Ten’s To See: ‘Masculinities: Liberation through Photography’ at the Barbican Art Gallery
Not to be that person, but… being a man in 2020 is a tricky thing. Those of us who are aware enough to live with the guilt of being part of the most privileged and dominant percentage of our society carry a certain bourdain in a day-to-day environment. Discomfort when there’s any kind of discussion of gender injustice is atoned by apologising and overcompensating for our privilege and the bad things our predecessors (aka other men) have done. And while we’re seemingly closer to equality than ever before, the past few years have proven there’s still plenty, plenty, plenty more changes to be done before we can declare a fair world. And that’s just gender inequalities we’re talking about.
In a time when manhood is as frail and sensitive a subject as ever, the thought of an exhibition focused on exploring the extensive meaning of masculinity might sound like dangerous territory. Yet, as a surprise to no one ever, Barbican does it right. Masculinities: Liberation through Photography is the most recent show at the famed institution’s art gallery dedicated to the expansion of the society’s understanding of what makes a man through the medium of photography over the past 60 years. Bringing together about 300 works from over 50 international creatives into the Brutalist building in the heart of London’s business quarters, the exhibition tackles our preconceptions as well as the artists’ various interpretations of masculinities in contemporary culture. Photography, as a medium which was invented to portray reality, appears like the obvious but also most powerful choice in telling these stories.
Catherine Opie, ‘Rusty’, 2008 © Catherine Opie, Courtesy Regen Projects, Los Angeles and Thomas Dane Gallery, London
Opening the show is a large-scale quartet of fragmented headless self-portraits by John Coplans, capturing a visibly aged, nude male form in all of its glory. It’s poetic, emotional and shows the artist in a fragile state. It sits in the first part of the exhibition which is all about Disrupting the Archetype, as its curator Alona Pardo sets the task of challenging cliché masculine themes such as army, sports, male modelling and cowboys. Contemporary talent like Collier Schorr, Jeremy Deller and Cassils sit with Robert Mapplethorpe and Andy Warhol, in a combination of moving and still imagery. One of the most obscure, cult-ish moments comes courtesy of the Warhol-produced 1979 documentary on male models made for Manhattan Cable TV which humorously narrates the state of the fashion industry in this fraction of time. It’s even more funny as it, in the context of today, questions how much has actually changed.
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
Beyond the first section, the topic of masculinities envelops a wide range of themes. Politics and men in power, families and the role of a man within one, as well as queer bodies – all these have their own opportunity to shine as the audience gets a chance to reconsider their opinions constructed in the past. Masahisa Fukase and Richard Billingham both pay homage to their respective fathers, in their individual photo series which somehow emasculate their dads as they reveal the most intimate moments in the nature of fatherhood.
Hal Fischer, ‘Street Fashion: Jock’ from the series Gay Semiotics, 1977/2016; Courtesy of the artist and Project Native Informant London
A staircase away on the first floor is a powerful and concise show-and-tell of queer male bodies with one of the most seminal pieces in the field making its appearance. Hal Fischer’s Gay Semiotics have become a precursor to strict fractioning of modern gay life as it analysed visual codes of homosexual tribes in 1970s San Francisco. In a life pre-Grindr, the book served as a guide and glossary of classifications which somehow remain relevant to this day. Rooms dedicated to the black body star works of Kiluanji Kia Henda and Samuel Fosso, as they unravel photographs charged with political and racial subtext which could (and should) be explored even further in a standalone exhibition.
Rotimi Fani-Kayode; ‘Untitled’, 1985 © Rotimi Fani-Kayode; Courtesy of Autograph, London
Perhaps one of the most interesting parts of the exhibitions is dedicated to the female gaze. Following the timeline of the second-wave feminism of 1960s and 1970s, the projects on display reverse the roles of gender. Marianne Wex tackles manspreading in public in an urge to reclaim the space that belongs to women. Her compositions put in contrast the body positions assumed by men and women in an attempt to debunk the myth of patriarchy. Taking the process of objectification in her own hands, Tracey Moffatt films surfers around an Aussie beach while getting in and out of their wetsuits with her hyper-aggressive, voyeuristic lens. This subject is also supported with a film programme at the Barbican Cinema called Her Lens, His Story, dedicated to telling male plots from a female perspective. “Patriarchy is not synonymous with masculinity,” said Pardo during the opening.
When entering the halls of Masculinities: Liberation through Photography, it’s important to have an open mind. There is nothing parochial about the understanding of a male and his role by the artists in this exhibition, and if you give yourself an opportunity to stop, reset and re-build the ideas of what manhood truly means, you might come out a new person. Man, woman or non-binary – it doesn’t really matter.
”Masculinities: Liberation through Photography’ is on display at the Barbican Art Gallery until May 17th 2020. Installation photographs by ©Tristan Fewings for Getty Images.