A Sexual Fantasy Concocted Around an Ancient Perfume Bottle
LONDON — Zoe Williams is no stranger to exploring sexuality, having written her masters dissertation on the history of the dildo. Another object of sexual desire forms the premise of her latest show, Sunday Fantasy. The exhibition’s central object is a recreation, in glass made by Williams, of an ancient Roman perfume bottle now held in the British Museum. In an attempt to mess with the staid, patriarchal Western perspective that museums present of history, Williams created a fictionalized back story for the object from a perspective that better spoke to her. In what she, in conversation with Daria Khan, termed “something akin to a ‘70s B-movie storyline”, Williams’s bottle is now possessed by the spirit of its previous owner — a lesbian priestess from ancient Rome — and has the power to realize one’s wildest fantasies when rubbed on the nape of the neck or on the genitals.
With this premise, Williams collaborated on a film with three co-authors and friends — Amy Gwatkin, Deniz Unal, and Nadja Voorham — to create a fictionalized story wherein this Roman perfume bottle brought their own fantasies to life. These fantasies are enacted by four different actresses, but said actresses are all united in playing different interpretations of a singular character: namely, one “Veronica Malaise.” Malaise is the vessel through which the fantasies of Williams, Gwatkin, Unal, and Noorham are explored.
These fantasies include a woman lying on her belly, clad in pale pink silk — that is, apart from her bum, which a perfectly sized hole in the material lays bare. The narrator of this fantasy goes on to explain that she envisions “my hands floating” above, and we see said hands (and then lips) massage, kiss, bite, suck, and nibble said bottom. Another fantasy, the narrator tells us, is of a group of people “who’s mission it is to remove my clothes.” We see a group of people tearing intensely at Veronica’s outfit, but never quite managing to undress her. The narrator elaborates: the exciting part, “is the tickle, the tease, the journey,” since for this version of Veronica, the fantasy coming to fruition would dull its power.
Another vision explores the link between fantasy and fear — Deniz has a phobia of eels, so her fantasy entails clips of eels squirming and an anthropomorphized eel-woman, painted green, dancing seductively across a mirrored floor. Perhaps the most interesting fantasy is the final one depicted — hands coming from behind and massaging Veronica’s shoulders, all of this taking place in the neon-red-tinged light of a car. Other scenes include a depiction of urophilia. In this fantasy, we see various examples of women urinating, including into a gorgeously delicate pink shell — basically, if Venus had a chamberpot, this would be it. This fragmented depiction of desire, going in and out of the main fantasy to various other imaginings, seems to get to the heart of desire: it is a mix of everything an individual finds alluring, entwined yet also distinct.
Williams cites sexually explicit ‘90s films such as Showgirls as an influence on the content of the film. Part of what makes the film so alluring is the combination of intense sexuality with aesthetic softness — indeed, the film’s general vibe might be described as “imagine if Sofia Coppola had directed Showgirls.” The previously mentioned bare bottom, with the rest of the woman’s body draped in silk, reminded me of an inversion of the famous first shot of Lost in Translation. Further, numerous shots of a group of girls laying languorously entwined, brings to mind the Lisbon sisters of The Virgin Suicides; scenes of perfume bottles held in hands adorned with coral red nail polish put in mind a Miss Dior commercial.
Visitors to this exhibition may sit and watch this film on the normal viewing benches installed in the gallery, but they might instead choose to recline on the copious pillows, rugs, and throws that litter the viewing room and spill out into the exhibition’s other rooms — the very same furnishings featured in Williams’s film. Through this, we are overwhelmed and enveloped by the fantasies explored by Williams, and the line between where the exhibition visitor and exhibition itself is blurred. One is transformed from a mere viewer into a voyeur, perhaps even a participant. One feels almost as if one is as much a feature of Veronica Malaise’s various fantasies as those who are on screen. This feeling continues when one moves into the exhibition’s adjoining rooms, and one is confronted with not only more props and objects from Williams’ video, but the very room the film was filmed in. And there, in the center of a mirrored table — there is the priestess’s bottle itself. One almost feels that if one reached out and touched it, an immediate transportation into the fantasy world of Veronica Malaise might occur.