The Institute of Sexology is a candid exploration of the most publicly discussed of private acts and is open until 20 September 2015. Sarah Jaffray gives us her insight into the new commission for the exhibition: introducing Neil Bartlett’s work, explaining how visitors can contribute, and talking about what a powerful experience it has been working on the project.
Meet Neil Bartlett: the artist, theatre director and author who would like to ask you a few (perhaps intensely) personal questions. Bartlett is interested in what people have to say about the intimate parts of their existence and in his special commission for the Institute of Sexology exhibition at Wellcome Collection, WOULD YOU MIND?, he does just that.
If you don’t mind answering 24 penetrating questions, fill out a questionnaire, slip it into an envelope and post into a box in the gallery, allowing the artist to use your words and statistics to become part of his installation. In the past few months, a lot of people haven’t minded at all: 6,571 people so far, to be exact.
Some simply answer “yes” or “no”, but most go in depth, sharing how they feel, what they’ve experienced and what their personal beliefs are. Some are raw and painful admissions, some are cheeky, some are filled with emojis and drawings of penises, but almost all, in some way, are engaging.
The provocative nature of the answers is due to the challenging nature of the questions. Initially all written by Bartlett, the 24 questions that comprise the questionnaire are replaced, one by one, each week by a question posed by one of our visitors. “Question 25” of the questionnaire invites participants to ask whatever they want and, each week, Bartlett chooses a question to replace one of his own. At the end of the commission, at the end of the exhibition, the questionnaire will be completely made up of public questions, creating a wholly public dialogue about sex.
Whether you fill in a questionnaire or not, by reading the quotes and statistics you become part of the work. Just like the questionnaires, the quotes remain anonymous, only the gender and the age of the respondent punctuate their words.
Selected quotes that have been submitted by the public can be read on a scrolling LED sign in the gallery. We’ve included some chosen by Neil Bartlett for the week of 6th April, 2015 throughout this post.
On average, 1,000 questionnaires are submitted each week. They are carefully numbered and read, mined for thought provoking and stimulating content by Bartlett in collaboration with four Wellcome Collection Visitor Experience Assistants (including myself). In the two months since the start of the project, we have seen some interesting patterns emerge:
Overwhelmingly both men and women are tired of “slut-shaming”;
Non-consensual sex, gender inequality and fear of admitting sexual preference have been the direct experience of far too many of the respondents;
Many visitors agree that monogamy is a social construct; and
On a less serious note, a huge number of people would like to travel back to Classical Greece or Rome to participate in an orgy.
As with all of Bartlett’s work, we run the gamut of human emotion. Humour mingles with despair, as much as pleasure and joy mixes with confusion and anxiety. It is sex after all: a basic human function with not so basic consequences.
To read the questionnaires feels at times like reading the confessions of a stranger: their hopes, their devastations, their desires, the cock-ups (pardon the pun). It has personally affected me, forcing me to consider certain aspects of my own sexual life. But, that is essentially the point of this work. By writing and sharing and reading about another’s sexuality, even anonymously, we learn about ourselves. The power of WOULD YOU MIND? lies in the fact that it unfolds as a dialogue rather than an instructive lesson: this is how sex should be.
The questionnaires are being archived and will be placed in Wellcome Library’s collection for posterity with the hope that researchers will be able to continue the discussion in the years to come.
If you want to be a part of the conversation, come visit The Institute of Sexology and complete a questionnaire. WOULD YOU MIND? can be found in the Archive section of the exhibition, until 20 September 2015.
Sarah is a Visitor Experience Assistant at Wellcome Collection.