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Let's Talk About Sex

Betony Vernon, the sexual anthropologist and jeweller extraordinaire discusses her debut as a sculptor for the KAMA: Sex & Design exhibition

The idea of sexual ceremony is central to Betony Vernon’s work. The American-born jeweller and sexual anthropologist has elevated sex to an art form, beautifully enhanced and explored through her erotic jewellery line Paradise Found. Here, each piece is loaded with ritualistic meaning that empowers its wearer: a pearl ring can be turned to the inside of the hand as a tool for massage and pleasure, while a tasselled leather collier becomes a whip. Now, the high priestess of all things sexual has turned her artisanal skills to sculpture, debuting two bold and organic pieces – realised from single blocks of ultra-white marble from the Italian marble maestros at Henraux, whose fabled quarries were once used by Michelangelo – at KAMA: Sex & Design, which opens at the Triennale Design Museum in Milan this week. Titled Origin and Origin Chair, the first is a monument to love and universal life, the second a functional and sensual love seat object, to be sold as editions of eight made-to-measure pieces. And in February next year, Vernon will further expand her elegant universe with her long-awaited tome, The Boudoir Bible – The Uninhibited Sex Guide for Today. Covering all the areas that The Joy of Sex wouldn’t even have dared to think about, the book is a witty, intelligent and adventurous guide, illustrated by François Berthoud. We caught up with Vernon to talk self-penetrating objects and the allure of monumental sculpture.

Dazed Digital: How did the sculpture project come about?
Betony Vernon: It felt like the universe was out there working for a creative purpose. In July, I attended the Henraux Foundation Awards and spent the evening surrounded by this sea of cut marble. The following day, their president Paolo Carli took me to their quarry on Monte Altissimo, the mountain where the finest statuary marble comes from. The more I saw, the more my head started spinning. And then I had a full-blown vision. I couldn’t wait to get back home and see if it would actually function. So I did a small clay model and thought ‘this is it’. About five days later I got a call from the Triennale. It was sort of uncanny. They wanted my Boudoir Box for the exhibition, but I said no and told them I had another idea. So I contacted Paolo Carli and it all happened like clockwork. It’s always been my dream to work with marble.

DD: What drew you to marble?
Betony Vernon: I consider marble as noble as gold. It’s full of little glittery stars and when it’s finished it’s like touching skin. I fell in love with it. There was something sexy about working with it, tooling it and having a response from the tools, which are very similar to my jewellery tools. The raw shape of my marble pieces was actually sculpted by a robot. She does the work that used to take six men weeks or even months to do. She’s a hard worker. I call her Madame. She moves like a preying mantis. But the final finishing is all done by hand. It’s like a marriage between the renaissance and the present.

DD: As a jeweller you have in many ways always been working as a sculptor, only on a smaller scale.
Betony Vernon: I treated the Origin Chair as I would a piece of jewellery. It had to relate to and function with the body. But doing the 2.5 meters tall monumental scale piece was crazy. It’s the first time I’ve worked with something that doesn’t have a double function, aside from reminding us that our origins are sex.

DD: So what would you say is the function of monumental sculpture?
Betony Vernon: I believe that monumental objects and the Origin have a purpose, even though it’s not a daily use purpose. When the show’s curator, Silvana Annicchiarico, first saw my sketches for the Origin Chair, she said it was like a door or a portal and that it had to be a monumental piece as well as a design object. It definitely has this feeling of taking you into another dimension. As a shape, the Origin can be submitted to what I call the Alice in Wonderland treatment. It can be scaled up and down with incredible ease. Not every object can handle being exploded into monumental dimensions.

DD: What were your thoughts behind the shapes?
Betony Vernon: The Origin is a self-penetrating object – a reminder that we all come from the act of sex. It celebrates man, woman, the union of man and woman and the middle sex. From one view, it’s definitely a hermaphrodite. It looks like it has a giant clit. I see it as a totem. There’s something sacred about it, which ties in to my belief that sex is sacred. It is a monument to lovemaking and union. Sadly, they’re not granting minors access to the exhibition and this censorship is proof of how much work there still needs to be done. It should have been ‘18 and under must be accompanied by an adult’. Yet children are allowed to play with Playstations where they’re blowing up people and blood is splattering against the screen. We know that children from the age of five to eighteen have repeated exposure to hardcore porn. But nobody is explaining anything to them. So to censor a show like this is the most idiotic thing, as there’s nothing compromising. Of course, it wasn’t the museum – somebody else got all up in arms. That was a bit upsetting to me. The censorship is a pure sign that it is due time for a book like mine.

DD: Can you tell us a little about your upcoming book, The Boudoir Bible?
Betony Vernon: It’s a book that gives us the possibility to own our bodies by knowing our bodies and then using our bodies as they were designed to – in my opinion – be used. It’s a book about sexual intelligence. Right now, 50 Shades of Grey is having its moment, so I came up with this expression that The Boudoir Bible is every shade but grey. The book is an initiation into the sexual ceremony and how to extend playtime and pleasure. Today, everyone is using whips to sell their panties, but they’re not giving instructions. It’s an invitation to explore but it’s also an attempt to open up sexual horizons and get people to stop pigeonholing certain behaviours. It’s about dismantling the sexual taboos and avoiding sexual categorisation.

DD: Do you think you’ll be continuing your adventures in sculpture work?
Betony Vernon: Yes. I fell in love. I have a project in the works and I will definitely not abandon marble.

DD: You’ll be selling eight editions of the Origin Chair. Where will the Origin monument end up?
Betony Vernon: Well, I hope she will find herself in a gorgeous garden, surrounded by nature.

KAMA: Sex and Design, runs until 10th March 2013 at the Triennale Design Museum in Milan