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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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Piet Oudolf's plan for the garden at Hauser & Wirth Somerset courtesy of the artist and Hauser & Wirth, photo by Alex Delfanne

Piet Oudolf’s plan for the garden at Hauser & Wirth Somerset courtesy of the artist and Hauser & Wirth, photo by Alex Delfanne

Almost 40 years ago, Brian O’Doherty wrote in his essay ‘Inside the White Cube’: “We have now reached a point where we see not the art but the space first.” He went on: “This gives the space a presence possessed by other spaces where conventions are preserved through the repetition of a closed system of values. Some of the sanctity of the church, the formality of the courtroom, the mystique of the experimental laboratory…” He said nothing whatsoever about the farm.

Hauser & Wirth is an international brand with ‘white cube’ style galleries in London, Zurich and New York. They represent some big names of international contemporary art: Pierre Huyghe, Martin Creed, Paul McCarthy, Ron Mueck, Zhang Enli, to name but a few, and some significant artists’ estates including Eva Hesse and Dieter Roth. But now to add to its portfolio it can include the 100-acre Durslade farm in the English countryside outside the pretty town of Bruton in Somerset.

Hauser & Wirth Somerset is a vision for a new kind of art gallery. It supports artists’ production and experimentation; however, unlike most commercial art galleries, it places importance on the visitor experience. To do this, it reinforces their lifestyle and values: audiences can see contemporary art, eat good food and know that the butter was churned on site. In the decades since O’Doherty described the meaning and importance of the white, neutral space, there have been many attempts to reimagine the gallery but nothing has fundamentally shifted the paradigm. Perhaps this is it?

“I’ll meet you by the bucket,” I say down the telephone to my guide, Associate Director Lucy MacDonald, who is yet to arrive. We are meeting on a hot summers day the first weekend that the gallery opens to the public, although it has already been host to some fruitful residencies. Artworks themselves, temporary and permanent, some for sale, others not, have been central to the farm’s transformation; woven into the fabric of its new identity.

The bucket, which is actually and more appropriately, a milking pail, is ‘Untitled’ (2008) by Delhi-based Subodh Gupta. Stainless steel, seven foot high and prominently positioned outside the former farm buildings, it is a utilitarian counterbalance to Paul McCarthy’s whimsical ‘Ship Adrift, Ship of Fools’ (2009). On the ship-shaped sculpture, charcoal-black dolls’ heads silently slur and cry. Across the grass, on the old farmhouse, Martin Creed’s ‘Work No. 1086 EVERYTHING IS GOING TO BE ALRIGHT’ (2011), asserts its eponymous, reassuring message.

To cool down, my companion and I go inside for a drink at the bar. The bright sunshine makes the interior seem dull for a second, but as we blink the scene before us into focus, we are assaulted by a cacophony of objects: industrial, domestic and painterly. The Roth Bar and Grill is an installation in its own right by Björn and Oddur Roth, the son and grandson of Swiss artist Dieter Roth. Re-appropriated lockers, paint cans and their brand of New York-meets-Scandinavian interior design continues through the shop and cloakroom.

The idea to position a gallery such as this in the English countryside was conceived by Iwan Wirth, but it is now under the directorship of Alice Workman. Alice says she was attracted to work at the gallery because of the unique opportunity to live in “a rural environment [whilst working] for an internationally acclaimed gallery.” This dichotomy is present in all of the activities at Durslade farm. The first major exhibition here is ‘Gig’ by Phyllida Barlow whose work tumbles, drips, hangs and stands in the ‘Threshing barn,’ a series of workshops and outside in the ‘Pigsty’ and the ‘Piggery.’

