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Masculinities: Liberation through Photography at the Barbican

Paul m s architectural review

Alona Pardo’s curation offers an extensive and careful assemblage of masculinities as captured, distorted, and challenged in photography and the moving image from 1960 to the present day

The urban conditions of the city, the publicness of its shared spaces, the density of dwelling and proximity of social interactions, are such that they allow for the emergence of certain kinds of politics. Cities are places where hegemonic masculinity is reproduced, but also where it is most cunningly deconstructed. As sites of concentration they facilitate a collectivity which makes them fertile birthplaces for popular movements of resistance, but also susceptible to devastating health emergencies, able to spread among tight-knit populations with relative celerity.

The AIDS epidemic that began in 1981 spread fast in New York City, and federal and local government responses were uneven and underfunded. Sunil Gupta’s photographs of Greenwich Village, taken over the course of a year in 1976, capture the social and political fecundity of this moment in the city, before the crisis and after the Stonewall uprising. A decade where the burgeoning cultural mood that had brought about events such as the Summer of Love had seemed to promise a certain kind of world might be possible. While studying photography at the New School under the capable counsel of prolific street photographer Lisette Model, Gupta took to wandering the streets of New York – ‘I spent my weekends cruising with my camera’. The act of photographing became a delicate way to express desire. Visibility became a political activity.

The photographs are quotes from the appearance of the era. They capture men mid-stride, in the kind of intense sun that can only be found deep within the tightly meshed grid of New York’s countless blocks. Shapes of sunglasses, cuts of trousers, hems brushing against tall boots, varying forms of facial hair, all are signifiers of the visual register which recalls this particular moment. The way people dress themselves is important. There is a lexicon of attraction which is theatrical.

Sunil gupta christopher street architectural review

Sunil gupta christopher street architectural review

Source: Sunil Gupta, Untitled #22 from the series Christopher Street, 1976, Courtesy the artist and Hales Gallery. © Sunil Gupta. All Rights Reserved, DACS 2019

The lingua franca of gay culture which appeared on the streets of San Francisco in the same period is the subject of Gay Semiotics, Hal Fischer’s alluring black and white glossy photographs mapping the methodology of structuralism onto the visual codes of queer interactions in the city. If in Christopher Street Gupta captures interactions between men as they are, present in the world, between places, Fischer’s work self-consciously constructs a pseudo-socio-anthropological analysis of these exact moments and deciphers the means of interaction.

Annotations on one of Fischer’s photographs draw attention to the significance of the colour and position of handkerchiefs, which in the image stick out from the top of two back pockets. It is noted: ‘A blue handkerchief placed in the left hip pocket indicates that the wearer will assume the active or traditional male role during sexual contact’. ‘Red handkerchiefs are used as signifiers for behaviour that is often regarded as deviant or abnormal.’ In each image the components of a visual language system are broken down. Through the pairing of deadpan text and slick images, which take clear reference from the charming imagery of advertisements, Fischer introduces linguistics into the practice of photography: how exchanges in the city arise from the placement of an earring, a set of keys; how a ‘gay culture’ flourishes and nurtures itself within the culture ‘at large’.

Hal fischer handkerchiefs architectural review

Hal fischer handkerchiefs architectural review

Source: Hal Fischer, Handkerchiefs, 1977, Carbon pigment print, 61 x 76.2 cm (24 x 30 in)Courtesy of the artist and Project Native Informant, London

After reading Jack Burnham’s The Structure of Art and the work of Claude Lévi-Strauss, Fischer made work which deconstructed the language of attraction of the gay community in the Castro and Haight-Ashbury districts of San Francisco 

Hal fischer signifiers for a male response architectural review

Hal fischer signifiers for a male response architectural review

Source: Hal Fischer, Signifiers for a Male Response, 1977, Carbon pigment print, 76.2 x 61 cm (30 x 24 in)
Courtesy of the artist and Project Native Informant, London

Fischer became part of several photographers, including his mentor Lew Thomas and colleague Donna-Lee Phillips, who began to use text to convey meaning and even contradict their images

Two of Sunil Gupta’s other projects are also featured in Masculinities: Liberation through Photography, on display at the Barbican (although closed at the time of writing due to the COVID-19 pandemic) and captured in the exhibition catalogue edited by curator Alona Pardo. After living and studying in New York, Gupta came to London to attend the Royal College of Art – a move which delivered him into the atmosphere of constraint that was palpable among the gay community in London at the time, made more stark after spending time in the comparably freer realms of New York City. Despite the decriminalisation of homosexuality in the United Kingdom in 1967, the number of arrests made by the police was high, and increasing.

‘The conflicting, fluid, slippery ideas of what the masculine constitutes are imprecise, contesting to its irreducibility to the constraints of precise theoretical concepts’

It was the passing of Clause 28, an amendment enacted in 1988 under Thatcher, which stated that any local authority shall not ‘promote the teaching in any maintained school of the acceptability of homosexuality as a pretended family relationship’, which was the impetus for Gupta’s series ‘Pretended’ Family Relationships. Gupta paired photographs of couples with short poems and slices of a black and white image shot at various demonstrations against Clause 28 in London. The assemblages speak of the necessity of direct action. The link between the private and personal relations of individual couples and the collective struggle against a masculinity that is reinforced and inscribed in law is made ‘so clear’, as is written on one image. The ability to see each other in the city, on the streets, in protest provides the energy for joint action.

