Barbican Gallery, 12th Oct '07 - 27 Jan '08
1. Ligatures A Go-Go
The first thing you notice about these two floors crammed with erotic artwork is the typeface.
If you want an x-ray into the intentions of a movie, shut your eyes and listen to the soundtrack. The fact that we’re not supposed to do that means that’s where all the subliminal hijinks are actually located. Similarly, when looking at any kind of product, focus on the typeface.
Typefaces in museum signage are always sans serif (like the typeface used here), functionally maximizing readability, anti-ostentatiously pointing away from themselves to the exhibits. But this typeface is serify to the max, thick with twiddly bits and ligatures a go-go. It stands out partly through being such a contract to the Barbican’s standard blocky look.
Partly this is reminding us that sex goes beyond mere function; in fact you could argue that sex is almost the opposite of work, the ultimate thing you’d do for its own sake. However, there’s more. In typography serify fonts are considered ‘classical’, thereby tasteful and tend to get appended to luxury products. Boxes of chocolates or perfume tend to be serify, bin bags less often.
So do the serifs tell us this show will just turn out to be art as luxury product, some self-congratulatory “risqué” and “transgressive” attraction, despite all the sexualized billboards we walked past to get here, something to brag about seeing in a Soho wine bar that evening? Or, more hopefully, will it actually tell us something interesting?
2. Opening the Once-Locked
The first actual object we witness is a giant figleaf, built by Victorians to cover up Michelangelo’s David. (Allegedly to “spare the blushes” of Queen Victoria.) It represents, we’re encouraged to think, everything we can now throw off. The second section,titled ‘Under Lock and Key’, makes more of this feeling. It shows us artifacts from the ‘Secret Cabinet’, scenes of a sexual nature excavated from Pompeii but hurriedly locked away. But what's interesting here is that they weren’t hidden or destroyed but put into a kind of early ‘private shop’, viewable via appointment by gentlemen – and of course not by ladies or those of the lower orders. However, the underlying point is missed. This separation was not merely hypocritical but definingly modern, emphasising the emerging division between private and public spheres.
Instead of this, isn’t another schema afoot? Aren’t we not only being invited to distinguish ourselves from those stuffy Victorians, but assume that liberty and libido are intertwined, that sexual freedom is always a litmus test of political freedom? It might be inconvenient to point out, but Rome was a military dictatorship for most of its history and never less than a slave-powered, male empire. It would be a peculiar conception of liberty that would take Rome as its hallmark, even if they did carve statues with their willies out. (The show continues to have a similar, if less pronounced, blind spot over Eastern empires. And its perhaps curious why the clock stops at antiquity, when so much prehistoric art was eroticised.)
3. Eastern Promise Honoured
Another major weakness is given away by the opening line of the catalogue notes: “Sex is one of the great givens of human existence.” This seems a partuclarly peculiar statement for an exhibition selling Foucault in the bookstore. While the sex act could be considered merely a given, sexuality emphatically is not and to consider the aesthetics of sexuality as merely a given is absurd. The erotic is always culturally specific.
But with such a line of enquiry ruled out, the show either categorises (gay sex, hetero sex, hermaphrodism etc) or measures via the blunt tool of explicitness. We’re told, for example, “the graphic arts of the Far East relished an explicitness” which ours lacked. Well Hustler magazine is pretty explicit too, but I wouldn’t particularly rate it for aesthetics.
This seems particularly a shame when the examples of Eastern art are so fabulous. Against them, those Roman marbles could be locked away forever for all I’d care. The Karma Sutra pages from India do look merely diagrammatic, but then they were intended more as instructional aid than artwork. But the Chinese and Japanese prints steal the show from everything else in the historical section, and possibly just from everything else. This superiority of erotic art from the East is something I’ve never heard convincingly explained, but there seems little doubting the evidence.
It’s interesting to contrast the Japanese examples against the Chinese. Both are eroticised not merely by their explicit nature but their sinuous linework. With those elegant, endlessly overlapping contours it’s often hard to tell one set of limbs from another – a neat visual analogy for the loss of self that comes with sexual release. The couples look like they’ve become single creatures, multitudinous and self-pleasuring. (There’s even an early example of the infamous genre of tentacle porn.)