Barlow has filled the Threshing barn with oversized, multicoloured fabric ‘pom poms’ from ceiling to floor. They beg to be touched (of course you can’t.) Their density and volume almost make the generous proportions of the barn seem small. Alice characterizes Barlow as “a real artists’ artist with a wonderful capacity to make everybody feel totally engaged and inspired” and describes the new work she has produced for Hauser and Wirth as “vibrant [and] celebratory.” Lucy enthusiastically recalls the textile pom poms arriving fully assembled hanging in an enormous box, and how the artist and her team fabricated other parts of the installation on site from sections of wood and plaster, making final decisions on the work’s appearance in response to the space. The result evokes machinery (perhaps from farming activities past), combines elements of architecture with echoes of art school or some other institution, and suggests chance through a million deliberate gestures. One can sense both that Barlow’s sculpture is rooted in drawing practice, but also that the artist understands her work will be seen in the round. She has an intuitive understanding of material, movement and the power of scale.

Barlow in her 70th year is having a bit of a moment. It was a clever decision to launch the gallery with an exhibition of work by someone who is an art world insider (she was a professor of art at the Slade School of Art, London for more than 40 years) but makes work that is tactile and jolly. Concurrently, she is showing previously unseen drawings at Hauser and Wirth Saville Row and has a major commission at Tate Britain. The artist started work in Bruton immediately after finishing her piece for Tate in London’s west end.

At the back of the gallery we exit into the sunshine. Here the internationally renowned gardener and nurseryman Piet Oudolf has planted an extensive garden, complemented by Louise Bourgeois’ ‘Eye Benches II (1996-1997) and Anri Sala’s ‘Clocked Perspective’ (2012). It hums with the siren call of crickets, but we cannot explore it, yet. Officially, the garden is not ready: it is in the process of growing and will launch in September this year.

Oudolf’s gardens are art and life in four dimensions. They are meticulously designed to look good in all seasons, even when the plants die or dry out in the winter. The artist (although he doesn’t identify as such, preferring gardener) has planted gardens all over Europe and the US including at Palais de Tokyo, Paris and Venice Biennale. Lucy revealed that Oudolf is deeply emotionally invested in each project and feels hurt when the commissioners do not maintain them after he is gone. The garden is a significant statement of the gallery’s intention to care for its immediate environment and to employ the manpower to do so (it will require one full time gardener and a part time assistant.)

Back inside, Oudolf’s garden production process is explained in an exhibition of his preparatory drawings. They build up in translucent layers from concept design to detailed planting instructions; every sheet of white paper suspended in a white vitrine is covered with annotations in his native Dutch and a personal code of symbols. The drawings have never been displayed as artworks before. They are an insight into Piet Oudolf’s professional activity and also his soul.

Before we leave, Lucy asks if we would like to take a walk to Bruton Dovecote, a sixteenth-century watchtower and residence for doves and pigeons, positioned on a hill overlooking Durslade Farm and the town. Walking up the steep field to the stone structure, we pass a community garden full of vegetables, sunflowers and violets. By this point in the day, the distinction between art and gardens has dissolved completely; leaving a sense that at their best both involve time, collaboration, beauty, compromise, ambition and commitment.

Standing by the Dovecote we can see the town beneath us: pink, yellow, thatch roofs and sandstone, clean and shining in the late afternoon heat. You can appreciate why artists like Pipilotti Rist not only want to exhibit at the gallery, as she will do in November this year, but are willing to move to Bruton for an entire year, as she did in 2013, enrolling her son in the local primary school whilst she created a permanent piece of art at the farm. The town and the fields that surround it are a lung breathing energy into the gallery. The access to Hauser and Wirth’s artists should act as an oxygenated vein, ensuring that the gallery maintains the quality, complexity and ‘edge’ of the offer, and does not succumb to the lazy and bland style of art that rural British towns typically favour.

Hauser & Wirth Somerset has been described as the ‘slow’ alternative to the fast pace of the international art world. Many synonyms for slow are negative: lethargic, lackadaisical, sluggish, stagnant. But I find a gallery that is better described by words such as: considered, self-possessed and unflappable. ‘Slow’ can describe the process of a museum developing a collection for future generations. Or an artist taking time to produce a new work. It can describe a garden growing. Or a gallery that challenges the orthodoxy of the white cube and demands to be revisited as it changes from season to season, year after year.