Monday, December 1, 2014

'The Institute of Sexology' at the Wellcome Collection

With its dull grey decor and formal atmosphere The Institute of Sexology is the epitome of 'just-the-facts-ma'am' seriousness.  This soberness makes for an interesting contrast with the subject matter; galleries of knobs, tits and fannies in various states of erotic arousal, most of them owned by people wrapped up in psycho-sexual knots. 

What the Wellcome Collection wants to emphasise is that sexology is a serious-minded, rigorous and important academic discipline.  They're absolutely right, but it's difficult to suppress a childish giggle when you're confronted by a Greco-Roman winged boner. It's this tug of war between high-minded academia and puerile sniggering that runs right through this exhibition, the snooty air almost daring you to make some immature joke.

 Masked man in pink tutu, from collection of Richard von Krafft-Ebing (1840-1902).
Covering just two and a bit rooms, the exhibition spans 150 years of sexological research. We begin with Victorian pioneers who stuck their toes into what they considered perversion, inversion and moral decay.  Perhaps the best example of this early work is Richard Freiherr von Krafft-Ebing's textbook Psychopathia Sexualis (a potentially truly great band name). This work, famous for popularising the terms masochism and sadism, is one of the first to catalogue fetishes and the spectrum of eroticism.  Krafft-Ebbing feared his work could be used for cheap titillation, so gave it a scientific sounding title and wrote parts in Latin, efforts that are neatly mirrored in this exhibitions efforts to remain respectable and educational.

From here we spiral up through the late Victorian and arrive in 'The Consulting Room', where we see the duelling philosophies of Sigmund Freud and Marie Stopes.  There's a simulated version of Freud's desk, populated by his totemic figurines and, my favourite, a bronze porcupine.  As far as analogies go I've always enjoyed 'The Porcupine's Dilemma'; to keep warm they must huddle together, but in doing so they risk jabbed by each other's spines - a neat summary of interpersonal relationships.  Freud's "the talking cure", involved solving a patient's sexual issues through a comprehensive mapping of their pasts, dreams and mind.

Marie Stopes birth control clinic in caravan, with nurse, late 1920s.
This couldn't be further from his contemporary Marie Stopes, who indignantly warned her patients to not “think about your subconscious mind all the filthiness of this psychoanalysis does unspeakable harm.”  Stopes is a fascinating character; described as an "feminist, eugenicist and paleobotanist".  Her mission in life was to lower birthrate among "undesirables" (i.e. the poor), which is, well, a bit disturbing.  But, from the worrying soil of class snobbery grew green shoots of contraception and unprudish sex advice for couples.

It's characters like Stopes that shine through in this exhibition; the idea of a fossil-hunting, feminist, eugenicist fastidiously recording her arousal levels appeals to me on some basic level.  Just past Stopes is a similarly magnificent project; a catalogue of all the men that a New York based artist, Carolee Schneemann, slept with over the course of a few years.  The men are rated for their skill, masochism, tenderness and the sounds they made when they came. This reducing of something as chaotic, fuzzy and sticky as sex into cold hard data is somehow intrinsically absurd: can you bake love into a pie chart?

Alfred Kinsey interviewing a woman.
The pinnacle of this was the exhaustive research undertaken by Dr Alfred Kinsey.  After a long period categorising millions of wasps (he eventually concluded that no two are exactly alike) he moved onto sex.  You can leaf through Kinsey's questionnaire and quickly understand just how he got thousands upon thousands of people to reveal the most personal details of their sex lives.  His method was like the famous example of boiling a frog i.e. to gradually raise the temperature so it cooks alive. One moment a Kinsey interviewee is talking about their first memory of a birthday, the next they're being asked whether they're had a dildo jammed up their arse (and if so what colour, size and make it was).

This compartmentalisation of sexuality into strictly defined categories is fascinating from a scientific point of view, but at some point you've got to ask: where's the love?  I had hoped this would come from the  exploration into the work of Wilhelm Reich.  He's one of my favourite loopy countercultural figures, becoming convinced in the 1940s that he has discovered a cosmic source of energy; orgone. Famously summarised as a mystical sexual energy, Reich built 'orgone accumulators'.  Here you get to sit in one.

I'd wanted to sit inside an orgone accumulator for years - particularly after watching the ace film W.R. Mysteries of the Organism.  Now the time finally came and, to be honest it was an anticlimax.  The accumulator is a foam-covered plywood box lined inside with sheet metal, the design supposedly able to draw down this aetheric energy and concentrate it in my body. Instead it felt much like being sat in a photobooth at a train station.  Oh well, maybe this stolid environment isn't a natural place for funky sex magic.

It'd be a lie to say that The Institute of Sexology isn't interesting.  It's carefully and rigorously designed to pack as much key information into this small gallery.  That said it's a cold and distant exhibition, one that all but demands you surrender your emotions at the door.  This absence of playfulness works against the eccentric aspects of characters like Reich, Stopes and Kinsey that populate the display cabinets.

It all adds up to an interesting but not particularly passionate (and certainly not sexy) experience.  But I suspect that's exactly what they were shooting for.

The Institute of Sexology is at the Wellcome Collection until 20 September 2015.  Free entry.

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