Delicate, emotional, and complex: Masculinity for the 21st Century?

The day before I went to the Barbican Gallery’s “Masculinities: Liberation Through Photography” exhibition, I underwent the strenuous business of finding Westminster City Hall–not easy, when Google Maps insists this is either on South Bank by Westminster Bridge, where the ignoble “Shrek Adventure” is, or in Marylebone, rather than where it actually is, at 64 Victoria Street–and asking to see their little LGBTQ history month exhibition of the photography of Robert Workman, chronicling moments from gay life and activism in London in the latter half of the 20th century, along with some ephemera from notable performances in our many theatres. It was a long haul and a hostile segment of town, on Ash Wednesday, so I was treated to the odd sight, in a largely secular nation, of people in very smart business attire with evidence of a private inner faith. Despite the daubing of palm ash, the majority of the men and women in question had little but suspicion for a bloke in make-up…

The following day at the Barbican Centre, the situation could not have been more different. About the only commonalities were the white walls of the exhibition spaces and the presence of photographs; I was certainly not alone in being “a bloke in make-up”, either as a visitor or as an exhibit.

Going to see the closing throes of Troy: Myth and Reality at the British Museum the following day from Masculinities drove home in contrast just how exquisitely well-designed and laid-out the Barbican’s exhibition space was. Unlike the British Museum’s perennial problem of creating a bottle-neck in the first room (a problem I note the Tate Britain’s exhibition space manages not to replicate), the Barbican’s exhibition created breathing space, a choice of viewing distances (without risking blocking or being blocked from viewing the art by other patrons), and contemplative gaps between installations, without feeling as if one were being stiffed or presented with an underloaded plate (as with the National’s risible Leonardo money-grab).

Clearly-marked thematic sections divided into manageable chunks and subdivided into artists and ideas meant that two floors and two hours of exhibition-trawling did not feel overwhelming, tiresome, or tedious; ample seating around video installation and the upper mezzanine’s railings for additional support meant that my gym-tired body didn’t feel wrecked as I trailed about different galleries, viewing masculinity in an unceasing stream of varying aspects and perspectives.

A white person stands side-on, facing left. Their dark hair is combed down over half of their face. They have their shoulders back, chest out, and are naked. The photograph is black and white, and strongly shaded.
From the work of Cassils, non-binary performance artist.

In terms of content, there can always be valid criticisms: although a couple of pieces address the Orientalising Western gaze and its framing of non-Western masculinity, they are sparse; although Cassils’ body of work is taken to represent the gender spectrum and its relation with transmasculinity, the fact remains that no he/him-using trans men’s work was included, nor any specifically trans men, rather than transmasculine non-binary people, were included among the subject matter. Likewise, while a section took in views on and from black masculinity in photography (and film, with a screening of the exceptionally beautiful Looking For Langston), there was no broader category of interactions between race and masculinity, and no address of what specific construction of white masculinity looks like highlighted as that; there is nothing specific about masculinity and disability barring the inclusion of the collaborations between B J Robinson and George Dureau.

A black and white photograph of B J Robinson, who is a white man with long hair and a beard. He is also a double amputee, facing the camera and balancing on one hand. He is naked.
B J Robinson by George Dureau

But this is nitpicking on my part; an attempt to show that I can think in the paradigm where nothing is ever really good enough; in fact, the work on display was profound, varied, personal, political, touching, terrifying, alien, familiar, beautiful and ugly, and in some cases hilariously obvious as fetishistic to those who spend the right amount of time on the wrong parts of the internet–but perhaps less so at the time of its original display or creation.

Under “terrifying”, there is Andrew Moisey‘s “The American Fraternity”, an ugly and depressing book juxtaposing the actions of frat members with their fraternity ideals, displayed in the same room as “I Was Looking Back” by Mikhael Subotzky, which addresses with visceral images augmented by physical fracures to the display glass the question of which men are granted humanity and which are not under the hypermasculine white privileging hegemonic structures of South Africa. I would categorise Karen Knorr‘s “Gentlemen” series, in the same subsection of “Male Order”, as a subtle kind of terrifying, too; the absolute assurance of extreme, intergenerational privilege, posed like advertising stills, is chilling.

