‘The Famous Lauren Barri Holstein’ reviewed by a male life model, and Esther

I’m a big fan of performance art. Truth be told much of it is dull, some of it is interesting and a few performances are inspirational. The main thing is that it is never predictable. It usually involves a degree of exceptional self exposure by the artist/performer – either physically or emotionally. It requires an open mind to enjoy it and it pays to be non-judgemental. Nudity has become an important part of performance art with a lot of artists using the human body to make a statement or using it as a canvas for their performance.

Esther and I went to see the “Famous Lauren Barri Holstein” performance at the Barbican Silk St Theatre on 4th April.

As life models we were intrigued by the prospect of her physical performance.

The fact that she uses the word “Famous” in her title perhaps tells you something about Lauren’s persona. Shy and retiring, no. Enjoys attention, yes.

I’d seen some of her work on Vimeo and thought it was going to be exciting and worth watching so there we were…

The performance consisted of four or five set pieces, rather like a cabaret with song and dance a key element.

The style of her performance is dead pan but also crazy. Standing in her underwear with a knife held at her crotch slicing small balloons with red paint exploding from them, hanging upside down from the ceiling while singing, fairy tales with orgies, wandering around the stage dressed as a naked deer, and inserting dildos into her vagina. Ballads and dance music performed naked in a trapeze – it was all there. Near the end she was joined by a group of twenty or so dancers, in various states of undress for a group dance culminating in a vast number of toilet rolls being thrown onto the stage while Lauren was dragged sideways across the stage – you have to see it for it to make sense ! The whole performance was a feast for the eyes. The packed house clearly enjoyed it.

The message seemed to be part self-expression – “I am a woman and proud of my body” while also exploring the surreal and crazy elements of human life. It was enjoyable to see a woman explore her creativity so indulgently and clearly having no inhibitions….

As a life model it made me think that our passive role is rather tame and how nice it would be to be involved in performance where nudity is integral to the performance, not gratuitous but striking nonetheless. The unpredictable nature of the performance was also refreshing – compared to the formula of the life drawing class – five short poses and then a long pose etc. Imagine a female life model posing with a dildo … or a male with an erection…. That would be a change … may not be on the cards but it is good to see radical performance art alive and well on the London stage.

Esther says:

I liked the way she was simultaneously sending up porn, reclaiming a porn aesthetic, funny, thought provoking, very confident physically and performatively, and sexy. She was also kind of ground breaking for the context of her piece in a mainstream establishment. Beautiful and moving, the cheesy power ballads (Leona Lewis’ Happy was one) worked in this show.

Her vagina was explicit, and she controlled what went in and came out of it, in this case fake blood, dildos, plus she urinated on the stage and on a fellow performer (apparently one of her set pieces I gleaned from her interview on Woman’s Hour). The show was messy though well tidied up as it went along, by all her helpers. That was one of the points, that real life is blood, piss, cum etc; it’s time to give up being so precious perhaps. This show made us so aware how we all hold back so much of the time from expressing our truest selves, because of fear and society. Blessedly Lauren does not hold back and this makes for outstanding and truly inspiring theatre. We see her having so much fun whilst working really hard (pushed to her physical limits) with friends (my assumption of her fellow performers) close to her. She is having her cake and eating it.

Naturally there is a strong feminist element to this show and Lauren’s work in general. In the blurb it states that she has been doing ‘vagina based work since 2009’. One of the skits involved a bikini clad babe practising dying theatrically. She was instructed to do it in various styles; like Rhianna with her violent ex, in the zoo, sexier and more exaggerated. Each time the death throes became more like sexually explicit movements and thrusts.

When spurting fake blood from her vagina, Lauren aimed in the mouth of the same bikini’d woman who was on the floor, then kissed it off her. Throughout such sequences Lauren peppers them with ad hoc deadpan remarks like, “Oh no we ran out of ballons” to break the mood, followed by ordering about her minions, kind of sending up the diva mentality and showing female power in quite a bitchy way. She made us laugh as she rained rude and dismissive remarks on her tribe, but we knew it was in jest.

