Theo Gordon writes:
What is the pedagogical function of art? How can art communicate complicated information about, for example, developments in HIV treatment, or changes in sexual behaviour and epidemiology, to the public? And, perhaps more importantly, why might art be considered an appropriate channel for the dissemination of medical knowledge? In this review – of John Walter’s dazzling and fantastical Alien Sex Club (2015) in its latest installation as part of The Wellcome Collection’s Somewhere in Between exhibition (open in London until 27 August) – I cannot hope to answer these questions comprehensively. Yet I open with them because the text panel placed immediately outside the maze of Alien Sex Club explicitly designates Walter as ‘a translator of expert knowledge and specialist terms – viral load and pill burden – unpacking them in provocative and accessible ways.’ Speakers overhead relay excerpts from interviews with the artist and his collaborator Alison Rodger, a specialist in infectious disease at UCL whose innovative research into HIV inspired Walter’s project. In this audio recording Walter describes how Alien Sex Club was designed to inform the viewer about recent advances in knowledge about HIV transmission, notably the evidence in Rodger’s PARTNER study that an HIV-positive person with an undetectable viral load cannot transmit HIV to their sexual partner, a discovery which informs the current community campaign against stigma, ‘U = U’, or ‘Undetectable = Untransmittable’ (tell all of your friends). Such explicatory framing of Alien Sex Club, directly at its threshold, suggests that by the time the visitor leaves its dark corridors they will have gleaned this information for themselves, the pedagogical powers of art assured.
However, the encounter with the art itself exceeds and undoes any such expectation: in fact, I left feeling far from certain that I’d learned anything at all. And that’s the joy of Alien Sex Club. The installation consists of a labyrinth of dimly-lit passageways, wallpapered with the floorplans of gay saunas (another visitor helped me to identify Chariots Vauxhall), maps of London’s gay districts, and blown-up digital images of the HIV virus. These corridors are packed full of vibrant artworks in various media, one around every corner, waiting to draw the viewer in. A set of nine watercolour cartoons visualise slang metaphors in gay sex practices in strikingly literal terms: a man ‘suffering from crystal dick’ (a side effect of crystal meth use) sits forlorn with folded arms whilst his erect penis stands encrusted with blue crystals; in another a ‘bug chaser’ (someone deliberately seeking HIV infection through intercourse) is initiated through having the sign of a black arachnid grafted onto his eye by another man who turns his own already tattooed arse towards us. A wall poster lists a series of adjectives describing various aspects of HIV transmission and chemsex; transformed into word-art, these terms float de-contextualised in a brown field of balmy light. In the rear corridor of the installation are two stalls replicating sites for private fucking in a sauna; here each contains a video monitor showing two puppet avatars psychotically spouting snippets of polari. One wall shows a deck of giant tarot cards, featuring classical figures of hubris (such as the ‘novice’ Icarus falling to his death), alongside contemporary camp heroes Violet Crawley (‘Matriarchy’) and Dot Cotton, and the ‘ancestor’, Keith Haring. A digital print that visually quotes Caravaggio’s Boy with a Basket of Fruit re-appears throughout, his basket filling with the weight of history of HIV treatments and preventative methods. So much of the excessive, exuberant, and frequently fluorescent content of Alien Sex Club deliberately confounds the senses.
This is only a fraction of a playful display that invites the viewer to reconsider affectionately and humorously what they think they know about HIV and its effects. It does this by repetitively and wittily referencing fucking, gay culture and HIV experience past and present without stating any explicit message. Further wall texts dutifully explain how the artist has incorporated contemporary shifts in HIV culture into each component: hence Pill Burden (Caravaggio) is said to explore ‘the number of tablets that a person takes regularly. A high pill burden can make it difficult to adhere to an HIV treatment plan. The pill burden associated with HIV has reduced to a point where patients can be on just one pill per day.’ While this information is ‘Wellcome’, it cannot account for some of the more strangely affecting aspects of Walter’s work that make it so powerful. For example, the panel describes Pills, a vitrine of small sculptures, as ‘imaginary antiretroviral pills to manage HIV/AIDS’. Yet there is something incredibly moving about Walter’s small cubes of foam, whose slits and holes have been gently stuffed with little balls of clay. In their tender fullness and bathetic display, these works speak of a quiet eroticism and care that subtly permeates the rest of the exhibition. Could the take home message be, then, that reframing our collective knowledge of sexual practices and the epidemiology of HIV might be achieved with a humorous, affectionate and powerfully erotic practice of attention, rather than by dogmatically stating medical facts?
This is the largest showing of Alien Sex Club, which in its previous iterations at Ambika P3, London (2015), and at Homotopia Festival (2015) and the ‘Coming Out: Sexuality, Gender and Identity’ exhibition at the Walker Art Gallery (2017) in Liverpool, has been accompanied by live performance, readings of the tarot deck conducted by ‘Barbara Truvada’ and rapid HIV-testing, all of which added to its atmosphere of playful irreverence. This continues at The Wellcome – The London AIDS Histories and Cultures Festival 2018 held a night of tarot and talks in situ on 26 July – though I think the way that the installation of Alien Sex Club here so explicitly frames its purpose in terms of the transmission of explicit medical facts runs the risk of obscuring the celebration of multivalent non-sense that gives the work its provocative power. I came to this show with relatively informed knowledge of the experience of gay sex and of living with HIV in the UK today. It’s clear that the Wellcome’s explicatory text panels, and the situating of Alien Sex Club in a family friendly exhibition (n.b. the obligatory disclaimer: ‘this installation contains sexual content’), aim to inform those who are unfamiliar with HIV of the exact meaning of the terminology that Walter references. The irony is, then, that Walter’s art itself does none of the ‘explaining’ that the exhibition claims that it does. In fact, in its de-contextualisation of knowledge by literalising metaphors, its word-play, unexplained references to art history and pop culture, and exuberant artistic presence, Walter’s loud and tender work confounds any simple understanding of HIV. Alien Sex Club implies that if we are open to a compassionate practice of not-knowing, we could initiate transformative new discourses and affectionate practices of care whilst also neatly skewering moralism. Walter’s work shows that an understanding of artworks as merely directly descriptive tools fails to appreciate how their pedagogical effects are in fact far more oblique and interesting. Alien Sex Club reminds us of art’s persistent ability to undo the expectations and limitations that might be placed upon it, both in the medical humanities and our wider culture.
Theo Gordon is an independent art historian and writer based in London. He gained his PhD from The Courtauld Institute of Art in 2018, titled ‘Sex and Violence: A New Psychoanalysis of Art of the American AIDS Crisis’. His research crosses the boundaries of art history, psychoanalysis, activist histories and the medical humanities. He teaches at UCL.