A black man carrying coffee for members of a gentlemen's club, above the quote "Men are attracted to power, women are more interested in service."
From Karen Knorr’s “Gentlemen” series. The quotes were overheard in the clubs in which the photography took place.

Under “touching”, in “Family”; Richard Billingham‘s “Ray’s a Laugh” series on life with his alcoholic father was, as a friend who has worked with alcoholism service users for much of his professional life remarked, “an accurate snapshot of the highs and lows”, while in the same room Kalen Na’il Roach‘s intimate redacted family photos, “My Dad Without Everybody Else”, strikes an eerie balance between a feeling of acute isolation and absolute tenderness.

The lower floor of the exhibition, Disrupting the Archetype, Cowboy, Male Order, and Family, outlines the broad strokes of traditional views on masculine identity, and undermines them (“I’m Too Sad To Tell You” by Bas Jan Ader, for example, features a video of the artist weeping cathartically and without shame): war/military topics; the adventure archetype of the cowboy; the male body and bodybuilding (joined by the non-binary body of Cassils, examining in a large series of almost-identical photos how subtle shifts in light and muscular tension affect the viewers’ reading of gender, a topic intimately familiar to the trans audience); sports; male-exclusive environments, whether explicitly or implicitly; and the mutating role of the man within the family unit (turn-taking with masculine power and its relationship to ageing; absence; fragility; and Sunil Gupta‘s “Pretended Family Relationships” artistic response to the notorious Section 28).

Colour photograph of a man standing with his arms by his sides in a garden, facing the camera. His face is impossible to properly make out, as the glass covering it has been smashed.
From Mikhael Subotzky’s “I Was Looking Back” series.

The upper, the mezzanine, looks at Outsider Masculinity; if there is a lumpenmasc standard “masculinity”–white, able-bodied, cisgender, male-fraternal, family-having default, the works upstairs approach the non-default. Sections include Queering Masculinity, Reclaiming the Black Body, and Women on Men, and show significant breadth of style and subject matter under those headings; stand-outs for me included Kiluanji Kia Henda‘s fantastically artificial “The Last Journey of the Dictator Mussunda N’zombo Before the Great Extinction” (a comment on the damage of Big Men dictators and their Western backers), Sunil Gupta’s “Exiles” series interviewing the gay community of New Delhi in the late 80s, multiple already-iconic works by New York photographer Peter Hujar (especially the “Orgasmic Man I, II, III” series that greets you at the top of the stairs and provides an immediate relief from the tough emotional wringer of the “Family” room below), Ana Mendieta‘s “Untitled (Facial Hair Transplants)” which comes across as both playful and highly critical, and the quite incomparable and poetic Looking for Langston of Isaac Julien’s creation.

A black and white image of a man who is naked to the waist, viewed from behind. He is muscular.
Herb Ritts.

While many of the photographers on display may seem almost hackneyed in terms of their ubitquity (Wolfgang Tillmans, John Coplans, Robert Mapplethorpe, Herb Ritts and the aforementioned Peter Hujar all make appearances), the overall narrative of the show merits their inclusion, and the work is of unrelentingly high quality; I would rather see this than something spotty, or which made a stab at a point, and missed it. Masculinities is a discursive exhibition which invites conversation, and so on that note I will close with two enlightening remarks from a friend I bumped into there:

1. “I never knew what to feel about [subject of a very funny documentary film in the exhibition, and Welsh wrestling legend] Adrian Street, because my Granny was always cursing him whenever he was on the telly.”
and two:
2. “It’s interesting–[in the Women on Men] section they have a whole bit looking at how men take up space, and then in the adjacent room you see men in those poses exactly. None of this exhibition is by accident.”

It will be interesting to see if the Barbican feels compelled to follow up with an exhibition looking at constructions of whiteness, by way of a companion piece.

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