To balance the more extreme visual antics, she also did a beautiful solo ballet routine, with point work. It took me a while to realise it was the same performer as the Lauren covered in blood, wearing an animal head, dangling from a rope naked and opening her vagina for us!

On the body image front, the troop of dancers for the finale were all shapes and sizes, though generally young. They appeared from nowhere, some nude, others with a pair of pants etc, what a joy to behold.

all images of Lauren Barri Holstein found on the internet

all images of Lauren Barri Holstein found on the internet

red shoes are a motif

red shoes are a motif

fake gore

fake gore

beside the cauldron of tomatoes - tomatoes came to symbolise vaginas in the show, and were casually expendable as she sliced and threw them one by one into the pot

beside the cauldron of tomatoes – tomatoes came to symbolise vaginas in the show, and were casually expendable as she sliced and threw them one by one into the pot

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7 thoughts on “‘The Famous Lauren Barri Holstein’ reviewed by a male life model, and Esther

  1. This sounds like an amazing performance, I wish I had seen it. Certainly a lot to think about in this review too, and I wonder if there is anything that Spirited Bodies can take away from it. After all, Spirited Bodies workshops are a vehicle to explore one’s capabilties and push one’s limits, in a safe and supportive environment, and to confront body issues. Maybe the male reviewer’s comment about whether our role as life models is too passive needs to be explored as I think there are important issues here.
    No I am not advocating “a female life model posing with a dildo … or a male with an erection”. But, on the other hand, and at least from a male model’s point of view, it does seem that as models we look at hundreds of different things to do with our arms and legs, ways to pose and twist our torsos etc, but, well, the “bit betweem the legs”, just hangs there, and is in some ways never involved in the posing. We almost pretend it doesn’t exist, and simlarly the female sexual areas. In my experience, some artists don’t even bother to draw it at all, while others try and render it as accurately as the rest of the body.
    Of course if you do anything else, you risk sexualising the pose, which would be antiproductive as we try very hard to get the message across that life modelling is not sexual, and the artists are looking at us to create art, not to ogle a nude. But do we go too far the other way? I wonder is it possible to involve that part of the body more without the tutor or artists being offended and never hiring you again?
    How would an otherwise “innocent” pose but in which the model happens to be holding his penis, or cupping his testicles, or a female model cupping her breast, or putting her hand between her legs, be regarded by the art community I wonder? After all, if we are proud of and accepting of our bodies in their entirety, is it not a little hypocritical to freely expose them to an artis’s gaze but be afraid to make use of some parts of them in our posing?
    Otherwise, we may be naked, but we are still exercising a taboo about our bodies. Some years ago I modelled (acted?) in a performance piece for a final year student’s project. It was for video, not on a stage in front of an audience, but I was required to urinate in view of the camera as part of the piece. as Lauren Barri Holstein does on stage. To be that open and let go of one’s body inhibitions to the extent needed to do that is hard, even harder than simply taking one’s clothes off for a group of artists to draw. But it raises your body acceptance and body confidence enormously after doing it.
    Spirited bodies is such a pioneering group. Models who also draw each other, models who pose for each other, models posing in groups with other models, this just doesn’t happen in other groups. I just wonder if the organisers should maybe give some thought to running a session wher these kinds of issues could be explored. No, I don’t think we should all be peeing all over the floor (heaven forbid!), but we could explore ways of including the still “taboo” areas in our modelling without getting ourselves banned from the art room (in the case of those who model regularly) or driving away in panic those who are just trying it out, and without descending into porn.

    Esther’s comment that “This show made us so aware how we all hold back so much of the time from expressing our truest selves, because of fear and society” sounds to me almost like it is throwing down a challenge, and I think Spirited Bodies ought to be the place to face up to it and accept it? Can we as models express our truest selves? I hope we can learn to do so.

    So come on Esther, Lucy, what do you think? Could there be a new project for one of your workshops here?

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    • Very good point Lee, and well made, thank you. There are various issues as I am sure you can imagine.

