Seduced: Art and Sex at the Barbican


12 Monday 12th November 2007

It can’t have escaped you that the Church has been squabbling a lot lately. It is tearing itself apart on the issue of what people - especially priests - do with their bodies. It’s all about sex. It may seem strange to you that something so fun is such a serious issue for some religious types. Is it only repressed people that are obsessed with sex?

It would be easy to presume so. But the sex subject is only causing so much scandal because of how central sex is to our human nature. There is no escaping it, no matter how hard you try. Sex is a bit like God: always present, just waiting (sometimes quietly, sometimes not) to be noticed.

I wasn’t surprised to see people doing double takes at me when I went to the Barbican’s Seduced exhibition. A Vicar going to look at explicit pictures of naked bodies?! I could see them blush at the mere thought. Vicars have tea and smile sweetly at strangers; they know nothing about art, and even less about sex.

I spend half my week working as a Chaplain in two world-class arts colleges. The rest of my time is spent discussing wedding plans with couples who are literally burning with desire. I sit with the dying whose days of fleshy glory are a faded memory. I listen to couples breaking up. And I seem to talk quite a lot about God who became flesh… so the flesh is a major theme in my work.

The Seduced exhibition explores the representation of sex in art throughout the ages. Sex is ancient. Sex is universal. And still it fascinates and obsesses us. Some might say that all art has something of the erotic in it, even the most abstract. But you have to be 18 to get into this exhibition. There is no Great British reserve here, so don’t take your great aunt… please.

Even the classical art displayed here might raise a few eyebrows. But we know how comfortable those Greeks were with their bodies. Some of the stuff is so raunchy that the traditionalists at the British Museum who own it have been too prudish to ever show it. The stash has been hidden away since 1856 but here it is proudly displayed: phalluses, rude rings and drawings for all to snigger at like school boys. It is ridiculous that these rude rarities are not on permanent display.

But it was the modern art that interested me most. Nan Golding’s offering is a series of slides showing first a gay couple, then a man and a woman making love. It is very voyeuristic but somehow a world away from the evil image of pornography (the real meaning of the word).

The accompanying music is by composer John Tavener. It is based on a well known prayer called The Head Prayer. “Lord Jesus Christ Son of God have mercy on me,” is repeated again and again by Björk. It is a mesmerising, ethereal experience. Sex is elevated to the realm of Holy and life-affirming activities… the place it deserves.

There is also a video by LK Buxey which shows a woman climaxing at the high-point of Fauré’s Requiem. How nice to see sex and God as happy bedfellows.

A Picasso is shown here for the first time ever. It is a self-portrait of him as a boy being orally pleasured. I wonder whether it’s never been shown because it’s just not a good work of art? By comparison Klimt’s drawings are unsurprisingly beautiful. A Schiele drawing exposes female genetalia in its magnificent but unflattering splendour. But still, I wasn’t shocked.

Then I saw Robert Mapplethorpe’s famous S&M photos… and I was shocked. But then most people would be. Oli the photographer was visibly shaken. But that was the whole point of Mapplethorpe's pictures. Jeff Koon’s massive pieces were also created to shock the MOR gang in suburbia. They were intentionally gaudy images of a woman and a man getting it on. Like a lot of contemporary art, it was a good idea but it was just bad, and ugly.

I came away feeling not dirty, not titillated, but glad that the Barbican had the guts to put this collection of art together. It’s not like going down to Soho to get an erotic quick kick. It’s not even such an erotic experience. It’s a pleasing reminder of how sex – like God - never goes away.

The Revd Jennie Hogan

Chaplain at Chelsea College of Art & Design, and Camberwell College of Art, Priest at All Hallows by the Tower, London.

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