London’s Wellcome Collection Examines Sex

Photographer Timothy Archibald spent three years traveling around the United States photographing men who built their own sex machines. At first Archibald suspected the makers would be disaffected, but he quickly discovered his subjects were deeply heartfelt; often the machines were gifts for their partners. One man is photographed cuddling his wife beside his invention, “The Monkey Rocker.” Archibald says, “I wanted to let men tell their story about trying to navigate sex and relationships.”

The photographs call into question viewers’ preconceived ideas about sex and sexuality, and that’s precisely the goal of “The Institute of Sexology,” the first exhibition at the newly expanded Wellcome Collection in London, on view beginning November 20.

A still from Neil Bartlett’s Pedagogue, 1988. Clearly ready for his close-up.©NEIL BARTLETT/COURTESY THE ARTIST AND LUX, LONDON.

A still from Neil Bartlett’s Pedagogue, 1988. Clearly ready for his close-up.


With more than 200 objects, the exhibition explores the impact of key sexologists, such as Sigmund Freud, Margaret Mead, and Alfred Kinsey. Contemporary art that deals with sex and sexual identity is intermingled with medical artifacts, archival material, and erotica. “The history of sex research is not a progressive march toward enlightenment, and contemporary art interrupts that narrative,” says co-curator Honor Beddard.

The beginning of the exhibition, which looks at early sexologists and tolerance toward sexual minorities, includes more than 20 of Zanele Muholi’s portraits of black lesbians in post-apartheid South Africa. The photos are a response to discrimination and violence against these women, and the subjects gaze directly and proudly into the camera.

In the video Pedagogue (1988), a leather-clad Neil Bartlett pokes fun at Section 28, a UK law of the late ’80s that banned the promotion of homosexuality in schools (it was later repealed). “This show is really about everything but sex—politics, gender, morality,” Beddard says.

The exhibition also includes works by John Stezaker, Sharon Hayes, and Carolee Schneemann. A new commission by Bartlett will reinvent the sex survey, allowing visitors to add to the countless personal stories that support the study of sex. As Beddard says, “When it comes to sex, everybody’s something of an expert.”

A version of this story originally appeared in the November 2014 issue of ARTnews on page 42 under the title “Lover’s Discourse.”

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