Let’s Talk About Sex:
Keywords Lecture at Tate Liverpool

For 2014′s Keywords exhibition, Tate Liverpool and Iniva have programmed a year long series of accompanying lectures…

In 1976, Raymond Williams’ book, Keywords: A Vocabulary of Culture and Society, was published. In it, Williams sets out to explore the history of – and in so doing demystify – more than 100 English language words (Culture and Art amongst them) which manage to be at once familiar and bewildering.

Taking a cultural rather than etymological approach to this lexicon, through his research Williams found that it wasn’t solely a word’s origin that shed light on its eventual meaning; culture, for example – for him one of the most complicated words in the English language – began life in English thus: “husbandry, the tending of natural growth.” Of course, while this definition continues to lend itself correctly to English, it is perhaps no longer the one we’d leap to first.

Indeed, the legacy of a word’s original use continues to be employed to populate the dictionary to this day. A crucial aspect of modern economies – and culture for that matter – is consumption, i.e., the buying of goods. Take a look at the Oxford English Dictionary definition however and its historical use is still given primacy: “eat, drink, or ingest (food or drink)/ (of a fire) completely destroy.” We’d hazard a guess that’s exactly the type of confusion which first motivated Williams’ undertaking, and continues to inspire others to this day.

“Little wonder that it has spilled over into the world of contemporary art”

Little wonder then that it has spilled over into the world of contemporary art, leading to a collaboration between the Institute of International Visual Arts (Iniva) and Tate Liverpool (indeed, the only real surprise is that it hasn’t been given such prominent analysis sooner).

The resulting exhibition expands on “Williams’ studies of words into three-dimensional form, interrogating … their meaning through art”. Running until 18 May at Iniva and arriving at Tate Liverpool in February next year, a series of lectures by artists, musicians, theorists, novelists and poets aim to “consider which Keywords are of particular relevance for culture and society today”.

Already underway, the programming of the lectures seems to have been approached in a no-holds-barred manner, especially judging by the talk earlier this month, in which Professor Douglas Crimp grappled with the word Theory. No biggie. The next hot potato in the series will be Sex, “and the ‘place’ [it] holds in our culture”. Tackling what the word means today (over-sexualised tweens and all perhaps) will be author and literary theorist Leo Bersani.

Professor Emeritus of French at the University of California, Berkeley, and with works covering sexuality, psychoanalysis and visual art (Homos, Intimacies and most lately, Is The Rectum a Grave? And Other Essays amongst them) Bersani seems almost uniquely – both intellectually and otherwise – well-placed to tackle this, potentially at least, most thorny of subjects.

Looking at the intersections of sexuality, psychoanalysis, and aesthetics – for Bersani, art is a crucial factor in connecting with the world – and drawing on thinkers from Sigmund Freud to Michel Foucault, the potential pitfall of taking the cheap opportunity of guaranteeing decent footfall by virtue of title alone has been deftly sidestepped here in favour of booking a thinker of international renown.

If any further incentive were needed, with the exhibition curators in attendance and “an opportunity for attendees to actively engage and share their thoughts” with a view to potentially shaping the final Tate Liverpool incarnation of the exhibition, the Keywords Lectures will be going in our diaries.

Sex: a keywords lecture with Leo Bersani Thursday 9th May 7pm @ LEAF on Water Street

Posted on 29/04/2013 by thedoublenegative