Another Kind of Life: Photography on the Margins @ the Barbican

Scale and scope

This is a big exhibition. It showcases the work of 20 leading photographers from around the world and brings together an impressive, almost overwhelming range, of material, with over 300 works from the 1950s to the present day, including vintage and contemporary prints, archival material, specialist magazines, rare audio recordings, films and photo books.

The theme is ‘outsiders and rebels’. As the press release explains:

By recording and documenting those on the edges, or outside of the mainstream, the images in Another Kind of Life bear witness to how social attitudes change across time and space, charting how visual representation has helped shape current discourse in relation to marginalised or alternative communities.

The rebels and outsiders come in roughly two forms, social and sexual. By ‘social’ I mean rockers, bikers, street gangs, criminal gang members, Teddy boys and so on. By ‘sexual’ I mean the pronounced thread of work which focuses exclusively on transvestite and transgender people, people of ‘unorthodox’ or outside sexuality, often prostitutes.

It struck me as I went round the show that you could categorise these as rebels-by-choice and rebels-by-sexuality.

Broadly speaking the pictures in the downstairs rooms are from the 1960s, by photographers born in the 1930s and 40s, who are American or European, and the pictures are in black and white. Up in the first floor galleries, the photographers are younger, the prints are in colour, a lot bigger and from a wider geographical reach (Russia, India, Chile, Mexico, Nigeria).

Each of the photographers has a room dedicated to their own work and for this purpose the normally fairly open gallery space of the Barbican has been converted into a warren of smallish rooms. The walls partitioning off the display areas are black and arranged in such a way that there are ‘dummy’ or empty spaces between them, converting the downstairs area into quite a maze. Indeed, they hand out a map with arrows to help the visitor find their way through it. If I’d had small children it would have been quite a good layout to play hide and seek in.

First a thumbnail sketch of the photographers and their work, then some thoughts.

The photographers – 1. Downstairs

Diane Arbus (1923 – 1971) American. Arbus became famous for taking photos of marginalized people – dwarfs, giants, transgender people, nudists, circus performers, and people stricken by what ‘normal’ standards might be called ugliness. Pictures of what we used to call ‘freaks’. She is quoted as describing the way she tried to go from being an outsider to the strange worlds she recorded, to going ‘inside’. The wall label explains that her work underwent a significant transformation when she started using a square format camera. Maybe she’s here at the beginning because she introduces many of the themes the exhibition will pursue.

The next room contains works by legendary American photographer Bruce Davidson (b.1933), specifically from the series The Dwarf and Brooklyn Gang. These were taken in the late 1950s and feature skinny youths in jeans, white t-shirts with rockabilly hairstyles on the beach at the cheap seaside resort of Coney Island, or hanging out in the streets and stairwells of New York.

Japanese photographer Daido Moriyama (b.1938) is famous for his seminal work, Japan Photo Theatre (1968). This features shots of ordinary people captured in candid moments, in bars, restaurants, drinking heavily, smoking, as well as shots of prostitutes and transvestites in Tokyo, belying Japan’s reputation for propiety and and conformity.

Japan Theatre from the series Japan Photo Theater by Daido Moriyama. Michael Hoppen Gallery, London, UK Courtesy of Daido Moriyama Photo Foundation

Japan Theatre from the series Japan Photo Theater by Daido Moriyama. Michael Hoppen Gallery, London, UK Courtesy of Daido Moriyama Photo Foundation

Danny Lyon (b.1942) is an American photographer and film maker who works on the immersive principle. The works here record him becoming accepted in the mid-60s by the ‘hard-drinking’ motorbike gang, The Outlaws. Lots of photos of these tough guys wearing sleeveless denim jackets to showcase their tattoos, riding their rigs, smoking tabs and kissing their women.

The second Japanese photogrpaher in the exhibition is Seiji Kurata (b.1945) represented by starkly lit images from Flash Up (1975–79), a work depicting the seedy, often violent underbelly of gang culture in the notorious Ikebukuro and Shinjuku districts of Tokyo, featuring ‘leather-boys and bargirls’. The young toughs in Danny Lyon or Bruce Davidson are dead proud of their tattoos but they have nothing on these Japanese gang members who are covered from head to foot with intricately-drawn tattoos, often containing violent and threatening imagery.

