Monday, December 10, 2007


To the Barbican Centre, Silk Street, London, for the Seduced exhibition. There are those who call me Deviant Mark - what I deviate from is unclear - which I will happily accede to. I have had a liking for and an interest in erotica, smut, filth, porn, as you like it, since I was but a young one, and the Barbican currently kindly panders to my baser instincts by presenting a selection of the ages' greatest works of titillation, from ancient to modern.

One of the first factolets I picked up there was that the word 'pornography' comes from Ancient Greek, where 'pornographoi' ["Look at moi, Kimmy"] were artists who specialised in depicting acts performed by prostitutes. "I suppose someone has to..." I imagine one of them muttering grudgingly before picking up the paintbrush. It was applied as a backwards nod when used to name the 'gabinetto pornografico', one of the first 'secret hoards' of art deemed a bit racy for general display, in a museum somewhere, but as the whole notion of obscenity is entirely subjective, I'm not going to waste time debating the semantics of porn/erotica etc; porn is a great word, anyway. It rhymes with horn, for one.

Ever since humans first started depicting themselves, there seems to have been an interest in sex, and obviously so - keeps us going, what? Getting back to antiquity to set the scene, a lot of work on the ground floor of the show - with Andy Warhol film clips playing out overhead in a teaser trailer for the mezzanine - draws on Graeco-Roman material, either as source or as actual artifact. There was a stunning marble figure of an hermaphrodite, lying face down on the dias, head turned one way, with about the best ass I've seen on a bit of statuary, and a generous orb and sceptre of smooth marble at the front where you might not have expected it, should you have thought this was a simple unaugmented lassie. One of the nicest things [which you can't really see in this photo, which is from the web because the Barbican were for some indistinct reason not allowing photography] was the right foot, which was caught in the sheet and was clearly meant to suggest a sort of 'whoops! I've gone and exposed my nubile hermaphroditic form. Silly me. '

It was once owned by some Cardinal or other, who I fondly imagined used to spoon with it when the rest of the household had retired.

Another thing this shows about porn in days of yore was the willingness of artists to dip into myth for their inspiration, with the probably still held as true notion that something apparently basic has more worth if it's alluding to something a bit clever. Of the various depictions of the story of Leda and the Swan, one was lent to the exhibition by Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth, which prompted a number of unorthodox scenarios, in my head at least - such as QEII leafing through her stash going 'Not that one... not that one... [calls over shoulder] Phillip! Have you seen that one with the Swan in it?']

One of the funniest things about the exhibition was the expressions on people's faces as they moved between exhibits and as they paused in front of the next example from Greece, Renaissance Italy [the genius of Guido Romano, who created I modi [The positions]] or Ottoman Turkey - where people imported quite a lot of Arabic stroke-lit, including the fantastic Tuhfet Ul-Mulk, a Turkish translation of Ruju as-Shaykh ila sibah, which can be further mangled into 'A sheikh remembers his youth'... the potentate's antics included not only some classical sheikh-on-sultana action, but also this unambiguous plate:

'Tomorrow do thy worst...'

And so it went on, as we moved from Japan, China, the U.S.... The other visitors often seemed to have furrowed brows, maintaining total silence in the main, no one quite knowing whether 'Crikey, have you seen this?!' is the appropriate tone for a serious exhibition. Which it surely is - the correct tone, I mean, not a serious exhibition. Sex is ever so funny. I learned some elementary Japanese, such as 'Ehon warai jogo', roughly 'The Book of the laughing drinker' [my autobiography title], created by Kitagawa Utamaro in 1803, which had a picture in it of a woman about to entertain a cock of such preposterously singular dimensions that my companion L was driven to remark 'Good luck with that' as she meandered through to the Turkish section. A picture from the Studio of Gai Qi in the Chinese bit also had me in hysterics: three women help a rotund couple couple; at the back of the bloke an old lady, facing away from the artist, is really putting her back into pushing him forward unto the breach. Heave!

