Review: Seduced: Art & Sex from Antiquity to Today, Barbican Art Gallery, London.
Untitled Magazine, 26 April, 2008
The viewer of Seduced: Art and Sex from Antiquity to Today is led chronologically through the most infamous periods of sexual depiction across various times and cultures, staying largely with the preoccupations of Western Europe but also delving into Chinese, Japanese, Indian, Persian and ancient Roman collections of works. The ground floor takes up the ‘historical’ perspective and the upstairs galleries hold contemporary and early modern works. The exhibition is accompanied by a curated season of events ranging from film screenings, burlesque nights, to flirting classes, serving to link the exhibition’s historical trajectory to our present day sexual consumption and habits. I visited on the night when the London club night Torture Garden was the guest event, and any pretence of an atmosphere of sober, historical reflection were whisked away entirely by gaggles of fetish clubbers and innumerable couples on dates.
Seduced has been designed with both monumentality and intimacy in mind – smallish chambers hold distinct bodies of work on the ground floor, while in the centre of the gallery a full height structure links the ground floor to the upper galleries, creating ample space for some of the more spectacular contemporary works to be displayed above the chambers. Such tactics create the possibility for artlessly interesting connections without shoving any anachronisms down the viewer’s throat. Chris Cunningham’s 2000 film flex (Excerpt) flickers uncannily above the Sex and Cold Marble section, which deals in classical antiquity and includes the beautiful Roman sculpture Sleeping Hermaphrodite (2nd Century AD). Also are projected some of the simplest and sexiest works in the entire show, Warhol’s 16mm films Kiss, which records head shots of couples kissing messily, and Blowjob, which notoriously records the faces of men receiving oral sex (both 1963).
This assertion about Blowjob and Kiss betrays the difficulty in holding a critical position on Seduced. The show is designed to arouse, and if something so subjectivised as arousal is the main criterion of value then the art critic here is doing little more than projecting her personal kicks onto others. On this level, Seduced can seemingly escape any true critical assessment: if it doesn’t turn you on, the problem’s with you and your libido. If Boucher’s genitally literal treatment of Leda and the swan doesn’t do anything for you, then maybe Alfred Kinsey’s largely uncredited collection of graphic and pornographic photographs will. Given the variety, very few people are likely to leave without a throbbing heart (or something like that), and so this critical equivalence is not too much of a problem.
Despite the tone of pure sensation, Seduced does, however, have its own constructs and positions. The very first work confronting the viewer is a large plaster fig leaf by an unknown artist borrowed from the V&A. Created specifically for the eyes of Queen Victoria, its job was to cover the genitalia of the museum’s cast of Michaelangelo’s David. These days at the V&A it hangs on the back of David’s plinth, near the wall, and only those who happen to wish to see his behind ever discover the leaf, with a note telling of its now redundant role. The roles of the genitalia and its fig leaf have thus been reversed, and as an added irony, only the especially lascivious (there’s only one, very firm, reason to look at the back of David) get to discover the fig leaf’s existence.
The inclusion of David’s fig leaf falls within a narrative construct that is now rather familiar, from Ann Summers shops to Channel Four late night documentaries – that of happyfun sex winning a battle over censorship and public morality. In prefacing the entire exhibition with the fig leaf, the show’s curators Marina Wallace, Martin Kemp and Joanne Bernstein position Seduced squarely within this narrative, seemingly taking at face value what Foucault’s History of Sexuality identified as the discursive driving force for western expressions of sexuality. Subsections feature The Reserved Cabinet and the Secretum, collections of sexually explicit objects and works from classical antiquity onwards that in 19th century Europe were given their present names and correspondingly illicit status.
Thus many of the works exist within a double timeline; that of their own creation, meaning, narrative and context, and that of their subsequent place within western scientia sexualis and its morality. As a show patently foreseen as a blockbuster, Seduced’s dialectic of expression versus repression acts as a kind of pantomime argument that only makes its plethora of sexual variety stand out in even sharper relief.
This aspect of the forbidden adds spice, but it also forecloses much debate on what other ideological frameworks might wish to question dominant forms of sexual expression within art. Seduced shares this situation with much contemporary popular culture, whereby radically-informed criticism constantly risks being conflated with conservative moralistic repression. The anti-censorship tone of the exhibition is in some ways contradictory, given that the curators have been highly selective of what aspect of sex in art they have decided to reflect. “We have excluded exploitative images that are savagely aggressive or degrading. Consent is an important watchword” state the curators in the catalogue introduction.
This puts a huge question mark over Seduced’s numerous depictions of satyrs busy raping nymphs, and paintings such as Fragonard’s The Beautiful Servant (Pointless Resistance), whose story of an assaulted servant is clearly told between the image and the title. Rape, when it’s a bit Roman, or when it’s conducted in a chocolate-boxy scene of billowing skirts, apparently isn’t rape at all. The presentation of these works is a difficult line to walk, as the curators at this moment (despite the earlier quote) seem to have decided that it is important to reflect honestly the presence of these works as aspects of their contemporaneous mores. However, this possible ‘distanced’ line of reasoning is difficult in such a provocative show, as Seduced, in all of its sexiness, has already set its stall absolutely nowhere near the idea of providing a scene for distanced moral reflection. Through these slightly mixed messages, the line between non-judgmental exposition and implicit approval of the scenes becomes blurred.
A more clear-cut position is Seduced’s avoidance of the conflation of ‘sex’ as a physically and mentally provocative experience, with ‘sex’ as a set of gendered constructs. The curators state, in the same catalogue essay: “Equally, we have avoided […] images that directly address issues of gender. The exhibition is concerned with depictions of the sexual act – whether before, during, or after.”
The very small number of female artists in the show – for which the curators can hardly be blamed – is clear evidence of the historical marginalising (to put it mildly) of female sexual expression. Seduced’s focus on something as vital and basic as sex does something rather urgent to the over-familiar cry of ‘where are the women artists?’ – making us realise that this is not simply an unfashionably 1990s-bound question of identity politics, but a question of the formation of female collective memory and the subsequent uncertainty it places over the very idea and expression of female experience. Put simply, if we don’t know what women really found good about sex then, then how can we be sure we know what we like now?
Louise Bourgeois’ sculptural works Couple (1996) and Couple III (1997) are paired with Rihcrad Hamilton’s Typo/Typography of Marcel Duchamp’s Large Glass (2003) in what has to be the least titillating room of the exhibition. In Couple, headless bodies formed of clothing are sewn into each other in folded, embracing forms that are more uncanny than at all sexual. The work refers to the adolescent Bourgeois’ bewildered sense of jealousy of couples, the work taking to its logical extreme the perpetually-attached sensuality that comes so naturally to lovers and that sticks out like a sore thumb to the lonely and single. The work is not in the least arousing, but is one of the rare pieces that deal with the psychological experience of a desiring female body.
The only other work that deals directly with purely female sexual experience from a female perspective is kr buxey’s Requiem (2002). This video work, shown as a response to Warhol’s Blowjob, and depicts the artist, from head and shoulders up, experiencing the slow buildup to orgasm. Its monumental aspect is emphasised by the accompanying classical music, and the work is frankly sexual without succumbing to the visual language of pornography, largely thanks to buxey’s unglamorised appearance. It’s a strong work, but its importance in this context depends on its status in opposition to the wholesale glorification of a male sexual viewpoint.
Seduced, like any exhibition, cannot stand outside of the problems, freedoms, and sexual contradictions of contemporary liberal society, but it clearly exists as a vivid and multifaceted part of them.