Read all about it

The online diary of an ethical pervert.

Monday, 12 October 2009

Wax venus

Arranged a trip for a bunch of local perverts to go around the Exquisite Bodies exhibit at the Wellcome Collection. Ended up just being myself and Knight of Wands, which ended up suiting me just fine, as it turned out. I also cannot recommend the attached bookshop enough - stacks and stacks of volumes on subjects such as hysteria, prostitution in Victorian England, the history of sex and sexuality. I felt as if a lot of instructive reading could take place there and now at least have a useful outlet for those random book tokens I still get on high days and holidays.

We caught up a little over coffee and cake whilst waiting to see if anyone else would show - he commented that all of the things I've talked about in recent posts were totally at odds with his own life view so it was interesting to get a reasonably impartial (at least, outwith my own relationship) viewpoint on the whole poly break-up thing. It's a needs and wants problem, or a definition problem - the meaning of words like "love", "commitment", "special" and "together". We discussed the whole winning and losing scenario, he doesn't see it in the same light as I do and, doubtless, neither does The Photographer, but then everyone wins and loses on their own terms. We didn't go over anything I didn't know or didn't discuss, but batted about the whys and wherefores until they'd grown cold with the coffee on the table.

Then it was on to the displays. I am always intrigued by any exhibition which claims to shock or provoke a response, especially one with a message that you might find it "disturbing". Wax models, in the main, but also some old medical text books with lift up flaps revealing intricate and beautifully drawn internal organs. The fact that most of the exposed corpses were female came as no surprise. The saving grace of many of these models in an age of worries over moral decline was the association of artistry in their creation and many were beautiful - disconcertingly passive, but beautiful. Images and representations of beautiful, passive, naked women have long been a mainstay of art and it was only the perfectly constructed lungs and lights, open for all to see, that differentiated them from any number of traditional gallery exhibits. There was sexuality in their exposure, no doubt about it - lips were parted and in some cases legs too, a slight bend of the knee indicating a casually erotic pose of a woman at rest, assured in everything that she revealed. Yet, at the same time, unresisting and unresponsive. These were models made to be viewed and touched - to have their innermost parts taken out and put back, turned over in (men's) hands and replaced. It speaks volumes about our (hopefully) historic associations of femininity that the models were female and not male.

There were male parts, and literally parts. Torsos, hands and arms, no full, naked body revealing itself to the viewer. Then there was another section, hid coyly behind a red velvet curtain with the instruction that some viewers may be offended at what they might see. Like peeping toms we parted the cloth to see wax representations of diseased penises and vaginae. Squat, square partial models, taking the hips as a frame. No faces here, lest we connect menfolk with exposure or such accommodating sexuality. Why hid the penis, I wondered? A touch of showmanship rather than outright prudery? Certainly the exhibition was set up with the allure of the circus freak show, which many of the models on display at some point ended up being a part of, there were unusual physiologies on display alongside the normative, airbrushed Venuses. Maybe it was the diseases that were being kept out of sight rather than the genitalia, for wherever you looked smooth, healthy cunts were on display for all to see. But no healthy penises. Sadly, I had to admit that it might simply be the ongoing assumption that somehow the naked penis is more of a shock / important sight than the naked cunt.

My favourite was a 19th century British piece. A wax Venus, but unlike the older, Italian models this one was not blandly staring. The wax skin had a tinge of green to it and the organs, rather than being in perfectly tessellating pastel blocks of pink and lilac were muddy and livid, spilling out from her stomach where the skin had been peeled back. She looked real. She looked like a corpse. Her eyes were closed and her mouth drooped, revealing bad teeth. She was not sexy, like the others, but she did stand out. This was no doctor's barbie doll, but an attempt to give a realistic version of death and the body.

I'd have been interested in getting a feel for other viewpoints on the displays. I'd be especially interested in restaging it - with boys as well as girls, and someone to give a proper anatomy lesson. I absolutely found some of the pieces erotic, no doubt about that, falling firmly into all of my push-button points like objectification, exhibitionism, passive dolls and objects d'art. I also found it a little strange and slightly grotesque (from which derives the eroticism I believe - had it just been pretty it would have remained exactly that, but the aura surrounding it and the context made it genuinely erotic). I also like the idea that for some people, current and contemporary to the pieces themselves, these items would have been revealing, shocking, daring and perhaps even both beautiful and disgusting.

No comments: