Patrick Doherty: Brute Virtuosity and Dangerous Innocence
The Marquis de Sade wrote The 120 Days of Sodom (1789) in thirty seven days while imprisoned in the Bastille. The text details the activities of four aristocrats as they while away the winter with fornication and murder.
De Sade wrote the original in hurried micrographia on rolls of paper that he hid in the walls of his cell. As with much pornography, languorous description soon gives way to an urgent, almost mathematical elaboration of the combinatorics of copulation; as if every conceivable permutation of atrocity might be captured in a single tale. By its end, the account is so hastened that it degenerates into a mere list of who was killed on which day, like a worm’s eye view of a Christian calendar of Martyr’s Feast days. Meanwhile, outside the sadist’s castle, spring inexorably blooms, like an Easter renewal that could neither be averted nor even delayed by a single day.
In spite of its notorious reputation, The 120 Days of Sodom is a tedious book. Sexual acts take place with all of the charisma of a washing machine going into spin cycle, and the escalating murders imply diminishing returns as the perverts find that their most inventive abominations cannot compensate for the desensitization they bring in their wake.
Curtin University School of Design and Art, where Patrick Doherty has now returned for a stint after many years of productive freedom, is not a prison; although the resemblance of prisons to art schools in Australia is underscored by the fact that the National Art School in Sydney is located in the Darlinghurst Jail, and Sydney College of the Arts occupies the grounds of what was once Rozelle Hospital (originally Callan Park Hospital for the Insane). Doherty is also not the Marquis de Sade. By all accounts, and my own interactions with him, he’s a very nice guy. However he’s experimenting on closing the gap between art school and prison, between the painter and the obscene writer, by planning on having The 120 Days of Sodom read to him by his friend Marcus Canning while he paints over thirty seven days.