Over 50 international artists are exhibited in the Barbican’s exciting new show documenting the development, construction, performance and questioning of masculinity from the 1960s until now.
Upon entering the Barbican Art Gallery, the first photograph I see shows the bodies of four naked, hairy men. No, upon closer looking, I realise it is the body of the same man, photographed from four different angles and presented across four panels. John Coplans’ black-and-white Self-portrait (Frieze No. 2, Four Panel),1994, welcomes us and exemplifies what we will get to see in the exhibition: an honest, unfiltered view at the masculine, its performance over time and across cultures, its social coding and challenging of the same. Liberated through photography, the masculinities on display play with archetypes and expectations, with gender hierarchies and power struggles, but always seek to disrupt a clear-cut, stereotyped view on masculinity and its performance. Commissioned in the spirit of diversity, Masculinities: Liberation through Photography exhibits photographs and films from artists identifying as various genders and sexualities and from various socio-cultural backgrounds. It is grouped into six sections drawing upon several aspects of masculinity: disruption of the archetype, male order, family and fatherhood, queering masculinity, reclaiming of the black body, and women on men.
Coming from an academic interest in masculinities, their performance and representation, I was especially fascinated by German feminist photographer, Marianne Wex and her semi-scientific studies on body posture, taken from the encyclopaedic visual survey Let’s Take Back Our Space: ‘Female’ and ‘Male’ Body Language as a Result of Patriarchal Structures, 1977. Part of the exhibition’s section ‘Women on Men,’ her assemblage combines photographs found in magazines and advertisements with studio portraits and images from art history as well as photographs taken on the streets of Hamburg. Labelling her studies with sharp statements such as “The pecking order man/woman expressed through body posture,” Wex compares men’s and women’s body posture, for example, leg and foot positions and standing legs, to emphasise the striking uniformity of gendered body postures and thus highlighting men’s and women’s stands in society: sitting with their legs spread and standing with their feet apart, men take up space, underlining their dominance; with their knees together and standing scantily with one foot in front of the other, women efface themselves. I read about this phenomenon of gendered body postures a few years ago, and it’s still as prominent and unchallenged by society now as it was in 1977.
Although Wex was one of the last artists whose work I viewed, her photographic studies provide an interesting metanarrative to the entire exhibition. Do we see the outlined, universalised body posture assigned to men in Wex’s work in other photographs on display? Do the photographs enforce a view of masculinity dominating femininity, as something being affixed in society? I imagine the exhibitions theme ‘Liberation through Photography’ already indicates that it, in fact, does not: here, masculinity is presented as anything but a solid, definable notion; instead, it is a fluid concept with many facets, angles and variations, and the exhibition tries to capture as many of those as possible to situate masculinity on a continuum, not at one end of a binary.
Beginning with the disruption of the archetype, a row of portraits shows hyper-masculine figures: the soldier, the athlete, the bodybuilder and the wrestler, all of which make use of their male physique in different, yet stereotypical ways. Focusing on the male body and its function (i.e. as an instrument in war, a figure on the sports field, a performer of the ring), artists such as Catherine Opie or Jeremy Deller challenge the hyper-masculinised body and offer alternative expressions of masculine physique and masculinity. This is particularly evident in portraits of the Taliban which Thomas Dworzak discovered in Afghanistan in 2002. The photographs, taken for identity purposes despite a ban on photography and already showing soldiers holding hands, are stylised by Dworzak to challenge the image of the hyper-masculine solider. He doe this by adorning the soldiers with flowers and positioning them in front of colourful backgrounds. Dworzak and other artists capture the homoeroticism and homosocial bonds between these figures; in doing so, the artist underlines how expressions of masculinity differ from culture to culture. Dworzak’s stylised photographs are, for instance, a stark contrast to images of Lebanese militiamen taken by Fouad Elkoury in Beirut, 1980, and shown earlier in the exhibition. These photographs provide a harsh, unfiltered view into the performance of masculinity in the context of war.
Although many associate masculinity with men and the male body, a handful of works highlight the masculine in the female body. In the display of three photographs of bodybuilders taken by Robert Mapplethorpe, the outer pictures depict Arnold Schwarzenegger in 1976, showing off his body in black briefs. In the middle, female bodybuilder Lisa Lyon is photographed in 1980, her body shown off in a similar fashion, except this time she is completely naked. “I had never seen a woman like that before, it was like looking at someone from another planet,” Mapplethorpe is quoted as saying on one wall card. His statement betrays the typical understanding of strength and muscularity belonging to the male body and being masculine attributes, whereas the female body evincing the same qualities is an anomaly, is alien and must be staged in a more sexualised way. Works like Mapplethorpe’s both highlight and critique the continuing binary couplings of female/femininity and male/masculinity. Yet, while the exhibition seeks to establish an acceptance of the feminine in the male, the masculine in the female is, overall, given little attention.
