February 2008, Art and Sex from Antiquity to Now @ the Barbican Art Gallery

Scholarly Anxiety

by Seph Rodney, WM London

So much about sex is connected to fear. Our history is given over to proscriptions against or limitations of the available lexicon of sexual acts and/or its permitted contexts, so much so that the rhetoric of revolution always contains calls for the de-policing of bodies—political bodies, desiring bodies. Sex is still rock star and dangerous, and desire is always a step or two away from our most uncontrolled state: delirium, itself often a step away from despair (another reason sex can be dangerous). Realizing this, I confess to want to see something about sex that is celebratory—perhaps even surprising. The curators of the Seduced: Art and Sex from Antiquity to Now show at the Barbican Gallery claim (in the opening wall text) that they too want the same. However, the show strikes me as an attempt by the curators to hedge their bets. 

On the bottom floor, the show has structures typical of a historical survey and feels quite calculated in its breadth of cultural sampling. There are examples of work of the classic Roman period, from Pompeii and Herculaneum; illustrated pages of the Kama Sutra, Japanese Shunga or Ehon drawings for woodblock prints and Renaissance paintings and pottery. Each room with its fixed identity and historical moment offers the viewer the kind of précis to knowledge that makes great party conversation, (e.g. Did you know that the Kama Sutra was written by a Brahmin monk? Wow, really?) rather than considered study. But then this is always the limitation of such shows, since scholarly depth would limit breadth and probably frighten most away. So what we have is the patina of scholarly inquiry, essentially allowing us to look at pudenda in all manner of meetings, but leaving behind its Latinate baggage; we can look without shame. This is unexpected: to calmly stand in a room with strangers watching slide after slide of people engaging in animal, unpretentious and explicit sex acts—and with no sense of strangeness or guilt, each of us momentary anthropologists.

 Satyr Embracing a Nymph (Pompeii) courtesy Barbican Art Gallery

The top floor, the superstructure given its imprimatur by the base then allows itself to take more risks, and though some examples fail to propel a richer understanding of the forms for registering arousal and sexual questioning, the work makes a case for how modernity has made us both curious and bored, explosively daring and then languidly ironic. The work moves beyond that in the moments when work wakes us up to the possibility of intimacy, as in the photos of Nan Goldin, accompanied beautifully by the Bjork soundtrack. Goldin’s Heartbeat 2001, presented as a slide show have an immediacy and a personal resonance that makes it the most loving part of the show. Work by k.r. buxey, with her slow-motion orgasm or Mapplethorpe’s debauched theatre, or Koon’s puerile versions of porn read as having run out of time. Nobuyoshi Araki still surprises: making a simple snail or kitchen utensils drip lavishly with sexuality. Aubrey Beardsley is the most playful, with illustrations that exaggerate fecundity and phallism, with a filigreed line both cunning and charming.

Finally, the entire program feels programmatic rather than risky, playful or even fascinated; it feels as if asked to make a presentation to an alien species unfamiliar with human sexuality, the curators devised Seduction. I wonder whether this is about the fear that such a show might beg to be shocking and yet, even it were, would not be quite shocking enough, or would be emptier for it. Perhaps devising a lovely time capsule, Seduction could explain to our visitors how sex has happened over time and how we respond emotionally to its effects. And in the meantime we might,by engaging in academic historicity, give ourselves permission to look at our naughty bits.

Seph Rodney

Seph Rodney is now engaged in a research Ph.D. at the University
of London-Birkbeck College. The specific course he is enrolled in,
The London Consortium, is a particularly intense and stridently interdisciplinary school closely connected with art and science institutions within the city. His study entails comparing two rooms: one in the Tate Modern and another within the Museum of Modern Art in New York in terms of how they employ structures for making meaning. He also doesn’t mind just being beguiled by beauty now and again.

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