An Alien Sex Club for all: interview with John Walter

By Mark Sheerin - Friday, July 31, 2015
An Alien Sex Club for all: interview with John Walter

Those who like adventure with their art are currently well served at Ambika P3, that vast space for the University of Westminster in North London. Visitors follow bright signs to a sex club, indeed an Alien Sex Club. Passing through a towering veil of coloured organza, you are then invited to lose yourself in an array of boarded passages and darkened cells.

An Alien Sex Club for all: interview with John Walter

Those who like adventure with their art are currently well served at Ambika P3, that vast space for the University of Westminster in North London. Visitors follow bright signs to a sex club, indeed an Alien Sex Club. Passing through a towering veil of coloured organza, you are then invited to lose yourself in an array of boarded passages and darkened cells.

It is more maze than gallery, and yet there is art at every turn. Artist John Walter has put a psychedelic twist on the visual language of virology. He creates fiendish infectious agents from inflatables and plastic dough. Slogans on the walls hint at the erotic; NSFW videos in secluded bowers confirm this suspicion, while a pulsing soundtrack adds to the impression you are somehow inside a body, in the manner of 1966 sci-fi film Fantastic Voyage.

“The syntax of the show is the maze,” says Walter, speaking on the phone. Which means this exhibition is structured by a cruising playground of the sort more usually found in gay sex clubs. The artist has brought the cruise maze out of the shadows and into the faces of visitors of all orientations and levels of convention.

Barbara Truvada reads tarot © Mark Sheerin 

“This has started off with my own personal interest in these spaces and my own personal experience,” explains the artist, for whom the cruise maze provokes three hard-to-fathom questions: “What the hell this is, and why it’s like that, why has it grown up as a form?”

In a gallery context for perhaps the first time, the maze points to a promiscuity of looking, which may be the whole story of art.

“I’m always trying to get new things into the vocabulary of art and that’s through shoving things together and seeing if they can join,” says Walter. Indeed, so much has been put together to bring us this show that the vision is cosmic, though the artist is more keen to use linguistic terms. So a set of bespoke tarot cards are a “lexicon” rather than an occult portal.

Chem Jester character tends the gin bar © Mark Sheerin

A character called Barbara Truvada, inhabited by a qualified performance artist, reads tarot for visitors and shares some of that lexicon. My question for Barbara was around the future for her creator and, after turning up several cards with references to recreational drug use, she diplomatically suggests that John Walter is ‘addicted’ to making artwork.

Looking round at the illustrative murals, the giant sketchbooks, the cardboard sculpture, the gin bar, and the clownish costumes, this claim seems hard to dispute. Alien Sex Club has been three years in the making, a collaboration with a team of five artists and some half a dozen scientists, chiefly Dr Alison Rodger from UCL. Scientists, you may wonder. Well, yes in fact.

Giant tarot cards with cats © Mark Sheerin

The colours may be bright and the welcome warm, but there is a darker side to this epic installation. As antiretroviral drugs have taken some of the fear away from AIDS, recent years have seen a rise in HIV infections among gay men. Along with the world’s first art cruise maze, Walter sets another precedent with an sculptural but fully operational rapid testing clinic for HIV.

Sex club design, drug fuelled ‘chemsex’ parties, the use of cruising apps like Grindr; these reference points are somewhat beyond this writer’s experience. But despite dealing with a self-described alien lifestyle, this is a welcoming, accessible and quite innocent show.

John Walter with Chem Jester, Ash © Jonathan Bassett

“This isn’t aimed at one particular audience,” says Walter. “It talks about a subject from a certain angle, but everybody is invited to this and everybody has a use for this.” Mind you, the thirtysomething artist, who is charm itself, has a warning: “I want that friendliness to be the lure for you”. Whatever precautions you take, Alien Sex Club could get under your skin.

Alien Sex Club can be seen at Ambika P3, London, until August 14 2015. It travels to Homotopia Festival in Liverpool between October 30 and December 1 2015.

Mystifying murals line the maze © Mark Sheerin

Rapid HIV testing clinic in a chromakey blue shed © Mark Sheerin

Virus inflatable greeting visitors to the show © Mark Sheerin

Image above: Alien Sex Club demonstration banner © Mark Sheerin

Mark Sheerin is a journalist, writer and blogger from the UK. He holds a degree in English and Spanish American Literature from the University of Warwick, and an MA in English Literature: Critical Theory, from the University of Sussex. A former copywriter, Mark retrained in 2009, gaining an NCTJ certificate in Magazine Journalism from City College Brighton. Since then he has written for Hyperallergic, Culture24 and The Arts Desk, interviewing the likes of Yinka Shonibare, Jake Chapman, Glenn Ligon, Mary Kelly, Nathan Coley, and Marcus Coates. The latter story was syndicated by Whitechapel/MIT for their book Documents of Contemporary Art: Nature. He is also author of the art blog criticismism. In 2014, criticismism appeared in top ten blog lists from Cision, Creative Boom and CreativeTourist. Between 2009 and 2011 Mark also covered live music events for best-selling paper News of the World.

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Museo Jumex (a private art collection based in Mexico City, Mexico) / David Chipperfield. Image © Simon Menges

Museo Jumex (a private art collection based in Mexico City, Mexico) / David Chipperfield. Image © Simon Menges

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