Kathy Acker: A Study in the Sadeian Woman

At London’s ICA in the 1980s, Kathy Acker talked about and performed her work: her gigs, the edgy danger of her texts with their direct language and profanity, disseminated her art-world fame. Now, Acker is back at the ICA in an exhibition whose very title echoes her strategic play with multiple personae, as well as her status as an experimental exemplar of what today we would call autofiction. Acker was nothing if not a mistress of the contradictions of being woman, a post-punk amalgam of de Sade’s masochistic Justine, virtuous in her enforced prostitution, and his triumphant libertine Juliette. Her transgressiveness and frank avowal of desire was radical at the time, but in ways that don’t necessarily track comfortably with contemporary feminisms. It may well be that the current interest in her work is as much to do with her emphatic use of the first person—even though that person is ever the artist: a shape-shifter whose identity and sexual desires don’t fall neatly into prescribed or given locations.

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