In the Peruvian Amazon, at the tip of an island and surrounded by the largest river in the world, there is Iquitos. The city stands in the middle of a voracious jungle, where the sun and humidity converge. There, where everything grows and life thrives in every corner, heat is overwhelming and people dress lightly. They move at their own pace and everything seems relaxed. And love lingers.
Their loose morals and tolerance for sexual diversity are in contrast with far away Lima; both cities are indeed separated by forests, mountains and centuries. Iquitos is famous for its passionate spirit and for presenting the lovers with endless possibilities of intimate rendezvous.13 beds consists of a collection of images taken of those encounters, during which diverse kinds of taste, sexual preferences and social classes merge.
Sex is a small word, but a large and complex area of human experience and being. The act is an intense pleasure that can also be used as a weapon. The ontological nature of gender, while systematised as a binary, is capable of subtle and fluid subjective expression. Social norms map the highways and byways of where, when and how sex is legitimate and where it is deviant, scandalous or illegal. These culturally defined maps are so familiar that attitudes to sex can quickly ossify becoming unquestioned and emotive certainties. In the industrial west, sex has become a lifestyle, a politics of identity and an impossibly idealised commodity.
In the nineteenth century, when scientific and legal authorities did much to catalogue, pathologise and criminalise those aspects of human sexuality deemed beyond the pale, it created a whole new sexual menu which, while its bill of fare was not innovative in itself, could be served up with exotic new names and a large dollop of sauce. The acts of the body were extended into the nature of the mind. In reaction against this commoditisation of sex, some sought to escape to distant cultures, where eroticism was (or appeared to be) simpler and more natural. However, seen through contemporary post-colonial lens, such cross-cultural expeditions tend to be viewed with critical scepticism, if not downright opprobrium.
It is, then, a brave artist who seeks to engage the fluid nature of sex, gender and sexuality in cultures beyond the mores and strictures of the industrialised west, let alone represent them visually. But the Venezuelan artist, Antonio Briceño, is just such a person. For the last quarter-century, he has worked with more than thirty-five indigenous cultures spanning five continents, from the Sami of northern Europe to the Maori of New Zealand. There is a strong ecological thread that runs through his work, both in the naturalistic meaning of the environment and in the more metaphorical meaning of human diversity and interdependence. Much of his work pays homage to the mythologies and traditional wisdom at the heart of these cultures.
The images here are drawn from two series that address a more specific phenomenon depicting an ecosystem of sexual expression. They were made in and around the Peruvian city of Iquitos, deep in the Amazon jungle. Iquitos has become known for its relaxed attitude to sex. In ‘Equinoctial Love’ the artist sets the languid androgyny of youth and the darker machismo of maturity in contexts that draw on the myth of Aphrodite and her acolytes. It is an aesthetic syncretism that interweaves cross-cultural symbols such as foam, arrows and doorways to speak indirectly of the act of sex in order to reflect upon the ontological nature of an erotic being.
In contrast, ‘Thirteen Beds’ pays attenuated attention to the act itself, an extended photographic exposure that captures love-making in a dynamic but non-specific way. The images hint at a diversity of sexual preference while blending all in the swirling blur of coital union.
The series employ two distinct devices: the one a cross-cultural aesthetic symbolism, the other a subjective documentary impressionism. In the imaginative space between these two states, Antonio Briceño evokes the sensibility of one culture in terms that may be understood in another. Or, if not understood, then sensed somatically and felt empathically…