Things That Make You Go “Huh?” : Norico Sunayama invites you to look up her skirt

“Things that make you go ‘huh?’” is an on-going exploration into all things weird, wacky
and possibly gross in contemporary art.

Norico Sunayama wants you to look up her skirt. Actually, she wants you to crawl
underneath it. Sitting atop a three metre-high chair Sunayama wears a gigantic flowing
scarlet velvet dress. Metres of fabric extend in a flowing red circle around her. She
invites the public — anyone — to crawl underneath the mass of fabric that surrounds her
and “enter the sensory chamber created underneath.”

This is all part of her live performance installation entitled A Sultry World, 1995-2009. It was most recently performed in Toronto as part of Nuit Blanche, memorably described as a “free all-night contemporary art thing.” The city shuts down to prepare for this one-night event when various exhibits are scattered around the city. According to critics and participants alike, Nuit Blanche is a city-wide celebration of arts and culture with a not so subtle sexual overtone. Globe and Mail reporter Russel Smith commented, “For some reason, I guess, when Torontonians think of art, they think of sex.”

Passerby’s glanced into store windows on Queen Street and gazed into displays that
included live demonstrations of bondage techniques while they made their way to see the
flowing red dress installation. Those that waited in the line at A Sultry World were
warned that they would be waiting for at least 75 minutes. People were also warned that
picture-taking was forbidden under the dress. So what would compel someone to invite complete strangers to crawl around and explore the territory underneath her dress?

I would argue that, like the feminist performance artists that preceded her, Norico Sunayama uses her performance art as a means of control over the way her (possibly naked) body is viewed in a very public place. By inviting a viewer to explore any part of her body she takes control of the way her body is viewed. This shift of control subverts the male gaze which has historically marked the nude female body in high art as a passive object for a male audience.

Annie Sprinkle describes herself as a “post-porn modernist.” Previously a porn star/prostitute, Sprinkle has added artist and sexologist to her many identities. Sprinkle showed thousands of people her vagina and cervix in a segment titled Public Cervix Announcement, part of her one woman performance, “Post Porn Modernist,” which ran from 1989-96. Public Cervix Announcement included audience participation; individual members of a theater audience stood in line to be handed a flashlight and with the aid of a speculum were invited to peer into Sprinkles’ cervix.

Reclining in a lounge chair, Sprinkle took control over her body and the gaze of both male and female viewers by handing them the flashlight and inviting them to look. Public Cervix Announcement was not meant to be viewed as erotic. It was meant as an educational experience, a way to show the audience the inner workings of a female body, and possibly demystify the female genitalia, whilst controlling the gaze of the viewer.

Sunayama’s performance is certainly less “in your face” than Sprinkle’s. Sunayama does not allow people under her skirt to take photographs, therefore always in control of who is seeing her and in what context. Participants in A Sultry World were put in a submissive role, crawling on their hands and knees under her order. Like Sprinkle, she uses her body, the supposed mystique around the feminine form to engage the public and challenge notions of the active gaze. Ultimately, Sunayama, like the feminist artists before her, challenge notions of control and sight.