Another American, Larry Clarke (b.1943) is a director, photographer, writer and film producer who is best known for his photography book Tulsa, in which he recorded in black and white photos (and in a rough and ready b&w film, on show here) the dead-end, semi-violent, drug-influenced world of his twenty-something schoolmates, shown smoking, drinking, snogging girls, driving cars, shooting up heroine.

Untitled (1963) from the series Tulsa, 1962 - 1971 by Larry Clark. Courtesy of the artist, Luhring Augustine, New York and Simon Lee Gallery, London

Untitled (1963) from the series Tulsa, 1962 – 1971 by Larry Clark. Courtesy of the artist, Luhring Augustine, New York and Simon Lee Gallery, London

Igor Palmin was born in Russia in 1933. The commentary explains that during the 1960s and 70s going on an ‘archaeological expedition’ was a good way for dissident youths to get away from the stifling conventions and social spying of home. Through these trips Palmin discovered scattered communities of young people trying to copy the western ideal of becoming hippies and ‘dropping out’. This resulted in the two works on show here, sequences of black and white photos set in the grungy post-industrial landscape of Southern Russia, The Enchanted Wanderer (1977) and The Disquiet (1977). The first one features numerous shots of the same long-haired, bell-bottomed hippy wandering round what looks like an abandoned gravel works; the second features a few more hippies, complete with flower power hair bands, playing guitars in abandoned buildings or smoking joints in a scruffy caravan.

Untitled XVI, Stavropol Krai, USSR, 1977 from the series The Enchanted Wanderer, 1977 by Igor Palmin. Courtesy of the artist © Igor Palmin

Untitled XVI, Stavropol Krai, USSR, 1977 from the series The Enchanted Wanderer (1977) by Igor Palmin. Courtesy of the artist © Igor Palmin

The Swiss Walter Pfeiffer (b.1946) emerged on the peripheries of documentary photography in the 1970s and now flourishes in the mainstreams of contemporary fashion and style bibles. He’s represented by his body of work about his young transsexual friend Carlo Joh, from the Zurich gay scene. Partly inspired by Lou Reed’s recently released album Transformers (1972), Pfieffer took a whole series of black and white and colour photos and films of Joh over a few months in 1973, showing him in various states of undress, with or without wigs and make-up, playing with gender imagery.

Untitled from Carlo Joh, 1973 by Walter Pfeiffer. Courtesy Fotomuseum Winterthur © Walter Pfeiffer

Untitled from Carlo Joh, 1973 by Walter Pfeiffer. Courtesy Fotomuseum Winterthur © Walter Pfeiffer

Born in 1959, Frenchman Philippe Chancel is best known for his work documenting Paris street gangs in the 1980s, specifically the Panthers and the Vikings. The commentary describes the gangs as being ‘in thrall to an idealised version of 1950s American youth culture’, and explains that they treasured vintage U.S. Air Force jackets and listened to hot jazz. The Vikings were named after the Del-Vikings, the first American rock’n’roll group to include both blacks and whites; The Panthers are named after the Black Panthers. Note both the American-ness and the datedness of these influences.

To my eye it was just another set of young dudes, wearing jeans, with rockabilly quiffs, smoking tabs, showing off their tattoos, dancing in nightclubs and getting off with girls. Far from being ‘outsiders’ I was struck by how much they were just copying what, by the 1980s, had become the international conventional look of youth ‘rebellion’. Some of them packed baseball bats and one had a gun. As sure as night follows day, we see all this revelry leading to street fights and then to some of les jeunes being carted off by les flics.

Untitled, 1982 from the series Rebel’s Paris 1982 by Philippe Chancel. Courtesy of Melanie Rio Fluency, France

Untitled, 1982 from the series Rebel’s Paris 1982 by Philippe Chancel. Courtesy of Melanie Rio Fluency, France

Casa Susanna is not a person but a collection of around 400 prints taken during the mid-50s and 60s at a private retreat for transvestites, a safe haven in upstate New York where they posed for the camera in glamorous dresses, playing cards, eating dinner and having drinks by the fire. This treasure trove of old prints was recently discovered at a Manhattan flea market and here it is, now a treasured part of gender-bending social history.

