(WARNING: this post contains images of both a sexual and controversial nature)
“A form of sexual desire in which gratification is linked to an abnormal degree to a particular object, item of clothing, part of the body, etc.”
“Life has always taken place in a tumult without apparent cohesion, but it only finds its grandeur and its reality in ecstasy and in ecstatic love.” (George Bataille)
We’re all into fetish, one way or another. Whether concerning the material, the mundane, the sexual or the transcendental, – it’s within us all. We all have our ‘turn-ons’ and ‘turn-offs’, but for some it takes a more extreme and subversive level. I am enjoying a light cup of tea in the living room of Torture Garden co-founder David Wood. I am being growled at by a polar bear rug, snarled at by a wolf bust, squawked at by a rotating seagull and psyched out by a Samurai warrior in full combat stance. A miniature Adolf Hitler is ranting one of his orations, whilst unperturbed, a baby leopard and unborn baby polar bear sleep quietly in their specimen jars, flanked by a whole fleet of toy SS guards ready to shoot to kill should I step out of line. David can see that I’m clenching my mug rather tightly and eases my fascination by explaining that fetish symbolism is often associated with negative and frightening incidents, often from ones childhood. Hence the themes of military, school, hospital, dentist and police. The Nazi artifacts are not in any way applauding or advocating the regime, but moreover suggestive of the principles of evil, pain and control, something which is intrinsic in S&M role play and fantasies.
For those of you still in the dark, the Torture Garden is the worlds largest fetish and body art club. Each monthly gathering attracts around 3,000 people. It is not merely a club, but more a state of mind and a nocturnal playground where you are free to express yourself however you see fit. It comes from the combined imaginations of David and his former flat mate, Alan Pelling, hailing back to the days where David was a conceptual art and film graduate and Alan an alternative club DJ and promoter. Jaded with the existing London club scene, they decided to create their perfect club: a progressive fetish night combining various themed environments, far-out fashion, diversified music and thought-provoking visuals and performance. Although Alan was new to the fetish scene, David had been dressing in fetish style before he even knew a scene existed. His first distinct fetish experience was at Skin Two when he was 19, but says that the writings of George Bataille have had more of an impact on his sexual development. The name ‘Torture Garden’ came from the novel by Octave Mirbeau. Although not one of his favourite books, David preferred the exotic and enigmatic connotations that it gave out. An amalgamation of the gothic, industrial and new body art scenes it immediately attracted a very different following. The very first TG night drew only 100 people to the Opera on the Green venue in Shepherd’s Bush in October 1990, but the concept took on very quickly and now both David and Alan host TG events across the globe.
This is not to say that everything has been plain sailing. The club has been forced to cancel by the police on a couple of occasions and its controversial performers have always garnered detrimental press, but in the end it has inadvertently heightened the interest and allure of TG. David quickly retorts that TG has always been a platform for the contentious and to back down and play safe would go against everything it stands for. The scene has now branched out to include the “lounge and swing, bizarre cabaret, gay and drag, techno and the cyber-goth as well as the body art, fetish and S&M crowds”. Oh, and not to forget the simply curious. As I take the plunge and wander around the TG rooms it is apparent that I am a complete fake. Some people have schlepped all the way from the other side of England just to be here tonight and have made the utmost effort to dress up. I should really interject here with ‘dress down’, for with TG less is certainly more and the more flesh on show the less exposed you feel. I saw one woman enter the club and immediately throw her coat to the floor, revealing her near-nakedness in a way that said “I’m home”.
There is a protective shroud of ‘what happens in TG, stays in TG’. Photography is extremely restricted and totally off-limits in the medical room, the dungeon and the couples room. It is essential to the atmosphere of the place that people should feel free to do whatever they feel like doing without the worry of repercussions. David stresses that “if you’re bored with sex, you’re bored with life” and “exploring ones true sexuality is a life affirming activity”. I cheekily ask him if he has any non-fetish fetishes in his day-to-day existence. David claims that TG has spilled over his entire life and has become something of an all-encompassing lifestyle, but is quick to add that Mondays and Tuesdays are football and poker nights. On a last note, I ask David if he will ever go back to doing his art. Thrown a bit, David says that once you’ve done something in your life that has been so astronomically successful, it becomes difficult to think of being able to do anything else…but then again, you never know.