If as a famous book once claimed, Men are from Mars and Women are from Venus, is masculinity from the Barbican? The art gallery’s interrupted summer exhibition has reopened post-lockdown and continued to probe the question of what makes man, man.
It’s a photographic exhibition, pulling together an exceptionally diverse range of works, from the obvious to some which may surprise the most worldly-wise of old souls.
As if often the case, it’s the small — and small font — signs that offer the insights as to why a set of photos is of interest. The groups of relaxed and almost femininely dressed men, are Taliban soldiers using the only camera allowed in their culture, to have ID photos taken before they took up arms for their cause.
Some of it is very obvious images that you would expect in any exhibition of men and gender — the soldiers resting in each others arms worn out from fighting, the macho men in obvious poses. But some is very personal, charting a photographer’s own alcoholic family and asking what it is to be a drunk and yet required to uphold manly ideals.
A surprise, to me at least, was to learn that a famous photo that was idolised as pure sex appeal to women, and the ideal to strive for by men, and I had assumed was a generic posed photo was in fact, a response to the early days of AIDS, where men wasted away in hospital beds, and the gay community turned to the gym to show how healthy and not at all AIDS-like they were.
The young man posing in tight clothes is an unexpected act of rebellion because Jean-Bédel Bokassa, the self-styled Emperor of Central Africa had banned tight-fitting clothes.
Probably the more troubling images are of Frat boy culture, a deeply unpleasant environment that seeks to bully and belittle, in the name of tradition and heterosexual male supremacy. That they could be lured into being filmed screaming at a camera, for a keg of beer tells you all you need to know about them. It’s not masculinity, it’s just children pretending to be men.
An upper floor of the gallery is given over the aspect you expected to see but haven’t yet – being a gay man. From the clothing codes that signalled preferences to those who knew, to the less often seen in western culture, gay men and women in Asia.
An easy to miss zone if you follow the one-way signs to the exit are women’s views of men. Two small additions to the gallery that tries a bit too hard to try and add to a narrative that is supposed to be here, but seemed to be missing.
If the exhibition seeks to challenge the notions of masculinity, then it failed. Too much of the imagery is obvious in how it seeks to challenge our skin-deep impressions of being a man. However macho they proclaim to be, men will still love, cuddle babies, and puppies, and cry (occasionally), so posed images of men doing that isn’t hugely innovative.
However, they are very good photographs, and much of the collection is in its own right interesting to see regardless of the wider exhibition’s motives. Visit for an excellent photographic exhibition, and leave the existentialist questions at the door.