I recently visited Masculinities: Liberation through Photography, currently on display at the Barbican Centre until August 23. You may now visit the exhibition by booking a 1-hour slot in advance and following the mandatory one-way route designed to maintain the appropriate distance between viewers. While 60 minutes are far from enough to properly enjoy the many works on display (about 300 in total), the show remains a compelling exploration of manhood as viewed through the lenses of photography and video art.
Masculinities is organised thematically to reflect the multitude of meanings and identities that have been attached to the male gender. The exhibition begins with Archetype, which features stereotypical depictions of men as warriors. In this context, the army and its representations in pop culture and movies play a pivotal role. In his series Soldiers, Israeli photographer Adi Nes portrays scenes of military life and unveils unexpected moments of vulnerability. This creates a contrast between the active and energetic archetype of the man-warrior and Nes’s models.
Contrasting stereotypes contribute to the exhibition’s broader framing of masculinity as a form of performance. In her essay Performative Acts and Gender Constitution, Judith Butler highlights how gender identity is not an essential quality of the individual, but a role to be constantly rehearsed and played. This idea is central to the show’s exploration of queer male identity, for instance in the works of Hal Fischer. His creations combine pictures and annotations, recording the dress code of the LGBTQ community of the 1970s in a documentary-like fashion. Other artists, such as Peter Hujar, take a more intimate approach, showing the life of the American gay community in the social spaces that they managed to carve for themselves during the tragic years of the HIV pandemic.
The show closes with a number of works by female artists. This is possibly one of the most interesting sections since it inverts the power dynamics usually associated with the “male gaze” (a key concept in feminist theory), placing the male body at the centre of attention as a source of desire and erotic pleasure. In her 28-minute film Heaven, Tracey Moffatt records passing men on a beach, following them around with the eyes of a female voyeur, inverting the traditional directionality of desire presented in most of Western art. Hence, those men are not shown in empowering terms but rather as vulnerable and open to the artist’s own gaze (and ours too as viewers).
Overall, Masculinities is a dynamic and engaging exhibition. However, its large size and arrangement across two floors of the Barbican’s art gallery make it unsuitable to visit in one hour only. While the new requirements are understandable in light of the ongoing pandemic, it could be argued that 300 works of art are excessive in any case and prevent the viewer from appreciating individual pieces properly. Personally, despite having enjoyed my visit, I struggled to remember most works and artists upon leaving, a sign of the fact that I had far too little time to fully appreciate the display. This said, I still recommend visiting the show for its amazing selection of works and curatorial approach, which is very accessible also to viewers without a background in contemporary art.