Category Archives: Barbican Gallery

Robert Capa, Gerda Taro, On the Subject of War – Barbican – Winter 2008

Too often big galleries shy away from exhibitions based on ideas or themes, concentrating instead on the big names (the vermeers, the turners, the rothkos) that grab the attention of the paying public. Artists and their works become frozen in time, denuded of broader contexts in which they worked

The Barbican has hit on a good compromise. Include the big name (Capa and his partner Gerda Taro) but mix it in with a contemporary subject (Iraq, Afghanistan) and some contemporary artists. The result is one of the most surprising and powerful exhibitions of 2008, a demonstration of the intimate relationship between artistic creation and its political context.

There was a misty point in time when a photo-journalist’s pictures were taken as gospel – visual reports from the Spanish Civil War or from the D-Day beaches that stood testament to not only the personal challenges of a soldier, but represented a whole set of democratic values that many believed in. But as wars faded from public consciousness, or at least became messy, ambiguous affairs that happened in far away lands, the status of such work was very much under question.

And, intellectually, the whole postmodern turn re-evaluated and then tore down the authenticity of the image. Photographs like Capa’s Fallen Soldier were questioned, perhaps even ridiculed. Robert Capa (real name: Andre Friedmann) no longer carried symbolic value. Cynical viewers lost their faith.

This then is the intellectual landscape that contemporary artists have inherited, and are replayed in the Barbican exhibition. In particular, Omar Fast’s The Casting, was an exceptionally enlivening piece of work that embraces and extends the mutual inheritance of the photo-journalist and the visual artist.

The Casting is very much a single work, featuring multiple stories and multiple screens. As the video commentary below explains, it gives perfect voice to the idea “there are two sides to every story” (or even more).

A superficial review of the work could view it as a piece of postmodern trickery. Certainly, there is no attempt to present the work as documentary truth. Rather a series of narrative devices first confuse, and then admit to the fact that this is a created work of art.

So we hear the narrative and the accompanying images switching between the story of the American solider and the German girl, and the American solider and the Arab shooting; we see the characters suddenly breaking off the narrative as if frozen in their roles; we see other characters looking directly at the soldier recounting his story(s), emphasising its first-person, subjective nature (and maybe also reminding the viewer of the presence of the cameras).

And then, later on our visit to the gallery, we chance upon a room with the other side of the screens, where we hear the same soundtrack but witness an entirely different visual scene – a scruffy journalist interviewing a young, burly solider, and we think the true source of the story of the German girl and the Arab family is revealed. But then this document falls apart again: the image keeps jumping around, showing the journalist and the soldier in different poses, different clothes and with different attitudes; the video and the soundtrack have been spliced together from several interviews. The whole thing has been (re)arranged for artistic consumption.

The Casting works hard to admit the transparency of its fiction, and yet we do not react with cynical withdrawal. Emotion is invoked with the initial set of stories – the soldier’s confused relationship with the German girl, but it is the impulsive shooting of the Arab family member in the battered car that provokes a response. There is clear emotional distress here, but the precise nature, cause and fault of such distress are not clearly articulated with an reliability. There’s a story here, but the details are smudged. The fact that both narratives are recounted by the soldier, thereby not offering even the Germans or the Arabs a voice, assists this notion. We feel for the victims (and the victims could also include the solider, at the centre of events he cannot comprehend) and the confused narrative urges us to discover more – what is the truth of the story?

The Casting demonstrates the mutable nature of war art, but also clamours for its accurate documentation. In the context of recent western ‘adventures’ in the Middle East, its images and its reporting (‘weapons of mass destruction’, ‘rendition flights’, Abu Gharaib), The Casting serves as call to acknowledges the foibles in communicating war but also highlights the need to surpass them. The viewer is forced into seeing the absolute need to restore credibility to the image.

The subtlety with which Omer Fast reveals the fragility of the image as a carrier of truth leads us back to the work of Capa.

the-falling-soldier_capa.jpgA Fallen Solider, 1936 (?), Robert Capa

capa framesExhibition shot of Capa’s A Fallen Solider with other photos from same film. The Fallen Solider is at the bottom of the middle column. (Thanks to Paul Carvill for the original picture.)

The curators have made an excellent effort to respond to the fluctuations in Capa’s reputation. The status of Capa’s republican icon for the Spanish Civil War, The Falling Solider, has withered since its creation, critics providing a variety of evidence to undermine its reputation as an authentic, spur-of-the-moment portrait of heroism and individual pathos. So the curators have presented not just the single image, but all the shots from that film, shots that re-establish (but probably do not quite confirm) the original argument that the event was a sudden dramatic event in the midst of some routine photograph. We see how the image, with the passage of time, became gradually separated from the other photos that provided evidence of its genesis.

