Tuesday, 27 July 2010

Back to Life, Back to Surreality: The Surreal House

Surrealism hovers on the boundaries between the pretentious and the raw, between self-indulgence and horror. Both sides were on display last weekend at the Barbican Weekender, a two-day festival to tie in with the Surreal House exhibition. The Centre was alive with surrealist follies, some veering a bit too close to the dreaded world of Cirque, but others (the maze, the small children intent on building cardboard houses) capturing something genuinely fun and off-kilter.

The exhibition itself is thoughtful, wide-ranging and disturbing. The meaning of ‘surreal house’ is twofold: both the ‘domestic interior’ as symbol and object within surrealist art, and the influence of surrealism on architecture. En masse, the works here demonstrate that the house does indeed have a powerful place in the imagination and the unconscious.

At the entrance is Donald Rodney’s In the House of My Father, a close-up photograph of the artist’s hand; on his palm rests a tiny sculpture of a house made from scraps of his own skin , removed during one of his operations to combat sickle-cell anaemia (which killed him in 1998, at the age of 37). Next to the photograph, in a glass case, is the sculpture itself, entitled My Mother. My Father. My Sister. My Brother: miniature, tumbledown, delicate, horrific.

I’ve seen this photograph before, but it works here as a powerful way to introduce the theme of the exhibition. Being trapped in your own skin, your own family, your own self: the home as a place of safety but also as the site of the most primal childhood terrors; the materialisation of the unconscious into physical forms; the bedroom as the site of birth, dreams, sex, and death.

The lower level of the gallery has been partitioned into a series of irregularly shaped rooms with intriguing titles (Press to Enter!, Femme Maison, Panic Space). These initially appear somewhat disorganised, but resolve into a coherent whole as the exhibition continues.

Visiting these rooms is like exploring a fairground house of horrors, as you round cardboard corners in tentative semi-darkness. This works well to put you in a state of childlike apprehension and vulnerability. Rachel Whiteread’s Untitled (Black Bath), a cast of a bathtub in black rubber, is ominous and huge; escaping from it, you’re confronted by Freud’s chair, oddly spiderlike in its backlit glass case.

The ‘Who I Am’ room, apparently focusing on the notion of the house as self, is a series of horrors: an anonymous engraving from 1505 of a Tree Man (after this Hieronymus Bosch), a grotesque hybrid of man and wood, ruptured, split, mad-eyed, a face at the top and furniture at the bottom. A film of Andre Breton’s house plays at one end of the room. This is the self/house as broken, bodies sprouting into inhuman profusion.

Another room is dominated from above by Rebecca Horn’s Concert for Anarchy, a grand piano suspended upside down in the air, its keys madly sprung out. Every so often, with a resonant low note, the piano comes (back?) to life: the keys retract to their correct positions, the lid closes, the piano plays a tune before exploding once more into frozen agony.

It’s not quite clear what this has to do with houses. The exhibition leaflet says it’s ‘reminiscent of an airborne castle and is principal among the phantoms of the house’, but really I think it just adds to the atmosphere, as do Louise Bourgeois’ creepy, overspilling mounds of sculpture. Some other reviews have criticised this lack of tight conceptual focus:
Yet at times it could be said that the curator has taken anti-modernist irrationality too far. It is often unclear which way to turn when moving from one space to another. It is necessary to spend an inordinate amount of time trying to get into the curator's mind, even when the often-baffling combinations of artworks are explained using wall text.
Personally, I'm not bothered by somewhat tenuous links if the artworks in question add to the enjoyment of the show as a whole. I didn't bother trying to 'get into the curator's mind' (especially as much of the wall text is practically unreadable in the darkness, never mind what it says) or to turn in the right direction; I think this exhibition is much better if you let yourself go a bit, wander vaguely, soak up the atmosphere. Without trying to, I did see everything that was there, in a fairly logical order and with no doubling back.

There is far too much here to do justice by listing individual works. The curators have included Big Names, with top-quality pieces by Dalí, Magritte, Giacometti, and so on, but this aren’t necessarily the most striking. Where it really succeeds is in the architecture of the exhibition itself. On the lower level, from within the house, it’s an unnerving experience of going through doorways and around blind corners; from above, there are strange lines of sight, cardboard roofs and blank windows, sculptures seen again from a new angle, visitors wandering around. This works brilliantly, as the upper level deals with surrealism and architecture. It’s an inspired melding of form and content.

Architecture featured includes Kiesler’s Endless House, models for a house based on the shell, the egg and the womb, and Le Corbusier’s Villa Savoye, the house that represented twentieth-century Modernism, photographed here after it had fallen into disrepair, along with many other architectural models which strive to materialise the unconscious into external built forms.

The are also many, many films to see, ranging from documentary footage of performance art (someone cutting a house in half, with great effort), to relevant clips from longer films (e.g. Andrei Tarkovsky’s The Sacrifice and Jean-Luc Godard’s Le Mépris), and even entire movies, such as Jean Cocteau's La Belle et la Bête, in the ‘Electric Cinema’ – a mock-up complete with comfortable battered red velveteen seats.

Visiting this exhibition isn’t simply viewing art assembled in a gallery space; it’s an affective and absorbing experience in itself, which makes it well worth the cost of entry.

(I had planned to include here a write-up of Tai Shani’s exhibition-linked performance piece, ‘Last Night I Dreamt I Was Venus from Beyond the Mirrors’, but I’m disinclined to put more thought and effort into writing a review than she did into devising and rehearsing it in the first place.)

The Surreal House, Barbican Art Gallery, Barbican Centre, Silk St, London EC2Y 8DS. 10 June – 12 September 2010.

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