Masculinities exhibition – The Barbican, London

Thursday 20th August, 2020

It wasn’t just live music that I missed. Art, photography, history, architecture, walking, train travel and having mini adventures are also things I’ve been aching for deep in my bones, for months. When you don’t drive in a pandemic your world becomes very small, limited as you are to the distance on foot you can travel. In the past three years I’ve been all over Britain by train and coach. I missed it. I had also, thanks to some very affordable offers on the national Art Pass, rediscovered how much I love quirky museums, galleries and exhibitions and getting back to being able to explore those was one of the things I needed to do to feel like myself again.

I was nervous, of course, of the journey, of London, of being so far from home (believe me when 3 miles felt a long way, imagine what 100 felt like! It felt a little but like living in a different age, 1850 or something) and I didn’t really share that I was going, until I was there.

I’ve been without the things I love, and that make me, for so long, I think I was afraid that they, and I wouldn’t still be there. I had been frightened of permanently losing myself.

The Barbican is a strange place, huge and unwieldy and housing so many different things that it is almost bewildering. It is a place chock full of memories for me (not all of them positive) and yet I get drawn back to it so often that it almost feels like visiting family. I love concrete, I love Brutalism and one day I would really like to tour the whole estate. For today I was, however, very content, with seeing the huge Masculinities exhibition.

Multiple rooms filled with photography and film, all dedicated to training the lens on men; what it means to be a man in the 21st Century. Some of it was excellent, some of it very powerful and some of it needed even more space to be able to tell even more stories of manhood. Despite how large the Barbican space is, and how many works were here, I still felt as it there were chunks missing. How could you not, when you were trying to tell the story of all of mankind and how it has been represented in western art in the past 50 years?

I should have written this when the exhibition was still running and I still had fresh memories and I really must take notes next time, the names of the artists and their works will have made their escape from my brain already, which is a shame. There were some really arresting photographs, but it was the films that left the greatest impression on me. I should have stayed for the entire Jeremy Deller film, documenting a British wrestler I’d never heard of, Adrian Street. A Welsh coal miner who went on to camp it up as a world champion wrestler, how could you not find that compelling? Placed within the framing of this exhibition, Adrian, taking on a flamboyantly gay persona, wearing outlandish costumes and make up, when he was (and is) married to a woman, coming from a tough, hard man, working class community, in the world of violence that is wrestling, well, it took on a whole other set of layers. I am still intrigued now.

I did stay and watch the entirety of Isaac Julien’s Looking for Langston, I found it too compelling not to if I’m honest. It plays with the male gaze on other men, desire, love, racism and masculinity all in hour of a black and white dreamlike non linear and non narrative film. There are angels, a black tie ball, a police raid, an angry mob, art, beauty, power and money, all exposed and seen through a very different lens. It is both timeless and rooted very deeply in the time it was made.

The sections exploring queer masculinity and black masculinity were some of the most compelling to me, perhaps as a result of the times we live in; Black Lives Matter and the disproportionate effect Covid is having in killing black men, keeping those issues of identity and justice in the forefront of my mind.

Until I sat to write this I had forgotten much else of the exhibition, there was so much to see, that I had somehow let the Mark Billigham photographs slip out of focus. Having seen Mark’s film, Ray and Liz, but not the original works, it was a real sucker punch to experience them. They are hard to see, and hard to keep in mind as they represent alcoholism, chaotic childhoods and abuse. The whole section they were part of was quite disturbing and claustrophobic (not helped by the small rooms they were displayed in, which made social distancing almost impossible and added a different level of fear to proceedings) so I sort of scuttled through this bit, more so that I would have with more time and even fewer people.

The final series, where women turned the lens on men, had some really excellent elements, but I remain uncomfortable in watching images obtained without full consent, even if they are subverting the male gaze, are not ones I want to see in a gallery. The point of them may well be to confront and make the viewer uncomfortable, but I’m not sure, as a woman, I really needed to see it. All it did was remind me of all the abusive and nasty men who have, and continue, to photograph and video women in creepy ways. I’m not sure that making men feel the same really achieves anything; are we only equal if they suffer the same sort of abuse we do? That isn’t the sort of equality I’m after.

Overall this was an excellent exhibition that showed some interesting works, explored some vital themes and reignited my intellectual curiosity. As a first foray back into the worlds of art and photography it was a pretty good place to start.

Oh and if you are nervous of returning, as I was, to visiting gallery spaces, I have to say that the Barbican did a really good job of making me feel safe. The time limited tickets, reduction in visitor numbers, one way routes, plenty of hand sanitiser, and staff on hand in masks, helped a great deal. Mostly there was enough space to distance safely and everyone was wearing a mask. It felt comfortable enough for me, and I have been pretty risk averse thus far. Nothing is without risk, of course, but the Barbican have done what they can to mitigate them and the behaviour of the other visitors (always the scary bit, the bit you can’t control) was also fine. From what I have observed, people in London are being a lot more respectful of space. For me, the gains in my mental health and sense of wellbeing have been served greater benefits than the minor physical risks of being there.

Thank you Barbican for welcoming me back and for continuing to put on expansive, challenging exhibitions. It was exactly what I needed to start to feel a little more myself.

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