Inside London’s Museum of Sex

Inside London’s Museum of Sex
For two days only a derelict house in south east London will become a hub of artwork exploring eroticism, sexuality, gender, and the body.

Last year, photographer and filmmaker Ezekiel spent some time inside the UK’s biggest gay sauna (or, as they like to call it, “gay Disneyland”) – a former army base situated on the edge of Northwich in Cheshire. Only accessible via car, the vast, brutalist building is a two-floor treasure trove of hedonism, boasting, yes, a sauna, steam room, and jacuzzi, but also playrooms, a glory hole corridor, and sex-free spaces to socialise in. The bi, trans, and couple-friendly sauna was established in 2005, but recently had a grand reopening, of sorts, after a part-refurbishment – and Ezekiel was there to capture it all.

“I somehow managed to weave my way into the space and make friends with the owner,” they explain. “She’s this lovely middle-aged mum who lives in Essex, and she let me come down for two days to shoot the open day. It was a really fun experience. And at the end of my shift, the manager was like, ‘Do you want to grab a towel?’, so I went out on my own, had my fun in the sauna, and took these amazing documentary photos of this insane world, which hasn’t really been documented in this time and age.”

Ezekiel

It’s serendipitous, then, that having documented this museum of sex, a handful of these intimate, ebullient photos – the full series of which Ezekiel, the creative director of photo project SMUT, hopes to one day turn into a photo book – are set to be displayed in their own Museum of Sex, an exhibition co-curated by SMUT and Duende, a non-profit, nomad gallery and publisher.

Running for two days only – from June 20-21 – the exhibition will be on display at Safehouse 1 in Peckham, south east London, and, alongside a peek into Ezekiel’s sauna project, will feature multimedia works from nine international artists, including filmmakers, painters, and ceramicists, all of whom explore themes of eroticism, sexuality, gender, and the body.

“The whole premise of SMUT is to shake up the erotic and art worlds, and to bring in new points of view, new talent, and to really spotlight things that aren’t necessarily through a white male gaze,” says Ezekiel. “And so with The Museum of Sex, I wanted to champion queer and trans artists, artists from the East and West, and generally those who are creating exciting work around sex and sexuality.”

Among the featured works are expressionist nudes by Italian artist Inès Michelotto, who paints her friends in the queer community; American artist Ion Birch’s surreal, dream-like drawings of cowboy boot-clad orgies and supersized dicks; collages by Ebun Sodipo, from the UK, who reappropriates found imagery to create a future for Black trans women by producing or excavating their history; and a film about rubber commodities by Singaporean artist Bart Seng Wen Long, whose work explores fetishism, which features what looks like a 3D rubber rendering of Boris Johnson’s head.

Inès Michelotto

This mix of beauty, eroticism, and absurdity is exactly what Ezekiel was striving for. “With SMUT, we try not to take ourselves too seriously,” they explain. “And we kind of poke fun at people in the art world who do so. It’s the same with sex, especially in the UK, to the point where everyone’s scared to talk about it or be open about it. Even now, we’re actually regressing, which is scary. So I wanted to include artists who had a sense of humour to their work; a wink, wink, nudge, nudge kind of thing. Sex is just quite funny, and it shouldn’t be taken so seriously.”

One of these artists is Urara Tsuchiya, a Japanese ceramicist, whose subversively kitsch works depict tiny, naked people, often engaged in some sort of sex act. Fittingly, the piece she’s displaying at The Museum of Sex is a ceramic sauna dollhouse. “I’m interested in the awkward and uncomfortable laughter that eroticism can bring,” she tells Huck. “Playfulness is something that makes it easier for people to engage. Also my works tend to be labour intensive, so I want to make something that’s funny to me.” Though, she admits, “it wears off after long hours working on it, but it’s nice if others can still find it funny”.

But while The Museum of Sex succeeds in having fun with what is ostensibly a fun topic, it also does take sex seriously, simply by showing it. At the heart of the exhibition is a determination to bring these artists and their work into the physical world, giving them a temporary respite from digital spaces that are increasingly policed, censored, and hostile to anyone who dares broach the topic of sex.

“We forget how sex is still to this day seen as corrupting and sinful for the masses, which makes our work more fun to explore, [but means we have] to be more creative in getting it seen,” says Tom Selmon, a London-based photographer and magazine editor, whose erotica film about the juxtaposition of inner play and naiveness and sexuality and self-pleasure will feature in the exhibition. “I wanted to be a part of this because I wanted my film to be seen outside of the internet realm. Especially when you’re working with erotica, that real life texture and sensuality is so important for audiences to get the full impact of what you’re trying to convey.”

You only need to look at the The Museum of Sex’s own poster, which is blurred to be social media friendly, as a stark example of the urgent need for IRL spaces to, as Ezekiel puts it, “fully experience and enjoy the erotic outside of our phones”.

“It’s scary that [social media] kind of guides people’s moral compasses on what’s right and wrong within the art world,” they add. “Some artists are too scared to make explicit or honest work because they’re scared that they’ll be banned or flagged for violating guidelines, which is insane. That shouldn’t stop you from making the sort of work that you want to make. But it’s hard because that’s where most of us have an audience and make our income.”

This is part of the reason that Duende makes for a logical partner. “We’ve always been about bringing emerging artists together and providing a platform to showcase their work,” says co-founder Sophie Hambling, who established Duende in 2017 with her partner Shahram Saadat. “Artists don’t always have the opportunity outside of the university sphere – it feels like it goes from university shows to established galleries, and there’s no in between. So we wanted to use ourselves and our network as a platform.”

Although Duende hasn’t explored the worlds of sex and eroticism before, Hambling hopes thatThe Museum of Sex will “shed light on what’s seen as a taboo world, and re-educate people about how art can be perceived and how it should be interacted with in a space”.

Jonny Kaye

Safehouse 1 – a derelict house with multiple rooms and levels – was partly chosen for its interactive possibilities. The cavities and corners of the space make you feel like you’re always discovering something new. “We’re showing people a new way of seeing sex,” says Ezekiel, “and they’re discovering whole new perspectives.” A nod to the New York cultural hub of the same name, the choosing of The Museum of Sex as the title of the exhibit is no accident. “I just think it’s a great way of encapsulating the different types of work that we have in one space,” they explain. “The idea was to curate the environment like a museum, where it invites you to walk around and really examine what’s on display.”

Offering an uninhibited view of sex, sexuality, and bodies, and inviting people to think and talk about these topics is especially important in the UK (and beyond) right now – not just at a time of suffocating online censorship, but also as more women are being investigated after abortions or even natural pregnancy loss, sex education and trans rights are under threat, and hate crimes against marginalised groups continue to rise.

“When things like this happen, our world kind of flourishes because we push against it,” says Ezekiel. “With queer culture in general, we push against anyone who’s trying to diminish us or bring us down. If we don’t fight back, it won’t get any better for us. So we’re doing this exhibition to normalise these conversations.”

Seriousness aside, which – remember! – is antithetical to the ethos of SMUT and The Museum of Sex, Ezekiel just wants people to have fun. “I want them to be like, ‘Wow, that was a really cool exhibition. I really enjoyed that curation and all the work I saw’,” they conclude. “I don’t want people to see this as something super serious; I want them to enjoy it.”

The Museum of Sex is on display 6pm-9pm June 20 and 12pm-7pm June 21 at Safehouse 1 in Peckham, south east London.

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