The gallery at the Ace Hotel in New York is not easy to find. Past the front of house coffee shop, the crowd diligently typing away on Macbooks and the sign advertising the 8pm lobby DJ, and between the entrances to high fashion retailer Opening Ceremony and the oyster bar slinging $15 cocktails such as the Kerouac (benedictine, dolin blanc, mezcal, gin) and Ms. [sic] Dalloway (lemon, ginger, aperol, rye), sits the space itself.
It’s about 100 square feet, more foyer than gallery, and filled with the sounds of cafe chatter crossed with Corinne Bailey Rae’s 2006 smash, “Put Your Records On.”
It’s here that the intrepid gallery goer will curiously discover eight small vitrines, each housing a single form of contraception—a spare condom, a lone IUD—as if they were the last on earth.
This is the “Museum of Banned Objects,” a satirical work by collaborative artist duo Ellie Sachs and Matt Starr, and a hypothetical museum exhibition from a not-too-distant future. A placard on the wall offers context: “In the early to mid-21st century, the U.S. government passed sweeping legislation prohibiting the sale and use of contraceptive health products.”
Sachs, who with Starr directed a group of New York City seniors in a remaking of Annie Hall, terms the art show a “sort of dystopian fever dream,” explaining by email that it was inspired in part by President Trump’s attempts to rollback the ObamaCare birth control mandate and ban words such as “diversity” and “science-based” from the CDC.
“We landed on reproductive health products because reproductive rights are constantly under threat in this country,” she says. “Some of the bills that get proposed sound more like the plot line of a well-crafted horror thriller from a premium cable channel than real life.”
Starr echoes her sentiment: “What we’ve been watching on TV and seeing in movies recently were starting to converge with what we were seeing in real life and on the news.”
One example is the consistent, sustained attacks on Planned Parenthood, with whom Sachs and Starr partnered to realize the “Museum of Banned Objects,” which will be on display through April 30.
The organization has notably collaborated recently with high-profile artists such as Marilyn Minter and bands like Sleater-Kinney to bring attention to the uniquely dystopian possibility of its defunding.
Sachs and Starr’s vitrines remind their viewers that the contraception to which they may enjoy easy access now is something to be protected, and certainly not overlooked.
By joining hands with Planned Parenthood, Sachs says, “instead of [the show] just being a potential imagined scary future, it reminds the viewer that this is actually already happening… albeit on a smaller scale.”
This is certainly a worthy message, but why then stage the show at the Ace, one of the trendiest spots in one of the most affluent, liberal cities in the country?
The audience there will perhaps already be aware of the trials faced by Planned Parenthood, or even uncaring. The “Museum” runs the risk of being co-opted by its purposefully and unnaturally chic surroundings: made into little more than semi-provocative sideshow for the rare passerby that stops to see more than a just condom in a glass case.
Sachs and Starr explain that they were attracted to the layout and visibility that the Ace would offer, and that they hope to take the exhibition to different states. Here in New York, the pair purposefully sought out Planned Parenthood to avoid the trappings of preaching to the choir.
“Sometimes for a concept to really stick or take hold, you have to completely recontexualize it and raise the stakes – we hope this exhibit does just that,” says Sachs. Starr explains that “this was our way of supporting [Planned Parenthood],” and that he has already seen some fruitful conversations arise from the show within the few days it has been on display.
Let’s just hope that those worthwhile conversations, along with the show’s warnings and darkly prescient humor, are not lost in the haze of mid-2000s pop songs and $15 cocktails.