Performance artist's subject is sexuality

January 18, 1991|By Eric Siegel

Annie Sprinkle

When: Jan. 18 and 19, 9:30 p.m.

Where: Maryland Art Place's 14Karat Cabaret, 218 W. Saratoga St.

Tickets: $10.

Call: 962-8565. Performance artist Annie Sprinkle has no trouble defining what her show is not.

"It's not burlesque -- I know because I've done that," says Ms. Sprinkle, a self-described "post-porn modernist" who is scheduled to appear at Maryland Art Place's 14Karat Cabaret tonight and tomorrow night.

"It's not pornography, either -- I've done that, too," she adds.

What it is, she will tell you, is "very educational."

"It's about a woman who really understands her body, her sexuality," she explains over the phone from her New York apartment. "I deconstruct pornography and sexuality."

Ms. Sprinkle admits the "educational" aspect of her show is often not what receives the most attention.

"When people see it, it's different from what they've heard or read about it," she says. "Out of context, it sounds like pornography. In context, there's a whole focus to it.

"The press says, 'She plays with sex toys.' Basically, I use a dildo as a prop to show a scene about sexual abuse. There's a method to the madness."

Method or not, Ms. Sprinkle, 36, became part of last year's bitter debate over government funding of objectionable art. Representative Dana Rohrabacher, R-Calif., complained that a "sexually graphic" show she did at New York's Kitchen was indirectly supported by federal funds. The center for avant-garde art had received a National Endowment for the Arts operating grant and a separate grant from the New York State Arts Council, which also receives federal funds.

"It got a little bit scary at times," Ms. Sprinkle says of being the subject of a national controversy. "But it made people more aware of my work."

MAP received approximately $50,000 from the NEA and the Maryland State Arts Council last year. But executive director Susan Badder says the gallery's purpose in bringing Ms. Sprinkle to its 100-seat basement cabaret is not an attempt to antagonize critics of government funding of art that some consider to be obscene. Rather, she says Ms. Sprinkle's act is "in keeping with our mission," which she describes as presenting avant-garde Maryland artists and "putting them into a national context."

Not every performance space takes the same attitude toward her work. Ms. Sprinkle says she's "so controversial a lot of places are afraid to have me [and] I don't like to go where I'm not welcome."

In the latter statement is a hint of the "very shy" Southern California girl, nee Ellen Steinberg, who became a massage parlor prostitute, stripper and porn film star. She left what she calls the "commercial sex industry" because she tired of catering to other people's fantasies and wanted to explore "my own reality."

In fact, she says the 15 or 20 performance pieces which make up the repertoire from which she chooses for any given show come from "whatever's going in my life": an "identity crisis" about being a porn star, the "icky stuff that happened" when she was a prostitute.

"To me, sex is the most interesting subject in the world," she says.

The net effect is what she describes as "post-porn modernist."

"It implies something artistic," she says. "It's what happens after regular porn."

Ms. Sprinkle admits her show is not for everybody. "If they're uptight about sex, it's better they don't come," she says.

Those who do, she says, come away with a sense that "sex is a spiritual thing."

"Usually, what people get is an affirmation that wherever they're at in their own sexual evolution is OK," she says.

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