Does everything have to be about sex? Well, everything is sex. As queer people, kinsters, or self-proclaimed sexual deviants – do we see the world differently? And what does society have to say about this perspective? A lot of questions, some serious contemporary art and the joy of rubber and petrol smell from a local garage – all in one essay.
“Socks fit into open mouths, ripped vests stretch over pumped bodies and the taste of soft cotton and sweat; leaves a metallic taste. It’s a reminder of cold locker rooms, of formative experiences and former adolescence. The white sock hints a class kink fetish or not and the white vest – a history – the past of a gay relic and consequential prop”.
A few months ago, I went to see a show titled Waiting For The Sun To Kill Me by artist Jack O’Brien. The introduction above, written by the artist, sets a scene for a two-sculpture display at Ginny On Frederick gallery opposite the meat market in Farringdon. It's a tiled room with a floor-to-ceiling window, light bouncing off the smooth and cold cream-coloured surface. The sculptures are titled Lover – a roll of barbed wire hanging off a stretched white vest – and Drummer – dark-navy sports socks filled with hot wax and pieced with steel rods, and a cylindrical tube of fencing.
Looking at the sculptures, as much as being in the same space with them, evoked a sensation that was suddenly more visceral than your usual “looking at art”. There was tension – not unlike the erotic one – the inability to touch them and flashes of tactile memories the materials evoked. You could feel, somewhere at the back of your neck, that subtle recollection of the soft touch of cotton and prickly cold metal. In the elegance of elongated lines, there were desire, violence and fear, softness and intimacy – and things which are too ambiguous and muddled to put into words.
“The white vest in Lover is a garment that has long been associated with butch – and often working-class – queer masculinity and public sex. Its inclusion conveys the essence of cruising: a hunger to keep looking for the right person, the right image. Yet, the surrounding barbed wire instils an air of danger – as if to reach out and touch this haunted, queer relic is to expose yourself to violence as much as to intimacy,” wrote Sam Moore in the Frieze review titled Jack O’Brien Cruises for Ghosts. “These sculptures, ostensibly about desire and eroticized bodies, are – literally, physically – wrapped in the darkness and potential for violence that has informed the history of queer sex.”
O’Brien describes his works as “emotive, direct sculptures which consider the political and ideological histories of consumption and the production of desire”. To me, their direct and emotive impact is very much in how they shift perspective on your own way of seeing, on your own lens as a viewer which is determined by who you are – individually, socially and sexually.
It made me think that the world we perceive filters through our minds, senses, memories and sexual history. The latter, however, often remains invisible – just like the psychogeography of cruising often makes an invisible layer of urban space. But we all have it – a chain reaction of desire, pleasure and shame which fires up in our neural networks at a certain precise moment. For someone, it would be walking past a cruising spot: memories of the cold, the earthy smells, the utopian promise of public anonymous sex. It would be zipping up a latex catsuit for someone else: the heat, the sweat, the calming buzzing long and sweet sensation of it all over your body. Once you have experienced these things, they become part of who you are and, consequently, of how you see the world.
In that case, is sexual culture something we should or could be more aware of when engaging with things around us? And if this sexual culture is deemed alternative or even perverse by the mainstream society – could this mean new possibilities of vision as much as limitations?
One evening, I am getting dressed. I put a black mesh top on, and it slides down my neck softly. I stand there for a second trying to figure out what’s wrong – and then realise that it’s not mine. On the fabric, I can smell someone else’s sweat, rubber and latex dressing aid. I have to pause and absorb it, stay still as it distorts space and time. For a few moments, I exist between the temporal layers – the now and the flashback – as images from last week’s hot scene make my body feel relaxed and heavy.
I love to catch this moment of stillness, excitement which is hard to verbalise, the embodied recognition of memory. It happens when I walk past a garage and inhale the smell of rubber and petrol. When I’m at the meetings and the office smells so much of leather that I get wet. It adds an invisible layer to the environment, allows you to travel in time even, and often makes me think whether being a kinkster, a sexual deviant, a pervert – is, in fact, an alternative technology for perception.
It's been ten months since I started writing for this project. My main aim has been to produce some texts about contemporary BDSM – mostly for people in the community. In the process, I have realised that sex can be an entryway into talking about pretty much anything – and yet remain an incredibly marginalised part of our identity.
Does everything have to be about sex? Well, everything is sex. A beautiful leather coat is sex. Flowers is sex (that we’ve seen this countless times throughout the history of art). Alex Paganelli’s brioche for Bottega Veneta is definitely sex. Urban landscape is sex because it rules your fears, walking routes and uber pick up spots. Sex is cultural as much as it is physical. But in the age when sex is also a widely commodified product, does this eroticised way of looking at the world still have a radical potential?
I remember once doing an interview with Young Girl Reading Group project where they pointed out the idea of the cultural hierarchy on senses: how vision is the primary one and smell is often the most neglected. In their practice Dorota Gawęda and Eglė Kulbokaitė often incorporate scent – be it the synthesised smell of the haystack, or the scent of the performance itself. “The choreography is staged for the sensual experience of smelling the performance, and the performance actually makes the smell and captures it,” Gawęda explained in relation to YGRG159 SULK performance. “It’s interesting how the collection of smell is a bit like the collection of data, another area which could be potentially capitalised on, molecules becoming the same type of information as the text of image”.
In the way we consume, depict and narrate sex today, we most often rely on straightforward visual stimulation: the depiction of bodies fucking on your iPhone or laptop screen. Sexuality, of course, is much more complicated than this: it is not so much about how the body looks but the multitudes of sensations it carries. Any sexuality defined as "alternative" by the broader society – be it queerness, sadomasochism or fetishism – questions the idea of what sex looks like and what it means. It's an invitation not to take things for granted. It's the process of finding erotic sensations in the pockets of the unknown. In a similar way, Jack O’Brien’s work lacks the depiction of actual physical bodies. You’re left with no choice but to insert your body – with its histories, perversions, pains and joys – into the perception. Wherever this leads you, it's probably an interesting place.
1,2. Installation views of Jack O’Brien's exhibition Waiting For The Sun To Kill Me at Ginny on Frederick, London.
3. Latex in the rain, source unknown.
4. Watermelon sorbet with watermelon chilli kombucha coulis & chocolate oil by Alex Paganelli @deadhungry.