Those contoured lines then continue outside the figure, rather than hiding their copulators away connecting them to nature. The Japanese are normally indoors, but by an open window or similar to allow a nature scene to be fitted in. But while they dominate their frame, the Chinese locate their figures in gardens; shrunk and de-centered, your eye doesn’t necessarily go to them first. And their environment is often rendered in more detail than they are themselves; trees don’t erupt phallically but sinuously flow across the frame, bark and leaves filled in with almost fetishistic detail.
The figures come to feel like creatures of their garden, as much like lovebirds upon the branches as human intruders. While nature's filled in so fully, they’re depicted with open lines and given stylised, almost inexpressive faces – the sheer opposite of the gurneying that normally indicates passion. They are kept as open as cut-outs so we can fill them in, project ourselves into them.
The Chinese pictures often contain an element of formlessness, not separated from but bordering and merging with the other elements - like something out of Ernst. In one case this was an elaborate delta-like arrangement of dripping candlewax, in others I couldn’t pin it to any explicable origin at all. If the interwoven figures were steadily losing themselves in each other, representing foreplay, this tipping point into the abstract stood for the orgasmic.
Of course there’s one figure that doesn’t get to disappear off – the viewer. These prints often featured observers, shocked servants innocently walking in on their amorous masters and the like. (Though oddly we’re not shown any examples of these. Maybe our own presence, clomping round the gallery, was supposed to be enough.) In a more effective example, a Medieval engraving shows a satyr creeping up on a fawn. Peering out the frame, he shushes us. Centuries before we tend to imagine it even being discovered, here the Fourth Wall is effectively blown down and we are implicated in his amorousness.
In fact, it’s hard to imagine erotic art existing without associations of voyeurism. You can enjoy a performance of Macbeth even if you’re lacking any inclinations to commit murder or seize any crowns. But erotic art is more functional – like a dance song it has to, at some level, stir in you the feeling to do something similar.
Moreover, the voyeurism has an erotic charge all of itself. The downside of all this stuff about sex being a natural and normal act is that it stops it being such fun. As Tracey Emin asks in the show: “is legal sex anal?” We’re told (if not shown) of a Duchamp he created which was viewable only through a keyhole. After tearing off the figleaves and throwing open the locked rooms, we now feel the desire to lock them back up. Voyeurism liberates us from the need to always feel liberated about the erotic, and allows us to indulge in feeling pervy all over again.
4. A Touch of Form
But let’s go back momentarily to trace the linework of those Eastern prints. We’re told at one stage drawings made for better erotic art than paintings, as they were more suited to private enjoyment. Later we’re told how photography took over from drawing, as it offered a sense of faux realism. Particularly today, in our broadband-connected world, non-photographic porn seems almost quaint. Few websites offer porn novels on subscription. Nevertheless, and while I would say that, I would argue cartoons and animation are the media which can portray sex the best - for precisely the same reason. While as said above there’s nothing wrong with the merely voyeuristic, painting photography and film always struggle to get past that. As Duchamp (quoted in this very show) puts it, painting only shows “the surface of things”. Yet when photography liberated painting from record-keeping, it fell into its old cell. Cartoons are less bound to reality, and freer to show what sex feels like.
Reflecting on the superiority of the Japanese prints the Guardian’s Jonathan Jones comments: “European art from the Renaissance into modern times was obsessed with the delineation of reality in space and time. Japanese prints are instead decorative explorations of shape and colour: this makes for a much more tactile art.” So much sensation is encoded in the line that a good enough cartoonist could probably eroticise a rendering of a hoover. And the stages we see set up simultaneously in the Chinese prints could be sequential in an animation; figures could become more and more intertwined, then finally melt right into one another.
It’s of course equally true there are cartoonists who use their powers for ill, for example the fashion in Image comics for women whose physiques would literally leave them unable to stand up. But of course cartoons are not over-represented here, even when the candidates they offer are obvious. Jones goes on to ask: “why exclude sexually obsessed cartoonist Robert Crumb?”
