Fresh Juice: Stephanie Sarley Reimagines Erotic Touch

Artist Stephanie Sarley’s Instagram mainly features videos of her delicately fingering fruit.

Sarley chooses citruses, cantaloupes, papaya — anything brightly colored and that, when sliced in half, looks and acts like a vagina. Much of the discussion of the work, including the artist’s own, addresses the imagery as feminist in its reimagining of female sexuality in a way that is humorous and sexual without being exploitative or censoring.

But not only — and not all — women have vaginas. And the only body part we can attribute to a woman in Sarley’s videos is her own finger, which, in performance, moves beyond gendered expression. In fingering the fruit, it is probing but gentle, firm yet thoughtful. If Sarley’s work has something feminist to say about sexuality, it is not about vaginas per se, but about touch.

In the videos, we see a queer touch. The finger — implied to be the artist’s (a woman’s) — isn’t the voyeuristic, typically offscreen, male-coded figure that lurks around popular porn. Queer touch is not evasive, but it is also not indexical: It explores without judgment and inquires without prescription. The finger in Sarley’s videos is at once feminine and masculine in its assertiveness and tenderness, but the act of touch doesn’t ultimately reassert the gender binary, instead exploding into a reactive chain of color, sense, and sound.

The videos beget reactions that are beyond our control, and so, for some of us, they’re difficult to behold. While my first viewing brought on feelings of surprise, embarrassment, and delight, my friends tended to respond with a yelp and an “Oh my god! Put it away!”  I wasn’t surprised by these responses: As erotic videos primarily featuring unmodified fruit (the fruit isn’t made to look more vaginal or human than it already does), Sarley’s work presses right up against a breaking point of sensuous experience, going beyond the barrier of what we’re likely to accept as arousing. The videos approach an almost uncanny valley of erotica, where the pleasured object (the fruit) cannot or should not be an object of desire, yet somehow is. Or, if it’s not the fruit we desire exactly, it’s the entire image, the act. In watching the videos, we recognize how we might like to be touched, and we see and experience that touch as  gushy, loud, vibrant juiciness.

unnamed-1Play, color, and touch are so essential to Sarley’s videos that eroticism onscreen goes beyond an unabashed pursuit of sexiness, and toward a more lively, absurdist — but still direct — visual sensuality. I’d love to see a collaboration between Sarley, Luca Guadagnino, and Yorick Le Saux, the director and cinematographer of I Am Love and A Bigger Splashfilms that are dramatically, playfully, and even tenderly mixed up in the world of food, color, sex, and sense. What Sarley could bring to a collaboration like that is an attentiveness to a queer touch — a touch that delights in the act itself, unafraid of whom or what it desires — that comes into contact with every object, on- and off-screen.

Images via Stephanie Sarley on Instagram.

Cassie da Costa is a writer who focuses on moving image and performance. She's based in Brooklyn and works as a member of The New Yorker's editorial staff while also producing the magazine's video podcast, The Front Row, featuring film critic Richard Brody.

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