LONDON — Flesh is everywhere this fall — from the runways to museums, to art galleries to mainstream bookstores — but is it here to stay?On Thursday, photographer David La Chapelle unveiled his biggest-ever exhibition, which runs at the Barbican until Dec. 23. In addition to his signature surreal celebrity portraits, there are shots of porn stars from the San Fernando Valley and photos of couples caught in the act outside fast-food restaurants.Back in the center of town, at the Proud Gallery on Buckingham Street, the photographer Rankin is currently showing "Sex Show," an exhibition that twins photos of cold, hard-edged androgynous nudes with fleshy girls getting intimate with an ugly leather sofa.Those two exhibitions follow hot on the platform heels of "Porn?," a photographic exhibition at the Proud Gallery in Camden asking what pornography actually is with photographs by Terry Richardson, Nick Knight and others; a show by Richard Kern on erotica at the Institute for Contemporary Art, and Shine Gallery’s show of Nobuyoshi Araki photos of prostitution, sadism and bondage.It was, perhaps, the show "Sex and the British" at the Thaddaeus Ropac Galleries in continental Europe in 2000 that set off the U.K.’s most recent sex-obsessed phase…or reminded the Brits how sex-obsessed they’ve always been in the first place. The show, which took place in Salzburg and Paris, featured such British artists as Tracey Emin, Gilbert & George and Sarah Lucas creating art around the theme of sex."In terms of photography, sex has been an important influence for the last two years. And there’s no doubt it’s been a very liberating period," said Rankin in a telephone interview. "It’s much more accepted now to talk about sex or buy toys. But it’s not like the Sixties. For women, it’s been about taking control of sexuality and becoming more expressive with their bodies. Even men have become more body-conscious."Rankin said he staged the show to explore one of his favorite subjects — sexuality — and to poke fun at art photography."I’m so sick of people taking pictures of their mates and then calling themselves ‘art photographers,’" he said. "The whole thing can be a little pretentious, so I was having a bit of a laugh. I wanted to get across that sex can be flippant and interesting and entertaining to look at." Indeed, it’s hard to unlock your gaze from all of that lip licking, gasping and sofa clutching at the "Sofasosexy" part of "Sex Show." "Breeding" — the other part of the show — is slightly more tame.And Rankin’s not finished with women and sex. Next spring, he’s planning to show "Girls on Top," a collection of photographs he shot while women sat on top of him, together with a series of David Bailey photographs.It’s nothing new for La Chapelle to fix his lens on the naked form — and the London exhibition is an orgy of flesh and color. During a press conference at the Barbican this week he talked about his interest in porn."Fashion has had this recent flirtation with porn, but I was always more interested in the lives of the porn stars, their world and their whole star system in the Valley. There’s something really poetic about the way they’re living their lives so quickly and living for the moment," he said. As for those couples copulating on a mattress in front of a Jack in the Box burger joint, La Chapelle said it was a result of free association. "Fast food, fast sex."But London’s love of porn and erotica doesn’t stop with photographic exhibitions. Over the summer, two books about the porn industry — "Porno" and "Once More, With Feeling" — hit the bookstores. "Porno," Irvine Welsh’s sequel to "Trainspotting," is still on the bestseller lists here, and talks about a sick boy and his ambition to make a pornographic film. "Once More With Feeling," by Victoria Coren and Charlie Skleton, is about how the authors made their first porn film.But is all this sex just a phase, or does the slew of books and exhibitions — not to mention the recent oh-so-naughty clothes on the Milan runways — indicate a deeper trend? Rankin thinks sex is just a fad."Maybe, with these exhibitions, it’s peaked and we’ll all move on. The next wave is going to be about relationships, how people relate to one another in their heads," he said.But Max Wigram, who cocurated the "Sex and the British" exhibition disagrees. "Sex is an integral part of art, and a subject as important as sex will always be an important part of art, just like death or romance will. It doesn’t respond to yearly cycles."
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