The dominance of a certain conception of an ideal masculinity means that forms deemed marginal and unfitting become excluded in violent ways, through social stigma, through abuse, through law. As well as the subordination of these varying ideas of masculinity, masculinity is constructed in direct opposition to femininity. Clare Strand’s Men Only Tower is a towering pile of 68 dog-eared journals with sandy-coloured spines that present themselves like rock-strata, a sculptural object. A decree – ‘Men Only’ – is repeated obstinately on each successive journal. A few frayed coloured edges stick out from the shorter face of the tower, betraying the plainness of the spines and signalling the vibrant content within. The volumes are from a 1935 soft-core porn publication collected by Strand. A fossilised fragment of an era where a certain masculinity was more widely tolerated as ‘boy’s fun’, nevertheless it undoubtedly speaks to the present. ‘We never learn’, Strand acknowledges. The rallying cry of the magazine’s editorial statement, ‘We don’t want women. We won’t have women readers’, proclaimed the domain of the masculine as the distinct absence of the feminine.

Clare strand men only architectural review

Clare strand men only architectural review

Source: Clare Strand, Men Only Tower, 2017, SITUATION #160, SITUATIONS/Photo Text Data Installation view at Fotomuseum Winterthur, 2019 © Clare Strand, Photo © 

It is a twisted and co-opted version of the feminine that makes up the illicit content which lines the pages. Locker-room talk as printed matter. Indeed, the piece is a conscious reference to the self-aggrandising claim made by Donald Trump that one of his towers has 68 floors when in reality there are only 58. Each book then, is the floor of a skyscraper. The volume of each enclosing a world of erotic imagery. What is not visible in the piece are Strand’s own images, which she has placed inside the centre spreads in small black envelopes. These have a partially functional purpose in stabilising the un-fixed structure. Denied to the viewer, Strand sees her additions as ‘some kind of measure of resistance’, potentially a quiet malevolent force. Buried between pages they suggest an instability in the construction of exclusivity. ‘We are living in an unstable world’, Strand admits, ‘it is a proposition.’

The female perception of men is offered a whole section of the exhibition. As evinced in the writings of Laura Mulvey, ‘an idea of woman stands as lynch pin to the system’. It is here that the camera is used to challenge the power play between manifestations of masculinity and women in the life of the city. In Laurie Anderson’s Fully Automated Nikon, the camera is a weapon. ‘Photography is a kind of mugging, a kind of assault’, Anderson recognises in the text which prefaces the photo series. She becomes the active pursuant of the blunt jeers and hoots of men slung crudely to flaunt sexual prowess in the street. This reversal makes her ‘armed, ready’, the pursuit of these moments partially strips them of their violence and arrests them in the frozen flash of an instant.

‘The artifice of making the image is not hidden, it is not a mystery, the game is played rendering it apparent’

Perfectly positioned in the centre of the photograph, the circular lens belonging to Paul Mpagi Sepuya is captured, reflected, in Darkroom Mirror. Two bodies are softly lit in the gentle light of the studio. One is Sepuya’s, the other also clutches a camera, their eye appears from behind staring directly into the mirror, elbow supported by Sepuya’s shoulder. Sepuya’s images deal consciously with the process and the site of making photographs. His use of the conventional portrait as a mode of departure for a body of work that deals carefully with both the photograph as an object with material and spatial processes, and as an expression of social praxis, of relating to people – in Sepuya’s case friends and lovers who visit his studio – is clever. It delves without fear into the tangled history of nude studio photography, his self-portraits and the portraits of his subjects also become portraits of the studio space itself. ‘Photography is the process of rendering observation self-conscious’, writes John Berger.

Paul mpagi sepuya architectural review

Paul mpagi sepuya architectural review

Source: Paul Mpagi Sepuya, Darkroom Mirror (_2080162), 2017, Courtesy of Paul Mpagi Sepuya and team (gallery, inc.), New York. © Payk Mpagi Sepuya


Paul mpagi sepuya darkroom architectural review

Paul mpagi sepuya darkroom architectural review

Source: Paul Mpagi Sepuya, Darkroom (_2010616), 2017, Courtesy of Paul Mpagi Sepuya and team (gallery, inc.), New York. © Paul Mpagi Sepuya

In Darkroom, two figures are covered, partly hidden by a velvet studio curtain draped between two disembodied hands. Sinuous fragments of intertwined limbs and the intimate gesture of hovering hands and fingers imbue the image with a softness. Encased in a clean pane of glass, the darkness of the studio curtains which consume most of the photograph permit reflections of yourself, as the viewer, slotted between and on top of the spaces of the studio and the bodies of Sepuya and his subjects. The artifice of making the image is not hidden, it is not a mystery, the game is played rendering it apparent. With his camera Sepuya is constructing a kind of queer identity, as well as the studio environment and the photographic image. He lets us inside his intimate worlds, withdrawing from promises of lucidity and clarity – it is the shadows and evading the enticing spell of transparency that his camera lends itself to.

Masculinities assembles an argument for the pertinence of photography as a tool through which to disturb and disrupt the conventional constructions of masculinity. This is true whether the subject is the public spaces of the city, the intimate spaces of the bedroom, or the studio. As finely demonstrated in Sepuya’s work, the interplay between suggestion and concealment, between clarity and vagueness that a photograph or film can comfortably handle, is enabling: it evades definition and analytical certainty. The conflicting, fluid, slippery ideas of what the masculine constitutes are imprecise, contesting to its irreducibility to the constraints of precise theoretical concepts. This is the ‘liberation’ which the exhibition speaks of most aptly, of photography but also of gender, the binary and hard definitions.

Please note that the Barbican are temporarily closed until further notice due to UK Government advice regarding COVID-19