A still from Rebecca Goyette’s video “My Snake Is Bigger Than Your Snake.” (Contributed)
New London — The Lyman Allyn Art Museum removed a video with sexual content from a current exhibition, drawing a letter of complaint from an anti-censorship organization and a statement from the show’s outside organizer.
The video is by Brooklyn-based artist Rebecca Goyette, and it’s titled “My Snake Is Bigger than Your Snake.”
The work was part of a show hosted by the Lyman Allyn but organized by the New Haven-based Nasty Women Connecticut, which aims to “remove elitism from our local art scene and empower all members of our community to participate in making and experiencing art. ” The exhibition is titled “The Will to Change: Gathering as Praxis.”
Sam Quigley, who is director of the Lyman Allyn, said, “As the artist pointed out, (the video) does not accord to classic pornography standards, because there’s no overt act going on, but it’s all this very kinky playacting of sexual encounters among the characters on the screen.”
There were a couple of complaints from visitors during the first few days after the exhibition opened on June 18. Quigley was alerted by a staff member about the video; he watched it and decided it should be taken down.
He said, “The artist stated she was trying to be transgressive, and we (at the Lyman Allyn) felt that she transgressed quite a bit further than what our audience could tolerate.”
Ultimately, in the video’s spot were placed a Goyette drawings of characters from the video, along with text from Nasty Women about what had happened and a QR code that visitors could use to watch the video if they wanted to.
Quigley’s other concern about Goyette’s “Snake” was that it was the only video in the exhibition and, he said, “Videos have a magnetism all of their own. In my opinion, it was doing a disservice to the other works on view in the vicinity, because of its commanding visual attraction.”
The show features among its other works some nude paintings and drawings. A note to visitors posted outside the gallery states, “This exhibition contains some images that are sexually explicit and some depictions of unclothed bodies.”
Goyette said, “All of my videos have the same kind of idea to it. I have people playing in costumes, and the costumes have the genitalia handsewn as soft sculpture on the outside.”
The reason she does that, she said, is to explore “the psychology of sexuality rather than it being something real. So it’s very much improvisation — these improvisations (in which) I do really talk about consent culture and how we interact as communities around the idea of sexuality. It’s really about bringing these topics out into the open rather than having them in a secret place. I think that’s important right now because we’re in a time where our reproductive rights have been eradicated and threatened and body autonomy is under threat for other communities besides only people who have uteruses …
“My work seeks to break the secrecy. It seeks to find a way to create conversations around human sexuality that is healthy and that we can explore it as a topic.”
After the Lyman Allyn took “Snake” down, Goyette reached out to the National Coalition Against Censorship, as she had when two of her other videos, titled “Masshole Love” and “Crustacean Temptation,” faced similar issues in a solo show in South Korea.
The organization sent a letter to Quigley protesting his removal of Goyette’s video at the Lyman Allyn.
The letter began: “As a coalition of organizations dedicated to the First Amendment right to free speech, including freedom of artistic expression, we were deeply concerned to learn that the Lyman Allyn Art Museum in New London removed a video piece from a guest-organized exhibition because it was ‘disturbing audiences’ and was considered by the museum to be ‘inappropriate for children.’ This act of censorship flies in the face of the museum’s obligations to its audience, as well as to the artists it exhibits and the curatorial collectives with whom it works.”
Serious topics, sense of camp
Goyette explained the inspiration for the “Snake” video: She was selling her childhood home after her father died. The man who showed up to buy it was wearing a T-shirt emblazoned with the words “My snake is bigger than your snake.”
“I make these lobster dramas, and I was carrying a lobster purse that I was going to take the check back in, on a Greyhound bus. So I thought of this as a faceoff,” she said.
“Then it became a really hallucinatory, wild, surrealist film, … based on the faceoff between Lobster Queen and Snake Man.”
Also in the short film: The father is brought back to life by his beloved dog. The Virgin Mary gives birth in the living room. The goddess Fortuna, who is the Roman goddess of fate, slaps down Snake Man.
“Every frame of my film — I sew my own costumes, I create the sets, every color I’m choosing, so it’s like a visual painting,” said Goyette, who noted that she studied painting at RISD.
“I use a sense of camp. It’s very playful and humorous, even though I tackle pretty serious topics.”
Installing the exhibition
Quigley said that Nasty Women Connecticut had originally wanted to have each artist come into the museum to install their own work. Jane LeGrow, the Lyman Allyn’s registrar and director of exhibitions, noted how difficult that would be. So, he said, it became the job of LeGrow and Lyman Allyn curator Tanya Pohrt “to install 65 works of art virtually overnight. … Jane basically got the video on the wall, plugged it in, saw that it worked, and then went on to the next thing. She didn’t sit there and review the entire work.”
Open call versus juried
There is disagreement between Lyman Allyn and Nasty Women over whether the collective told the museum far in advance that the exhibition would be an open call where anyone could submit a piece, not a juried show.
Luciana Quagliato McClure, founding organizer of Nasty Women Connecticut, said she and Sarah Fritchey, the other partner in Nasty Women Connecticut, had numerous advance Zoom meetings with several Lyman Allyn representatives to talk about the exhibition, although Quigley was not part of those.
In a statement on the Nasty Women Connecticut website, the group wrote that, through talks, the Lyman Allyn “took on the responsibility and risk of mounting a show that has been, and will continue to be, unjuried, uncurated and inclusive of all submissions . Knowing the show contained content exploring the depths of our complex identities, and mined the experience of what it is to live in a body, we gained the museum’s permission to include all the submissions we received with the caveat that we should include a content advisory sign at the front door.”
Quigley said it was late in the process that a museum staff member was told the show was juried and curated.
“This show changed radically from what we had thought it was going to be to what it became. It was initially to be a curated show by Nasty Women. Then it morphed into an unjuried call for submissions. There was purposely no curatorial decision being made by the Nasty Women Collective. And so that put us in a dilemma because we didn’t want to appear to change the ground rules, although they had. Then it turned out that under our roof we had a totally unjuried show by a third-party organization. We were willing to roll with that initially. But when this particular piece by Rebecca Goyette was installed and turned on, it became obvious to me and everyone else here that this posed a very significant challenge to the audience that we actively seek out.”
By that, he means families, especially during the summer. For the past two years, the museum has received a state grant allowing children to be admitted for free.
So, after the show opened, Quigley interceded.
The Lyman Allyn told the Nasty Women group that they would be taking down the Goyette piece.
“They didn’t come to us and talk and say, ‘We are working with you. How do we do this?’ I think that was the disappointment,” Quagliato McClure said.
The Nasty Women, though, requested a meeting. The eventual result was all sides agreed on having the QR code posted in the gallery, along with the Nasty Women’s statement and a still of the video.
Quagliato McClure said, “This is less about the work that’s been censored. It’s more about why the censorship happened. What happens when missions are not in alignment? And why (do) certain mediums get censored? … I think the challenge is that one work gets censored, well, what about all the other works in the exhibition?”
She said that the pieces in the show are challenging, but “I guess that’s what art has always been.”
Quigley, meanwhile, said, “I feel like there were mistakes we made, but we are learning from them.”
Show moving on to Conn College
After the exhibition closes at the Lyman Allyn on Aug. 12, it will move to Connecticut College, where Quagliato McClure is an adjunct professor. It will be a new installation with the same works, including Goyette’s.
She said the decision to bring the show to Conn College, from Sept. 6 through Oct. 21, was made before the Goyette situation arose.
Quagliato McClure said it might lead to a conversation with Conn students and staff “in a way we hoped would have happened at the museum.”