Chelsea Theatre

You might have heard of Annie Sprinkle as the former porn star and sex-worker turned performance artist, whose piece ‘Public Cervix Announcement’ invited audience members to look inside her vagina. You might also have heard of Elizabeth Stephens, a multimedia artist and academic who has been making work about women’s sexuality for over a decade.

It doesn’t matter if you haven’t. In ‘Exposed’ Annie Sprinkle and Elizabeth Stephens aren’t here to talk to you about their work, their egos, their politics. Sure, it might come up along the way, but what’s really being exposed here is their mutual affection for each other and their explicit desire to “make the world a more fun, sexy, tolerant, well-educated, love-filled place”.

‘Exposed’ is part of ‘Love Art Lab’, a seven-year performance piece devised by the two artists, that includes visual art, theatre, performance, interventions, filmmaking, lectures, printed matter and activism. The structure of Love Art Lab is borne out of a spirit of generosity and collaboration – artist Linda M. Montano invited other artists to use her seven year theme. Sprinkle and Stephens have incorporated the seven chakras into the Love Art Lab schema, which means that 2007, with ‘Exposed’ in its third year, is the year of the yellow chakra – signifiying courage and power.

Annie Sprinkle and Elizabeth Stephens tell us about their relationship – including the story of how they met, the story of how they got (and continue to get) married, the story of how they tried to get pregnant. The two women talk over each other, meandering in and out of the same narrative, occasionally waiting for the other to hurry up or remember her cue. Their stage presence together is affectionate and affecting, and told in this way their stories add up to more than just anecdotes. They are a record and manifestation of Sprinkle and Stephens’ life together.

This means that there are bad bits as well as good. Annie’s breast cancer elicits one of the only non-spoken parts of the show. The cancer comes as a horrific surprise to the audience, who until now have been able to revel in the joyousness of Annie and Elizabeth’s relationship. But the illness also makes clear quite how apparent – and infectious – their love for each other has become.

Aside from the cancer, the joyful tone of the performance means that when politics does crop up, it’s in the nicest possible way. There’s an open debate about marriage when Annie and Elizabeth describe how they decided to get hitched. They invite discussion with the audience, hear everyone out and hand round a list of reasons about why marriage is a bad idea. Then they quietly give their reasons, and get on with the show. It’s an inclusive and respectful example of the artists’ dictum to spread love around, and it seems – like everything in this show – to be completely natural.

The catalyst for making ‘Love Art Lab’ was the American-led invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan. These particular wars hang behind ‘Exposed’, making the performance an act of defiance against war and everything it stands for. But it is referenced obliquely by familiar footage of US troops in a desert, which emphasizes the fact that ‘Exposed’ is an indirect reaction to violence and destruction. Critics may say this makes it harmless at best, and evasive at worst. But I defy even the most hardened cynics to spend an hour and a half in these artists’ company and not come out with their hearts melted. Perhaps it’s a throwback to an idealistic, seventies kind of activism, but this feels genuine and effective nonetheless. Annie Sprinkle and Elizabeth Stephens ask us all to, ‘spread a little love’, and by the time you leave the theatre you’ll be urging others to do the same.