      Firstly when applying for funding or to become a charity, it helps to be very focused on what particularly you are aiming to achieve. If you dilute your message too much it can run counter to your aims. Body image is one thing; dealing with (mostly) sexual taboo, quite another, albeit related. I am interested in where change needs to happen in our attitudes towards sex, but unfortunately what I have discovered in these areas is, very wonderful people trying to make change struggle in vane to get any funding. Yes this is about what is deemed acceptable which is of course the point, and where body image is perhaps a fashionable issue, freer attitudes towards sex are still lagging. It is an area that middle class run funding bodies possibly can’t quite align themselves with – it involves many grey areas and goes far too close (in some people’s minds) to the dreaded paedophile issue.
      The answer may be to run such a session as a side or separate project.

      The other big issue is the volume of inquiries inappropriate and kosher alike from interested men, running such a session would invariably entail! This used to happen with the mixed sessions; you can imagine the scenario with a slightly more permissive workshop. It’s not like I don’t have other interests in life and just living to be getting on with. I find it overwhelming and offputting. There may be a technical way to manage this, so some consideration required.

      Matching this matter is the corresponding lack of interest from women as things stand. Of course you don’t know till you try, but I can hazard a guess. This puts more pressure on me, which is one reason I have not immediately reinstated workshops.

      It may be worth me explaining that Lauren Barri Holstein is doing a Masters at a London dance college. All her performers I imagine are gathered from there. The men looked pretty effeminate, not intimidating. Like she says, vagina based work. If I start a session, the men may come from anywhere (with some vetting) so it is much harder to keep track of who they are.

      If I do put on such a session, I would hope the balance of genders would be closer. I would probably charge more money as it would be a more personal investment and specialised tuition involved. I might let women in for less money. In an ideal world such a session would attract a broad range of the open minded. In reality it may attract a lot of single (or effectively single) men who don’t know where or how to express themselves sexually. Women who know how, have their ways. Women who don’t tend to feel safer in the company of women to explore this. Young people tend
      to have their own outlets. I may be making too many assumptions, but perhaps the best route would be to try to attach the workshop to a fetish club or similar, where there is a permissive scene.

      More anon.

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      • Believe me Esther, the last thing I would want to do would be to give you even more work! I think all the Spirited Bodies really appreciate what you do already, and just how much of your time it must take up. You have explained very clearly the drawbacks that such a project would entail, and I agree you don’t want to spread yourself too thinly!
        And yes I completely take your point about the difficulty of funding, and how you can’t change the world all at once, but have to focus on one thing at a time.
        But I don’t think that attaching such a workshop to a fetish club would work, as it would straight away lend a connotation of some kind of kinky “play” or entertainment, whereas what I was thinking of was more a serious session, maybe a one-off, for people who are already into and serious about life modelling to explore possibilities. I would not envisage such a session as being “open to all” because, as you say, you’d be inundated with enquiries and it would be impossible to weed out the serious from the sensation seeker. Perhaps it should just be open to RAM registered models maybe? People who model already who might like to broaden their experience. On the other hand of course, it may be that there wouldn’t be any interest, I don’t know.. Who knows, maybe I am the only one who thinks life models ought to be thinking about using all of their bodies in their work, and truthfully acknowledging that this includes those parts which have sexual functions and which are usually carefully ignored.

        Anyway, certainly food for thought! And thank you for the review, which brought this work to our notice.

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      • Yes the fetish scene may over-sexualise such activity it is true.
        Now that you have described the scenario more clearly, and we have batted it about a bit, I think I can picture it better.
        It may well work as a one-off, or be incorporated into an event we do where we already know the models. I think a lot of the professional models (we know) would be ready to take the idea on. For many of us, we have probably been there in our heads, so it’s just a matter of taking that a small step further into the physicality, without over-doing it. Definitely something to think about, and I am sure it is just a matter of time. When the right gig lines up. For example our last event in March happened after we had had a very busy spell, so to make things simpler I invited quite a few models we have already worked with. It automatically raised the overall confidence level of the group and mine as quite a few knew each other.
        Thank you for sharing your thoughts and suggestions, it is part of what makes us a community. I look forward to expanding our art to engage more of us, our bodies and whole beings. It is through our work together that we make change! Thanks Lee

