orgasm, apparently both unexpectedly and real.

Welcome to the second session of Hysterical Literature by photographer Clayton Cubitt with Alicia. What we do not know at first is that Alicia, while she reads the sensual “Song of Myself,” is being stimulated under the table by the invisible hand of the Hitachi Magic Wand, or “the Cadillac of vibrators,” as it has become known.

“Art on the table and sex under the table, just as society likes it,” Cubitt says on his site to explain his controversial series of videos. From the waist up, things are sufficiently respectable, and Cubbit plays with that to satisfy the community rules of YouTube, but at the same time showing something that is extremely aphrodisiacal.

Hysterical Literature was conceived as an online project in which each female participant chooses a book and reads out loud until the sexual stimulation is such that they lose the ability to form coherent sentences. It is a battle between the mind and the body. And literature, which has always wanted to be made of skin, explodes at the moment when the reader reaches her physical climax.

Until now, one of the readers has been a porn star and writer, another works in fashion, another is an actress and a comedian, and several are artists and filmmakers. One is a burlesque dancer and model. The authors they chose to read range from Tony Morrison and Ralph Waldo Emerson to Anthony Burgess (A Clockwork Orange) and Bret Easton Ellis. It is such an unexpected mix that it does not cease to cause fascination and controversy.

 I’m really testing the limits with it, since it literally shows nothing but pleasure expressed on a face. Kind of hard to censor reasonably, when   the women look Victorian. The emphasis is really about the art and literature and the dichotomy between mind/body and high/low, between what is celebrated and what is considered dirty.

From a neutral film set, with lighting and composition similar to that of a portrait, to the sight of a woman reading and reaching orgasm there is an immense distance. Or there had been until this moment. As Cubitt says, the series is testing the limits of what we have categorized. It is not pornography because it does not show any intimate part of the body; in fact, all of the ‘Victorian’ elements of the scene remove any association with pornography. There is literally nothing of sex shown to the camera, but there is an intimacy that is rarely seen on camera: reading in consonance with masturbation.

If only Walt Whitman could see how his verses come to life in the voice and body of Alicia, just as he had always wanted.

I believe in the flesh and the appetites,
and each part and tag of me

Is a miracle

The physical distraction ends up destroying the “perfect portrait” of the person reading. The scene overflows. But the literature also explodes. And Alicia, now sweaty and smiling, closes the book, repeats her name and ends the session with Whitman.

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