However, the blinkers do not block off other directions. Perhaps its being part of a wider arts complex, but the Barbican does seem more willing to escape the fetish for canvas you find at the Tate. (When the Tate recently showed Dali’s films, it did so via often spurious points of comparison to his paintings.) The Voice of Sex area contained nothing but taped readings, none annotated, with instructions just to listen to the sound of the voices, to “explore another aspect of seduction: the sensuality of words and of the voice.” Unfortunately this splendid idea was poorly executed, the sound intrusively bled into surrounding rooms, then when you arrived you were merely in a throughway with no inviting space to stop – so few did.
Also, if a listening room why not a ‘feeling’ room – where you could put your hands through slot holes to stroke different textures? It could even reverse the standard signs you see in exhibitions – please do touch.
5. Everything’s Allowed Nowadays
At the Barbican’s recent Panic Attack show, (reviewed here) I successfully guessed the weakness before attending – the artists more removed from the punk milieu would be less interesting. At the earlier Future Cities show (reviewed in Lucid Frenzy’s ancient print days) I again intuited the weakness – as it progressed through time it would become progressively less interesting. I expected the very same weakness here – and I was wrong.
There’s low points, of course. But for example I’m now disappointed I didn’t go to see Noboyoshi Araki’s solo show (see his post-Bunel image above). And even when what might sound overly familiar comes up, it seems capable of pulling a rabbit out of a hat. A classic example is the Surrealist section, which contains a Sixties Sadean ‘happening’ which involved urinating on the audience and nearly saw its instigators locked up. (With the state of my memory I can remember the names of none of them now.) I also don’t remember Hans Bellmer’s drawings from the recent Undercover Surrealism exhibition, though that may merely be my poor memory as well.
Perhaps the downside of the contemporary works is they’re not particularly erotic, and consequently ill-placed to seduce you. (Or rather the examples that attempt the erotic are the least interesting… calling Marlene Dumas or Jeff Koons.) Given the period the works tend to the conceptual and, while the erotic is of course at root cerebral, conceptual art tends to the intellectual – quite a different thing. Duchamp’s presence is telling, while it’s always great to see some Duchamp it’s also a little odd to see so much of him in an erotic show. But the same remains true of the less conceptual works, Bacon for example paints more in the tradition of Munch than of Klimt.
But this downside is simultaneously the upside. There’s little Sixties-style revelling in some imagined sexual freedom, either in our ‘permissive’ society or in the liberated role of the artist. Often there’s quite the opposite. Thomas Ruff, for example, deals in blurry blown-up photos. They look ‘artistic’, the sort of thing metrosexuals would choose to go above their bed decks. Only when you read the serify notes do you realise they’re taken from porn sites, screwing with our easy distinctions ‘twixt tasteful art and sordid commerce. (Ruff does pull off a slight cheat, however. The notes suggest the blurring is but a side-effect of enlarging the images, a Duchamp-like minimising of the artist’s intervention. But unlike photos, such images pixellate when enlarged – quite a different effect.)
It’s not mentioned anywhere in the exhibition, but its notable how modern art and rock music are so associated with sex in the popular mind. Both are created by bourgeois-bohemians, and are never assembled by labour but always unleashed –exemplifiers of the spurt of ‘free’ uninhibited expression. They represent the ‘true self’ against the ‘uptight’ - of which sexual license is always the chief signifier. Of course such absurd notions merely lead to their very opposite. Rather than slip the restrictive shackles of dominant culture they then become loaded with so much baggage their backs cannot hope not to break. Fifty years past rock music and over a hundred past modernism, about now would be a good time to get over all that nonsense.
Perhaps Nan Goldin’s slideshows come in here. Slideshows inherently juxtapose images, but Goldin’s static shots are more inter-related than most films. Her simple uncrafted Polaroid-like images follow the lives of friends of hers; sometimes with children, sometimes cuddling together on sofas. They then break with the polaroids we are used to seeing by including sexual activity, part of the continuum of human relationships but rarely part of its recording. It’s more striking when they indulge in less ‘mainstream’ sex acts, with none of the surrounding iconography.The effect is similar to the famous scene in Roeg’s 'Don’t Look Now', when shots of a married couple making out are intercut with scenes of them dressing for dinner. In the sheer antithesis of faux-bohemiansim, you’re given a sense of sex as part of an overall relationship. In an era of internet porn and endlessly sexualized billboards, maybe that’s what’s become transgressive.
Gallery info here