Over the Fourth of July weekend, sunbathing guests at the Montauk Beach House (where renting a cabana costs $2,000 a day) were confronted with something of a spectacle. Near the pool, artist Leah Schrager, armed with a selfie stick, contorted herself into a series of increasingly risqué poses.
In one particularly provocative posture, Schrager knelt face down on one of the lounge chairs, holding the selfie stick behind her to photograph her rear end, which was clad in a tiny bikini bottom.
Unbeknownst to Schrager, a visitor to the hotel was taking a video of her the whole time, and then passed it along to sports and pop culture blog Barstool Sports, which shared it with its 6.8 million followers. (The post was captioned, appropriately, “Gotta hit them angles.”)
An hour later, one of Schrager’s followers recognized her, and tagged her in the comments. By then the video already had over one million views and the clip quickly went viral on Instagram meme accounts from there.
Schrager says she was shocked. Her actions by the pool were actually part of her first live performance, which she titled Angles on a Woman, and were carried out by an alter ego she calls Ona. The overtly sexualized online persona, which goes by the handle @onaartist, is a cam girl who has embraced objectification—and amassed 3 million followers since her Instagram debut in 2015. Schrager is also the subject of the boutique hotel’s current exhibition, “Unprotected Specs,” organized with East Hampton gallery Roman Fine Art.
“At first, everyone posted it without tagging me, which I consider image theft,” Schrager wrote on her website. “Then, while DMing these huge meme pages asking to be credited, I ran into resistance from men who felt it was their right to show my body without naming me and who even ridiculed me for trying to be identified.”
Eventually, after it had received more than 3 million views, @barstoolsports edited the post to identify Ona. By Schrager’s count, the post has gotten more than 40 million views in total, with all sorts of comments, many dismissing Ona as an Instagram “thot,” slang for “that ho over there.”
The impulse to sexually shame women, however, is one of the reasons Schrager invented Ona in the first place. The persona “was meant to be an exploration of what mainstream and self-made celebrity are,” she told artnet News in an email.
“As soon as a woman posts a photo that can be interpreted as sexual, then it is not art. This has been repeated to me over and over by dealers, gallerists, colleagues,” she said, “and I just don’t believe this has to be the case in the long run. I think arousal or sexuality is just another material, like oil or acrylic, and that it should be taken seriously and considered in art criticism. Currently, it’s just written off as not art. But that puts a huge damper on the performative and earning potentials of female artists. It’s just censorship, sexism, and misogyny.”
The persona is also a way for Schrager to make a living. Ona charges fans $30 a month to subscribe and see all nude photographs and videos on her Snapchat and NSFW website, and $500 an hour for private sex-cam sessions. “That’s how I fund my work,” she said.
“The negative comments are just part of the trade,” and the engagement boosts the algorithm, ultimately driving more followers and traffic Ona’s way.
Even though Schrager would have preferred credit for appearing in the viral photos, she’s still pleased with its widespread popularity. “I’m thankful that it happened,” she said, “it is a great crystallization of this moment in time and women’s place in art and Instagram.”
“Leah Schrager: Unprotected Specs” is on view at the Montauk Beach House, 55 South Elmwood Avenue, Montauk July 5–17, 2019.
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