The exhibition is equally good for works in similar positions, concentrating not on single images from Capa’s oeuvre, but providing the photographic and historical context. The story of the D-Day landings is recounted; what films Capa took with him; what images he took; where he was when he took them; how the films got transported to London (and how some got damaged); what the editors of the publications thought about them; what the technical staff did (and what they messed up) with the images; how the images were presented in the final publication.

american-soldier-killed-by-german-snipers.jpgAmerican Soldier Killed by a Sniper, Leipzig, 1945, Robert Capa

This works particularly well for another dramatic Capa image, that of the American solider killed by a sniper’s bullet in 1945 Leipzig. By itself, it’s a powerful image. The ugly sprawl of the soldier, trapped between inside and outside, and the rich, telltale river of blood. But the exhibition shows not just this, but the other images taken by Capa at the same time – the soldiers casually chatting on the balcony, the sudden rush inside, the silent confusion of the other soldiers after the event. One gets a better feeling for the the hows and whens – where was Capa standing; how did he take this picture; and, perhaps most potentially fall, which of the soldiers was killed.

Nevertheless, the contextual information does not deaden the image with scholarly context, but provides a shocking reminder of war’s bleakness. Two soldiers are chatting idly on a balcony, smoking cigarettes, perhaps discussing the end of the war. The photo seems everyday, mundane. And then seconds later, there is a shot, a frantic rush to safety indoors, and Capa captures the infinite tragedy of death.

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Seduced: Art and Sex from Antiquity to Now, Barbican Gallery

Exhibition visited in November 2007

An exhibition about sex and art is a minefield for any reviewer. Art, at the best of times, is a place where declaring opinions and expressing tastes are likely to meet with violent reactions with those with different aesthetical or philosophical viewpoints. Throw sex into the mix, and you have a forum where the possibility of having one reader agree with you diminishes to some micro-infinitesimal point.

So what can I say about the Barbican’s latest themed exhibition, Seduced: Art and Sex from Antiquity to Now, that might make sense to anybody else?

What was perhaps most striking about this exhibition was its close focus on the actual depiction of sex, rather than treating sex as a broader theme. The lower floor in particular, which contained art from antiquity to the early twentieth century, had its fair share of penises and vaginas and artistic attempts to represent intercourse. Some were comic, some were very strange, but one noted how difficult the task has been – the artist is trying include a third person, the viewer, in an act that is essentially (although not always) for two people. Many of the bodies seemed oddly shaped, as lovers twisted round to really prove they were engaged in penetration. After a while, you understand why. To prove it’s really sexual intercourse, the viewer needs to see the penis enter the vagina, or at least a moment just before penetration; otherwise the sexual organs are hidden, and the viewer (perhaps like a child spying sex for the first time) is not a hundred percent sure of what is exactly going on.

Unknown artist, Satyr seducing a nymph, c. 45 – 79 C.E. National Museum of Archaeology, Naples – originally in Pompeii. (The curators did a wonderful job in bringing so much antique art to London)

Not all images were like this. In fact, the Japanese prints, such as Kitagawa Utamaro’s Utamakura (Poem of the Pillow), revelled in the confusion, obscuring faces, letting cloaks trail over bodies, and then suddenly revealing valleys of flesh. Notable too, the flowing strands of pubic hair, luxuriating in their freedom, a contrast to the western impulse to deny that such hair even exists. Tracing through the lines of these prints, which parts are male, which parts female? Is it indeed a heterosexual liaison? Who is the dominant partner? The body as depicted in these Japanese prints becomes amorphous, identities become blurred – perhaps a truer definition of what sex really is. The images are all the more powerful for such a perspective. Interestingly it was a tradition followed up a contemporary artist, Nobuyoshi Araki, two hundred years later. His beautiful images lined the stairway of the Barbican gallery, a suite of sixteen or so photographs where often one found oneself never quite knowing which body part you were being treated to a close-up of.

Kitagawa Utamaro, Utamakura (Poem of the Pillow). The British Museum, London

But even the Japanese prints grew a little tiresome after a while. Would it be possible to say that too much sex is boring? Maybe too much sex dulls the mind, and it was perhaps too easy to skip over little gems such as Rembrandt’s etching of the monk engaged in some vigorous rustic activities with a willing partner. Part of the reason for this was because the show’s commitment to historical accuracy, i.e. relating the depiction of sex from antiquity to now. This allowed for the exposure of the attitudes of previous generations, where sex was, according to the exhibition, something that was repressed, hidden away, and uncoupled from daily life. The pre-modern sex depicted in this show has elements of a schoolboy’s eyes-on-stilts curiosity – furtive, sniggering and obsessed by it physical aspects, reaching its apogee in the seaside-tackiness of the (awful) early French pornography on show.

