Thursday, May 21, 2015


Karen Finley, Toronto, 1988

KAREN FINLEY WAS CONSIDERED A MARTYR FOR FREE EXPRESSION in the arts back in the '80s. And like most martyrs for this sort of thing she has the distinction of still being alive. Which makes you a funny sort of martyr, don't you think?

She might not be so famous today, but back in the '80s Karen Finley was known for all intents and purposes as the Lady Who Stuffs Canned Yams Up Her Ass. I photographed Finley twice; once in 1987 when she came to Toronto with her notorious showpiece and again a year later when she returned with a much tamer spoken word performance and Nerve decided to do a story on her.

The interview took place in the dressing room at the Copa, a tacky dance club near the trendy Yorkville shopping district. It was a strange venue for Finley's show, but I mostly remember showing up expecting at least one well-lit room in the place, only to discover that the whole club was filled with pot lights and spots. I'd neglected to bring any lighting, so I desperately walked around with my Sekonic light meter trying to find enough light somewhere.

I finally found it in a hallway where a line of pot lights were focused on a shiny wall. I had Finley lean into the wall and slowly rotate her face in the tiny pool of light while giving a few directions - "Look up." "Put your cheek against the wall." "Look at me."

Later my editor, Nancy, told me that Finley had described it all to her like a parody of a high fashion magazine shoot, with the photographer - me - making effusive, even campy, pleas and commands: "Beautiful, darling!" "Give me more!" "Work with me, baby!" Which scandalized me more than her show, to be honest; my working method has always been low key, almost wordless, and I didn't understand why Finley felt a need to tell such a fib, except perhaps she needed a better story to tell.

Despite it all, I ended up with one fairly decent - if difficult to print - frame, which I had in my portfolio for as long as Finley's A-section, above-the-fold fame lasted. It was shot on 35mm but I cropped it to look like it was done with a medium format camera, since I always regarded the bigger format as more inherently glamourous and the portrait, for no particular reason, was as close as I'd get to an old fashioned Hollywood glamour shot at the time.

Ah the hell with it. I know you want to see it so here it is: Karen Finley shoving canned yams up her ass.

Karen Finley, Toronto, 1987

Shot a year earlier at another club, the Diamond, when Finley was at the peak of her fame - or infamy, depending on how you saw it. Where we all stood around and tried not to look shocked or embarrassed and a few young men heckled, mostly because - just my theory - they had so few actual options for responding to this sort of thing without looking like prudes, so they opted for looking like rubes.

It took me a long time, but I finally decided I was against public funding of the arts precisely because of situations like this, where taxpayers (rightfully) decide they don't want their money used to pay for canned yams or crucifixes in urine or whip handles up assholes. This is, of course, not censorship; if artists feel the need to do this sort of thing they should be free and clear of the law, provided they understand that someone might be offended.

And I'm not sure how, exactly, the state might actually censor someone like Finley. There are already laws about where and when you can take off your clothes in public. They might ban canned yams, I suppose, but this is where things get silly.

Times change, of course. Back when I photographed Karen Finley the right sort of people thought it small-minded and terribly unhip that anyone would object to public money being spent on offensive art. Nowadays, however, the same people are outraged at offensive artwork being made without public money.

Being offended, of course, is simply free expression meeting free expression, and should in no way involve guns, knives or bombs. But there are already laws against that, so let's just say that the system has found an equitable way of dealing with this sort of thing a long time before anyone saw fit to express themselves with canned vegetables. All I know is that watching Karen Finley stuff canned yams up her ass made it easier for me to clarify my opinion about all of this, and for that she has my eternal gratitude.


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