Let’s talk about sex: Institute of Sexology at Wellcome Collection

Britain Sexology ExhibitionAre the public here because they are interested in the history of the study of sex? Or are they here because any mention of sex in our culture is titillating, tantalizing and taboo? That is my question as I stand waiting to queue, with a timed ticket that I cannot redeem for twenty minutes. The Institute of Sexology is the most popular exhibition I have seen at Wellcome Collection, ‘a free destination for the incurably curious,’ in central London, which explores different elements of the human condition using science and art.

The lights are low and the layout of the gallery compels you to walk in a single line, peeking into each showcase of objects to see phallic amulets, Japanese sex aids, or a sepia-coloured photograph of a Victorian transvestite. The environment suggests that you are engaged in an illicit activity, the opposite of a large white space with the freedom to draw your own desire pathways from one item to another.

The exhibition is divided into sections, highlighting the different spheres of sexual study: the library, the consulting room, the classroom, the laboratory, the home. Artworks and artifacts complement data, variously visualized. An etching of dismembered male genitals apparently fallen from stone sculptures is followed by an erotic Victorian post card, which precedes a camel rendered in copulating couples produced in India in the 19th century, then onwards to a survey into female sexual responses.

The practice of studying sexuality and cultural responses to sex has, as you might expect, been historically controversial. We are told the story of physician and sexologist Magnus Hirschfeld who was targeted by the Nazis. His library was burned to the ground in 1933, ending his promotion of social justice for sexual minorities and the lively debates between intellectuals who congregated at his ‘Institut fur Sexualwissenschaft’.  Photographs of his library are all that remain.

This is the study of collections: collections of data, collections of objects, and an examination of the fluxuating fates of the collectors. One of the collectors is Henry Wellcome (the philanthropist whose activity led to the creation of this venue) whom we are told had a “fascination with the theory of ‘phallic worship’.” One wonders whether scientific advancement was always the main motivation for sexual study, how or whether these individuals were able to shut off their own desires?

Sex concerns the body and the mind. Sigmund Freud is in the consulting room. He was one of the first psychologists to ‘lift the veil of silence’ and make the connection between neuroses and sexual emotion. Institute of Sexology reveals the invisible studies and their proponents, who enabled very visible social change; contraception or rights for Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender people. But it is artworks like Zanele Muholi’s black and white photographs of black lesbians in South Africa that wield the emotional power. From a wall of over 20 portraits, the artist has removed images of women who died since their photographs were taken, often from targeted violence.

The exhibition takes a turn for the zany with a series of photographs by Timothy Archibald. They are the outcome of three years spent travelling the United States documenting people and their home-made sex machines. The images have titles such as ‘Dan and Jan Siechert, The Monkey Rocker, Bakersfield, California.’ Even though they don’t depict sex, they bare witness to some of the most intimate sexual acts. Archibald says, “I wanted to let men tell their story about trying to navigate sex and relationships.” He was surprised to find that the machines tended to be built and used by committed couples.

“The history of sex research is not a progressive march toward enlightenment, and contemporary art interrupts that narrative,” says co-curator Honor Beddard. Carolee Schneemann, for example, with her work Ye Olde Sex Chart (Sexual Parameters Chart), 1975, cuts through the Western rhetoric of 1960s and 70s sexual freedom. The detailed list of her own sexual experiences mimics the methodology used by the sexual researchers elsewhere on display. The age and nationality of her lovers, the duration of their encounter, frequency, the size of their genitals. Her works are always deceptively simple: grabbing the male gaze, turning it on herself and holding it there until viewers are forced to confront her sexuality and their voyeurism.

Would you step inside the Sex Box!? Shouts a headline in a review of Institute of Sexology. The sex box is a box with no special qualities, made to the dimensions specified in a drawing by psychoanalyst Wilhelm Reich in the 1930s. Reich called it the ‘Orgone Box,’ and apparently used it to collect and store a naturally occurring “sexually potent” energy possessed with health benefits. In reality it is an empty box, simply a means to attract attention for his wider agenda of sexual liberation.

One of the developments in sexual health that cut through British life the most deeply is the outbreak of AIDS in the 1980s. This story is oddly placed here within the sphere of ‘the home,’ represented by leaflets posted through letterboxes at the time that read: “AIDS – Don’t Die of Ignorance.” However, this slogan is sadly resonant as recent figures show an increase of new persons infected in the UK, who believed that it wouldn’t happen to them.

This segues to the final note of the exhibition. A video, Pedagogue, 1988 by Neil Bartlett, which reminds us that sometimes ignorance is institutionalized. In this case referring to Section 28, a law banning the ‘promotion’ of homosexuality in schools; leaving a generation of young people without support as they came to terms with their sexuality.

For those who came for the sex, the show isn’t that sexy. It is about how studying sex – or not talking about sex – can have deeply felt consequences for society. When the exhibition engages in these kind of discourses it has a profound message about the importance both of sexual freedom and the freedom to examine sexual practices; the way contemporary art interplays with this notion is worth the visit alone. I can tolerate the sex machines but don’t have much time for the sex box – it has done its job attracting crowds of visitors.

First published in Art World magazine, 2014

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