Frankie Dytor takes a close look at the image of the father in the Barbican Art Gallery’s extended run of their hit show, Masculinities: Liberation through Photography.
The Barbican show Masculinities: Liberation through Photography is less a celebration of masculinity, and more a deconstruction of it. Taking up Simone de Beauvoir’s maxim that ‘one is not born a woman, but rather becomes one’, the exhibition probes the supposed opposite example: the ways in which one might become male. Masculinity, nowadays, is a threatened concept. Most recently, in the wave of protests against historic and contemporary sexual abuse, masculinity has been thrown into question and seen to be under attack by a number of popular reactionaries. Men, they claim, face increasing alienation and dislocation; masculinity, as the constitutive part of maleness, is to be reaffirmed as a singular and all-encompassing identity. Masculinities is a response to this, but at points, it ultimately works within its logic. ‘Masculinity’ in its stereotypical guise was notably present, smiling down from the photographs of Richard Avedon, or leering out from the covers of Man Only magazine. The fragility of this figure was sharply brought into question in the room devoted to the family man. Even in absence, the father was present. Held up, scrutinised, the family was defined through him: its value was defined by his worth.
How do you play at families when the family isn’t there? Kalen Na’il Roach takes up this question head on and materially, ripping and scratching photographs of his father. His father is, in fact, there – he is the subject of each photograph, but every mark and rip points to erasure and disappearance. Needling the smooth surface of the photograph, the father figure is troubled by the literal disruption of the image. Isolating his father, removing all other subjects, My Dad Without Everybody Else tries to give voice to an unknown figure. Who is his dad when he is not his dad – who was he before, what is he other than a father? In an interview with Paper Journal, Roach described the series as therapeutic, an attempt to come to terms with an identity that he couldn’t understand. But, as he tried to delve into this past, he left his own print everywhere, leaving the situation the same as before. His father was an image only in as much as he constructed it.
But in a way, all family archives are constructed through this type of fiction. In the ‘heteropatriachal’ (a term neatly employed in the exhibition catalogue) family photo album especially, smiling mummies and daddies hide the tedium of family life, happily presenting their little darlings to the camera. Such a process of masquerade is sharply outlined in Hans Eijkelboom‘s With My Family (1973), in which Eijkelboom asked a number of female strangers to pose with him in the manner of a conventional family portrait. Eijkelboom deliberately called in on the mothers during the day, when their husbands were most likely to be out of work, therefore isolating and identifying the cookie-cutter American family, in homes where gender and familial roles were played out exactly as expected according to societal expectations. It’s remarkable how much these faked photographs do, actually, look ‘natural’, with the kids squirming in laughter on his lap, the ‘couple’ comfortably close against each other. It looks so natural, in fact, that the whole term is called into question, exposing with a light hand the artificiality of normative family structures.
Absent bodies also cropped up in Anna Fox‘s 1999 piece, My Mother’s Cupboards & My Father’s Words. Delicately small, and firmly domestic, the work (intended as a book) hauntingly evokes the destruction wrought by abusive behaviour. Father’s words are doubled next to objects from mother’s cupboards, instantly evoking the locations of power in the relationship. His words seem frighteningly loud against the contained quiet of the objects. “She’s bloody rattling” the words scream next to glasses that appear to shake with fright. “She’s washed so many dishes her hands have blown up like bears claws” next to pink, raw looking glass. It was as if these words, even though disembodied, detached from their owner, have shaped and imprinted the appearance of the objects. It seemed that there was no way to hide from the violence, everything had been tainted. The horror caused by this apparently innocuous juxtaposition made me wonder what type of agency Fox was attempting to reclaim in the piece. Was it for herself as an observer on the situation, or a narrative for her mother, a revelation of a secret history whose victim has no words?
It was not all hopeless, though. In Grandpa Goes to Heaven (1989) Duane Michals presented a benign, comforting vision of masculinity as it existed in a fairy-like grandfather figure, who leaps out of bed in a series of photographs, finally disappearing out of the window. Wearing a set of white wings – the type for children’s dress-up – and watched by an incredulous grandchild, he is as much a part of fantasy as reality. The grandfather waves in mock salutation: the boy, unmoving, gives the viewer only the back of his head. It is the child’s hope that such figures do not die, they merely disappear for a time. The boy waves out of the window, Grandpa has disappeared but, presumably, lives on in the child’s imagination.
Bye Grandpa! Bye Father? Doesn’t look like it. The show, bombastic in its reach, was effective at exploring the many faces of masculinity but, ultimately, I felt that it didn’t displace that dominant form of masculinity. Fathers acted as fathers, not as carers, workers, partners and lovers. Father remained father, and it was as if the family needed him.
Masculinities: Liberation through Photography is shown at the Barbican Art Gallery until 23 August 2020. For more information and to book tickets, click here.
Feature image is a detail from Masahisa Fukase, Upper row, from left to right: A, a model; Toshiteru, Sukezo, Masahisa. Middle row, from left to right: Akiko, Mitsue, Hisashi Daikoji. Bottom row, from left to right: Gaku, Kyoko, Kanako, and a memorial portrait of Miyako, 1985, from the series Family, 1971-90.© Masahisa Fukase Archives