Friday, October 02, 2015

Interview with artist Sue Williams about Throb

This is an earlier version of a feature first published on October 2nd, 2015 by Arts Scene in Wales

The barriers we put up between ourselves and those we love when it comes to sex are the subject of an ambitious new multi-form work called Throb which has been five years in the making.

But it's not just barriers that visual artist Sue Williams is interested in – she's also fascinated about breaking down those barriers, and examining the communication (or sometimes, lack of) between the genders when it comes to sex.

Sue is teaming up with other creatives to make Throb an innovative, exploratory, challenging project combining her own paintings and drawings with the work of award-winning poet Rhian Edwards, the choreography of Romain Guion and Marta Zollet, and the musicianship of composer Pete Wyer. Also integral to the creation and direction of Throb is cardiologist Dr Nick Ossei-Gerning, whose expertise is the taboo subject of erectile dysfunction.

I started off by asking Sue how the idea of Throb come about.

"It was about five years ago and my long-time friend Nick and I were talking about his work and my work, and I realised there was huge potential to explore gender communication in the world of heart consultancy and erectile dysfunction."

Sue Williams
At this point Sue throws a fact into the conversation that may surprise you – it certainly did me.

"Nick told me about the link between the heart and the penis," said Sue. "How if the penis doesn't work, the heart fails within two to five years. This direct connection between the heart and the penis I saw as a metaphor for relationships and communication. I thought it was the perfect area to explore through different forms of art, combining the research and knowledge of medical science. Nick deals with the mechanical aspects of erectile dysfunction, and I can approach it from the emotional side (the heart)."

But it's important to make clear that Throb is not solely about erectile dysfunction. Throb is more about sexual communication between genders, something Sue feels passionate about.

"It's a massive subject, and we can come at it from different directions and perspectives. There's obviously the male vulnerability side of it, both in heterosexual relationships and gay relationships, but there's also the female vulnerability to examine too; how sexual dysfunction in men can affect women, and indeed the whole family indirectly."

Rhian Edwards
It's a recognised fact that men just don't like talking about their penis (not to doctors, anyway). It's an embarrassment, and the overbearing power of masculinity in Western culture makes it difficult for men to open up about something that might be having a hugely detrimental effect on their life.

"There can be so much loneliness and isolation. Many men have a fear of doctors, and of hearing the worst, but I'm hoping that Throb will enable people to discuss sexual communication and become enlightened," said Sue.

"Few people acknowledge erectile dysfunction and the connection between the penis and the heart. Visual art is a powerful communication tool which can convey the issues surrounding it. Not enough men understand this link, it's not talked about. I want Throb to open the issue up and get people to embrace it. More people should be seeking help."

Romain Guion
When she started researching the subject, with Dr Nick as her guide, Sue was surprised about the lack of communication on the subject. I suggest maybe it isn't so much surprising, as disappointing.

"Women are keen to talk about sexual issues, maybe more than men. I cannot assume, but imagine, that erectile dysfunction can be damaging to the male ego, understandably. But I believe the research I've done on Throb has greatly enhanced my own work, it's brought about a better understanding of the male perspective, it's added new dimensions to how I would like to examine gender communication."

Has Sue noticed any difference between younger and older men in their willingness to speak openly?

Marta Zollet
"Initially my instinct was that for the new generation of men, those of my son's age, there is a different dynamic between the genders. For young men today there is a change in the balance of gender equality, and while that is by no means a bad thing, it does have its repercussions. As a woman I cannot speak on behalf of the male perspective, but I do recognise that men have a vulnerability today that perhaps older generations didn't. That vulnerability needs to be highlighted, both from men's perspective, and the female perspective – female vulnerability can be brought about if they do not understand when men cannot perform."

Erectile dysfunction is not something many men want to talk about, let alone be faced with in an art gallery or theatre. Is Sue concerned that the concept at the heart of Throb will actually put people off going to see it? The very people who need help with sexual dysfunction may be the ones who stay away?

"That is a risk, but it's so important to stress that Throb is not just about erectile dysfunction. That is an aspect of it, but it's much more to do with the broader perspective of human vulnerability, sexual health and gender communication. If it was solely about erectile dysfunction I think that would be an issue, but what's exciting about the overall project is that we're coming at it from different perspectives. We have a female poet, a male musician, and male and female dancers. Through that diversity, we can cover many more aspects of the subject."

Dr Nick Ossei-Gerning
Dr Nick's specialism in erectile dysfunction will see him give talks on the subject as part of Throb, as well as taking part in voluntary after-show discussions. He is something of a pioneer in the field – Sue tells me that he often treats his patients with erectile dysfunction by operating on the penis and implanting stents, rather like a cardiologist would with the heart. These stents open up the blocked vessels within the penis. Obviously this would not work for those with a psychological block, but Nick prefers direct action to more common solutions such as Viagra.

In October, both Nick and Sue will give talks at the British School of Medicine conference. "Nick's will be from the medical aspect of it, and mine from the creative side," said Sue. "I want the arts to connect with this world more sensitively, to drip feed rather than present hard facts."

Pete M Wyer
At the moment, Throb is still a work in progress. Over the last five years Sue has produced between 300 and 400 paintings and drawings inspired by her research, and the choreographers, musician and poet have been working on their contributions since February. It will all come together in four staged events this autumn and winter, topped and tailed by two exhibitions from Sue, with a performance evening and a cabaret-style show in the middle.

"Erectile dysfunction is just one part of Throb. We also look at sexual identity, sexual deprivation, sex toys... Sexual health is still a taboo in itself. And I think it will be very interesting to explore how the new generation of men question the morality of my generation.

"We're not illustrating the idea of sexual dysfunction, but using the research and the knowledge as a springboard for our creative passions. It's very exciting and I can't wait to see what the others come up with as part of this collaboration."

  • The Throb project begins on October 7th with the launch of the exhibition Touchy at Gallery Ten in Cardiff, which runs until the end of October; Exposure will present new music, poetry and dance at the National Museum of Wales on November 8th; Performance brings together the whole creative team in a cabaret-style show on November 13th at Newport's Riverfront; and the whole project comes to an end next February with Sue's closing exhibition, Feely, at Cardiff's Bay Art Gallery. For more information, visit
  • For more information about Dr Nick Ossei-Gerning MB BS, MD, FRCP see his website at ED Solutions.

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