The galleries are shut, the museums are closed. But worry not, art fans. We've tapped some of the art world's leading curators, collectors and experts to talk us through the exhibitions none of us can attend in person. Here curator Alona Pardo and curatorial assistant Chris Bayley talk us through some highlights from their Masculinities: Liberation Through Photography exhibition at the Barbican.
Masculinities: Liberation through Photographyim电竞官网- explores the ways in which masculinity is variously experienced, performed, coded and socially constructed as expressed and documented through photography and film from the 1960s to the present day.
Simone de Beauvoir’s famous declaration, published in her revolutionary 1949 book The Second Sex, that ‘one is not born a woman, but rather becomes one’ provides a salient parallel for considering the process of becoming a man, the place of photography and film in shaping masculine gender identity and what it means to be male in today’s world. What we have thought of as ‘masculine’ has changed considerably during different historical periods and within different cultures, and the social position of masculinity has helped shape the gender order by which we continue to define ourselves. In the twenty-first century, it seems more apt to reflect on ‘masculinities’ in the plural to underscore the many ways in which one can be a man or become one.
With ideas around masculinity under increasing scrutiny and terms such as ‘toxic’ and ‘fragile’ masculinity filling endless column inches, an investigation of this expansive subject is particularly timely given the current global socio-political climate, which has seen the resurgence of far-right ideologies and a ‘masculinist nationalism’ characterised by male world leaders shaping their image as ‘strong’ men, set against the backdrop of the #MeToo movement. With masculinity under the microscope as never before, the exhibition surveys the representation of masculinities in all their myriad forms, rife with contradiction and complexity.
im电竞官网-Touching on themes of queer identity, the black body, power and patriarchy, the perception of men by women, heteronormative stereotypes, hegemonic masculinity and the family, the works in the show present masculinity as an unfixed performative identity shaped by cultural and social forces. Over the last five decades, artists have consistently sought to disrupt and disturb the narrow definitions of gender that determine social structures in order to encourage new ways of thinking about identity, gender and sexuality. We are delighted to bring together artists, photographers and filmmakers whose work traverses different aesthetic strategies, spaces and times, from pioneering practitioners such as Robert Mapplethorpe, Peter Hujar, Catherine Opie, Richard Billingham, Rotimi Fani-Kayode, Wolfgang Tillmans and Larry Sultan to lesser-known and younger artists including George Dureau, Hal Fischer, Sam Contis, Hank Willis Thomas, Paul Mpagi Sepuya and Marianne Wex, among many others.
Ultimately, the performance of masculinities as expressed through the work in the exhibition underscore the instability of gender and throw light on the challenges and complexities of being male as well as any simple definition of masculinity. Rejecting any singular idea of the ‘ideal man’, the works argue for an understanding of masculinity liberated from societal expectations and gender norms.
Disrupting the Archetype
im电竞官网-‘Disrupting the Archetype’ explores the representation of conventional and at times clichéd masculine subjects such as soldiers, cowboys, athletes, bullfighters, body builders, wrestlers and men at work. By reconfiguring the representation of traditional masculinity – loosely defined as an idealised, dominant heterosexual masculinity – the artists presented in this section challenge our ideas of these hypermasculine stereotypes.
Reflecting on his own work, the British-born artist John Coplans astutely commented: ‘My body is actively male and I view the world through it. But this is the expression of an existential rather than sexual outlet ... My maleness is chance, not choice, and my imagery is more concerned with the psychosexual than with identity and anxiety.’ Emphasising the imperfections of the naked form while also continuing a dialogue with depictions of the classical nude, Coplans' monumental self-portrait that consists of four panels each containing three black and white photographs of the artist’s body arranged in a column very deliberately opens the exhibition in a bid to disrupt preconceived ideas about the male form from the very outset.
im电竞官网-A pioneer in the field of self-portraiture, Coplans deliberately jettisoned conventional ideals of youthful male beauty when he began forensically photographing his own ageing body in the mid-1980s. Replete with wiry pubic hair, deflated buttocks and sagging pectorals, Coplans presents an image of the male figure as imperfect and ‘soft’. Through his black-and-white self-portraits which home in on fragments of the body, Coplans reveals the white male as someone who is not necessarily powerful and strong, but as someone who is also human and vulnerable. By photographing his body in the later years of his life, Coplans confronts issues of ageing and deterioration, subjects generally ignored and feared in contemporary society.
Bas Jan Ader
In Bas Jan Ader’s poignant film I’m Too Sad to Tell Youim电竞官网-, the Dutch conceptual and performance artist is seen weeping uncontrollably before the camera in what appears to be a profound and revelatory experience. As the title suggests, the reason for this outburst of emotion remains deliberately opaque, however over the years critics have speculated that it has to do with Ader’s father, who was executed by the Nazis for harbouring Jews during the Second World War. Directly addressing questions around the stability of masculinity while simultaneously debunking the reductive concept that ‘boys don’t cry’, Ader’s film navigates the boundaries of traditional performances of masculinity while also prising open more emotionally expressive ways of being ‘manly’.