Moving on to the male order, the collages, series, and books on display criticise unequal power relations drawing upon the aspects of gender, class, and race. This section explicitly highlights the destructive power of toxic masculinity and exposes the patriarchal structures in society and their roots in traditions such as fraternities and gentlemen’s clubs. Although this theme needs the least explanation, as many are aware of the dynamics captured in these works, in comparison to the earlier section they hold more of a corporate feeling and capture the absence of individualism. Instead, as in Piotr Uklański’s critical look at the national image of the Nazi in Untitled (The Nazis), 1998, a central image of masculinity is created, praising an idealised, even nationalised, trope of masculinity. Uklański’s worksdraw attention to the ways in which not only feminine stereotypes but also masculine ones are upheld in popular media.
Initially concerned with public depictions and expressions of masculinity, the exhibition then turns toward the inner, more private and intimate life of man within his family and his role as the father. The ways in which family dynamics have changed over time and particularly the period the exhibition covers, i.e. from the 1960s until now, are emphasised. In what is described as a ‘humorous series’, Dutch artist Hans Eijkelboom presents four black-and-white family portraits in With My Family, 1973. For these, he knocked on families’ doors at a time when he expected fathers to be absent and convinced mothers to take pictures with them, their children, and him as the substitute father. Nowadays, this project would likely not have been possible. Who could imagine letting a stranger into their home to take intimate family portraits? Additionally, the power dynamics within the nuclear family have, fortunately, widely been broken apart, with both parents – if present – working and earning a living, whilst men taking paternity leave is becoming more common. Eijkelboom sought to question these family dynamics present in the 1970s, and like Wex’s work, it would be interesting to see updated, contemporary versions of their projects to compare how images of masculinity and femininity have actually changed.
Moving to the upper level of the gallery, a move towards more explicitly politically-charged discourses is visible. Artists such as Peter Hujar or Isaac Julien present queered and disrupted versions of gender and sexuality in the context of the Gay Liberation Movement of the 1960s and the Stonewall Riots. We see a focus on clothing and makeup to contribute to one’s expression of identity and a sign of communal belonging. In Reclaiming the Black Body, an amalgamation of the previous sections is detectable, with the works of artists such as Hank Willis Thomas and Samuel Fosso highlighting the complexities of the black male experience, its commodification by corporate America, and its physical idealisation. Both curatorial themes, along with the already mentioned Women on Men, round off the exhibition, showcasing work by more diverse artists and the role of cultural and social norms in shaping expressions and lived experiences of masculinity. Although the majority of the Western artists’ views on masculinity were nothing new to me, I was intrigued by the introduction to masculinities in other cultures I was less familiar with, such as presented by Rotimi Fani-Kayode, Masahisa Fukase, or Sunil Gupta.
Working not only with the artworks on display but also the gallery’s architecture, the gallery space has been designed to include slots and cut-outs in the display walls, creating an atmosphere of openness and allowing the viewer to look back and forth between the different curatorial themes, to frame and highlight individual pieces from a different angle, and to provide a notion of transparency and interconnection. The architectural design creates a fluid connection of the six sections in which masculinity is never only associated with one aspect of life or socio-cultural norm but constantly challenges and questions prevailing notions of what it means to be masculine and/or male. Keeping to their incentive of bringing together a diverse group of artists and providing a variety of gazes onto the masculine and the male body, the space emphasises the theme of liberation: there is no place to hide; everything is out in the open, visible, and celebrated. Although the exhibition plays it safe and includes less controversial works than one might expect of the theme, their make-up of diverse artists on display is noteworthy and their mixture of media including newspaper clippings and collages, film and video installations, untouched and processed photographs, enjoyable and insightful.
Masculinities: Liberation through Photography is showing at the Barbican Art Gallery until May 17 2020. Find out more about the exhibition and book tickets here. The exhibition is accompanied by a variety of talks, workshops, and films about which more information can be found here.
See the gallery guide here. Listen to the Masculinities soundtrack below:
Feature Image: Sunil Gupta, Untitled 22 from the series Christopher Street, 1976, Courtesy the artist and Hales Gallery. © Sunil Gupta. All Rights Reserved, DACS 2.