"The Erotic Landscape" by Terry Tempest Williams
A woman stands on her tiptoes, naked, holding draped fabric dose to her body as it cascades over her breasts, down her belly and legs, like water. A strand of pearls hangs down her back; her eyes are closed. She is at peace within her own erotic landscape.
This photograph, taken at Studio d'Ora in Vienna in 1934, is the first image I see in Det Erotiske Museum in Copenhagen, Denmarke. I take another step into the foyer and find myself confronted with a six-foot golden phallus mounted on a pedestal. I am tempted to touch it, as I recall the bronze statues of women in museums around the world whose breasts and buttocks have been polished perfectly by the hands of men, but I refrain.
A visitor to this museum in Copenhagen can wander through four floors of exhibits ranging from a solitary Greek vase, circa 530 B.C., depicting Pan chasing Echo, to a wax tableau of Fanny Hill, 1749, to a prostitute's room reconstructed from an 1839 Danish police report.
Spiraling up to the fourth floor (you may choose to descend at this point to the Aphrodite Cafe for coffee and pastries), the visitor arrives at the Ero' Tabernade, the climax of this museum experience. Here, you are assaulted with twelve television screens, four across a three down, which together create a montage of pornography from 1920 through 1990, complete with the music of Pink Floyd's The Wall.
As I watch these images of men an' women simultaneously moving from one position to the next, I wonder about our notion of the erotic--why it is so often aligned with the pornographic, the limited view of the voyeur watching the act of intercourse without any interest in the relationship itself.
I wonder what walls we have constructed to keep our true erotic nature tamed. And I am curious why we continue to distance ourselves from natural sources.
What are we afraid of?
There is an image of a woman in the desert, her back arched as her hands lift her body up from black rocks. Naked. She spreads her legs over a boulder etched by the Ancient Ones; a line of white lightning zigzags from her mons pubis. She is perfectly in place, engaged, ecstatic, and wild. This is Judy Dater's photograph Self-Portrait with Petroglyph.
To be in relation to everything around us, above us, below us, earth, sky, bones, blood, flesh, is to see the world whole, even holy. But the world we frequently surrender to defies our participation and seduces us into believing that our only place in nature is as spectator, onlooker. A society of individuals who only observe a landscape from behind the lens of a camera or the window of an automobile without entering in is perhaps no different from the person who obtains sexual gratification from looking at the sexual actions or organs of others.
The golden phallus I did not touch, in the end, did not touch me. It became a stump, a severance of the body I could not feel.
Eroticism, being in relation, calls the inner life into play. No longer numb, we feel the magnetic pull of our bodies toward something stronger, more vital than simply ourselves. Arousal becomes a dance with longing. We form a secret partnership with possibility.
I recall a day in the slick rock country of southern Utah where I was camped inside a small canyon. Before dawn, coyotes yipped, yapped, and sang. It was a chorus of young desert dogs.
The sun rose as did I. There is a silence to creation. I stood and faced east, stretched upward, stretched down, pressed my hands together.
I knelt on the sand still marked by the patter of rain and lit my stove, which purred like my cat at home. I boiled water for tea, slowly poured it into my earthen cup, then dipped the rose-hip tea bag in and out, in and out until the water turned pink. My morning ritual was complete as I wrapped my hands around the warmth of my cup and drank.
Not far, an old juniper stood in the clearing, deeply rooted and gnarled. I had never seen such a knowledgeable tree. Perhaps it was the silver sheen of its shredded bark that reminded me of my grandmother, her windblown hair in the desert, her weathered face, the way she held me as a child. I wanted to climb into the arms of this tree.
With both hands on one of its strongest boughs, I pulled myself up and lifted my right leg over the branch so I was straddling it. I then leaned back into the body of the juniper and brought my knees up to my chest. I nestled in. I was hidden, perfectly shaded from the heat. I had forgotten what it felt like to really be held.
Hours passed, who knows how long; the angle of the sunlight shifted. I realized something had passed between us by the change in my countenance, the slowing of my pulse, and the softness of my eyes as though I were awakening from a desert trance. The lacelike evergreen canopy brushed my hair.
