It is that which we should eschew before marriage and participate in only after tying the knot, and even then only to procreate and not for pleasure. We are told not to look, not to touch and certainly not to do. Growing up, sex is often a topic shrouded in mystery, presenting itself in various guises that can leave one confused. For children of the 80s, television and cinema were poor sex ed teachers using flowers rubbing against each other, shaking palm trees and striking lightening as confusing class room aids. Contraband Penthouse and Playboys smuggled in to school bathrooms were more amusing than enlightening and the advent of VHS and satellite television found my pre-teen self and sister instructed to cover our eyes when confronted with scenes of a violent or sexual nature. Of course I would follow my parent’s orders but like most other children my age, curiosity would get the better of me and I would peer through the tiny cracks between my fingers and guiltily watch what was taboo.
It’s funny how that feeling of guilt can lie dormant for so many years, only to resurface when I purchased my ticket for the Barbican’s exhibition Seduced: Art and Sex from Antiquity to Now. The fact that I was asked to provide ID for a show meant for those over 18 years did not help assuage these feelings. I was 13 all over again. Having proved I was indeed old enough to vote, buy alcohol and view sexually explicit art, I embarked on a two hour long journey through sculpture, ceramics, paintings, photography, audio and video installations that covered over 2000 years of sex from Ancient Greece to present day Manhattan.
As I entered the first viewing gallery I was assailed with anxieties - what would other people think – a single woman at an exhibition about sex? A pervert surely. How much time should I spend studying a ceramic plate that depicted a Grecian man fondling his young male lover? But then such questions of propriety seemed misplaced in this no holds barred look at sex and my fears slipped away as I observed the air with which the other visitors approached the exhibition. A German man described the marble sculpture Sleeping Hermaphrodite from the Galleria Borghese in Rome to his companions with a scholarly air, two female pensioners discussed in detail the merits of late 15th century paintings that explored divine and mythological love and others wandered about in curiosity. In retrospect, sharing that space with a group of strangers was much easier than doing so with a group of friends.
From brooches measuring no more than an inch in length and breadth to Jeff Koons’ iconic blow ups, size most certainly did not matter here. The exhibition’s 300 pieces were divided chronologically and thematically, starting off with a large cast of a fig leaf commissioned especially to cover the modesty of Michelangelo’s David to spare Queen Victoria any embarrassment during a private viewing. It was perhaps the most innocuous of the lot.
The section Under Lock and Key looked at how our predecessors reacted to what they perceived as obscene. Works from the Gabinetto Segreto (Secret Cabinet) in the Archaeological Museum at Naples and the former Secretum in the British Museum were on display in this section and included an 18th century Arabic manuscript illustrating 10 men having rather innovative group sex, phallic pendants made of amber and a tintinnabulum (bronze windchime) that featured a winged phallus. I must admit that it took me a good five minutes before I could figure out why the piece was included in the exhibition at all, so artfully incorporated was the organ in flight. While the Ancient Romans seemed to openly embrace sexual acts of all kinds, works excavated from the ruins of Pompeii and Herculaneum were deemed too explicit for prevailing sensibilities. Those sent to Public and Private collections were placed under restricted access so that ‘the eyes of the innocent (women and children) and the corruptible (those lacking education and social standing)’ were shielded. It’s funny how all these years later and such decisions are still being taken by the moral police on behalf of the public.
What’s an exhibition on sexuality without a look at Mughal Miniatures and some mention of the Kamasutra? Though after watching Andy Warhol’s Blowjob, there was something almost blasé and detached about the expressions on the faces of the Mughal men and women participating in the rather acrobatic unions. Though the detailing was exquisite the images appeared antiseptic and asexual to me. In stark contrast, the Japanese Woodblock prints or Shunga works on display in the adjacent room portrayed the sexual act in detail: enlarged and engorged forcing a far more visceral reaction from the viewer.
The exhibition also charts the advent of photography and its impact. Some images required viewing through special two eyed apparatus embedded in the wall and tapped into one’s inner voyeur. The video and photo installations on the second level brought out similar feelings, heightened by darkened corridors and piped in choral music, the strains of which could still be heard when viewing Robert Mapplethorpe’s portrayals of bondage and Nobuyoshi Araki’s series on sexual organs. These last two rooms were definitely not for the faint hearted. For those with more subtle preferences, the fluid lines of Gustav Klimt’s sketches and Rodin’s watercolours were of a more intimate nature while a series of tenderly erotic sketches by JMW Turner’s showed that even the most respectable of landscape artists had sex on their minds.
Some could ask what is the point of an exhibition like Seduced. Titillation aside, what purpose does it serve? Isn’t it obscene and vulgar? Personally, the exhibition made me think about why we accept explicit music videos with a shrug but shut down art exhibitions like Clits, Tits n Elephant Dicks at the Jehangir Art Gallery on grounds of obscenity. I was forced to confront my own feelings, pre conceived notions and moral judgements about sex and what is right and what is wrong. Graphic as it was, Seduced was an open, mature look at one of the most basic and beautiful of human acts. Intimate, discomforting, explicit, subtle, arousing and shocking. A lot like sex itself really.
An edited version of this appeared in the arts section of today's NewIndpress Sunday Magazine.