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Sex Exhibition Undresses Your Mind At The Wellcome Collection - ArtLyst Article image

Sex Exhibition Undresses Your Mind At The Wellcome Collection

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London's Wellcome Collection is planning one of the largest exhibitions ever mounted exploring the most publicly discussed of private acts with ‘The Institute of Sexology’ (20 November 2014 to 20 September 2015). This will be the first UK exhibition to bring together the pioneers of the study of sex. From Alfred Kinsey’s complex coded questionnaires to Samoan jewellery to sex machines, the show investigates how the diverse research, methods and collections of sexologists have shaped our ever-evolving attitudes towards sexual behaviour and identity.

Featuring over 200 objects spanning art, rare archival material, erotica, film, photography, medical artefacts and ethnography, the exhibition moves between pathologies of perversion and contested ideas of normality as sex is observed, analysed and questioned. This is the first exhibition in a £17.5 million expansion of Wellcome Collection and occupies a new gallery dedicated to year-long shows. ‘The Institute of Sexology’ will evolve during its run: new commissions, live events, discussions and performances within the gallery space will animate an exhibition designed around visitor contribution and reflective personal experience. The show will form part of a Sexology Season of activity across the country.

The exhibition follows key sexologists including Sigmund Freud, Marie Stopes, Alfred Kinsey, Wilhelm Reich, Magnus Hirschfeld, Margaret Mead, William Masters and Virginia Johnson, and the team behind the present-day National Survey of Sexual Attitudes and Lifestyles (Natsal). It traces the experiments and studies that lifted taboos in the pursuit of truths about sex and tells the remarkable personal stories of those whose questions made it a legitimate field for discussion and study. The show features works exploring sexual identity by artists including Zanele Muholi, John Stezaker, Sharon Hayes and Timothy Archibald. A new commission by Neil Bartlett will revisit the sex survey, celebrating and joining visitors with the hundreds of thousands of anonymous participants whose personal accounts underpin the study of sex.

'The Institute of Sexology’ is framed by named sites of research, from labs to living rooms. The sexologists in the show are all, at heart, collectors, whether of books, testimonies, erotica, photographs or statistics. The first section, ‘The Library’, highlights the systematic archiving and accumulation central to the craft, including objects from Henry Wellcome’s vast collection of erotica. Opening with the Nazi burning of archives amassed by Magnus Hirschfeld’s Institut für Sexualwissenschaft in Berlin, ‘The Library’ explores how Hirschfeld’s material on homosexuality, along with the library of sexual histories compiled by Havelock Ellis and the forensic legal cataloguing of sexual pathologies by Richard von Krafft-Ebing, were assembled squarely against prevailing social codes.

‘The Consulting Room’ brings together unlikely bedfellows in Sigmund Freud and Marie Stopes. Despite marked differences of approach and interest (Stopes warned of the harmful “filthiness of psychoanalysis” while campaigning for birth control and women’s sexual rights), both placed sex at the centre of their attempts to alleviate suffering and, through couch and clinic respectively, offered an intimate space of encounter which counselled sexual satisfaction as a key to human happiness. In Freud’s psychoanalytic practice and Stopes’s candid advice, the exhibition finds very different and influential paths towards freedom of sexual expression.

The work of Bronislaw Malinowski and Margaret Mead among Trobiand and Samoan peoples offered a striking and controversial corrective to the Victorian armchair anthropology which characterised these communities as primitive savages living in thrall to an impulsive nature. A section called ‘The Tent’ explores the wide influence of Malinowski and Mead’s conviction that the permissive sexual codes they encountered were an antidote to the deep-rooted anxieties attending sex in Western culture and served to highlight its repression of sex as a culturally determined experience.

‘The Classroom’ investigates Alfred Kinsey’s journey from entomologist exploring the infinite individuality of gall wasps to obsessive compiler of human sexual histories – some 18,000 by his death in 1956. With extensive material from the Kinsey archive, the exhibition traces his revelation of sexual variety in mainstream postwar America, his lionising of data and empirical research, and the explosive impact of his conclusions of sexual malleability at a time when sex was a barely mentionable subject.

While Kinsey’s work was enabled by his status as a conservative family man, Wilhelm Reich’s message of radical sexual liberation attracted enemies and acolytes in equal measure. ‘The Box’ looks at a hero of counterculture America and enemy of the state, hailed by the beat poets and pursued by the FDA, and includes an ‘orgone accumulator’ – the reflectively lined box Reich believed generated vital libidinous energy in those who sat inside it.

‘The Lab’ points to the bespoke laboratory William Masters and Virginia Johnson secretly established at Washington University to observe and record hundreds of individuals having sex. Their measurements of real-time physiology – heart rate, lubrication, blood pressure, brain activity, organ size – during stimulation and orgasm established the complexity and power of sexual experience, especially among women, and the exhibition explores how their findings and campaigns for gendered equality in climactic response fed into the zeitgeist of the 1960s sexual revolution.

The National Survey of Sexual Attitudes and Lifestyles (Natsal) took the study of sex into the home. Catalysed by the HIV/AIDS pandemic, the first survey, in 1990, sought to enable a sexual health strategy by understanding the sexual behaviour and beliefs of the population through in-home interviews. Two decades and three surveys on, Natsal gives unrivalled statistical insights into the changing attitudes and sexual experiences of the UK population. ‘The Home’ scrutinises the developing methodologies and techniques of contemporary sexologists, alongside the results of the Natsal surveys, and casts light on their own personal beliefs and motivations for research.

Kate Forde, curator, says: “‘The Institute of Sexology’ offers a complex, often contradictory story of the study of sex, and highlights the profound effect that the gathering and analysis of information can have in changing attitudes about the human condition. The exhibition presents typed diagnoses alongside handmade campaign material, scientific charts next to handwritten testimonies. But all are caught up in attempts to free us from the tyranny of preconceived ideas about sex, and suggest that our understanding about our sexual identities is a story of constant evolution.”

Ken Arnold, Head of Public Programmes at Wellcome Collection, says: “This exhibition is the first of our longer-form shows that provide an opportunity to evolve our exploration of a wide-ranging subject over more time and in greater depth than is usual for museums and galleries. In this, and future projects presented in the same gallery, we will experiment with the idea of carrying on curating an exhibition after it has been launched, making live interventions through performance and events, and learning from being open to the public. We hope that ‘The Institute of Sexology’ will become a living repository for visitors’ stories, inspiring debate and self-reflection on this most fascinating and vital of topics.”

‘The Institute of Sexology’ runs from 20 November 2014 to 13 September 2015 at Wellcome Collection, 183 Euston Road, London NW1 2BE. It is part of the Sexology Season from Wellcome Collection, which includes an illustrated publication, digital commissions and events within the exhibition and at partner venues and festivals across the country.

The Institute of Sexology: Wellcome Trust  20 November 2014 -  20 September 2015

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