Birmingham’s Museum and Art Gallery (BMAG) are exhibiting a show entitled “Coming Out” that runs from December 2nd to April 15th in celebration of the 50th anniversary of the decriminalisation of homosexuality.
Though I was sceptic of the exhibitions self proclamation of being “ground breaking and vital”, I entered BMAG’s Gas Hall feeling rather optimistic and open minded… and left feeling a bit let down. It’s hard not to have mixed feelings about an exhibition that appears to convey mixed messages. I truly wished to believe the exhibitions soul purpose was to educate the public about and celebrate the LGBT+ community, however, I struggle to see this as much more than a publicity stunt. Upon adverts are lists of artist names who’s work are displayed within the exhibition, all of which are gigantic names within the art community; however I do understand that it is necessary to include big names in order to receive a larger audience to witness the show. My issue lies within these names being the primary subject within the exhibition despite their irrelevancy to the subject matter.
Take, for example, Sarah Lucas, Andy Warhol, and Tracey Emin. These are the first works you see as you enter the gallery space…
Greeting you at the entrance is Sarah Lucas’ sculpture ‘Willy’, a gnome sculpture that has been crafted of cigarettes. Beneath lies a description of the work, and yet it’s only relevancy to the LGBT+ community is that it is “camp”. Despite being an aesthetic attention grabber, using artworks because they are “camp” feels as though the curators are dampening the severity of the struggles many LGBT+ people have faced in the past 50 years and beyond and comes across as somewhat offensive. Lucas’ work is not the only piece guilty of this within the exhibition either.
One of Andy Warhol’s Monroe prints hangs further back, though in immediate eyesight of the entrance. It’s common knowledge that Warhol was a homosexual, however, his artistic interests showed nothing of the sort and, arguably, he made no impact upon the LGBT+ community other than being a famous figure head. When there are works within the same space as impactful as Derek Jarman’s ‘Morphine’ (a 251.7 x 179 cm multimedia painting of raw emotion so expressive that it forces empathy from any audience) it comes across as wrong to simultaneously use works such as Andy Warhol’s. Personally, I find it just comes across as if they are using the artist simply as an advert because of his homosexuality rather than his talent. Again, another theme that frequents this exhibition.
The only piece that directly links to the aesthetics of the title of the show is a neon piece by Tracey Emin entitled ‘When I think of sex I think about men-women, dogs, lions, and group sex (and I love you all)’, placed above Warhol’s ‘Monroe’. At first it appears all inclusive, but becomes problematic when the latter half either refers to those humans as animals or quite bluntly refers to sex with animals. Then again, two years ago, this woman did marry a rock. Is this really the artist curators want to use to represent LGBT+?
Not a good start.
I went to the exhibition with some fine art students and noticed that (after reading the wall and deciding to observe the room in a clockwise manner as there was no obvious direction of where to go) the whole group managed to completely ignore the first two artworks. Unintentionally, of course, but they were far to distracted by the bright array of colours before them that they didn’t even notice the first two artworks- one of which was hidden away in a very uninviting, dark corridor that- according to the gallery volunteers- people avoided walking towards.
Following from there, we entered a section with the afore mentioned Derek Jarman placed among a collection of feminist based artworks. Of course, through queer theory, feminism can go hand in hand with the LGBT+ movement, but when looking closer at the years each piece was created, they were not in the same era that they joined forces. Feminism was a social issue entirely separate to LGBT+.
What’s more, almost everything feminist has been ironically placed on a pink wall. It’s almost as if the curators were making a childish joke out of this entire project.
This links us nicely into referring back to the “mixed messages” I mentioned at the beginning of this review. Much of the exhibition is childish. The bright colours, the scripture on the wall TAKE AND ADD IMAGE OF “HOW WOULD YOU DESCRIBE YOURSELF?” , the entire simplicity of the concept “past is bad, present is good”, and yet the exhibition deals with so many adult concept and imagery unsuitable for children such as violence and a lot of sex. I cannot grasp an idea of who this exhibition is aimed towards, and I don’t believe the curators could either.
Much of the work appeared to be sex for the sake of sex. Marvin Gaye Chetwynd’s large ‘Sexy Collages and Sexy Wallpaper”- like many others within this exhibition- is a great piece if placed anywhere but this exhibition. Each collage contains male and female sexual imagery and yet nothing to remotely suggest homosexuality. The vast majority of work that does refer to homosexual sex acts also refer to the HIV and aids epidemic, worded in their descriptions as if being gay were the cause of such an outbreak. In actual fact, it was largely a governmental issue, however this is a government funded exhibition, so it makes you wonder to what extent these are linked. Though I went in there with an eagerness to learn something new, I felt quite let down by the information I was given. Instead I was simply presented with some quotes on walls (that appeared more like statements due to their lack of quotation marks) such as “Heterosexuality is not normal, it’s just common”: truly enlightening.
Contradictory to what I have said, there are many artworks in this that are perfectly relevant and wonderful pieces, but you do have to filter these diamonds out of the rocks.