Susanna at Casa Susanna, 1964-1969 attributed to Andrea Susan, from the Casa Susanna Collection © Art Gallery of Ontario

Susanna at Casa Susanna, 1964-1969 attributed to Andrea Susan, from the Casa Susanna Collection © Art Gallery of Ontario

The last room on the ground floor showcases black and white photos by Chris Steele-Perkins (b.1947) who was commissioned by the Times in 1976 to do a feature on contemporary Teddy boys. First time around in the 1950s, Teds were so named because they adopted the style of Edwardian dandies, with Brylcreemed quiffs, three-quarter length drape jackets and beetle crusher shoes. Steele-Perkins captured the lives, loves, music and fashion of the Ted revival of the mid-70s, with the usual cast of pimply youths hanging out in pubs and clubs, smoking tabs, showing off their hard man tattoos, dancing with stockinged girls, and showing respect to some of the wizened elders of the movement. I took a particular fancy to ‘Tongue-Tied Danny’s Wedding’, partly because of the title alone.

The photographers – 2. Upstairs

The exhibition continues upstairs in the nine rooms on the first floor, and the mood here feels distinctively different. The American photographers here come from a markedly younger generation than the ones downstairs, and there is a much wider range of nationalities.

You are immediately arrested by the work of Jim Goldberg (b.1953) and the selections from his harrowing work, Raised by Wolves (1987-93). This details the life of street kids Goldberg befriended in Los Angeles and San Francisco in the 1980s, including Tweeky Dave and Echo. There are plenty of photos but also physical objects including what appears to be the actual denim jacket covered in scrawls which one of the kids wears in the photos, FUCK OFF etched repeatedly in biro. And there are ‘photo-texts’ where a print of one of the street kids is accompanied by a white sheet with their scrawled, hand-written messages on them, such as:

I’m Dave who the fuck are you?

Or:

My mom was a junkie slut
My old man is a biker asshole from hell
the fucked-up asshole shot me in the gut when I was 10

These kids are really, really damaged. Another big print of a teenage boy with grazes on his face is accompanied by a text describing how sleazy old men pay to jerk off in front of him for money and how only taking drugs makes it bearable.

In some of the carefree biker photos of Lyon or Davidson, among the denim-clad young men lounging around smoking fags of shooting up or handling half-dressed women, there are babies. You can’t help thinking that Goldberg’s photos show what happened to those babies. Or what happened to the children of those babies. A couple of generations on from the original rebel chic of the late 50s to mid-60s, much of America is an urban wasteland of abandonment and dereliction and drugs.

This message is rammed home by the work in the next room of New York photographer Mary Ellen Mark (1940-2015). She worked on a long-term project, Streetwise (1983) recording her time spent with Erin Charles, a street kid known as ‘Tiny’, who she first met as a 13-year-old surviving on the streets of Seattle. In the last of these brutal photos teenage Tiny is crying, blurring her mascara.

Having consumed more than their fair share of American TV and movies through the magic of the internet, both of my teenage kids think America is the most fucked-up country in the world. Hard to disagree on this evidence.

Lillie with her rag doll. Seattle, Washington from the series Streetwise, 1983 by Mary Ellen Mark © Mary Ellen Mark/ Courtesy Howard Greenberg Gallery New York

Lillie with her rag doll. Seattle, Washington from the series Streetwise, 1983 by Mary Ellen Mark © Mary Ellen Mark. Courtesy Howard Greenberg Gallery New York

Then again – Putin’s Russia :).

Boris Mikhailov (b.1938) specialises in brutally realistic colour photos of the bedraggled, ugly, poor inhabitants of his native Kharkov. The homeless have a special name, the bomzhev, and the Mikhailov room is devoted to a particularly humiliating sequence of two ugly old bomzhev preparing for their marriage, the ugly dwarfish woman, often topless, showing her haggard body and flat breasts, the bearded husband playing around with a twelve-inch dildo. Here are the happy couple:

Untitled, 2005 – 2006, The Weddding © Boris Mikhailov courtesy Sprovieri Gallery

Untitled, 2005 – 2006, The Weddding © Boris Mikhailov courtesy Sprovieri Gallery

Some light relief came in the form of a room of photographs by Chilean photographer Paz Errázuriz (b.1944). General Augusto Pinochet headed a military dictatorship in Chile from 1973 and 1990. Any form of political, cultural or religious non-conformity was punished with arrest, torture and executions. Errázuriz created a series depicting the community of transgender sex-workers working in an underground brothel in Chile, which was gathered together in the book Adam’s Apple (1982-87). The photos here focused on the transgender brothers Pilar and Evelyn, the latter a particularly handsome man, who makes a fine-looking woman. I needed cheering up so I was relieved that some of the photos show Evelyn, apparently with other, straight, members of his family, laughing and joking. One of them catches a moment of real love and affection. Phew.