Male Order: Power, Patriarchy & Space
‘Male Order: Power, Patriarchy and Space’ examines the unequal power relations that exist between genders as well as the relationship of marginalised masculinities to the patriarchal order, which is predicated on the dominance of hegemonic masculinity. To that end, the artists gathered in this rather mischievously titled section have all variously attempted to subvert, destabilise and expose how certain types of behaviour associated with hegemonic dominance and power create inequalities both within and between genders. As the esteemed Australian sociologist R. W. Connell has noted:
“The concept of ‘hegemony’ … refers to the cultural dynamic by which a group claims and sustains a leading position in social life. At any given time, one form of masculinity rather than others is culturally exalted. Hegemonic masculinity can be defined as the configuration of gender practice which embodies the currently accepted answer to the problem of the legitimacy of patriarchy, which guarantees (or is taken to guarantee) the dominant position of men and the subordination of women.”
Subversion as an aesthetic strategy is central to Clare Strand’s playfully sculptural work Men Only Tower (2017), which consists of 68 copies of the British softcore publication Men Only im电竞官网-(published between the 1930s and 1970s) which unashamedly claimed: ‘We don’t want women readers. We won’t have women readers.’ Interleaved within the magazines are 20 images of ‘resistance’ in black envelopes designed to subvert the male-only premise of the original editorial statement. Precariously stacked one on top of the other in acknowledgement of the shaky foundations upon which hegemonic masculinity is founded and in a nod to its possible future collapse, Strand’s decision to contain these publications in a vertical glass case, referencing the phallic form, speaks not only of exaggerated size with its clear reference to Trumpian America but astutely alludes to how women have historically been excluded from the corridors of power, and how that practice continues to prevail in our contemporary moment.
With the current crisis characterised by physical distancing, we wanted to highlight Mikhael Subotzky’s photographic installation that is anchored in the racial injustices of the South African penal system. Predicated on the architecture of exclusion and spaces of confinement, Subotzky’s images consider the interplay of gender with class and race highlighting the inequalities that exist between hegemonic and marginalised masculinities. In his complex body of work I Was Looking Back (2004–12), Subotzky undertook a process of revisiting every photograph he had ever taken, selecting those ‘where the process of looking, or being looked back at, was resonant’ in an attempt to formulate a new narrative that actively exposes and deconstructs white masculine power, a defining feature of his lived experience as a white privileged South African male. Consisting of works from several earlier documentary photographic series – including Die Vier Hoeke (The Four Corners; 2004), a study of life inside Pollsmoor Prison in Cape Town; Umjiegwana: The Outside (2005), a startling exploration of the life of former prisoners and the hardships they encounter after release; and Beaufort West (2006-08), images of a disenfranchised town situated along the main artery that slices through the country – these troubling colour prints which often represent the black male body being subjected to violence and oppression are an attempt to expose and destabilise systems of hegemonic male power that enable and normalise these acts of violence.
Subotzky has described the installation as an attempt to question his own ‘very deep ambivalent feelings about photography and my relationship to photography’ and the ‘typical “lefty” white male instinct to describe the effects of violence on the other, rather than … reflecting on one’s own complicity’. In a last act, Subotzky frequently smashes the glazing of these works in a process of ‘re-shrouding’ the image, frustrating the viewer’s desire to gaze at or ‘consume’ the image while drawing attention to ‘the surface and materiality of the photograph, preventing the viewer from having this complacent relationship with what a photograph is’.
Too Close to Home: Family & Fatherhood
Since its invention, photography has been a powerful vehicle in the construction and documentation of family narratives. However, as the photography historian Mary Warner Marien has noted, ‘The content of family photographs was dominated by celebratory occasions, such as weddings, birthdays, and vacations. Few families resolutely set out to record the look of everyday life, such as messy kitchens and unmade beds. Fewer still made visual records of emotionally trying times or used the camera for psychological self-study or therapy.’ By contrast, the artists presented here including Larry Sultan, Duane Michals, Hans Eijkelboom and Richard Billingham among others deliberately set out to record the ‘messiness’ of life, at once subverting, reinventing and recoding the conventional family photograph in a bid to present a more complex view of fatherhood and family dynamics more broadly. By reflecting on notions of misogyny, class, race, violence, mortality, familial dysfunction, the paternalistic role of the state, interfamily relationships and psychosexual drama as well as emotional intimacy, tenderness, empathy and belonging, the works put forth different and competing models of fatherhood.
