'Prostitution' Revisited

What went on at the ICA's most controversial exhibition

A look back to 1976 to mark the fortieth anniversary of COUM Transmission's exhibition 'Prostitution'.

Melanie Coles

26 Oct 2016

Ahead of Wednesday’s event Art Sex Music with Cosey Fanni Tutti, Melanie Coles explores the 1976 ICA Exhibition Prostitution and why it's still being discussed four decades on.

In 1976 UK performance art group COUM Transmissions brought their exibition Prostitution to the ICA. The exhibition caused walkouts, made headlines, inspired a debate in the House of Commons, and is still regarded as one of the most controversial shows in both the ICA's history and that of British contemporary art.

COUM Transmissions was started by Genesis P-Orridge in Hull, UK and involved a cast of artistic collaborators, including performance artist Cosey Fanni Tutti. Their work was often extreme and Prostitution was no different: shocking performances alongside pornographic images of Cosey, who had entered the commercial pornographic world as a form of performance art. Also exhibited were props from COUM's performances ranging from a rusted knife to a jar of Vaseline to bloodied objects such as bandages, tampons and bottles of blood. The title Prostitution was just as much in reference to the art world as it was to the bodily act:

Everything in the show is for sale at a price, even the people. For us the party on the opening night is the key to our stance, the most important performance. We shall also do a few actions as counterpoint later in the week.

- Genesis P-Orridge, quoted from the original Prostitution poster

The exhibition's opening night marked a pivotal moment in London’s late 70s cultural scene. A traditional speech from the director was replaced by a stripper, wine was replaced with beer, and muted chat was drowned out by punk band LSD actually a moniker for early punk band Chelsea. The night also notably marked the official launch of Throbbing Gristle.

Immediately after the opening the exhibit had made the dailies, tabloids, punk fanzines and art press alike. The Telegraph featured a cartoon of P-Orridge and Fanni Tutti outside the ICA and the Daily Express ran the headline "State aid for Cosey's travelling sex troupe". The exhibit prompted a debate at parliament in regards to the future of ‘Contemporary Art’ in the UK and prompted the famous quote from a conservative MP that COUM were "the wreckers of civilization". The ICA, no stranger to controversial exhibits, held its position. Its arts centre director, Ted Little, told the Arts Council:

The ICA’s policy is to present new and innovative work of British artists. I never say what the quality is like. The public must pass comment.

But as the tabloids, traditional press and art critics loudly voiced their objections to Prostitution, its artists fed off this criticism. Clippings were framed and added to the exhibit daily as soon they came off the press, becoming as much a part of the performative element of the exhibition as the opening itself, and echoing COUM's statements on media distortion and (mis)representation:

My projects are presented unaltered in a very clinical way, as any other COUM project would be. The only difference is that my projects involve the very emotional ritual of making love. To make an action I must feel that the action is me and no one else, no influences, just purely me. This is where the photos and film come in… My actions are myself and not a projected character for people’s entertainment. When I am gone, they are yours.

- Cosey Fanni Tutti in the 1976 ICA Exhibition Programme

Prostitution ran for just over a week, but its impact lasted much longer. Questions were raised about the use of the body, representation and exploitation within the media and art world, and the controversy and media hysteria surrounding the subject matter meant that the issues and ideas that COUM were addressing were brought right under the nose of the public and art establishment. It remains one of the most controversial exhibitions in British art history, and managed to deeply challenge and disturb the moral and aesthetic values of British society at the time. ■

To mark the forty year anniversary of this exhibit, Cosey Fanni Tuti will be in the ICA Theatre reading from her biography Art Sex Music. A selection of Cosey's original ICA Prostitution Magazine Actions will be on temporary display until 1030pm for those who cannot attend the event, as well as a free DJ set by Richard Clouston’s Cosey Club in the ICA Bar. The ICA Bookshop is stocking copies of Cosey Complex to mark the event.

Event organised in collaboration with Cosey Fanni Tutti, Cabinet, London, Faber Social, and ICA, London.

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Tagged with: Prostitution, Cosey Fanni Tutti, COUM Transmissions, ICA