Dirty Show X[XX]: The Greatest (Dirty) Show on Earth

Dirty Show X[XX]: The Greatest (Dirty) Show on Earth

Servitor Sanctum 7 at the Dirty Show, photo by Michael Spleet for 2SnapsUp Photography

Servitor Sanctum 7 at the Dirty Show, photo by Michael Spleet for 2SnapsUp Photography

 

 

Noir Leather.  City Club.  S&M.  Fetish shows.  Goth culture.  Burlesque.  Tattoos.  Suspension piercings.  Corsets, latex, and vinyl.  Whips and chains.  Ball-gags and blindfolds.  Strap-ons.  Lots of black hair dye.

Welcome to Detroit’s fetish-friendly underground, a thriving community obsessed with the erotic and the macabre, that often gets a misunderstood reputation for seediness or casually written-off “Otherness,” that once a year has its moment in the spotlight when being this so-called “Other” is the norm and “normal” is just plain boring.

Welcome to the Dirty Show.

Every year thousands of metro Detroiters from all backgrounds and levels of sexual…umm…”experience” pour into Bert’s Warehouse Theatre over the weekend before and of Valentine’s Day to experience the largest erotic art exhibition on the planet.  Now in its tenth year, the Dirty Show is a Detroit tradition, having grown out of the depths of Detroit’s goth-centric underground to become an internationally-acclaimed annual fete attracting the world’s top talent in erotic art (H.R. Geiger is a staple), as well as giving emerging artists a chance to shine and showcasing a great deal of Michigan-made works.

But the art is only the beginning…and dare I say, for many it isn’t even the primary draw.  You must understand, the Dirty Show isn’t just an art show.  It is an experience.  This is the place where tight-belted former Catholic school girls rub elbows with naughty goth girls wearing nothing more than a G-string and pasties (with sky-high platform heels, naturally) and a heterosexual couple wearing head-to-toe matching vinyl outfits with gas masks, enormous bullet bras and more sky-high platform heels (both of them…as in, the guy too).  This is where the “good” kids go to gawk at the “bad” kids…but moreso, this is where the people who have accepted and embraced sexually restrictive social codes come in order to taste of those forbidden fruits and be just a little “bad” in an environment that doesn’t judge, in such a way so as not to break those rigid social rules…just bend them a bit.  Like a minister in a Japanese bathhouse, this is a place which allows you to be free of the restrictions and moral judgments of your own world so you can indulge the thoughts and fantasies you are otherwise forced to repress.

VAVOOM at the Dirty Show, photo by Michael Spleet for 2SnapsUp Photography

VAVOOM at the Dirty Show, photo by Michael Spleet for 2SnapsUp Photography

This is the draw of the Dirty Show: it is a veritable visual buffet of all that which is forbidden and taboo.  It is a celebration of all the things that mainstream society defines as grotesque or perverse, things that we aren’t supposed to be fascinated or intrigued by, things we are expected to shun with all our moral uprightness…the Dirty Show deconstructs these taboos, resituates them as real art, and makes them accessible and acceptable for all others not defined as “Others.”

Because it’s not about the sex; it’s about the art.  And it’s about using the criteria used to judge non-erotic pieces and applying that same criteria to erotica—a beautifully composed photograph, a painting with bold use of colors, a drawing both incredibly life-like and surreal.   Larry Holdaway’s “Oral iii” is a composite image of 472 women performing fellatio.  The result is a blurred, dreamy image, almost like a watercolor painting, and it is as much a feat in photography and sexual studies as it is a true show of dedication to one’s art.   “Last Supper” is a naughty little bit which reconfigures Leonardo Da Vinci’s infamous depiction of Christ’s last meeting with his disciples into a gay sex orgy with Jesus himself jacking off into a chalice.  Some people would call that blasphemous…those people would not be at the Dirty Show.  Comical, yes, but also a critique of organized religion as self-masturbatory (i.e., one big circle-jerk).  Brian Viveros’s works, “El Carnivora” and “Evillast,” are beautifully painted, boldly colored, and richly detailed pictures of women with angelic faces and mighty evil streaks—tattooed arms spattered in blood, cigarettes dangling from their lush lips.  Not the girl you’d take home to mom, but the girl you would never be able to get out of your mind.

Erotica may be a taboo genre, but it is no less a viable art form (with strong roots dating back into the very earliest civilizations, equally if not more pervasive than religious art).  It wasn’t until the Victorian Age when “erotica” became synonymous with “pornography” that depictions of the nude human body and sexual acts became a perversion, a bias still held to this day.  But humans are by nature curious, especially when it comes to sex, and erotic art holds a particular allure for its sensuality and its forbidden nature.

And this is what makes the Dirty Show so popular.  This is why people will wait in line outside in the cold for hours at a stretch just to get in the doors.  This is why this is the one art exhibit that consistently sells out, even in the most difficult of economic times.  For that night, a person can indulge every naughty thought and “perverse” fantasy, and for that one night those thoughts and fantasies are “okay.”  Hell, they’re even encouraged. 

Art collectors (especially those of erotica) are certain not to be disappointed by the offerings, but the majority of people are there to see the Show.  On stage you will find any number of erotic performances, be it from burlesque dancers or human body suspension.  Looking around the Warehouse you will see go-go dancers in suspended cages and women in lingerie on swings high above the crowd and performing acrobatics with ceiling-mounted strips of cloth.  The crowd itself will be its own kind of show—much like people dress in full medieval times garb for the Renaissance Festival, so do Dirty Show attendees break out their waist cinchers and fishnets.  And there is of course that couple who wears the head-to-toe vinyl.

Servitor Sanctum 7 at the Dirty Show, photo by Michael Spleet for 2SnapsUp Photography

Servitor Sanctum 7 at the Dirty Show, photo by Michael Spleet for 2SnapsUp Photography

The night of Valentine’s Day also happened to be a Saturday night AND closing night of Dirty Show X—so it was particularly raucous.  I caught a performance from Servitor Sanctum 7, an industrial-infused African drumming outfit whose tribal beats brought out the “animal” instincts of the accompanying scantily-clad dancers (who donned animal face masks at one point during the performance).  Their music brought all the buzzing of Bert’s Warehouse to a halt, with everyone riveted by the primal performance.  (The man ballet-dancing on point with a Teletubby head also helped keep the audience’s attention.)  This was followed by a cheeky geisha-style striptease from SPAG Burlesque. 

On other nights, Satori Circus did his “thing” (difficult to describe if you’re not familiar…part music, part performance, part clown act; sometimes funny, often sad), Eternity Entertainment’s male and female duo did sexually-charged aerial cartwheels and backflips through a suspended circus ring, Detroit Fly House as VAVOOM! performed aerial burlesque on-stage and over the crowd nightly, there were highly erotic female-on-female S&M-styled lapdances, more burlesque performances from the Dirty Gangstas and Tickled Fancy, and full human body suspension (via pierced de-barbed fishhooks) from PEND Suspension.  Nearly every erotic desire (within reason…there are no “water sports” save for those depicted in the art, nor is there any violence that extends beyond play) is catered to onstage, and these performances act as an outlet for so many of the pent-up desires of the “straight-laced” crowd.

The Dirty Show wouldn’t be nearly so popular if there weren’t so much fascination with the forbidden.  Every year folks from all walks of life have the chance to leave their inhibitions at coat check and take part in what has become a spectacle of art and live performance, to embrace the underground and feel that the “abnormal” is completely mundane.

The Show’s creator Jerry Vile stated that he wanted this year to be “everybody’s all-time favorite [Dirty Show].”  Judging by what I saw, I think he succeeded.