Erotic art softens up Asian Arts Initiative

Born of the pandemic, The Erotic Project book and exhibition invites visitors into radical sensuality.

A person stands in a room with curtains and pink lighting.

Aubrie Costello's "Erotic Project," a collaboration with more than 40 artist that started during the pandemic, explores eroticism as mutual care. Elements of the project are on view at the Asian Arts Initiative in a room filled with silky fabrics, comfy furniture and soft lighting. (Emma Lee/WHYY)

For the last three years, Aubrie Costello has been asking friends and colleagues to think about erotic things and the question: What are we talking about when we talk about erotica?

Costello says, it’s not just sex.

“We’re challenging the straight, white, male gaze and pushing through this idea of what the erotic can look like, what eroticism can feel like,” she said. “I personally find travel to be erotic, art to be erotic, music to be erotic. The erotic is something that inspires you. It’s, like, the stuff of life.”

Costello’s “The Erotic Project” started as a pandemic-inspired effort to find ways to deeply and creatively connect with other people while in isolation. It is primarily a writing and photography project involving about 40 artists and writers, local and international, trying to find solace collectively during a traumatic time.

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“Many of them did not feel safe in the city and in this country,” Costello said. “Many of them were navigating this time on their own, which was really trying and difficult for a lot of folks, specifically impacting our nervous systems and the way that we were able to show up for others and care for ourselves.”

A person poses with tapestries hung on a wall.
Aubrie Costello’s “Erotic Project,” a collaboration with more than 40 artist that started during the pandemic, explores eroticism as mutual care. Elements of the project are on view at the Asian Arts Initiative in a room filled with silky fabrics, comfy furniture and soft lighting. (Emma Lee/WHYY)

The work of the group, including writings, video, images, and selfies, populates the Erotic Project’s web page and has now culminated in a newly published, illustrated book, “SOFT,” and an accompanying exhibition at the Asian Arts Initiative in Philadelphia’s Chinatown.

The book is filled with essays, poetry, short stories, song lyrics, interviews, and artwork by the group. Costello hopes “SOFT” stimulates a collective vision of what a creative community would look like if its participants were tender to one another.

“If you open the book, one of the first images that you’ll see is a two-page spread of an image that I took the day after the tear gassing on 676,” she said, referring to June 1, 2020, when protestors on the Vine Street Expressway were physically penned by police against the embankment and tear-gassed.

“I wanted to start there because a lot of the people that I invited to be part of this work were navigating trauma that is more complex than I can ever imagine,” Costello said. “I wanted to give them space to vent or express or talk about whatever they wanted to talk about. Not only acknowledging the moment, there’s also holding space for giving yourself freedom to move the way your body’s telling you need to move right now.”

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For the exhibition at AAI, Costello wanted to turn the book “SOFT” into a room. So the space is draped in fabrics that sway in the breeze of a fan. Portraiture from the book is printed on cloth and hung to roll and drape like clothes. Seating and reading lamps are available for visitors to curl up with SOFT, or they can sit on bean bags to watch a projection of videos created by the group.

True to the book title, everything is soft.

“I wanted to create this nest, a clean space that you can soften and relax and find solace,” she said.

“The Erotic Project” exhibition fits into the theme of the Asian Arts Initiative’s exhibition season, about bodies. Accompanying the show is a second exhibition in the AAI space, for which Asian artists made pieces abstracting their queer identities.

A piece of lingerie is hung in front of a brightly-colored yellow, pink, and orange curtain.
Shawna Wu’s lingerie pieces, made using traditional Chinese knotting and handweaving techniques, hang from the ceiling at the Asian Arts Initiative’s exhibit, “The Body You Want.” (Emma Lee/WHYY)

Although the exhibition is called “The Body You Want,” visitors won’t see much of the human body. There are few figurative works on display. Instead, many of the works are suggestive of bodies: like Jongbum Kim’s soft, lumpy sculptures that are meant to be touched, and Shawna Wu’s crocheted lingerie made from traditional Chinese knotting techniques.

“Wherever we are in the status of the pandemic and the shutdown and everything else, I think all of us are starting to feel our bodies again in this really new and unusual way,” said AAI executive director Anne Ishii. “Especially our proximity to other bodies and kind of rewriting the rules of intimacy.”

A four-legged sculpture is covered in fabric.
Jongbum Kim’s soft sculptures on display at the Asian Arts Initiative’s “The Body You Want,” are meant to be touched. (Emma Lee/WHYY)

There are some very explicit bodies on display as part of “The Body You Want.” Still, visitors will have to go down a long hallway to the back of the building to enter The Red Room, where artist Eva Wu has installed four monitors playing back videos she has made, most of which are sexually explicit.

The Red Room is separated from the rest of the exhibition to monitor better who goes inside. No minors allowed.

“My work as an artist and as an intellectual is about porn and art; where can they overlap, and how can we push the boundaries of art to be more accepting of porn?” said Wu. “Because at the PMA [Philadelphia Museum of Art], you see full nudes by dead men artists, but on Instagram, I can’t post a naked photo or I’ll be deleted.”

Eva Wu sits in a room with red lighting, a video playing in the background.
Eva Wu sits in The Red Room, where eight films can be viewed by adult audiences. (Emma Lee/WHYY)

Ishii is pushing the boundaries of art and explicit sexual content by bringing Wu into her institution.

“One of the elephants in the room is that: You really don’t understand how provocative something is until your body reacts to it,” Ishii said. “For me at least, that is a good barometer of the caliber of a work: does your body react? I can’t think of a form of art that elicits a direct bodily reaction like erotica.”

Anne Ishii is seated in a decorated room.
Asain Arts Initiative Executive Director Anne Ishii curls up with a sculpture by Jongbum Kim, one of six Asian and Asian American artists featured in the exhibition, “The Body You Want.” (Emma Lee/WHYY)

Wu has been making sexually explicit films for about seven years, and in 2017 launched Hot Bits, an annual, Philly-based film festival that curates pornographic art films as a form of social practice for queer liberation.

She is happy to point out that in the next Hot Bits festival, in June, one of her own films will be featured: Bunny X Gator, which is on view at AAI.

“Hot Bits, at this point, is difficult to get into. We have a whole curatorial team. My own work most of the time doesn’t get into my own festival,” Wu said. “That film happened to be good enough to get in this year.”

Eva Wu poses in front of a curtain.
Eva Wu’s films for the Asian Arts Initiative exhibit, “The Body You Want,” were too explicit for general audiences. They were confined to “The Red Room,” and curtain printed with an erotic love poem shields them from public view. (Emma Lee/WHYY)

Although a pornographer, Wu is also, at heart, a crafter. She never throws anything away that can be repurposed and loves what hot glue can do to cardboard. So for “The Body You Want,” she took boxes that laptops and cellphones are packaged in, and turned them into dioramas called “My Private Garden.”

The boxes are decorated with varying textures: fake fur, plastic plants, and glass mirror medallions. Like Jongbum Kim’s sculptures, Wu’s gardens invite visitors to touch them.

A box with decorations is hung on a wall.
Eva Wu’s “My Private Garden #2” is part of the Asian Arts Initiative’s exhibition, “The Body You Want.” (Emma Lee/WHYY)

“There’s a tactile nature to having things that are touchable that bring us into our bodies, instead of having something behind glass,” she said. “By being soft and fun and playful, it’s very, I feel, queer. We’re kind of queering the idea of what is a body.”

“The Body You Want” is on display until Aug. 5. “The Erotic Project” will be on view until July 8.

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