Seduced

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(319)

Barbican, London, until 27 January 2008

This exhibition, subtitled "Art and Sex from Antiquity to Now", includes some 300 works from a wide variety of periods and cultures. As well as Indian, Chinese and Japanese art, items range from the Greek and Roman periods to today.

Greek pots, for example, show men having sex with either women or male teenagers. Roman marble statues display erections. Meanwhile, the most recent exhibits address the impact of Aids.

Sex is far from being an unchanging biological phenomenon - people in different cultures experience sexuality very differently. And changes in social attitudes often mean that sex becomes a political question.

For example, 40 years ago the corporate-funded Barbican would never have dreamt of putting on such a show, and would have been prosecuted had they tried. For Seduced the cops went round in advance and gave everything the OK.

But debates about censorship continue. In September, Gateshead police seized photos by Nan Goldin, some of whose work is shown here. The exhibition also includes photos of gay S&M sex by Robert Mapplethorpe, which provoked a right wing backlash in the US.

Class also influences attitudes to sex. Part of the exhibition is taken from the "Secret Museum", a collection of over 400 sexual objects donated to the British Museum in 1856. The items were withheld from public display in case they corrupted women or working class people. Middle class men - whose superior education supposedly protected them from harm - could see the collection if they had the right connections.

There is so much variety here that you begin to question whether "sex" itself makes sense as a topic. A Japanese engraving of a woman embracing an octopus, a Roman wind chime in the form of a winged erection hung with bells and Victorian peep-shows don't all seem to depict quite the same thing.

Perhaps that reflects the biggest problem with the exhibition - all those genitals aren't located in a social context. I often wanted to know more about who had produced artworks, or where they were seen and by whom.

That absence of social context is perhaps connected to the general absence of work by women, apart from Nan Goldin's beautiful slides showing sex in the context of social and family life.

Despite these shortcomings, Seduced is a serious and fascinating exhibition. Works by many of the most famous artists are included here, including Rembrandt, Picasso and Turner. Well worth seeing.