Drawing on the conventions of the traditional family portrait, Japanese photographer Masahisa Fukase’s series Family, produced between 1971 and 1989, uses the backdrop of his family-run photography studio in Hokkaido in Northern Japan to construct highly performative yet formal photographs of members of his family in which semi-clad young women often appear striking deliberately comedic or subversive poses.
For the purpose of this article, we wanted to focus on Fukase’s concurrent series Memories of Father (published in book form in 1991), in which the artist chronicled his father through life, death and cremation. Raw and immediate, Fukase’s photographs of his father as he approaches the latter stage of his life are a poignant study of the ageing male body; the thin skin of his hands, the lines etched into his brow and the frailness of his once robust frame allowed Fukase to reflect on the loss of independence ageing engenders and symbolised for the artist the loss of ‘the only cornerstone of his life that had not, until then, been shaken.’
Anna Fox’s My Mother’s Cupboards and My Father’s Words im电竞官网-(1999) is a uniquely intimate and revealing autobiographical work that seeks to undermine expectations. The documentary photographer works in the British tradition of a ‘warts and all’ style, deploying everyday subject matter in the service of commenting wryly on socio-political issues. Originally conceived as a miniature artist’s book, the series reveals the struggles of a turbulent relationship and, by extension, Fox’s difficult experiences growing up within such a household. Fox juxtaposes fourteen colour photographs depicting her mother’s neatly kept cupboards with written extracts from her father’s ‘rantings’, the experimental image–text intersections functioning as a kind of storytelling device. An image showing stacked plates is accompanied by a caption that reads: ‘I’m going to tear your mother to shreds with an oyster knife’, while a photograph of fresh bedsheets is paired with the line: ‘They shouldn’t be allowed to breathe the same air as me’. The unabashed violence of the words not only resists the meticulous arrangements of the photographed objects but also pushes back against notions of bourgeois order and respectable appearances.
The sense of a polite front is further heightened in the way cruel words are treated typographically on the page through sumptuous calligraphy, bestowing an odd, dark humour upon the series. These outbursts were largely directed towards the various female members of the family when Fox’s father was ill for a number of years. The language used call to mind a certain brand of toxic masculinity, one bound up in exerting power and control over intimate partners and typically perpetrated through verbal abuse and threats, the very act of their repetition working to establish and normalise forms of behaviour. With the dramatic rise of domestic abuse cases being reported across the UK during the lockdown, Fox’s work serves as a powerful reminder of latent violence.
im电竞官网-In defiance of the web of restrictive gender norms spun in Europe, the United States and beyond over the last century, the second largest section of the exhibition in our upstairs galleries titled ‘Queering Masculinity’ explores how artists forged a new queer aesthetic, at once railing against the patriarchal heterosexual system while creating sensual bodies of work that reflected their own queer experience. Propelled and empowered by the sexual liberation and countercultural movements that gained momentum through the 1970s, artists such as Peter Hujar, David Wojnarowicz and Sunil Gupta all harnessed the power of the camera to record the energy and rage of their queer communities, who increasingly demanded visibility and thereby legitimacy in public space.
After the 1969 Stonewall riots and pre-AIDS, the west side piers along Manhattan’s Hudson River, which had largely stood abandoned and in a state of decay following the shipping industry’s move to the north of the city, were informally occupied by the LGBTQ+ community who used the site as a place for sexual and artistic liberation and experimentation. Documenting the various gay subcultures along Christopher Street Pier – a popular cruising spot dubbed the ‘sex pier’ – Hujar’s photographs present the piers as an idyllic, safe space where men of all creed and colours congregated to sunbathe on the concrete paving slabs, cruise and have sex. Despite the gentrification of Christopher Street Pier and the wider area through the 1990s, Hujar’s images are a vital visual record in documenting how these queer spaces became a site of refuge as the LGBTQ community fought for legal recognition and freedom.
Paul Mpagi Sepuya
Elsewhere, the exhibition presents the work of a younger generation of artists who continue to overturn binary codes of gender and sexuality. Reflecting on his own queer experience, Paul Mpagi Sepuya’s intimate self-portraits which often include the presence his lovers, friends, artists and collaborators disrupt traditional portraiture through layering and fragmentation. Exploring the studio and darkroom as a site of homoerotic desire as it relates specifically to the black queer experience, Sepuya manipulates the picture plane by deploying mirrors, curtains and fragments of previous works such that disembodied figures are at once concealed, revealed and obstructed. Often bearing fingerprints, smudges, the visibility of the camera lens and impressions of the body on fabric, Sepuya’s images allude to the presence and absence of the body and evince a certain vulnerability between subject and photographer, highlighting the fragility and sensuality of the male form.
