BRIGHTON, UK — To call his work colorful, flamboyant, or camp would be to give the wrong impression of John Walter. Despite a taste for wild colors, the artist refreshes those gay clichés with an element of the zany. In performance, he’s a jester. In person, very down to earth. As an artist, he’s a monster, having singlehandedly painted, sculpted, stitched, and hustled one of the largest solo touring installations in the UK. Namely, Alien Sex Club, which concludes its run at Liverpool’s Homotopia Festival this weekend.
Alien Sex Club is as multifaceted and as welcoming as its creator, even though the layout resembles a dark ‘cruise maze.’ Animation and risqué live action film lurk in its passages. But at the heart of the show is a gin bar. Another kiosk offers readings from a customized tarot deck. A blue garden shed provides a venue for rapid onsite HIV testing. Floating fabrics and nebulous clown costumes soften the edges. Colors clash and leave an indelible impression of chaos and fun.
“My taste is for the bombastic and the maximal and the expressionistic,” says the artist in his South London studio. “Then I found there was a theoretical underpinning which might suit that.” Walter is closing in on a PhD and explains further: “What I’ve been writing about is the maze, not only as a spatial conjunctive but also as a theoretical cognitive conjunctive for these things.” In other words, this Gesamtkunstwerk offers viewers a physical structure to think through and to think with.
The alien beast at the heart of this offbeat labyrinth is, of course, HIV. It’s what Walter calls “the most scary thing.” So the maze allows visitors to confront that fear along with many of the activities — such as the drug-fuelled chemsex parties — that put gay men at risk. The artist admits being on controversial ground, but he insists there are men who seek out HIV as a thrill. This is a phenomenon that has given rise to poetic new terms including “bug chasers,” “serosorters,” “gift givers,” and even “sperm washers.” Says Walter: “There are these brilliant constructions and you think, Why has nobody lifted these and placed them!?” As it is, he may be the first to have pressed them into the service of art.
Whether mythical or actual, these dangerous roles find their way into the artist’s illustrated tarot deck. He tells me his 78-card deck offers more imagery than a traditional set and more interpretative possibility. “It’s really a way of designing a system of images that can be cross-related in order to tell stories,” he says, flipping through a sample deck. His pictorial cast also includes soap opera actresses, figures from Greek mythology, cartoon heroes from the 1980s, and a brutally caricatured Spice Girl.
Within the context of Alien Sex Club, tarot readings (by one of Walter’s collaborators) go some way to break the ice. It interests Walter that we give these strangers license to ask personal questions and give candid advice. “Because you’re dressed as a fool, the person being read is very open to it,” he says, calling this ”the drag of the jester,” as opposed to gender-based drag. Think commedia dell’arte with a noisier palette. His bartenders are attired with just as much sense of jest.
Walter is always looking for “devices that make strangers more comfortable.” I can attest to this, having been served tea, gin, gypsy tarts, and tarot by the artist over the course of three meetings. Bartending and fortunetelling both fall into his sought-after category of “forms that you would get on the street potentially that you need no prior art knowledge to get into.” As he says, the vast majority of visitors know how to behave in a bar: “That’s immediately giving them a hook which they probably couldn’t get if they went to a very, very dry show at Gagosian or White Cube.”
That said, this is a show with certain dry ingredients, too. Walter has been working with scientists and has developed an interest in virology. “I’ve been particularly interested in the viruses and the structure of the viruses,” he says. “That’s a hot lead, the thought of these models of capsids and particularly the HIV models of capsids. The mathematics of all capsids is quite fascinating.” The most recurrent motif in the show is a range of livid anthropomorphic cells, including a large, pink, bug-like inflatable that glowers over visitors to the Walker Gallery, during the Homotopia Festival.
During the show’s London run, the Terrence Higgins Trust carried out between five and ten HIV tests each day. “The project wasn’t designed as a sexual health project,” says Walter. “But I think there are clues for them, for those professionals, which they can take back into their own environments.”
The exhibition was three years in the making and involved the talents of a dozen collaborators. Two contributing scientists, Alison Rodger and David Stuart, are looking to publish a scholarly article about the interactive show. “You realize you’re a sort of hub for other people’s interests and that’s the success of it,” Walter says. “Other people come and say I can do this … and you just become the facilitator because it’s got an energy around it.”
Energy should be plentiful in Liverpool. “There’s the subject matter and the preparation and the research and then there’s the delivery and I definitely want the delivery to feel light,” says Walter. “It’s got to be seductive to people. It’s got to seduce me and I don’t want to go to something glum.”
You might contrast Walter’s all-consuming work to artist Steve McQueen’s film about sex addiction. “I saw Shame, and I felt like I could have been in that movie,” says the Alien Sex Clubber, laughing. But of the tone of melancholy he says: “I can’t do that look. It would feel really pretentious for me to make that aesthetic.” And so he tells his similar story with a cartoon energy, one eye on the facts, one eye on the bright side.