The global nature of the pics, slides, movies, sculpture etc makes it clear that "it" has always been all over the planet, and most often a source of fun, laughs, good times. Yet there were some places where deeper emotions came into play, Nan Goldin's affecting slideshow Heartbeat, for example, where a soundtrack of Björk singing an ejaculatory prayer - no, wait, stop! Those were the composer's words! It was very touching, er, moving, er... - underpins a series of 245 photographs, in sets of different couples, some gay and some straight, all in moments of intimacy [emotional and physical], and some suggesting absolute heartache in a single glance or hand on stomach. One interesting feature was the naturalness of the couples lying about, often with a kid in the shot, often with the kid the focus of the shot, a kind of eternal image, unions begetting the next generation, family life... little Eros hanging out with Venus and Mars... Some of the other ones had me welling up - tears from the eyes on my face, I should clarify - as I pondered the transience of what we call love.

One, ah, bum note in the collection was the kind of embarrassed Robert Mapplethorpe acknowledgment. All his S&M-inspired photos were in a glass case, which you had to lean right in close to see, and then you'd get the lights reflecting or your own face looming into view, which was far more horrifying, let me tell you. If was as if they were actively trying to make it a bit of a 'dark and seedy place'. The blurb by the door had a baffling line in it: 'What is depicted is difficult to look at.' Well, yeah - stick them on the wall and turn the lights up a bit, then we'd have no difficulties, cheers. It felt a bit like the curators were making a decision for us, at best disappointingly coy. An accompanying poem from Paul Schmidt said:
'Show me the mystery... give me my vision, let me confront it.'

Yet a few alcoves down was the equally controversial [and perhaps more disturbing] AND ever so well lit spectacle of Jeff Koons' Butt Red (Distance), featuring La Cicciolina, Ilona Staller, with Mr Koons in her bottom; mad backdrop, Koons in make up with a big quiff supported by a giant hand sculpture, he in turn supporting his then Missus, who as an ecstatic tongue to her teeth, eyes closed and a long red glove touching herself, red vinyl boots and a red vinyl basque as she straddles him and his bland look of encouragement. Totally narcissistic, but kind of funny and, dare I say it, hot. It seemed odd, however, that this apparently wasn't 'difficult to look at'. A nine foot acrylic screen print of a couple having anal sex in garish Technicolor. A black and white 8x10 photo of some one fisting an Other. Let's argue 'taste' here a moment...

So, a variety of muck from a variety of sources - a pornucopia, if you will. Remaining highlights for me included some Picasso sketches of Raphael et la fornarina, which brought in more referentiality - "It's a big art gang bang!" I wondered to no one in particular as the mirrorings and parallels and entwinements accrued, noting that obviously it's the same basic equipment, so it's often a matter of who's nodding at who, or what's going on in the background... like the slightly anomalous Pope who kept popping up in those pics. Hilarious. Does he represent the artist, the viewer of the picture, the voyeur, you? Me, I inferred, starting to feel a bit sexed out.

I mean up, who am I kidding? It was time to go, temperatures were rising. Pausing only to admire Marlene Dumas' (Like a) Chambermaid:

- need a hand with the bath there, miss? - I headed for the exit, over which Tracey Emin's pink neon "work" reads 'Is Anal Sex Legal? Is Legal Sex Anal?' in a kind of bizarro Dante-esque inversion which in turn provoked some questions, including one I have asked before - Is Pointless Tracey Emin? She's certainly a pain in the arse. No matter. The words of Woody [heh!] Allen occurred to me: "Is sex dirty? Only if it's done right."

And so to bed.

Books: The Trials of Oz by Tony Palmer, neat account of the obscenity trial of 1971 of the editors of Oz magazine, over their #28 'Kids Issue'. Music: Justice - heard them supporting Klaxons the other week, and love 'Stress' - the sound of Paul Morley having an aneurysm. Now that's sexy.

1 comment:

Matt said...

Smut is ace!