Seduced: Art and Sex from Antiquity to Now, Barbican Art Gallery, 12 October- 27 January.
Sinead McCarthy, October 2007.
There is a promise of ‘sex in art through the ages.’ The exhibition features over 300 works spanning 2000 years. The Barbican have taken on an ambitious and controversial task. I intend to see whether they succeed.
Upon entering the space, one is immediately aware of the cries of synthesised sexual interplay. The curators are certainly setting the scene for a sensory imposition. As the exhibition space is navigated there is a definite impression that justification is key. The walls are heavily annotated with explanations prior to entering a new space and then on the wall within the new space. This didactic approach seems understandable in regard to how they have installed the pieces. The work, predominantly showing the phallus and various modes of sexual acts has been cautiously juxtaposed with explanation after historical contextualized explanation.
The subject of sex and the idea that this is an uncensored look at sex, combined with how it has been depicted, and how that has changed throughout history is not an interesting idea. It is rather obvious and at times repetitive. The exhibition holds far too varied work. The template and mission of the curators has been overly ambitious. . The work and the accompanying explanations are far too dense. The eras are shown in order to illustrate the history of eastern and western arts and their contrasting depictions of sex acts. The works lose resonance by being installed in such a way. The Barbican have chosen to attempt ‘shock’ in a historical navigation over 2000 years worth of work. The curators have decided to produce an exhibition that is doing the work for the viewer and making it appropriate to gaze upon the inappropriate. This is a mistake.
The only way that this situation could have been rectified and for this exhibition to vaguely work would have been for the curators not to have installed it chronologically. They are not giving the viewer enough credit. The entrance to the exhibition had the right idea; a video from Chris Cunningham juxtaposed with the work of the Greeks and Romans; the parallels within each of the works and great contrasts make the pieces more instinctual and sensory. The introductory text conveys an interest in the sensual side of the depiction of sex in art. The chronological, historically organized layout fails to deliver on this and loses the beauty and interest that could have been gained from the exhibition. In order for this exhibition to offer the viewer a valuable experience, the work needed to be positioned in such an instinctual and punctuated way. Placing Louise Bourgois’ ‘Couples’ amongst the Greek statues at the beginning of the show could have looked amazing. If only the curators could have seized this opportunity then there may have been scope for seduction.