Naked skin, breasts, vulvas, phalluses and other intimate areas of the body – mostly in explicitly sexual positions – presented against dainty decorative backdrops and floral arrangements. At first glance, Sonja Yakovleva’s elaborate paper-cut compositions seem easy to decipher: the hyper-sexualized physical depictions employ visual strategies recognizable from the worlds of porn, pop culture and advertising. But the self-confident, lust-thirsty poses of the women depicted – a central element in most of Yakovleva’s work – confound the viewer, jar somewhat. The technique of the paper cut, primarily associated with handcraft and the aesthetics of quaintness, stands in stark contrast to the polarizing nature of the motifs Yakovleva fashions from the paper. Women with their legs spread, sensually touching themselves and others with abandon, dominating their counterparts; men flaunting themselves, exposing their private parts, candidly capturing themselves in selfie-mode. Afflicted by a sense of shame, I want to divert my eyes from the provocative gaze confronting me, focus on another feature of the image, find distraction in the floral adornments in the background. In German, the respective terms for labia and pubic hair are Schamlippen and Schamhaaren, literally ‘shame lips’ and ‘shame hair,’ an issue taken up by Margarete Stokowski in her 2018 bestseller Untenrum Frei (Free Down Below). She writes that these things are spoken of as if they hide something forbidden, asking if the pubic area is something to be ashamed of. Do these paper cuts, with their nudity, sex and excess, perhaps hide something else, something beyond that which is immediately evident, i.e., shame? And what does this something say about me, about us all?
Good Vibrations, Sonja Yakovleva’s (*1989) first solo exhibition at Robert Grunenberg, brings together dense visual narratives of intimate sexual encounters whose main protagonists are predominantly naked or sparsely clothed. Her works feature women from the present and the past, such as the sex worker, sexual therapist, porn actor, artist and activist Annie Sprinkle (*1954) (Annie Sprinkle, 2021) or the Russian Empress Catherine the Great (1762–1793) (Reiterinnenportrait Katharina II., 2021), both of whom were notable for their sex-positive attitudes. The title of the exhibition is taken from one of the first female-friendly sex shops in the USA, opened by the sexual therapist and educator Joani Blank (1937–2016) in San Francisco in 1977. It was founded as an alternative to the male-oriented establishments common at the time, which were primarily geared towards the needs associated with men.
Even though the characters in Yakovleva’s paper cuts are mostly women, she is also interested in other – male – perspectives on and representations of sexuality. OnlyFans (2021), for instance, depicts a male figure lying on his back, the focus on his anal and genital area. The work’s title is a reference to the online platform of the same name, which since 2016 has served as a portal for generating income through the sharing of photos and videos – including pornographic content – with (mostly male) ‘fans.’ According to founder and CEO Tim Stokely, the reason for the platform’s success is the “intimacy” it offers between subscribers and content producers. But what does intimacy mean in this context? While OnlyFans has been criticized by many people, others consider it a social and economic opportunity: for example, the Berlin-based artist Sarah Julia Sabukoschek believes it even has feminist potential, as it enables women to control how their bodies are presented and autonomously earn money this way. She is of the opinion that female nudity should not automatically be associated with sex; this notion stems from the permanent sexualization of women in the media. In a similar way, OnlyFans references internet imagery and online networks and their contentious position between emancipation and over-sexualization. At the same time, Yakovleva places a visual emphasis on vulnerability, a quality inherent to all intimate representations regardless of their forcefulness.
Many of Yakovleva’s motifs originate from footage found on porn sites and online forums, content that was not intended for the public (or female) gaze but for consumption by individual (predominantly male) users. She appropriates this material as the basis for her compositions, complementing it with additional elements and new visual axes that challenge established perceptual habits: the focus on women as dominant, assertive characters, supplanting the prevailing representation of male potency. Sweet Sixteen (2021), for example, features a rear view of a muscular figure on a stage at the center of the composition, to which she has added a female audience that is lustfully ogling the naked body presented in front of them. The male character in the work is placed in a pose that is generally reserved for female figures, illustrating how depicting (predominantly female) subjects in this way turns them into objects (for men).
As well as her paper cuts, Yakovleva’s work with the KVTV artists’ collective radically highlights things that most people would prefer to leave confined to the bedroom. She considers herself as a feminist who seeks to disrupt established visual viewpoints and narratives. “For me, feminism is associated with radicality,” she said in an interview with Monopol of her work with KVTV, for whom she now comments on and curates exhibitions. This notion of shedding light on the concealed is continued in Good Vibrations, not only in terms of Yakovleva’s visual worlds, but also in a physical sense. This is especially evident in the final room of the gallery: repurposed as a black box, spotlights literally cast light onto the artist’s collaged narratives. Pornokino (2021), a monumental paper cut work depicting various sex-positive activists and sex workers (including Candida Royalle, Erika Lust and Annie Sprinkle) in black on a pink background is set against intimate portraits housed in two enclosed booths. This final room, darkened and fitted with carpet, functions as an extension of the presented images, while the narrow spaces within the space, separated by curtains, reinforce a sense of simultaneously revealing and concealing intimacy.
Yakovleva’s images at once arouse feelings of voyeurism and shame – something burned into the collective (female) memory. In Untenrum Frei, Stokowski states that there is still no widely accepted representation of the woman as a sexually active agent that isn’t associated with shame. The unusual thing about Yakovleva’s work, therefore, is not that women are depicted in a state of nakedness, but how this nudity is conspicuously presented in public. Social conventions have taught us that sex and nakedness are personal, private matters, things primarily associated with individual needs. In Good Vibrations, however, the idea that sex also has a societal component is up for discussion. Yakovleva’s pictorial landscapes are a radical attempt to place femininity at the center of the viewer’s attention and, by consciously exaggerating it, create a space in which the knowledge of and regard for female sexuality can be redefined.
Text: Sonja Maria Borstner