What's it like to be an artist in residence at a sex clinic?
Bryony Kimmings, a performance artist and screenwriter, on how she sought artistic inspiration at one of Britain's busiest sex clinics for Channel 4's Artist in Residence
"This is a song about vaginas."
There isn't much that can shock the staff at Birmingham’s Whithall Street Clinic, one of Britain's busiest sexual health clinics, but just a few days into her month-long artist's residency at the clinic, Bryony Kimmings appears to have done just that.
Channel 4’s Sex Clinic: Artist in Residence, the first in a three-part series following different creatives, begins with Kimmings, a performance artist, standing on a makeshift stage at the clinic, listing increasingly creative variants of ‘vagina’.
“Growler,” she cries, an upbeat music track playing in the background. “Lamb shank! The long road to Grimsby! Your baggy ol’ wizard’s sleeve!” She waves cardboard signs with each phrase scrawled on in a black sharpie pen. “Guys, is anyone up for eating my seafood sandwich later?” Kimmings asks the room.
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The camera pans around Kimmings’ audience, the assembled clinic staff, who are all in varied states of shock or fits of giggles.
“The staff thought it was a bit much!” Kimmings, 37, laughs during an interview with RadioTimes.com. “How can you introduce yourself when I’ve just sung a song about fannies?”
For the more prudish of viewers, don’t be (ahem) turned off by the first few minutes of the documentary. Sex Clinic: Artists in Residence is as weird as it is wise, and funny as it is strangely life affirming.
Kimmings, who juggles her performance art with a burgeoning screenwriting career, is immediately engaging. She interviews a range of the clinic’s patients – from Tina and Jody, two sex workers who’ve recently been released from prison, to Trevor, a newly single dad on the autistic spectrum – with warmth and levity. She’s there to create art for the patients she meets, ranging from a powerful spoken-word poem, to Kimmings dressed as a cross between Dolly Parton and an alien. There’s even a parade at the end of the episode.
She’s also no stranger to talking about sex. In 2010 Kimmings retraced an STI she'd contracted, reaching out to all her previous sexual partners for an art piece entitled Sex Idiot. But even Kimmings admits that when she first arrived at Whithall, she was taken aback by just how many, as she says, “bits and bobs” she’d see during her stint at the clinic.
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“I was quite shocked at how vanilla I was! I definitely felt prudish.”
During filming, Kimmings often sat in on (consenting) patients’ appointments. “I didn’t want to stand down the business end, but I kept getting made to,” she says. “I ended up always, like, standing gaping at someone’s vagina. Often there was no need for me to be looking at that!”
Kimmings laughs, before adding, thoughtfully: “You know what, actually, it’s because I hadn’t had sex in a really long time, and I was a bit like, ‘This is really liberating, everyone’s bonking! It’s lovely!’”
It’s precisely this tendency of Kimmings’ to draw comparisons or parallels between her own sexual experiences, and those of her interviewees, that makes this documentary so interesting. Part way through the film, Kimmings and her partner of five years, author Tim Grayburn, the father of her young son, decide to “call it quits”. Earlier in the documentary, Kimmings had made comments about how the pair rarely had sex anymore.
“Good riddance to bad rubbish,” she jokes during the documentary, as the couple watch their old mattress being loaded onto the back of a lorry.
“My waters broke in that bed,” Kimmings says later to camera, “so it’s a symbolic bed. Marital bed, I suppose.” There’s a pause. “Sold it,” Kimmings adds. “Bought a smaller bed.”
She begins to cry, sat on the sofa in her living room. “Bloody hell,” she says, wiping the tears away.
Kimmings says that the break-up coloured the documentary in an unexpected way, and drew her closer to the clinic patients she interviewed.
“It felt like I needed them as much as they needed me at the time,” she tells RadioTimes.com. “I’d met people at my lowest… I took great joy in making friends with these new people, and I guess process my own feelings while also processing theirs.”
Although much of her previous work, like Sex Idiot, has been autobiographical – “I’m very narcissistic,” she jokes – it was only when the film crew pointed out that she was frequently referring back to her break-up during interviews, that they thought it might be worthwhile filming her at home.
For Kimmings, it made sense: “Otherwise I’m just a presenter or I’m – even worse – like some kind of middle-class artist descending on poor, lowly non-artists and giving them a great experience. That wouldn’t be very nice."
Her real-life connection to her interviewees, in particular Jody, Tina, and Salome, a young woman whom Kimmings meets inside the clinic’s waiting room, is clear. Salome is unapologetic while describing a recent trip to Greece, where she had sex with multiple partners – “[Sex is] so much fun... I just like being naked” – but, after discovering that Salome is still heartbroken over her ex-partner, Kimmings begins to probe further.
“She [was] very salacious, very liberal about how she talked about her behaviour,” Kimmings says of Salome, “but at the same time… I questioned who it was for.”
“I felt very motherly towards her,” Kimmings explains, “because I could totally see my own experience and the experience[s] of my friends in her. All bloody women have to go through this thing of slut shaming.”
Kimmings also criticises the gendered waiting rooms inside the Whithall clinic: “The girls’ waiting room was pink and full of girls all nervous about being called a slag,” she says, while the men’s waiting room was “blue”, a “macho environment” filled with “peacocks”.
Perhaps Kimmings’ favourite part of the documentary is the parade, held for Jody and Tina. During the film, we see Kimmings visit them both at home, where they talk about their backgrounds, their time in prison, their mental health and hopes for the future.
For the parade, Jody and Tina, both wear masks and dress in exuberant costumes they've designed (reminiscent of the wrestling costumes the women wear in Netflix's GLOW). They dance to their favourite tunes (played by a brass band) under a banner proclaiming ‘Where’s my f***ing parade?’. It makes for pretty joyful viewing.
“I loved the fact that every little bit of it was from them. That was very important,” Kimmings says. “It felt very beautiful to give that to them.”
Channel 4’s Sex Clinic: Artist in Residence, the first in a three-part series following different artists, airs Sunday 22nd July at 10.10pm