I finally inched my way down, wrapping my hands around the trunk. Feet on earth. I took out my water bottle and saturated the roots. I left the desert in a state of wetness.
The Erotic Museum in Copenhagen opened July 26, 1992. It closed on August 31,1993 because of financial difficulties. More than 100,000 visitors from around the world had paid to see erotica on display.
"The erotic has often been misnamed by men and used against women,' says Audre Lorde in Uses of the Erotic "It has been made into the confused, the trivial, the psychotic, and plasticized sensation. For this reason, we have turned away from the exploration and consideration of the erotic as a source of power and information, confusing it with the pornographic. But pornography is a direct denial of the power of the erotic, for it represents the suppression of true feeling. Pornography emphasizes sensation without feeling."
Without Feeling. Perhaps these two words are the key, the only way we can begin to understand our abuse of each other and our abuse of the land. Could it be that what we fear most is our capacity to feel, and so we annihilate symbolically and physically that which is beautiful and tender, anything that dares us to consider our creative selves? The erotic world is silenced, reduced to a collection of objects we can curate and control, be it a vase, a woman, or wilderness. Our lives become a piece in the puzzle of pornography as we go through the motions of daily intercourse without any engagement of the soul.
A group of friends gather in the desert--call it a pilgrimage--at the confluence of the Little Colorado and the Colorado rivers in the Grand Canyon. It is high noon in June, hot, very hot. They walk upstream, men and women, moving against the current of the turquoise water. Nothing but deep joy can be imagined. Their arms fan the air as they teeter on unstable stones, white stones in the river. They are searching for mud with the consistency of chocolate mousse and find it, delicious pale mud, perfect for bathing. They take off their clothes and sink to their waists, turn, roll over, and wallow in pleasure. Their skins are slippery with clay. They rub each other's bodies--arms, shoulders, backs, torsos, even their faces are painted in mud, and they become the animals they are. Blue eyes. Green eyes. Brown eyes behind masks. In the heat, Iying on ledges, they bake until they crack like terra-cotta. For hours they dream the life of lizards.
In time, they submerge themselves into Little Colorado, diving deep and surfacing freshly human, skins sparkling, glistening, cold and refreshed. Nothing can contain their exuberance but the river. They allow themselves to be swept away--floaġing on bellies, headfirst or backs, feet first--laughing, contemplating, an unspoken hunger quelled.
D. H. Lawrence writes, "There exist two great modes of life--the religious and the sexual." Eroticism is their bridge.
Ole Ege is the man behind the Erotic Museum in Denmark. It was his vision of eroticism that he wanted to institutionalize. It is his collection that now resides in storage somewhere in Copenhagen.
Standing on the sidewalk next to the red banners that advertise the museum, I watched each object, each exhibit, each wax figure, being carried out of the white building and loaded into two Volvo moving vans on Vesterbrogade 31, minutes away from Tivoli Gardens, where the harlequins danced.
That was Labor Day weekend 1993. Seven months later, the museum opened once again. Ole Ege's vision of the erotic life is being celebrated, this time in a new location and with a more solid base of support.
"Denmark has been liberated sexually for 25 years,'he says. "But we are not yet liberated in our minds. It is a matter of individual morality how one conceives this subject. For me, eroticism relates to all the highest and finest things of life. Every couple on earth participates in this confirmation of the creation, the urge we have to share ourselves, to make each other whole."
The idea that governs an erotic museum and the ideal behind an erotic life may never find a perfect resolution. Here lies our dilemma as human beings: Nothing exists in isolation. We need a context for eros, not a pedestal, not a video screen. The lightning we witness crack and charge a night sky in the desert is the same electricity we feel in ourselves whenever we dare to touch flesh, rock, body, and earth. We must take our love outdoors where reciprocity replaces voyeurism. We can choose to photograph a tree or we can sit in its arms, where we are participating in wild nature, even our own.
The woman in the desert stands and extends her arms. Rumi speaks, "Let the beauty of what we love be what we do. There are hundreds of ways to kneel and kiss the ground."