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Arousing Sensation: A Case Study of Controversy Surrounding Art and the Erotic

by Sylvie Gilbert, ed.

As contemporary art curator at Banff’s Walter Phillips Gallery, Sylvie Gilbert spent five years organizing issue-oriented exhibitions like Much Sense: Erotics and Life. Featuring installations by Maureen Connor, Robert Flack, and Kiss & Tell, as well as film and video by various artists, this primarily women-centred exhibition was intended to provoke discussion of differing desires and eroticisms in a patriarchal, consumerist society. But the uproar incited by an inflammatory and biased review in Alberta Report was totally divorced from the contexts of the works and the exhibit as a whole.

In response to the conservative backlash, Gilbert has compiled Arousing Sensation: A Case Study of Controversy Surrounding Art and the Erotic to provide the crucial contexts for understanding both the exhibit and the controversy. With essays by Gilbert, Thomas Waugh, Myrna Kostash, this collection effectively addresses the issues raised by the art itself including, for example, the insidious collusion of the erotic and the anorexic in Western representations of women. The controversy, which focused on a performance by Vancouver lesbian artist collective Kiss & Tell, is documented by newspaper articles that appeared at the time. Although it is fascinating to see the evolution of the controversy from the particular objection to “this abhorrent lesbian show” to an all-out attack on arts funding, this section overwhelms the rest of the book.

However, given Vancouver bookstore Little Sister’s battle against the selective censorship of Canada Customs and the seizure of Toronto artist Eli Langer’s paintings, Arousing Sensation is an important social and political document of sexual anxiety in Canada.