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Review: 'Masculinities: Liberations through Photography' @ The Barbican

Updated: May 2, 2020

Where the dominant conversation on masculinity is solely focused on discussing it as toxic or fragile, the Barbican’s ‘Masculinities: Liberations through Photography’, provides a much-needed dialogue to understand masculinity as a multifaceted identity. Focusing on ‘how masculinity has been coded, performed, and socially constructed’ the gallery uses over 300 images from the 1960s to the present day, most of which take great care to oppose the traditional construction of masculinity. The plurality of the exhibition title is fundamental here. It is masculinities that we must understand, a myriad of different identities, many of which may contradict each other. Whilst stereotypes still subsist here, they are a starting point for a conversation, rather than the total dialogue.

The exhibition is prefaced by Simone De Beauvoir’s famed statement that ‘one is not born, but rather becomes a woman’, asking the viewer to relate this understanding to what it means to become a man. And what kind of man? The exhibition attempts to broadly classify, collating its photographs into approximate categories such as race, queer identities, fatherhood, and vocations. It commences with considering the ideal man. This is a journey through hegemonic masculinity, looking at the images of soldiers, world leaders, and sports players. In mainstream media, this is the archetype of man: strong, dominant, and successful. Encountering dozens of photographs of US politicians, it is apparent that in these spaces, that is all one is free to be.

Standing antithetically from the rigidity of the ideal man are the images of queerness. Visually defiant, these subversive aesthetics of non-conformist subcultures emerge politically charged against a world that would then criminalise them. Hal Fischer’s Gay Semiotics (1977) takes photos of these subcultures and annotates them following a typically structuralist approach. Taking the notion of sign and signifier, Fischer highlights these accessories worn in the photo and decodes them for how they allude to a specific sexual preference, for instance, if a handkerchief is in a certain pocket. However, the vagueness of these signifiers is noted; it is ambiguous as to whether this is a coded sexual behaviour, or whether the subject needed to blow their nose. This visual scrutiny dichotomises the following series of photographs; Sunil Gupta’s photographs of gay couples in various locations across Delhi have a clear focus on the emotional relationship between the subjects. Gupta’s work revokes the notion that queer identity is visually distinguishable, demonstrating that the need for specific categories to be symptomatic of heterosexuality.

In a section based on Laura Mulvey’s concept of the male gaze, we encounter the stark differences in how we view men and women’s bodies. This feels particularly poignant due to the gender imbalance that still subsists across the world’s major galleries. Feminist art group the Guerrilla Girls have dedicated their work to exposing the lack of female artwork displayed, but the abundance of their bodies. Their work Do Women Have to Be Naked to Get Into the Met. Museum denotes that whilst less than 5% of the artists in the modern art sections are women, 85% of the nudes are female. The female body is ubiquitous, whilst the feminine critical eye and opinion are hidden from view. Laurie Anderson’s 1973 series Fully Automated Nikon (Object/Objection/Objectivity) claims the gaze, choosing to revert microaggressions she faces back to the male perpetrator. She takes photographs of men who had catcalled her, annotating the images with their response. The overwhelming outrage from most of the subjects shows the discomfort these men felt in being objectified, a feat they had subjected Anderson to moments ago. To be the objectified body is an alien experience for men when their normality is the freedom to fetishise freely.

For more humorous experimentation with the male gaze, there is Hans Eijkelboom’s series The Ideal Man (1978) features images of the artist after ten women have fashioned him into their image of the ‘ideal’ man. Eijkelboom dons various styles of facial hair and clothing and then is photographed side-by-side with the women who created this vision. This work is a more light-hearted reversal of the power dynamics in attraction, providing a rare space for women to assert creative control over the male image.

Despite the playful works of Anderson and Eijkelboom, there is great care to unapologetically display the very real danger of patriarchal power. A particularly chilling series is Anna Fox’s ‘My Mother’s Cupboards / My Father’s Words’, which visualises a situation of domestic violence. In pastel italicised font, Fox quotes her father remarking, ‘I’m going to tear your mother to shreds with an oyster knife’. This, juxtaposed with images of her mother's meticulously ordered floral crockery,

feels disturbing. In this work, Fox, their child, occupies a sort of empty space between her father’s threat and her mother’s silence, left only to document.

The Barbican has provided a detailed and sophisticated idea of what it means to be a man. Liberated from stereotypes, the exhibition creates a space for its viewers to try and understand masculinity in its innumerable forms.


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