An Exploration of Shame and Sexuality

Jordan McKenzie’s latest performance art project has been commissioned by the Freud Museum and involves world-renowned psychoanalyst Susie Orbach, the London Gay Men’s Chorus and 12 well-known composers

His 2008 exhibition Spent, featuring 56 ‘auto-drawings’ over which he ejaculated then sprinkled carbon dust, caused outrage. Jordan McKenzie’s latest project is less controversial but equally as personal.

Susie Orbach has psychoanalysed members of the London Gay Men’s Chorus (LGMC), asking them to recall memories of shame; events that shaped their feelings about themselves and their sexuality.

These interviews will be given to 12 world famous composers to create a piece of music, which will then be performed by the LGMC, in a collective act of catharsis. We spoke to McKenzie about the project…

What does ‘shame’ mean to you?
The more I started to read about shame and how it operates, the more I realised what a potent emotion it is. A lot of our lives are actually shaped by it. The idea of being shamed and remaining isolated and silenced and not being able to share that experience… that’s the pernicious way shame works.

Is this also a cathartic process for you, a chance to reflect on your own past and sexuality?
Yes. For me, it’s about trying to find ways to counter this terrible shame and silence that I think all of us experience. It’s been a difficult process because I was also analysed by Susie. I couldn’t not do it if I was asking other people to.

It’s really tough to realise that so much of your experience is painted by shame. And it’s been a difficult project for me, as I’ve had to tackle certain things head on where I’d otherwise have kept my head in the sand.

What experiences were uncovered in your analysis?
Things like there was a time my sister attempted suicide. I was young; she sent me to the shops to buy Paracetamol then used them to overdose with. I was sort of blamed for that – my lack of being able to foresee this was going to happen. I was only 15/16 – so there were feelings of shame around that.

One of the ways shame works is that it makes you think things are your fault when they’re not. It’s the perceived idea that not only are other people judging you, you are also judging yourself; it’s a schizophrenic mechanism: you’re being punished and doing the punishing.

It’s called shame chorus but it’s actually about the disappearance of shame through the act of singing. It is about pride and sharing stories to reach a catharsis

Why did you choose the London Gay Men’s Chorus to be at the heart of this project?
I wanted to make it related to myself and my own experiences. They seemed ideal – a very well known chorus, willing to explore new projects and commission new music. It made conceptual sense that if they were going to be the subjects (interview by Susie) they should be the performers too.

Shame is dissolved when it’s shared; when people start to talk about it. When you expose it to a social context, it vanishes – it’s all about secrecy and guilt – so this project was about initiating a cathartic process for the LGMC.

Some of the chorus members were very against the project because of its name. Even the word ‘shame’ is so toxic. Some have seen it as quite irresponsible, as it seems ideas surrounding homosexuality are all around pride and celebration and being happy.

My feeling is that these levels of happiness and pride mean we can move away from two-dimensional propaganda about gay men and talk about the other things that are going on in our lives: depression, suicide, self-harm, pressures around sexuality and the body.

In the past, you’ve caused controversy with your artwork; do you envisage anyone finding Shame Chorus offensive?
No, it’s called shame chorus but it’s actually about the disappearance of shame through the act of singing. It is about pride and sharing stories to reach a catharsis. There won’t be anything socking. It will be inspiring; bring people together.

Does everyone experience shame, or are minority groups more susceptible?
We all have a sense of shame but when you’re growing up feeling ‘othered’ because you’re not doing things in quite the same way and have institutions like churches that may be saying you’re doing things wrong – it leads to mental issues.

One thing that kept coming up was mental health issues. Lots of them had mental health issues

Is it our own responsibility to dissolve feelings of shamefulness, or does society need to treat people more openly, and respect everyone’s differences?
Yes, the whole process of dialogue, sharing, admitting is really important. If you show people compassion, forgiveness, understanding and share how you feel – nine times out of ten, people will say: “that’s how I’m feeling too”.

Silence feeds shame. When people share stories, find commonality, they realise they’re not alone. Then people can become strong – it’s not about secrets.

It’s another taboo that needs to be broken. It’s great when you see people with potential influence say: “I’m a manic depressive” or “I’ve tried to commit suicide”. We try to convince everyone we’re strong but we’re not, we’re vulnerable.

Talking therapies have long been used to help people come to terms with their past, what will be added by the additional dimension of turning it into art?
The experience of going to see it will maybe act as a catalyst for people to share their own stories, start to talk, engage more in that process for themselves. It will show how these negative things can be changed into act of catharsis. And it will get shame on the agenda.

Were there any common themes in the interviews with LGMC?
One thing that kept coming up was mental health issues. Lots of them had mental health issues. Being brought up with another sexual identity in a society that asserts a heterosexual way of being – it causes anxiety and stress.

This is played out in teenage suicides. It’s astronomical. Self-harming or committing suicide if you’re gay… the figures are staggering. People feel they’re not good enough, don’t like their bodies, they’re not measuring up for whatever reason. It’s quite staggering. They are very harrowing tales, some of them.

Shame Chorus will be launched on Thursday at the Freud Museum, following a phase of research and development, and the main performances will take place next year. 

With the London Gay Men’s Chorus celebrating 25 years in May, there are plans for the performance to coincide with this. But there is still funding to be done. If you would like to help, contact Jordan via his website.

Read more about the London Gay Men’s Chorus and the work they do in schools challenging bullying through singing
Freud Museum website
Shame Chorus website