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  2. One more thing Lee; the art of posing with our whole body and being is not lost on some of us. I don’t need to be touching myself for artists to read what is happening in my head. I am very sexual, always have been, and I show it in the subtlest of ways. Sometimes my sexuality is blatant though shown in a way no one could ever get upset about. I don’t even think about it (the pose), it’s part of me. More than once artists have approached me after a session and said, “someone’s going to have a good night tonight!” I smile knowingly.
    Sure being a woman makes this somewhat easier, but with some careful mastery I reckon lots of guys achieve the same. I know they do. A pose may ripple with sexuality and needn’t come close to soft porn. There’s something wonderful about that. Anyone who looks can see the model is in touch with and conveying their sexuality, but no one is offended, and if an observer prefers, they just ignore this aspect.
    Also have you checked out Life Drawing Society? They do erotic sessions. Have not been myself as it does not appeal, but may be worth a look.

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  3. That is fantastic Esther, that sounds exactly like what I want to learn! I completely agree that a pose which conveys powerful sexuality without being in any way pornographic is wonderful. I guess that what I was asking for or suggesting in my original post was exactly that, an opportunity for practice and a bit of guidance to develop precisely that “careful mastery” of pose that enables one to do that.
    Personally I have not had a lot of success with life drawing society. I have found that they tend to ignore emails and texts and questions go unanswered. Maybe they are just overworked, they do seem to have an awful lot of members, or perhaps I’ve just been unlucky.
    — Not at all like spirited bodies!

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  4. This is an interesting discussion…. I had a few thoughts. First is that for some life models holding a traditionally modest pose is all they aspire to, in fact some life models I’ve met aren’t really interested in the human body and are doing it, somewhat reluctantly, simply as a means to earn money. For others such Esther and Lee by the sounds of it, and myself, there is an enjoyment in modelling and sometimes a desire to be engaged in a more theatrical performance. For us there can sometimes be a yearning to explore a more sexual or adventurous modelling style.

    I think it is possible to model in a non-sexual but sensual way – the curve of the back, the use of hands to hold ones legs, waist or bum, or placed close to the genital area can all emphasise the sensual aspect of the body. Sometimes even a facial expression can create a sexual tension. For men, sometime a more muscular tensed pose can be very powerful.

    A women sitting open legged is going to be a lot more provocative than a man in the same pose, although poses that fully expose the penis can feel liberating they aren’t necessarily more sexual for the viewer.

    I’ve only ever seen one erection in a life class. It was a “try it out” life modelling session organised under the auspices of the Life Drawing society – about 15 people were there, mostly men including one 60 year old guy who had obviously worked himself up (as it were) before the pose. It was generally embarrassing for everyone and totally un-erotic. There’s a time and place and I think the vast majority of genuine artists wouldn’t pay to draw a physically aroused male. That said there are some gay life drawing groups whom might be encouraging if a male model wanted to pose in an aroused state.

    In the world of performance art anything goes and sexual nudity has its place – even when used by people such and Lauri Barri Holstein as a way of poking fun at pornographic cliches.. Indeed I think a lot of female performance artists use nudity to portray messages about our society’s view of women. Male nudity is rarely seen in everyday media and so it is less of an image to be explored, played with and used as a tool for self expression. That said I have seen erections used in perforrmances to good effect when used as part of heightened sense of expressiveness…

    There are couples who have modelled together in a sensual way – Rubinesque – which I think started with models Tom So and Maggie but the idea has been copied by a few others. I’ve modelled with a female on a few occasions and without being sexual, where the model has been willing to be embraced or touched, this has made for some very sensual and I think effective and beautiful poses. I know Spirited Bodies has had couples on some occasions and I think that has worked well.

    As Esther says, Spirited Bodies needs to stay focused on its core values for a while but I think subject to the inherent limitations and traditions of life modelling there are opportunities to be sensual, especially when modelling as a couple, and I certainly don’t think that should be discouraged. I am sure most artists would prefer a confident expressive model to one who is “uncomfortable in their skin” and who can’t wait to get dressed and scuttle off into the changing room after each pose !

    Good luck and enjoy your modelling.

    Neil

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