Reclaiming the Black Body
‘Changing representations of black men must be a collective task’ declared bell hooks in Black Looks: Race and Representation, a collection of critical essays that interrogated notions of black subjectivity and representation. Giving visual form to the complexity of the black male experience, the exhibition foregrounds artists who have, over the last five decades, consciously subverted expectations of race, gender and the white gaze by reclaiming the power to fashion their own identities.
Kiluanji Kia Henda
In Angolan artist Kiluanji Kia Henda’s theatrical five-part series The Last Journey of the Dictator Mussunda N’Zombo Before the Great Extinction (2017),im电竞官网- the artist examines the troubled history of Western representations of the black African male figure as well as the warped self-image of African men of power. Set against the backdrop of dilapidated diorama amid a herd of taxidermied antelopes, a flamboyantly dressed figure - modelled on Mobutu Sese Seko, the kleptocratic former president of Zaire (now the Democratic Republic of the Congo) whose official state ideology of ‘Authenticité’ or Zairianisation sought to rid the country of the lingering vestiges of while creating a more centralised and singular national identity for his own personal enrichment – poses and preens to the camera and can be read as a wry commentary on male vanity. Reflecting on the misrule of the ‘big men’ of Africa, such as Uganda’s Idi Amin and Liberia’s Charles Taylor - dictators who ruled with an iron fist and were propped up by numerous Western powers - Kia Henda’s work, which takes the form of a tableaux vivant, reimagines the politics and history of Africa within shrewdly conjured fictional scenarios.
In her meticulously staged photographs, American artist Deana Lawson explores black intimacy, family, sexuality and spirituality. Exploiting cultural stereotypes in order to challenge them, in Sons of Cush a heavily tattooed, torso-nude muscular man gazes directly yet warmly at the camera, a new-born baby in his protective embrace. To his left, disrupting the frame, a second man’s arm clutches a stack of dollar bills, the word ‘DOPE’ etched onto his knuckles. Lawson’s photographs leave nothing to chance, and through the artist’s careful placing of props she demands the viewer unravel the symbols of black culture. For instance, on the whiteboard in the top left-hand corner of the image, a hand-drawn diagram traces the origins of the word ‘Cush’ – referring to black history, civilisation, family, spiritualism and religion.
Women on Men: Reversing the Male Gaze
As the second-wave feminist movement gained momentum through the 1960s and 70s, an attendant feminist theory developed that sought to expose and critique entrenched patriarchal codes and to articulate alternative perspectives on gender and representation. Against this background, or motivated by its legacy, the artists gathered in the final section of the exhibition have placed the active male figure within their work, with the intention to either subvert the invasive nature of the male gaze or revel in the scopic pleasure derived from looking at the objectified male body.
In her encyclopaedic visual survey Let’s Take Back Our Space: ‘Female and ‘Male Body Language as a Result of Patriarchal Structuresim电竞官网-, 1977, German artist, turned self-healer, Marianne Wex analysed the differences between female and male body language by assembling hundreds of images culled from advertisements, reportage, fashion magazines, studio portraits and art history alongside photographs she took of people in the streets of Hamburg. Through a process of compare and contrast, and presenting the results as a quasi-scientific study with images of men presented on top and images of women below, Wex identified that men, for instance, usually sat with their legs apart and their feet pointing outward, while women tended to keep their knees and feet together, calling out manspreading long before the term was invented. Thus men invariably claim more space than women. These differences in posture are, Wex concludes, products of a social conditioning that defines one sex as strong and the other as weak, perpetuating a hierarchical distinction between the sexes in the form of patterns of physical behaviour.
Scrutinising the performance of masculinity from a feminist perspective, Tracey Moffatt’s awkwardly humorous film Heaven (1997) is comprised of footage filmed by the artist and six additional female camera operators employed by the artist. The 28-minute film disrupts traditional representations of desire to interrogate the power of the female gaze in the objectification of men’s bodies. Beginning with surreptitiously filmed footage of male surfers changing in and out of their wet suits while in the indeterminate space between the public arena of the beach and the privacy of their cars, over a soundtrack that oscillates between the ocean surf and male chanting and drumming, Moffatt gradually moves closer to her subjects who respond with a combination of masculine bravado or shyness. In what can be seen as an attempt to regain power, in the final segment of the film, Moffatt’s hand reaches out from behind the camera and snatches one surfer’s towel to expose his bare buttocks. This playful work is a potent and comic meditation on cinematic and everyday sex roles, voyeurism, power and the boundaries of flattery, teasing and invasiveness.
As we socially distance ourselves and are forced to stay at home in an attempt to curtail the rapid rise of coronavirus, the clandestine strategies employed by Moffatt in Heaven feel somewhat synonymous to the kind of voyeurism of the everyday we are all currently experiencing - retreating to our windows to observe the outside world and watch our neighbours perform the banal rituals of life in lockdown.
Masculinities: Liberation through Photography, Barbican Art Gallery, London, UK, 20 February 2020 – TBC
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