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Strange objects of desire

It's not just about black leather and body piercing - fetishism has a long and noble African history.

Fetishism: for most of us the word evokes an image of leather, rubber or whips. An exhibition currently showing in Brighton explores a different and more complex history of the concept and the word, linking colonial oppression, sex, death and the body. An avant-garde art of unexpected and sometimes disturbing juxtapositions is set alongside African power objects whose original use was to forge a link between the spirit world and living supplicants.

This was a new approach to fetishism for me. A display of portrait photographs of studded and painted fetish dressers in the art gallery cafe alludes to contemporary fetishism, and this will be more familiar to most of us. These days London, at least, is full of fetishists; they almost took over the "Street Style" launch at the Victoria and Albert Museum, Skin Two can be purchased at Waterstones, and Madonna and Thierry Mugler have removed the gear from seedy underground clubs to the catwalk and the music video. I would hesitate to say that fetishism has been reduced to a fashion, but how sleek and unthreatening the leather crowd appears these days.

More than merely unthreatening, in fact: fetish dressing and S&M are positively politically correct. Practitioners assert the power of the body and its performances, but their sexual practices of "exchanges" of power and theatricalised sex seem cosily consensual. (If the pain isn't real, can you really get off on it?) Radical theorists love S&M, fetish and transvestism because it says that both sex and gender are all about performance and masquerade, rather than being natural (which is what conservatives would like to believe). These dressing-up games push at the boundaries of normality, but that isn't quite what the Marquis de Sade himself had in mind. He didn't believe in Nature either; he wanted to show how black and cruel it is, and his works are a shout of blasphemy. He chose to be on the side of Satan, and like him cried: "Evil be thou my good." Transgression was the whole point. The S&M performance relied on shock and outrage, with a bit of gothic skulduggery thrown in.

Once it has been legitimised by political correctness and become part of mainstream mass culture, it loses its power to shock, let alone to alter our view of the world. Contemporary fetish dressing displays a preoccupation with surfaces and ritual that is too transparent. It has become merely part of the glossy hedonism of the mass culture that surrounds us, the black leather face masks, gorgeous teetering shoes and wicked corsets simply a new kind of beauty not really so different from the familiar cosmetic masks, long legs and sinuous waists found on every page of Marie Claire and Elle.

How different from the objects in the Brighton exhibition itself. The term "fetishism" was first used by Portuguese colonialists to express contempt for African religious power objects, the carved, usually human figures found in Central Africa. Coming from "Darkest Africa", these objects were emblematic, for Europeans, of "primitive" forms of worship, witchcraft and superstition, although ironically some collectors and anthropologists have speculated that those who carved them had been influenced by the Crucifixion, the martyrdom of St Sebastian and other Christian images.

The cultic wooden objects are low-lit, and the dim light enhances the awesome mystery of their silent presence. Their value lies not in the rough nails and blades, bits of rag and splintered wood from which they have been constructed - those are humble enough - but from the lost occult meaning that was attached to them. The sense of transgression here may be that by placing them in our museums, we Western heirs of colonialism have diminished them to the status of ethnographic curiosities, and have thereby done violence to their original spiritual meanings, at the same time imposing on them an ambiguity they never had.

The link between African power figures and metropolitan leather freaks may seem obscure, but lies in the word - fetish - and its meanings. These, like the objects themselves, were diminished in Western theory. Freud and other psychologists adopted the word, and altered and degraded the term by using it to refer to a form of sexual pathology. Fetishism became a perversion, in which sexual desire fixed obsessively on some article such as a shoe. In conventional psychoanalysis there was an implication of moral inadequacy in the idea of sexual perversion, but contemporary fetishists have inverted this moral disapproval, celebrating what was formerly condemned.

Today's fetishists emphasise the body. The African power objects were also representations of bodies, bodies that were violated by nails and blades. The "wounds" created a gap for the passage of the spiritual power of the dead ancestors. It is much less clear exactly what today's fetishistic body violations and decorations mean - tattoos, piercing, sacrifice - but perhaps they assert power through suffering, again recalling the Crucifixion and the martyrs, only in a secular do-it-yourself version, which is also playful; perhaps it doesn't mean anything. Or perhaps the power of the modified modern body asserts a new ugliness against familiar pop images of beauty - only to be incorporated within that very aesthetic. When everyone can be beautiful (such at least is the adman's promise), who would want to be? Fetishists aim at an aristocracy of negation, using the most rejected and despised elements of modern culture - clothing and adornment associated with outcasts and deviants.

The contemporary art displayed in the Brighton exhibition also renounces the hackneyed plenitude of beauty, making use instead of insignificant objects and "inappropriate" materials - what Freud called "the refuse of the material world". They concentrate on the human body in disconcerting ways, making use of discarded garments, hair, nail clippings - what remains when we ourselves are dead. Most of the art works play with boundaries and the horror of their transgression, and one of the most uncanny is the boundary between body and not body, the interface between living flesh and dead matter. The indeterminacy of some of the works on display arouses horror, unease and sadness: Rona Pondick's wax turds joining baby feeding bottles to scuffed infant shoes, for example, or Tony Oursler's horribly uncanny mouths speaking from internal organs preserved in jars of formaldehyde.

This is art for a culture that does not know what art is for; it is art for a culture that is obsessed by the body and by the horror of its dissolution; it is art for a culture in which all conventional notions of beauty have become kitsch, so that only an art made from degraded material, only an art of ugliness, can shake us into seeing the world anew.

Meanwhile the fetishists strut their stuff. But in our usual British way we have dealt with them by turning them into new examples of a familiar figure: the harmless British eccentric.

n For details see listings below