Evelyn, Santiago from the series La Manzana de Adán (Adam’s Apple), 1983 by Paz Errázuriz © Paz Errázuriz / Courtesy of the artist

Evelyn, Santiago from the series La Manzana de Adán (Adam’s Apple), 1983 by Paz Errázuriz © Paz Errázuriz / Courtesy of the artist

By now the visitor might be forgiven for being overwhelmed, both by names and biographies of the photographers and the histories of their various projects, and by the rather exhausting emotional response some of the more harrowing photographs provoke. But there is still quite a lot more to see and process.

So it’s perfect timing that the visitor is taken by surprise in the next room which is devoted to five or so giant colour prints taken by Pieter Hugo. Hugo, born in 1976, is South African, and the selections are from the series named The Hyena and Other Men (2005–2007). This records members of the Nigerian gang of ‘debt collectors’ who go around with tamed hyenas to collect their debts. Yes. Tamed hyenas. I’d pay up pretty quickly, wouldn’t you?

Just as you’d begun to forget how wrecked America is, there’s a room of photos by Katy Grannan (b.1969) depicting what the Yanks themselves describe as ‘trailer trash’. There are some black people in there, too, but mostly it’s poor whites, economically and socially downtrodden.

Anonymous, Modesto, CA, 2010 by Katy Grannan from the series The Ninety Nine © Katy Grannan, courtesy the artist and Fraenkel Gallery, San Francisco

Anonymous, Modesto, CA, 2010 by Katy Grannan from the series The Ninety Nine © Katy Grannan, courtesy the artist and Fraenkel Gallery, San Francisco

As sudden and unexpected as the hyena men is the next room which is devoted to a big screen showing of a film of Mona Ahmed, a eunuch from New Delhi. This is by Indian photographer Dayanita Singh (b.1961) who met Mona in the 1980s and formed a lifelong friendship with her. Mona was born a boy, castrated when young, and grew up to assert her identity as a member of a ‘third sex’. Beside the film is a series of stills of Mona which include her own ‘honest and frank words’ as accompaniment.

Born in 1969, Alec Soth, another American, by chance came across a guy living in the wild, completely detached from modern life, the state and so on, and this led him to uncover the whole sub-culture of American men (it is mostly men) who live ‘off the grid’ as the modern saying has it. The result is not only enormous colour prints of these haunting, solitary monks, survivalists, hermits and runaways but a number of documents, including wills, letters and manuals on ‘how to disappear from Amerika’. One photo was of a ruined wall in a derelict-looking house, peeling plaster etc, and scrawled on it:

I love my Dad – I wish he loved me

Which bathetically echoed the sentiments of the abandoned children in Jim Goldberg and Mary Ellen Mark. By this stage America really has been painted as the country of loss and abandonment.

The final room in the exhibition is devoted to the even bigger colour prints of Teresa Margolles (b.1963). These huge full colour works depict transgender Mexican sex workers, each one portrayed in a very styled and composed way standing amid the ruins of one-time nightclubs. Very very different from the rough and ready, snap and go, catching the moment black and white shots of Japanese bars and American bikers which we started the show with…

Dance floor of the club 'Arthur's', 2016 by Teresa Margolles. Courtesy of the artist and Galerie Peter Kilchmann, Zurich, Switzerland.

Dance floor of the club ‘Arthur’s’, 2016 by Teresa Margolles. Courtesy of the artist and Galerie Peter Kilchmann, Zurich, Switzerland

Thoughts

Big It’s big, a very big exhibition. Given that there’s a hefty chunk of text introducing each photographer, and a lot of the pictures themselves tell stories, featuring individuals who themselves require a bit of introduction, plus the films and the survivalist books – it’s a lot of information to take on board. And it gives rise to a tsunami of ideas and impressions.

