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It's art. But is it porn?

A work based on pornography has sparked this year's ritual Turner prize furore. So who better to judge it than Britain's biggest porn star? Emma Brockes took Ben Dover along

Tuesday November 5, 2002
The Guardian

Fiona Banner, Arsewoman in wonderland
Fiercely debated: detail from Arsewoman in Wonderland by Fiona Banner
Ben Dover is telling me about the time he came close to having an artistic vision. It was on the set of his film, Anal Academy, and he had in his viewfinder the image of a man attempting to climax. After half an hour of strenuous auto-activity, it became clear the man was not going to make it. It reminded Dover of last year's Turner prize winner, Martin Creed, and his empty room with the light going on and off. "Ultimately futile and with no conclusion," says Dover. "Life is like wanking without the cum shot."

Today at least, Dover can use such language with impunity, since we are standing in front of a billboard in which "wank," and far ruder words are printed as part of the Turner prize exhibition. This is Dover's first visit to an art gallery. He came close to attending one in 1972, on a school trip to the National Portrait Gallery, but while the other boys trooped diligently around the exhibit hall, Dover slipped off to Soho and spent the afternoon in a strip club. It was an impulse which, 30 years later, perfectly recommends him for the job of an art critic. Dover, real name Lindsay Honey, is one of Britain's most successful makers of what he calls "reality-based, character-lead, adult comedy-drama," otherwise known as porn. He has come to Tate Britain to review Fiona Banner's Turner prize entry, Arsewoman in Wonderland, from the point of view of its raw material.

Arsewoman in Wonderland is the transcript of a porn film printed in pink ink on a huge billboard. In minute detail it describes who does what to whom and what effect it has on them, as in "he cums in her face, she moans and rolls over." As the gallery blurb explains, "Banner uses pornographic film to explore sexuality and the extreme limits of written communication." In countering the outcry, Stephen Deuchar, director of Tate Britain, said, "these are not comfortable works to view but then much art is not comfortable." Visitors to the exhibit tend not to communicate. On Sunday afternoon, the silence in the gallery is absolute - despite the high number of visitors - in keeping with the orthodoxy that art can only be appreciated in total silence and while inclining the head, folding the arms and frowning importantly.

Dover, of course, does not find Banner's entry uncomfortable in the slightest. The 46-year-old, married with a seven-year-old son, is misleadingly dressed in a checked blazer and tie, but there his conformity ends. He has electric blue eyes, thinnish lips and a habit of saying exactly what he thinks, which puts him immediately at odds with the freezer-cabinet atmosphere of the gallery.

As we enter the exhibition, he is telling me how the sexual performance of the average British man is diabolical and that lap-dancing clubs are poaching all the porn stars. Dover reads from the commentary that the film Arsewoman in Wonderland does not contain dialogue and is directed by a woman called Tiffany Minx. "I know Tiffany," he says. "One of the few female porn directors. She has the good sense not to use a script. Porn films with scripts are made by people who don't know what they're doing. But I'm not a big fan of American porn, all the girls look the same. Big hair, big tits."

With this groundwork established and the room's centre of gravity beginning to tilt ominously in our direction, Dover takes a step back to perceive the artwork. For a few seconds he is silent. "I think it's clever," he says, finally. "It's very cynical. Porn attracts publicity, everybody knows that. The media furore that gathers around it, that is the work of art." A perceptible ripple of hostility moves through the room. Dover continues. "Porn is the new rock and roll and what this piece of art is, in my opinion, is verbal justification for it. It allows all the Islingtonites ..." (at this the shiver becomes a wave) "... to get off on the sexy stuff without sanctioning porn." I whisper to him: "do you think it's art?" and Dover replies, oblivious to the now murderous vibes arrowing our way, "Art? It's basically shite. I think the best that can be said for it is that you can probably read it and have a good wank."

At this, a man in a designer T-shirt and black-rimmed glasses strides hysterically across the room and hisses, "would you mind keeping your voice down!" Dover stares at him in amazement. "Er, yeah, sorry mate." The man retreats, frowning, and Dover shakes his head. "I didn't realise we were in the Tate library." He moves to take a closer look at the Arsewoman canvas. "Look," he says cheerfully, "She's spelt nob wrong, it should have a 'k' at the front."

Dover freely admits to his own philistinism. "I would love to call what I do art, but it isn't. I'm not talented like that. Anyone who calls porn art is deluded, except for a few of the top directors like Greg Dark and Andrew Blake. Their production values are very high and they still manage to create something sexy." Still, he is alert to the double standards at large in the room, the fact that, as he discusses the canvas in his "philistine" cockney accent, using words no ruder than those appearing in the artwork, he is in some way soiling the high-minded experience of the "real" art lovers. The defence of art, particularly bad art, is that it stimulates debate, but Dover's voice is singularly unwelcome in this airless and reverential chamber.

Luckily, he doesn't give a toss. "I think a better idea for a piece of art would be for the artist to appear in a Ben Dover movie." I have given up being embarrassed now. "Or else if you ran the original movie with someone reading out Banner's words as a voice-over." This sounds like a good idea, eminently justifiable as an exploration of the mutual dependency of words and images, the metaphor of perspective and the way in which words ultimately change the appearance of an object ... (you get the picture). "It could be quite funny," says Dover. "Especially if you got someone like Jim Broadbent to do it. Or maybe Liz Hurley or Joanna Lumley could do it as a talking book. I'd listen to that."

We have moved to an anteroom in which visitors are invited to write their comments on a piece of paper and attach it to the wall. Dover takes a piece of paper and writes, "as a logical extension of the piece, Fiona should do a movie with me," and vows to get an application form for next year's Turner prize. How does it make him feel, I wonder, to see porn put to such use? Laughing, he says, "I feel a bit exploited."

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