Rembrandt, Monk having sex, 1646, etching, Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam

The first floor, largely featuring contemporary work, was much more self-reflective. From Mapplethorpe’s eye-watering S&M portraits, through Koon’s knowing parodies to buxey’s orgasmic self-portrait, there was much greater concern for the variety of sexual expression and allowing the subject to escape from the eroticised gaze of the viewer. The show had something of a Whiggish air – progress from a childish view of sex to a much more mature one.

The exhibition’s final piece, Nan Goldin’s portrait slideshow of four ordinary couples, continued this trend. One of the standouts of the show it worked by not straining too hard. Certainly the work was helped by an ethereal soundtrack by John Tavener and sung by the ever-strange Bjork (I’m never quite sure if having a moving soundtrack is cheating or not), but it introduced a tenderness into representing sex that was strangely missing elsewhere in the exhibition. Each set of slides juxtaposed photos of the couples’ sex life with plenty of others them not engaged in sex – having baths, playing with their children, hugging, lying in bed, relaxing on the sofa. The subjects depicted were no longer curiosities, or vessels simply existing so as to represent the sexual impulse, but actual people whose sex life interlocked with a complex set of emotions relating to family, warmth and love. Maybe the best way to depict sex is not to focus on the sex to show what happens around it.

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Colour After Klein, Barbican Gallery

Exhibition held in Spring / Summer 2005

Colour’s an easy choice for a hard-up curator. There’s a lot of it going around in painting, sculpture etc. And even by restricting yourself to a certain period, say, from after Yves Klein, there’s still no shortage of the stuff in installation, video, and performance art. And everyone likes colour. Bright colours, dark colours, shiny colours, scratchy colours. Primary colours. Zig-zag strips of colour dashing from left to right and back again. The kids will like it too.

That’s why I was a bit suspicious of Colour After Klein at the Barbican. Just throw any old stuff together and pretend to make a show of it. An exhibition gathered from whatever could be got on the cheap from other galleries closed for refurbishment or in need of some kudos by exhibiting in London.

But heck no. This worked well, although not in the expected fashion. Most exhibitions work by bringing an artist’s works or a theme together, gradually establishing an overarching narrative for the exhibition a whole. Colour after Klein had no real truck with this method. Instead colour was framed as a technique rather than a theme, something that can be vividly exploited to create myriad effects that jut off at wholly different tangents. On walking through, it was obvious there was no real detailed thesis about colour – the exhibition’s sum conclusion was something like ‘colour is powerful and can induce lots of different effects’. But this didn’t stop each of the works demonstrating how powerful these effects were.

Isolating the works and providing a splendid diversity of media was part of this process. In the central downstairs foyer of the gallery, one saw the juxtaposition of the grey sheen of Richter’s Mirror Painting (Grey) and Bruce Nauman’s kite-shaped pattern of neon lights (White Anger, Red Danger, Yellow Peril, Black Death). One working like a glassy marble coated with a reflective oil, all natural materials giving subtle hints of the spectrum; the other all mechanical and seemingly transparent, until the bubble-gum neon colours burst into light to reveal their seemingly commonplace slogans.

Beyond the materials, the works’ messages don’t have too much in common, Nauman, in this instance, having a much more clear social agenda than the opaque aestheticism of Richter,. But colour vitalises them both; Richter in the way that colour disturbs and enlivens the seemingly grey surface, and Nauman in exploiting of the expectations, messages and pleasures that different colours convey.

Bruce Nauman, White Anger, Red Danger, Yellow Peril, Black Death, 1985

Other contrasts were emphasised via different media; Louise Bourgeois’s claustrophobic installation Red Room (child) used a single colour to hem the viewer in while James Turrell’s Zennish experience allowed a room slowly pulsing with a spectrum of glowing colours to allow the mind to escape.

Most effecting of all was the video (Dammi I Colori) Anri Sala had made of the Albanian capital of Tirana. Sala’s video camera had been hoisted on to a lorry cruising around the night-time streets of the city. With the aid of some truly high-powered spotlights, the camera panned along the facades, walls and roofs of the housing and offices Mayor Edi Rama had, as part of a massive regeneration scheme, painted in joyous slabs and patterns of bright colours. The long strips of fresh colour, juxtaposed against the black of the night and the dirty, scarred roads below, served as a life-affirming statement of how the country is attempting to recover from its Communist past. While the rest of the exhibition focuses on colour as an aesthetic element, here it was elevated to a lofty, if perhaps slightly superficial, social position, an ingenious method of adding a little joy to a city sadly deprived of colour of many years.

