Welcome to the club

Artist John Walter creates exuberant, ‘maximalist’ art installations packed full of imagery, ideas and live performances, usually centred around a bar. His latest show, Alien Sex Club, tackles a serious subject – HIV and sexual health testing — but with a smile. By Eliza Williams

(Above: Photo of ‘Turn My Oyster Up’, Walter’s installation for the 2014 Whitstable Biennale)

Inspired by a mix of everything from gay sex clubs to cabaret theatre, Grindr to HIV, Alien Sex Club is a large-scale art installation by John Walter, which will be on show at Ambika P3 Gallery in London in July and August and later this year at the Homotopia Festival in Liverpool.

At the centre of the space is a ‘cruise maze’ – a structure common to sex clubs and gay saunas – which will lead viewers through the exhibition, where they can view paintings, sculptures and video artworks and also visit a bar and have their Tarot read. The idea for the installation was first sparked by Walter’s excursions to gay clubs in London and the heightened performance of these experiences – “you go in, put all your clothes in a bag and pay £5 and you’re just wearing your shoes and socks and you’re walking around and then it’s just a free-for-all,” he says – and, in an arty echo of these clubs, there will be opportunities for visitors to take part in the work, or be a voyeur.

Set of Tarot cards, created for the Alien Sex Club exhibition
Set of Tarot cards, created for the Alien Sex Club exhibition

Fear not though, for while a strong element of performance is central to the work – Walter wants viewers to feel that they are entering a world, and be fully immersed into it – the intention is not to intimidate or make people uncomfortable. In fact, quite the opposite – Walter uses performance to be hospitable and spark conversations. The bartenders will act as semi-guides for the exhibition, for example, with visitors encouraged to hang out and chat. “If you say that there is a performance going on, people worry,” says Walter. “Then when they get to it, they realise I’m not naked and there’s not some awful body piercing thing going on, and that actually they’re being offered a drink and a cake. Then they’re enjoying themselves, which is when you’ve got them in the palm of your hand – that’s when you can do the work.”

The work, for Walter, is about the communication of his ideas, which include an exploration into our contemporary attitudes towards sexual health, specifically HIV, and also questions about the art world and its quirks and limitations. Walter has worked with Dr Alison Rodger, a lecturer at UCL London and a specialist in HIV, in his research for Alien Sex Club, and the exhibition will include free rapid HIV testing, hosted by the Terrence Higgins Trust. While there is a strong element of humour and cheekiness to much of Walter’s work, the testing is presented seriously and with respect, and with it Walter sees the exhibition extending into political activism. “It felt right to do it here, because it’s what the show is talking about it and it seemed like we should talk about it upfront,” he says.

 The Department of Ritual Objects installation, 2014
The Department of Ritual Objects installation, 2014

Part of the point of including the testing is to normalise it. “It will be very different for different audiences,” Walter explains. “For gay men in London it’s a very normal thing, but maybe not to do it in that context. It’s not something you can view other people doing, it’s done privately and it’s managed by THT. The purpose isn’t to get somebody testing positive, the purpose is to normalise people to the idea of testing because that’s the best way of reducing the spread of the virus. It has to be like going to the dentist, you just do it to check.”

Alien Sex Club is at Ambika P3 Gallery in London from July 24–August 14, and the Homotopia Festival in Liverpool from October 30–December 1. aliensexclub.com

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