In parody of a Parisian strip-joint, the Barbican Art Gallery in London lures its bewitched clientele to its latest exhibit with whimsical promises and flirtatious provocation. The exhibit’s polished marketing is brazen and wantonly unashamed: the co-curator Martin Kemp invites us to ‘become a participant in the history and display of sexually explicit art’. Those enraptured by such tawdry snake oil are likely to be sadly disappointed. With hopes raised to lofty heights, patrons will leave with the glum faces of Pigalle punters exiting seedy dives. Thirsts unquenched, imaginations dampened, expectations sullied, they will puzzle at the hype surrounding Seduced: Art and Sex from Antiquity to Now. The exhibition is, to put it bluntly, both uninspired and stagnant.
It is not, I hasten to add, the works themselves that make for disappointment, for there are, without doubt, some very plump pickings. It is rather the mish-mash of juxtaposing the big beasts of fine art with wholly unrelated scraps of Persian, Indian and Chinese petty porn of the sort usually associated with a Berlin tourist-tat sex museum-cum-store. It is the cobbling together of kinky Tyrrhenian pottery and other tacky curiosities with the lush flamboyance of Boucher Rococo and the haunting symbolism and blurry dubiety of Francis Bacon. It is the woeful failure to discriminate between erotica, art, and pornography. It is also the lack of attention to the conditioning factors of space and époque, and a disregard for the way in which art is a mirror to the very society in which it was created. An exhibition should not be a mere catalogue or haphazard and arbitrary bundling together of some famous names with oodles of fuzzy padding and waffle in between. Reminiscent of the Barbican’s sanitisation and institutionalisation of Punk art in the previous exhibition Panic Attack, the Gallery’s current exhibit seems to sterilise sexuality by divorcing it from its iconic subversive and rebellious characteristics as a critique or veneration of society.
Upon entering the exhibition, one is confronted with a colossal plaster mould of the bronze fig leaf specially designed to cover up the titanesque member of Michelangelo’s David to render the statue appropriately modest for Queen Victoria’s viewing in 1857. Though faintly amusing, this piece sets the tone for an exhibition marred by trinkets and oddities. I advise art enthusiasts to stray from the prescribed path and head straight to the more juicy delights. Eyebrow-raising works include Boucher’s Leda, blissfully oblivious to her impending penetration by a swan’s stiff and streamline beak, and Titian’s exquisite Venus of Urbino, rumpled after play and dreaming lustfully following the departure of her lover. Picasso’s surprising contribution—(La Douleur, a blue-period painting of a wraithlike woman bent over the reclining young artist, ostensibly performing fellatio)—contrasts with some of his cubist eroticism and vagina dentata symbolism. Egon Schiele’s figures are as expected: gaunt, bony, bursting with pressure and pent-up force. Tracy Emin’s neon lights give a flicker of satisfaction to those who haven’t seen them before and who appreciate the fleeting beauty of an idea. Jeff Koon’s saccharine and syrupy glossed images of him and his former wife intimately entwined amid pinky, pearly butterflies aptly demonstrate the hyper-reality of sex as portrayed in the media. Meanwhile, Robert Mapplethorpe’s controversial fetish photos depict the ritualistic element in the transgression of taboo with almost De Sadean verve.
Much lionised is Warhol’s Blow Job–the silvery and ethereal facial expressions of a man receiving thirty-five minutes of fellatio captured on camera. In a drive to make art impersonal and mechanistic, Warhol’s 1960s ‘underground films’ involved running a second-hand 16mm Bolex until the cartridge ran out of film. The viewer is therefore trapped in a wishy-washy realm where the boundaries between reality and hyper-reality are smudged and dislocated. The atmosphere is strained and skittish as we wonder whether the pleasure is simulated or real, whether he will climax (the tape could of course run out), or whether he has perhaps already climaxed. The doubt is pervasive and gnawing. Pangs of uncertainty are sweeping and absolute.
At this point, I propose a trip to the less frequented but very fertile pastures of Tokyo. For it is there, in that post-modern paradise–a floating world of signs, simulation and pastiche–that seduction, art, and consumption converge in a glorious threesome. Exuberant porno-kitsch is the name of the game, wrapped and packaged in slick glossy planes, gentle pastel and fleshy tones, but underscored with sensations of rupture, alienation, and anxiety. In my mind it is here that modern art of a sexual nature is most revealing and potent. Desire and art melt into one and thus reflect the ambivalence of contemporary advanced-capitalist societies: simultaneous seduction and repulsion, playful innocence colliding with brute lust, disquiet, and triumphalism.
The epicentre of such atonal and harmonic consummation is Takashi Murakami’s artists’ collective Kaikai Ki Ki. Homing in on the puerile obsessions of rampant consumer culture, the collective spews out super-flat graphics of a character style derived from anime and manga. The art of Kaikai Ki Ki is like Neo-Warhol: low culture is raided, repackaged, and sold to the highest bidder in the high-art market. The subversive side of sex is then injected into the concoction so as to appeal and repel, reveal, and over-reveal.
Murakami’s hyper-sexed statues My Lonesome Cowboy and Hiropon–together a sort of post-modern Adam and Eve–perhaps best illustrate the subversive sexuality typically present in the work of Kaiki Ki Ki. ‘Adam’, complete with supersonic hair, spurts forth a lasso of ejaculate that levitates over his head defying gravity and the laws of physics. ‘Eve’, ever insipid and doe-eyed, is lactating and beams from beneath a cascading hula-hoop of breast milk. The proliferation of mushrooms around their feet alludes to both decadence and decay as well as to the toxic fallout of Hiroshima. Given that Eve has been stripped of her genitalia (her swollen mound is featureless) and that Adam’s unique talent is masturbation, we are induced to contemplate a society where people have become atomised and disconnected from one another, where the terror of AIDS looms dark, but where narcissism reigns high abetted by the forces of materialism, choice, and consumption.
Equally intriguing is the elusive Takahiro Fujiwara, a compatriot of Murakami and company, but fiercely independent. His vibrating Beans interactive installation invites the viewer to ‘become a participant in the history and display of sexually explicit art’ in a way the Barbican can only dream of. The tantalisingly bright and delicious colours connote innocence and infant play while the forms resemble dildos, adult toys and sex aids. Viewers are then presented with the somewhat unnerving choice of either publicly displaying the pleasures of the flesh by interacting with the machines, or alternatively assuming the role of voyeur by remaining glued to the shadows and watching others enjoy themselves from afar.
The Barbican prides itself on being the ‘the largest multi-arts centre in Europe’, and yes it does have a long and illustrious past. But prestige and size are not everything as the exhibition makes startlingly clear. Esteem is fluidly fickle, and so cautious immobility and aversion to risk can rapidly blemish a hard-won reputation. Squirreled away in the City of London, crammed between Newgate prison and the grey formality of the financial district, the Barbican is decidedly un-sexy. Nor do the confusing 1970s ‘brutalist’ structures of clumsily linked raw-concrete foyers do much to arouse. The Barbican is a hulking great pachyderm to the Tokyo art scene’s bold brashness and coquettish agility. Sadly this antithesis of form is mirrored by an equally stark contrast in terms of imagination and creativity. The Barbican has taken controversial subject matter and managed incredibly, to turn it into something stuffy and sterile through a mixture of pedestrian prudence and sheer unwillingness to adopt a stance.
Louis Haynes is a Paris-based image and brand strategist. He is currently reading for an MPhil in Modern Chinese Studies at Balliol College, Oxford. His current research is on turbo capitalism in Far East Asia.