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Barbican Art Gallery, London: The Surreal HouseLatest News ->

Fri 10 Sept, 2010.

Those of you who have read SomethingDark magazine will know that Eugène Satyrisci is our comment writer. He also writes reviews, and Eugène visited The Surreal House exhibition at the Barbican Art Gallery on 15 July, and we’ve been chasing him ever since for an article for our then still-new Latest News section. Now he’s convinced we’re serious about this, he finally relented and provided us with a review, and, at the risk of posting another last-minute alarm of “don’t miss this one”, we’ve rushed it onto the site just before the exhibition’s closing day.

We could also say “better late than never”, but then what this review has to say is not only relevant to what is happening today, but looking back critically at what happened yesterday, so we can better understand what is happening today, and what may be on the horizon. This is especially applicable in the case of this review since it’s a double-header: our intrepid columnist also attended the “Surrealism, philosophy & literature” talk on 15 July, part of the Barbican’s exhibition-support programme.

We think it’s been worth the wait for Eugène’s take on these events at the Barbican, and we hope you do, too, although we’re not so sure the Barbican would entirely think so. For images focussing on the exhibition’s art works (and a somewhat more standard review), see Sketchbook magazine’s blog site; for images focussing on the physical–architectural space of The Surreal House as part of a more substantial review, see the architecture and design blog DeZeen.

Over to Eugène.

The Surreal House: a Surrealistic experience in more ways than one
by Eugène Satyrisci

The Surreal House at the Barbican has almost run its course, but SDk’s editor tells me that doesn’t negate a need to record some comments on a doubtlessly successful major exhibition that has probably done much to resurrect Surrealism’s profile not only in the art world, but among the general exhibition-going public. And this latter audience was, equally doubtlessly, the one the Barbican was aiming for: and let them have it with both barrels they did.

Now, letting loose with an art exhibition can be a good thing, and let it be said from the outset that The Surreal House, the exhibition, was a good thing. In fact, a very good thing. But, alas, blasting away with both barrels of a rather formidable marketing scattergun can have some detrimental effects, as well, as we shall see.

But first things first, so to the exhibition proper.

The principal objective of The Surreal House is to explore the relevance of Surrealism for architecture – and it is the first major exhibition to do so, according to curator Jane Alison in the exhibition guide booklet. This, together with highlighting “the importance of the house within surrealism”, explains the larger-than-life “house” theme, manifested literally in the way award-winning London architects Carmody Groarke transformed the Barbican Art Gallery with their exhibition design: 16 “rooms” over two levels that circle the gallery’s central void. The contents of these individually themed spaces together comprise “a renegade house of mysterious chambers”.

The publicity did its job well: it made the exhibition sound intriguing, even promising. Fortunately, as indicated at the beginning of this review, the promise was fulfilled, at least in part because The Surreal House went far beyond its principal theme. The fulfilment of this promise began with the exhibition design’s commendable attempt to remain faithful to the Surrealists’ radical spirit, which, in the major international Surrealist exhibitions of 1938, 1947, 1959 and 1965, physically transformed gallery spaces to draw visitors into, and engage them in, strange, alternative worlds of dream and desire, eroticism and abjectivity – and in the process scandalised the bourgeois sensibilities of the day.

Promise was also fulfilled to some extent by the presence of works by both earlier and later artists – and, significantly, filmmakers – although in some cases the connections with Surrealism are strained. For example, does Maurizio Cattelan’s Charlie Don’t Surf (1997) share something essential with Surrealism because the Surrealist artist Hans Bellmer became famous (or notorious) for his life-sized dolls, and because mannequins featured in the Paris, 1938 Exposition Internationale du Surréalisme? Indeed the Cattelan piece possesses an element of eeriness and the capacity to disturb some viewers, but is every work of art that possesses an element of eeriness and the capacity to disturb intrinsically related to Surrealism? I would tend to think not.

Another example happens to be one of my favourites of the exhibition, Metal Fucking Rats (2006), the sculptural–installation piece projected in shadow on a wall by a light shining through an ingeniously arranged pile of welded scrap metal. Created by the English artists Tim Noble and Sue Webster, it is a cheeky, witty work of art that might have been scandalous in the 1930s, ’40s and ’50s but not today, and hardly suggestive of anything Surrealistic.

Some of the alleged connections between Surrealism and architecture are even more tenuous – including one of the focal points of peripheral activities organised around the exhibition that helps tie together the Surrealism–architecture theme, the work of Swiss (and then French – he changed his nationality) architect and designer, Le Corbusier. Known as a pioneer of Modernist architecture, photographs of his decaying Villa Savoye (1928–31) feature in “Room 15” of The Surreal House. Even the exhibition guide booklet confesses ambivalence regarding any connection with Surrealism, and it is not the building itself, but the building as a backdrop in the work not of Le Corbusier (who was also an artist) but of other photographers and painters that appears to lend a semblance of validation to its “eerie” presence in the exhibition.

I do not wish to appear overly harsh: there is much in The Surreal House that illuminates the history and legacy of Surrealism. Exhibition highlights can be highly personal, and I take pleasure in announcing that this exhibition presented more highlights for me than most.

