Bryony Kimmings is an artist interested in taboos. Throughout her career as a performance artist, she has tackled drug use, cancer, love, sexuality and lots of other subjects that get to the core of who we are as humans. The show for which she is probably best known is Fake It ‘Til You Make It, a piece that she wrote about her then-boyfriend Tim Grayburn’s depression.
This month, she’s taking her work to a potentially much wider audience with a show on Channel 4 – but the daring truthfulness that is her hallmark is still present. To make The Sex Clinic: Artist In Residence, Kimmings spent a month at a Birmingham sexual-health clinic, observing the people coming through the doors, speaking to them, identifying their truths and their desires and their problems and their hopes, and, ultimately, making performance art with them.
The result is a moving and insightful meditation on relationships, sex work, abuse and loneliness, underpinned by Kimmings’ own candidness. She was breaking up with Grayburn (who is the father of her young son) while the documentary was being filmed and she doesn’t shy away from the subject. “There was an element of like, ‘I have to spill the beans if I’m asking [the show’s participants] to’,” she admits cheerily.
I’m from a family of all women. Your sister leaves her bloody sanitary towel stuck to the toilet and no one goes, 'This is the worst thing that has ever happened!' Everything just becomes free
Sitting in the London headquarters of Channel 4, 37-year-old Kimmings reflects on the childhood that led to her spirit of openness. Growing up with a single mother and two sisters on a council estate in Peterborough was, she says, an exercise in speaking freely, in opening up. “I’m from a family of all women, loud women as well, where you talk about everything, there’s no filter. Your sister leaves her bloody sanitary towel stuck to the toilet and no one goes, 'This is the worst thing that has ever happened!' Everything just becomes free.”
Adulthood dampens that free-talking in some people, but Kimmings was determined not to lose it, seeing it as important, political even. “It always irks me when people are like, ‘You can’t talk about that!’ Patriarchy says I can’t talk about that; capitalism says I can’t talk about that. Any of those two things are just going to fuck me off even more. So part of it is due to feminism, really.”
In The Sex Clinic: Artist In Residence, she persuades people to open up, too; to share their stories, sometimes anonymously, but mostly not. She admits it wasn’t always easy to get people to talk about sexuality and sexual health on camera but, for those who did, the rewards seem huge. There is nothing voyeuristic about the show; instead, the work she creates in collaboration with the subjects comes across as necessary, therapeutic. “If you give people the opportunity to be creative around something that’s really difficult, chances are they are going to reach positions they wouldn’t have if they hadn’t been able to creatively look at something,” she says.
As well as supporting the show’s participants, Kimmings was keen to rehabilitate the image of performance art. “It’s got a bad rap,” she admits. People think it’s elitist or irrelevant or, as she puts it herself, “fucking niche”.
Kimmings is not interested in “screaming in galleries” and didn’t come to her work via a visual-art background. “I think if you come in through visual, it’s super wanky,” she says. “It’s a lot of gallery work, like screaming, which I’m not into. Performance art has a feeder from visual arts, a feeder from cabaret and queer performance and a feeder from theatre. I’m much more theatrical.”
Although making successful and respected work for several years now, she is candid about the financial realities of a life in the arts. In 2013, she published a blog post that detailed her income and expenses to highlight the penury artists face, even “award-winning” ones. It went viral.
At the moment, she and her son, Frank, are living with her mother. “When Tim and I broke up, I stayed in that flat. But it was, like, two grand a month. I mean, who has two grand a month?! I don’t even earn two grand a month. So I said to my mum, ‘What should I do?’ And she was like, ‘Just fucking move home.’ My little boy had a bad illness in his first year of life, so he’s got various learning difficulties. I went home, my sister lives round the corner, my other sister’s always at home, my mum’s a diamond. So, for the foreseeable, for the next year or so, I’ll be in Peterborough.” Does she miss London? “London’s a fucking bubble; I mean it’s full of wankers.”
It’s hard to describe Kimmings’ future without lapsing into fortune-cookie speak, but it seems truthful to say that there are big opportunities on the horizon. It’s just been announced that a film she co-wrote with Emma Thompson based on George Michael’s song Last Christmas (“I know, so weird!” she says) will be directed by Paul Feig, whose previous work includes Bridesmaids and the all-female Ghostbusters reboot. The television and movie jobs she’s getting now are much more lucrative than theatre and performance art, and came about through both “fluke” and “scheming with my agent”.
When I remark that she seems unusually honest about her ambitions (like everything else), she says, “Someone’s got to do those jobs, so it might as well be fucking me, do you know what I mean? Not some white middle-class middle-aged man whose parents paid for his whole education. And if you don’t put it out there in the universe, it doesn’t happen.”
We’re all just lucky we get to live in the same universe as Bryony Kimmings.
The Sex Clinic: Artist In Residence is on Channel 4 on Sunday, 22 July at 10.10pm. Bryony Kimmings' new show, I’m a Phoenix, Bitch, is at Battersea Arts Centre, London, 3 to 20 October