Categories In trying to categorise or make sense of it all, I felt I could break the exhibition down into three very broad elements:

  • rebels by choice – the 50s, 60s and 70s bikers, hippies and Teds
  • rebels by gender i.e. people who don’t feel at home in the gender roles assigned to them, transvestites, transgender people
  • abandoned kids, and abandoned adults

Whereas in the 1950s or 1960s teen rebellion was a choice made by kids and young men who had choices, it is quite obvious that the lives of the abused, sexually exploited, drug-addled street kids of Lyon and Goldberg and Mark contain no choices. Their parents abandoned them or were incapable of looking after them. They didn’t choose to be selling sex on the streets at 13.

Transgender I couldn’t help feeling uneasy about the way the show threw together the issues and life choices facing transvestite and transgender people with the lifestyles of Hell’s Angels or Paris street gangs. The bikers and Japanese gang members and Teds seemed completely different to me. For a start those cultures are aggressively heterosexual and so in many ways confirm and entrench the social pressure which transgender people confront. And somehow it also felt as if those lifestyle choices – being a Russian hippy or an American biker – were in many ways superficial; after all, plenty of hippies ended up cutting their hair, going into business and now run big corporations. Somehow it felt to me as if the life choices the transgender people had to make – in Chile or Mexico or Japan – ran deeper, were more existential, went more to the heart of who they were.

Post-war American invents ‘cool’ Nine of the twenty photographers are American. That phrase about the Paris gangs being ‘in thrall to an idealised version of 1950s American youth culture’ is true of a lot of the other people shown here, too, from the Russian hippies to the London Teds.

After the Second World War America emerged as the most powerful and richest nation the world had ever seen. It pioneered a whole wave of consumer goods – phones, radios, televisions, fridges, washing machines, hoovers – which the whole world wanted. It pioneered and perfected aggressive new marketing techniques associated with thrillingly dynamic images of this new rich automobile lifestyle. And all of this was encapsulated and sold around the world via Hollywood movies featuring rugged-jawed men and the big bosoms of Marilyn Monroe and Jane Russell.

And accompanying all the products and marketing of post-war industrial capitalism, America also pioneered all the ways a newly affluent generation of young people could rebel against it. The Wild Ones (1953), Rebel without a Cause (1955), On The Road (1957). From the Beat poets through Californian surfer chic on into flower power and Woodstock and then New York glam, American popular culture pioneered all the attitudes, fashions and looks which pissed-off young people around the world could adopt as symbols of their ‘rebellion’. According to the wall label, The Outlaws, the gang Bruce Davidson hung out with, influenced the conception of Easy Rider (1969), which itself went on to inspire a whole new generation of young men.

Somewhere along the way, I don’t know when exactly, this look – scruffy jeans, white t-shirt, fast motorbike – became completely commodified and commercialised. By when – was it sometime in the 1980s, or was it in the 1970s – every street market in the western world was selling ‘rebellion’ in the shape of studded leather jackets or pre-stressed jeans, and a whole universe of logo-ed t-shirts.

My point is that, although the actual people Danny Lyon and Bruce Davidson and Larry Clarke documented were real, and experienced their non-conformity as real, this look, this style, this approach, this feel, has for generations now been the stuff of international marketing and profitable merchandising. It has become the international stock language of youth ‘rebellion’.

Post-Cold War America pioneers urban collapse This, I think, explains the difference in vibe between the ground floor and the first floor rooms. On the ground floor are loads of black and white photos which could still feature in an advert for Levi jeans today. That look is totally assimilated into the international style of ‘cool’. It is amusing and thrilling and nostalgic to see all of them, American bikers, Paris gangs, English Teds. Aaaaah, sweet.

Nothing could be more different from the lost children of America on the first floor. This is the world of The Wire and Breaking Bad, depicting a nation which has become really dysfunctional, in which not just a few cool kids drop out to ride bikes or take acid, but scores of millions of families and abandoned individuals live lives of poverty and violence and drug addiction. This is a completely different kind of ‘outsider’, not cool and not by choice they are casualties of a society falling to pieces, a society ravaged by urban unemployment, astonishing levels of street violence, widespread opioid addiction and mass shootings.

Transgender issues I’m not equipped to say very much about transgender issues except that the exhibition provides striking evidence that it is a universal condition – America, Chile, Mexico and, most surprisingly of all, polite suppressed Japan, all have their transgender communities. It is, quite obviously, another way of being human which should be accepted along with all the other ways and means of being human. And at the end of the bombardment of nearly 300 images, one of my favourite images from the whole show was of Evelyn, the Chilean transvestite, smiling, looking genuinely happy.

