On Friday, I discovered that I was in central London a little before lunchtime. Proximity suggested that I see the Institute of Sexology at the Wellcome Collection, even though it had only been open for a couple of weeks. It’s fortunate for them that Henry Wellcome’s obsessions were various and compendious. The show is marked at both the start and the end by strident ideologies, while there’s a stretch in the middle of attempts solely to describe. While it’s almost a dead cliché now to talk about the reality behind the familiar trope of Victorian stern prudery, it was instructive to see various contra-indicatory images and texts. It was remarkable the consistency with which some of the pioneers, such as Marie Stopes, were shown to have exercised the clarity they asked of others on themselves, in her case noting the fluctuations of her own physical ardours throughout the month. Her desire to record and index was echoed by the artist Caroline Schneemann, whose Ye Olde Sex Chart describes with startling frankness her sexual experiences, inspired by the end of a long relationship. The layout of the long strips of paper on the wall meant that groups of people kept reading the list, trying to decode it, then they’d reach the other end, find the key, and make that vocal noise of satisfied realisation, wondering at the person who inspired the summary “phallic devil king”. Having always been curious about Wilhelm Reich’s Orgone Accumulators, I was a bit disappointed to see that it looked rather small. That didn’t prevent some people from brief spells inside. I didn’t follow them around to see if they’d been vivified. From the expected references to Alex Comfort, it’s a jarring to see the 1980s AIDS information campaign, and the Tory government’s refusal to fund a national survey into sexual attitudes:
as one person said.
Apparently there is a chance of accidental encounters with unexpected participants, if you’re there during certain times (I wasn’t).
A short walk eastwards along Euston Road is the Crypt Gallery, which as I believe I’ve mentioned before often isn’t open when it’s supposed to be. This time, I could go in to see Koen Vanmechelen’s Darwin’s Dream. The piece at the entrance, artificial vegetation with a continuous, plaintive, fractured cry of a chicken, was in many ways the strongest, resounding as it did throughout the gallery. The shelves of stuffed chicken, each of them different breeds created by the artist, made me a little sad, while I kept returning to the reversed footage of him eating a whole chicken, a Time’s Arrow-like effect which was rather disturbing. I did like the illustrations of his cross-breeding lineages, with their polemical slant. The chopped-up chicken cry was in the background of all of these.
It wasn’t far to the Dairy Art Centre, the opening of which I think I remember hearing about on Front Row. At first I wasn’t very impressed with the works of Yoshitomo Nara for the show Greetings from a Place in my Heart, but there was a cumulative effect as I started to discern the variations in his obsessions and motifs, notably the extraordinary colours of the eyes and the patterning of the hair. An odd part of the experience here was that I was virtually the only person looking at the Art who wasn’t a young Japanese woman. They were mostly in pairs and groups, all taking pictures of each other. Clearly, many were committed fans, and some kind of expatriate grapevine had directed them there. They took photos of themselves standing in front of the entrance. In the comments book, people had written:
“I hate the cold weather in London but I love the art”
“It makes me want to go home and draw”
amongst many comments and doodles. Indeed, the book was almost completely full and some people were looking forward to seeing the show when it tours to other countries. It’s always good to see an artist you don’t know anything about and find something worthwhile there, and to see a whole subculture of appreciation, that persists irrespective of the public gaze.
The Courtauld Gallery is another of my regulars, and I went there next to see Jasper Johns Regrets, a single room of works based on an accident arising from a response to a photo of Lucien Freud. The image of a skull, created by Johns’ mirroring of the original photo, was very grumpy. The pleasure of this room is to see all the variations as Johns follows different paths from the source, and I was glad they’d bothered to provide somewhere to sit in the middle, the better to gaze and contemplate. The multiplicity of effects created by the ink on plastic technique of some of the pieces makes them elusive and rewarding. One of the larger renderings includes what looks like a tiny ceramic tile/mosaic effect, that appears to have been individually painted.
Attracting more attention currently at the Courtauld is the Egon Schiele: Radical Nude show. He had a few paintings in the National Gallery exhibition on Viennese art, but I’ve never seen anything only about him before. With Schiele you’re always talking about the disturbed, distorted limbs, whereas the revelation for me here was the haunted beauty of the faces, when he troubled to include such (many of these pieces are deliberately cropped to just a trunk). Seeing a single collection of his like this you’re also struck by the importance of the poses and arrangements of fingers, hands and feet, often very unnerving, and the startling colours, which seem to anticipate the pitilessness of Francis Bacon. If you stay long enough, then the crowding in the first room abates, and you can go back to those pieces which you struggled to see on first entering. There were a couple of husbands who appeared to have been dragged there by more bohemian spouses.
“But there you go”
concluded one – I didn’t hear what led up to this, but I’m sure it was dismissive. Another decided that one of the nudes
“Needs a good wash.”
There’s still another month to see all this and I think I’ll try to go again.