I’ll finish at the start. Yves Klein’s set of seven or eight Monochrome paintings greeted the visitor on entering and provided, in what was essentially an exhibition stuffed with conceptual art, a little lesson in painterliness. To the untutored eye, it was not too much – cheap paint slapped on to canvases with no skill but a lot of a cheek. But to the more aesthetically minded, a modernist essay in the application of paint. Seven or eight paintings, of different sizes and textures, with subtle adjustments in tones and hues (despite the promise of monochrome in the titles), using different paints on different surfaces, showed how much can be achieved, and how much the observant eye can be rewarded, even in the absence of narrative and polychrome.

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Tropic├ília: A Revolution in Brazilian Culture, Barbican Gallery

When you’re nine years old, art galleries are a drag. Nothing to touch, no bright decorations, the strong whiff of dust, little to play with, and the art stuff can be seen and skipped away from in the flash of an eye. It seems that the Tropicália movement was well aware of this from the start, and reacted accordingly. At the Tropicália: A Revolution in Brazilian Culture exhibition at the Barbican Gallery, anyone’s inner child will have a whale of a time: toes can be dipped into sand, hay and water, coloured inks tasted, nuclear suits worn. There’s nothing boring here.

Of course, the Brazilian modernist movement had slightly more ambitious aims than entertaining sulking youngsters. Certainly they were engaging with notions of pleasure and play, but it was a way of overturning grim-faced authoritarians and of breaking the repressive binding that restrained Brazil from embracing the contemporary age. It was this that inspired the sundry artworks displayed in this exhibition.

Installation of Helio Oiticica's Eden

Installation of Helio Oiticica’s Eden

The exhibition documents this political impulse pretty well. Indeed as a work of raising interest in a particular politicised moment in late twentieth-century history, it hits all the right buttons. The waters of the movement ran fast through many cultural media, all represented here. We see Gilberto Gil and Os Mutantes play together (although the odd combination of pop star, orchestra and conductor has a curious Radio2 feel for contemporary ears), we see various films and posters. Aided by some clear descriptive explanations, the context in which this spectrum of artists operated is clearly drawn.

One also gets a much better sense of how the movement was part of the larger 60s bloodstream, contributing to a cultural movement which was not just about western Europe and north America. The posters in particular, with their swirls of primary colours, seem archetypically psychedelic. The exhibition appears to make claims about the movement being a fundamental source for the psychedelia movement, but I’m not sure they are quite substantiated. One listens to video documentary of Gil and Os Mutantes and notes the fusion of pop and bossa nova. Did they invent this particular fusion? Or did they steal / borrow styles from elsewhere? Pretty quickly, you realise this question of origins treads on complex conceptual ground and you learn to forget about asking about cause and effect. It’s much easier, and more suitable, to acknowledge that the cultural world in general would have been poorer if Tropicália hadn’t been thrown in the mix. The exhibition also does a good job of showing the movement’s political influence – strikes, demonstrations and general swaying towards counter-culture movements all integrated artists from the Tropicália movement.

The artworks in this exhibit continue this sense of fusion, or playfulness. Body suits could be worn (leading to a rash of mobile phone pictures being taken); and in the exhibition’s iconic work, Helio Oiticica’s Eden, shoes are taken off and ‘spectators’ walk over a bed of sand, pausing intermittently to stand in baths of hay, lie in tents, or jump onto wooden pavilions. Whilst fun, they demonstrate the weakness of the exhibition.

Perhaps, during the heady years of the late 60s, the spectators’ ability to walk into a gallery, slip off their tight ill-fitting shoes and lie down on a natty but soft mattress would have constituted a small but (revolutionary) gesture – evoking possibilities previously unthought.

But we now live in a fraction of time dedicated to the expanding, subverting and continuously reformulating the notion of entertainment. While it might still be fun to discard your comfy trainers at the edge of paradise, I’m not sure it constitutes a mark of political tension. Diverting and amusing for sure, but hardly groundbreaking.

And it’s the exhibition’s (understandable) failure to continue the propulsion of this political impulse that means that the exhibition never reaches the starriest heights. It feels a bit stuck between a museum and a gallery – stuck between documentary and politico-aesthetic concerns. The contents are interesting, the movement’s lead characters are engaging and one learns much about Brazil and its effect on the modern world, but the artworks don’t have the same immediacy that they would have had in the sixties and seventies, whether in South America, North America or Europe. Not that the show’s a disaster, far from it. But one senses it might just have been a bit more fun just being there at the time.

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