I was delighted to see an example of Marcel Duchamp’s and Enrico Donati’s original Prière de Toucher (Please Touch) false-breast deluxe catalogue cover for the 1947 international Surrealist exhibition in Paris, in this case serving as an entrance “doorbell” to the Surreal “house”. Inside, the first “room” to greet the visitor was actually Room 2, “The House of Freud”. Perhaps a little too much was made of Sigmund Freud in the exhibition – more on this is following – but an undoubtedly fascinating exhibit was Freud’s consulting room chair.

Other highlights were original editions of the Surrealist review, Minotaure, that was published from 1933 to 1939; film footage of André Breton’s rather atmospheric (to say the least) apartment in Paris; and a series of photographs portraying the Surrealists’ fascination with automatism, La Subversion des Images (1929–30), by Paul Nougé. Then there was Maya Deren’s 14-minute masterpiece of experimental film, Meshes of the Afternoon (1943) – a clear influence on Bettina Rheim’s and Serge Bramly’s Rose, c’est Paris to which I failed to refer in my review of the latter for SomethingDark magazine. And how could one not mention the pleasure of seeing original paintings by Salvador Dalí and René Magritte, both iconic examples: Sleep (1937), and The Lovers (1928), respectively.

Among today’s contemporary artists represented in The Surreal House, London-based Rachel Kneebone’s erotic, white porcelain sculptures really did seem infused with the spirit of calculated outrage cultivated by the Surrealists. Her exquisite table-top sculptures were tangled birds’ nests and bramble patches of writhing male and female bodies and genitals – the perfect accompaniment to grandmother’s fine bone china in the family’s dining-room display case.

Now we must return to some of the publicity and activities surrounding the exhibition. Was Sigmund Freud really “the greatest surrealist of them all”, as stated in one piece of the Barbican’s online PR?

While Freud may have been the grandfather of Surrealism’s fascination with the relationships between dream, reason and repressed desire, the conscious mind, art and the unconscious, he was not one with their mind and could hardly be more removed from their sensibility. From Vienna, Freud looked at Eros with the lens of a socially and morally conservative scientist and was at the forefront of providing a theoretical, (pseudo-)scientific framework for the institutionalised repression of “primitive” erotic urges, while, from Paris, the Surrealists saw Eros with the eyes of artists and erotic and social revolutionaries; in this, they were irreconcilably at odds.

So the answer to the question initially posed is, no, Freud was not “the greatest surrealist of them all”, if only because Freud was not a Surrealist. At this point it might be relevant to mention that the Freud Museum, London, was the Barbican’s associate partner for the exhibition, and a number of peripheral activities in the exhibition’s programme were hosted at the museum.

The Barbican’s “Freudian slip” – to pun on what might be considered an isolated faux pas if it were indeed the sole example of such an error – unfortunately characterises much of the publicity and many of the activities associated with the exhibition. It is as if the marketing office took over at this point and, to interpret the result benignly, became a little over-enthused with their role in reviving Surrealism’s legacy in clutching at everything within reach and dubbing it “Surrealism”. It all makes more sense when one exits the gallery space through the gift shop (acknowledgement to the English street artist Banksy) and reads on the back of The Surreal House’s substantial, eight-page events brochure the following words: “Visit the Art Gallery Shop for surreal inspired gifts as well as a selection of inspirational objects, books and curiosities”, as well as “...and enjoy surreal drinks with friends at the bar”.

And now to the talk I attended, “Surrealism, philosophy & literature”, part of the Barbican’s “Words” series of “complimentary talks and discussions” staged around the exhibition. That should be complementary, of course, because there is not much that is or was “complimentary” about these events – not even the overpriced bottles of mineral water offered for sale by Barbican catering staff at the £7-per-ticket discussion I attended.

I attended “Surrealism, philosophy & literature” because, featuring Mary Ann Caws and Brian Dillon, it, too, promised much: Caws, a specialist on Surrealism, is currently a professor of English, French, and comparative literature at the Graduate School of the City University of New York, and Dillon is a writer, critic, UK editor of the New York-based intellectual–cultural Cabinet magazine and a research fellow at the University of Kent. Instead, it resembled a cosy fireside chat among friends. I could be more critical, and it would not be undeserved, but another member of the audience, Alyce Mahon, an art historian at the University of Cambridge and also a specialist on Surrealism, rather gracefully summed up the speakers’ performance during question time when she playfully suggested they had been “wallowing” in their pet themes. She did, however, hasten to add she meant the comment in no derogatory sense. [Editor: see our review of Alyce Mahon’s book Eroticism & Art, in SDk01, p. 84.]

In summary, the Barbican diced with credibility in promoting The Surreal House in the manner it did; one day, it may lose that particular gamble, although, no doubt, this style of extravaganza returns satisfying profits, which is surely the point of the exercise. In these days of economic bankruptcy, it appears to be one of the prices we have to pay for such exhibitions to be mounted at all, but is it too much to ask that the fringe activities be executed with more style and an eye on value for the paying customer? As the situation stands, and the Barbican is by no means an isolated example, it is a case of let the buyer beware. We are, after all, dealing with an industry. As mentioned repeatedly, however, the exhibition itself is well worth the £8 entry fee, perhaps even more than once: it is very wide-ranging and is imaginatively presented. Just don’t believe everything you read in the PR.

For further information and details of exhibition times and activities, see the Barbican Art Gallery’s website on The Surreal House. The exhibition closes this Sunday 12 September.

Copyright © Eugène Satyrisci and SomethingDark 2010. All rights reserved.