Masculinities: Liberation through Photography is a staggering exhibition, the kind you need to see twice due to its sheer scale. On display are over 300 images that create a remarkable catalogue of the male condition, past and present. The show opens with John Coplan’s fleshy mural that pays an homage to the ageing male body. The tenderness and vulnerability of the shots is contrasted by their massive and creates an interplay between audacity and vulnerability that recurs throughout the exhibition. The pieces flow through a circular path spread over two floors, and as you walk through different archetypes of masculinity are presented and then deconstructed. The soldier, the cowboy, the fighter, the bodybuilder, the politician, the worker, the father. Men, beautiful, angry, and sad, look at you from the walls and in return ask to be looked at too.
Masculinities : Liberation through Photography Installation view Barbican Art Gallery 20 February 2020 – 17 May 2020 ©Tristan Fewings / Getty Images
Sam Contis’ piece Eggs is a silver gelatine print in the cowboy room. It’s a portrait of a rough work worn hand clutching two brilliant smooth eggs. The narrative of rough and soft, tender and worn out, is smacking. A friend I’m visiting the gallery with points out that it looks like a ballsack. It makes me laugh, but also stop and think about the lack of explicit phallic imagery in the show. Of course, there are a few pieces where it cannot be avoided, like in Clare Strand’s Men Only Tower, a vertical stack of copies of a vintage British softcore publication literally titled “Men Only”, but otherwise, even the few nude portraits on display manage to avoid having genitalia as their focal point. The exhibition is subversive, and most of the pieces achieve this either by presenting an unseen side to masculinity, or by presenting an expected side so conventionally it makes itself absurd. The photographs dismantle traditional notions of masculinity by laying them bare and stripping them of their usual connotations.
It’s interesting that so much of the show has a fixation on the physical: both the physicality of the male body itself, as well as the taboo of physical touch between men. In the body building section, massive photos of scantily clad oiled men line the walls. Two of them are Maplethrope’s portraits of Arnold Scwarzenneger, and in them the male body becomes transformed into an almost ridiculous object (of desire?). Ridiculous for its extravagance, its posed nature. A Mulvey quote on the wall upstairs proclaims that “the male figure cannot bear the burden of sexual objectification.” It seems at first easy to think that the mission of the exhibition is to prove that wrong, but due to the nature of the photographs they actually to do the opposite. Despite the plethora of bodies on the walls, the man does not come to be seen as an object. By putting the taboo of masculine physicality under scrutiny, we leave perceiving masculinity as far more complex, dynamic, and layered than conventions prompt us to. Although, perhaps this is possible due to the established power men already have in society. The show subverts patriarchal expectations, but is able to do this, to present an exhibition of naked bodies without any sexualisation, partly because of the role masculinity already occupies.
Image taken by Maria Dragoi
I think the organisation of the show through the different roles traditionally attributed to men works really well. The gallery visitor walks through portraits high school football players, (Catherine Opie, Football Landscape #17) to a mural of Nazis (Piotr Ulanksi, The Nazis), to domestic photos of an alcoholic father (Richard Billingham, Ray’s a Laugh). Nowhere is this diversity of existence and experience made more startlingly clear than in the seventh room on the ground floor. South African artist Mikhel Subotsky’s abrasive photo series of the life of non white non privileged male hang alongside a absurd video of Yale frat boys being asked to yell ferociously at the camera until they exhaust themselves and their faces look like plums. (Richard Mosse, Fraternity) The shouting competition, according to the artist, is a performance of “elite white male rage”. The juxtaposition is coarse, and uncomfortable to see.
The concept of violence is toyed with throughout the show, revealing itself most disturbingly in Andrew Moisey’s book The American Fraternity. Rife with pictures of initiation rituals and hazing, it features accompanying texts laid out in a biblical format as hymns and orders. Rather than preaching neighbourly love these books are home to songs with lyrics like “shove it in, shove it out, quit fucking about”, and “she died from sucking alpha cock”. The exhibition plays on extremes of experience, showing the hyper-conventional and the non-mainstream side by side to craft a dialogue that sometimes feels overwhelming.
Masculinities : Liberation through Photography Installation view Barbican Art Gallery 20 February 2020 – 17 May 2020 © Tristan Fewings / Getty Images
Upstairs, the focus shifts to the non-mainstream, and due to the fact that the space is a circular balcony that overlooks the main hall downstairs, the viewer is able to simultaneously consider two sides of the male experience. On show are three sections, titled “Queer Masculinity”, “Reclaiming the Black Body”, and “Women on Men: Reversing the Male Gaze”. One piece, Elle Perez’s Gabriel, is a large black and white diptych of a vial of testosterone and a palm frond, “a hallmark of Puerto Rican cultural production.” Perez uses the “duality of sex” unique to plants to express their own experience as a queer and gender non-conforming person. There is a cinema room at the back that plays Isaac Julien’s Looking for Langston. Stepping into the dark room feels like a respite from the sensory overload of all the photos. The film is black and white and beautiful, with a soundtrack to match, and its overwhelming tenderness feels like the right way to close the show.
The show is a monumental achievement, a catalogue of what it means to be male unlike anything I’ve seen before. It is overwhelming, but it has to be, because the subject it tackles is. There is no simple way to stage an exhibition about masculinity, and its multiplicities and contradictions are revealed at the Barbican in a way that is genuinely breathtaking.