Understanding where sex and pop culture meet

If you have ever seen an image of the Nazi book burnings, it’s likely that you have seen some of Magnus Hirschfeld’s work aflame. Luckily for us, PopSex!, the latest exhibit at the Alberta College of Art and Design, is bringing artistic representations of some of his surviving work to Calgary.

Featuring works from twelve local artists, PopSex! is revisiting the progress made by Hirschfeld in the field of sexology by showcasing artistic interpretations of his science. The artistic mediums range from photographs to magnets, and there is also a film series running through all of next week.

“What we did with all this archival material is took it and gave it to Calgary artists and asked them to respond,” says Dr. Michael Taylor, co-curator of PopSex!

The exhibit focuses on bringing sexuality and gender into public discussion. It is a place for artists to show works on these topics, but PopSex! is also very much about bringing scholars and artists together. Last weekend featured a scholarly conference on the role of media in the history of sexuality in twentieth-century Germany.

Taylor says he was interested in how sexual categorizations from Hirschfeld’s era are still popular today.

“Germany was the first place where there was a large scale public discussion about sexuality,” he says.

PopSex! is based on science, but science that has made its way into public discourse.

“Hirschfeld was absolutely a scientist,” says co-curator Dr. Annette Timm. “He, himself, never personally came out. He was one of the founders for the committee for gay rights. He fought tirelessly for the repeal of section 175, which was the law against sodomy in Germany, and was on the books until the ’70s. So he was very visible as a campaigner, but he never personally came out because it was very critical for him to be the scientist, the objective scientist.”

The exhibit chronicles Hirschfeld’s efforts to provide a place for people to learn about sexuality, and to also foster and develop attitudes of tolerance.

“One of the questions we had was how does this history of sexuality and the science of sexuality inform pop culture today?” asks Taylor. “Why is the culture that we see everyday, everywhere, so sexualized?”

Advances in social attitudes and tolerances aside, sex is not an easy thing to talk about artistically.

Using Taylor’s connections, PopSex! was able to make its way into ACAD’s Illingworth Kerr Gallery, directed by Wayne Baerwaldt.

“It’s impossible to find a space,” says Taylor. “It’s even harder if you say, ‘Oh, and by the way, it’s about sex.’ “

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