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A Kiss is not a Kiss

Child Prostitution: A Kiss is not a Kiss
by Berta Sichel
Film and Video Curator - Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofia 

Shot in New Delhi, A Kiss is not a Kiss is a four channel video installation about child prostitution in a country where it is estimated that 300 thousand children are involved in prostitution -- a number that is rising by 8 to10% per annum, according to recent reports. In cities such as Bombay, Delhi, Madras and Calcutta about 15% of the prostitutes are children and the average age of girls supplied to the brothels in the last two years has decreased from 14 and 16 years to 10 and 14 years. A girl between 10 and 12 years fetches the highest price and it is a girl of that age that appears in Elahe Massumi's most recent video.

A Kiss is not a Kiss closes Massumi's trilogy (Obliteration l994 and The Hijras 2000) where the action is anchored in the worlds of patriarchal, economic, sexual and racial oppression. Like Bill Viola, Massumi travels great distances to make her work. In both cases, far-reaching locations become a source of inspiration and often furnish the subject matter of the work. Unlike Viola, who travels to experience sacred locations, Massumi treks to the frontiers of the modern world, to places of savagery and harsh daily realities of survival, directing her attention to places and subjects considered either perilous or undesirable.

Her subjects, in fact, do not interest most contemporary artists. Yet throughout art history, countless creators have produced a body of work, sometimes the whole oeuvre, that have become unitary examples of the singular outlook of a social group through the eyes of that artist. In traditional art history, they were seen as special kind of spokesperson - visionary or seer - able to express the perspectives and concerns of a class and/or a social group. Although such generalizations have been already dismissed by contemporary art historians such Griselda Pollock, Massumi does not see herself as a spokesperson for those groups: moving away from the personal, from the individual, and towards the social, what she wants is to bare issues of cruelty and subjugation that are still rife in today's world. 

Here, across four monitors, four videos of 4:40 minutes edited into a two-hour loop present a patchwork of images, layered as in an Indian embroidery. Together they wordlessly describe the "in-between space" of cultural practices that would apparently be obsolete in the XXI century, as she did in Obliteration and Hijras . More complicated than in other Third World countries, the sexual exploitation of children in India has its roots in traditional practices, beliefs and gender discrimination. According to some research, child prostitution is socially 

acceptable in certain sectors of Indian society through the custom of Devdasi. Young girls are offered to the 'gods' and thereafter become religious prostitutes. There are believed to be around 300 devdasis in the Belguam area alone. 

In keeping with her previous work, A Kiss is not a Kiss is also speechless. The images and subject matter are powerful enough to hold the audience without the assistance of words. As she says, " I don't want to impose a structured language that is separate from the language of the subject. " 

Without narration, we are transfixed by the black eyes of the girl that seem to follow us even after the projection is finished. Painstakingly edited, the work is not a documentary about child prostitution, a theme that recently became a subject of television reality shows. The video does not speak about sexual desire. In A Kiss is not a Kiss, Massumi is not talking about sensuality - a paramount item within feminist theory. There is a sensual quality to the edited imagery and its saturated colors, but the reality is not a thematic erotic desire or passion. In the bedroom there is only submission and humiliation, pain and nausea. Rather, its subject is abuse, violation and profanation of a young body. At many moments the images transmit a puzzling conjunction of realism and fantasy. It is the artist's gaze and the conscious orchestration of images that bring us to this outer frontier of the modern world, where cruelty and the realities of survival are collapsed together.

The loop tells the story from the day the girl leaves her village after being sold, to her lying in a hospital bed. This sequence is repeated with rhythm on the four screens. Yet there is not a moment of peak, of intensity, of climax. The sequence is made by a non-structured succession of images and by a never-ending cycle of repetitions. This structure can be interpreted as subtle metaphor for the girl's daily routine: her body being used over and over again by a succession of clients. Through the loop, a sense of distance, "the gap between the action in front of the camera and the images on the screen," emerges. In this sense, the video is not transparent. The viewer cannot read straight through the images because something intervenes. The only thing that is obvious is that you are not watching a documentary on TV. 

What intervenes? Perhaps it is the dialectic of "presence and absence", to use Christian Metz's words in describing the relationship between psychoanalysis and cinema. In addition, the work is done with a truly female gaze, going beyond Western feminism to deal with the experiences of Third World women (and men); discussing gender and class at once, and emphasizing the interconnections of various forms of social oppression that materially affect the lives of her subjects. Furthermore, in all videos of this trilogy sex is shown through the strategy of "defamiliarization" pioneered by the theater of Bertold Brecht. For him, the viewer must engage with the work and become "an active participant in the production of meaning across the event." On the stage, this event was called "representation;" here it is not a fictional representation but a reality that is aesthetically transformed to make the viewer aware of the physical existence of a real world that he/she is not in touch with. 

1.Devdasi was banned by the Prohibition of Dedication Act of 1982. Parents or guardians dedicating their girls are liable to five years in jail and a Rs5 000 (approximately £71) fine, but it is not enforced. 

2. The fear of HIV/AIDS has increased the demand for virgins and children. Clients mistakenly believe that children have fewer chances of contracting the disease. Similarly there is the myth that a man can rid himself of sexually transmitted diseases if he sleeps with a virgin.

3. Pollock, ibid., 19. 4. Pollock, ibid, 163.

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