Photography on the margins?

I couldn’t quite make sense of the theme or message of the exhibition. Sure all these people are outsiders of sorts, but there is a world of difference between an American motorbike gang member and a Japanese transvestite club entertainer. Isn’t there? And between both and a street kid who’s selling sex aged 12?

Maybe they all are ‘outsiders’, but why stop there? If we’re talking the 70s and 80s (which a lot of the exhibition does) what about Vietnam veterans or the Russian veterans of Afghanistan? Come to that what about the veterans of any war from the last 70 years or so, damaged, alienated, depressed, often institutionalised?

What about the inhabitants of mental institutions, outsiders if there ever were any?

What about immigrants who – so we read in the papers – often feel alienated and threatened and ‘outside’ the host culture? Or refugees, also strangers and outsiders?

What about the disabled, hospitals full of deaf or blind or paraplegic people, who have their own ways of communicating and affirming their identities? They’re outside the ‘conventional’ cultural narratives.

What about old people with dementia, a growing tide of people who are really outside all conventional narratives? (My dad had dementia; it puts you way outside ‘conventional social narratives’.)

And those are just Western groups. Thinking of India makes me think of the Untouchables, the excluded caste, which I’m sure have been the subject of photographic books. Why not them?

In short, as soon as you begin to think for yourself about groups living ‘on the margins’, ‘outsiders’ living beyond conventional narratives of society, you quickly realise there’s no shortage of groups and tribes and sub-cultures in any modern society.

So it’s an exhibition which manages to be both overwhelming in the number of images it presents – very high quality images by some brilliant photographers who have dedicated years and even decades to studying their subjects – but also seems to be oddly narrow, politically correct and ‘cool’, in its subject and themes – 60s bikers, street kids, transgender heroes (I appreciate the ugly Russian and the hyena men stand completely outside all these generalisations).

You should definitely go, though. It’s full of brilliant photographs in a whole range of styles, and will (probably) introduce you to wonderful photographers you’ve never heard of before. I’ve told my daughter to go and take her friends. She’s 16. She loves taking photos. She wants to get piercings and a tattoo in order to express her individuality. She’s been taught that society oppresses women and alternative sexualities. She wants to change the world. She wants to be a rebel. She’ll absolutely love this show.

The promotional video

Women in the art world

Barbican Senior Manager – Katrina Crookall
Barbican Director of Arts – Louise Jeffreys
Barbican Head of Visual Arts – Jane Alison
Exhibition Curator
–  Alona Pardo
Exhibition Assistant – Charlotte Flint


Related links

Reviews of previous exhibitions & concerts at the Barbican

Every room in Tate Modern

Tate Modern, housed in the famous converted power station building on the South Bank near London Bridge, contains six levels. But as levels 0 and 1 are shops and cafes, and 5 and 6 are, respectively, the members’ level and restaurant, that leaves only 2, 3 and 4 to actually display art. Level 3 is given over to temporary exhibitions (currently Alexander Calder and The World Goes Pop) and some small, one-room displays (currently George Baselitz) – which leaves floors 2 and 4 to house the permanent collection.

Each level is divided into two wings, west and east, grouped around a broad theme and housing 10 or 11 rooms: thus level 2 west is Citizens and States, level 2 east is Making Traces; level 4 east is Energy and Process and level 4 west is Material Worlds.

So Tate Modern contains about 42 rooms, plus 3 or 4 one-room displays between each wing, say 46 in all.

Audio guide

The audio guide costs £4.25 (£3.75 for concessions eg students). It has audio commentary on a relatively small number of selected works. The woman selling it said it lasts 45 minutes but that can’t be true. My one had one or two minute-long items on 38 works, and half or more of the entries consisted of more than one track eg 90 seconds on the art work, with an additional quote from the artist, and then maybe some music (the Mark Rothko item has two pieces of music, one of which was five minutes long). Surely more than 45 mins – and very useful…

Personal highlights

As with my recent trips to the British MuseumNational Gallery and Tate Britain, the following are obviously not any kind of official highlights, just a list of things that made me stop and think or admire or want to make a note.

I used to think I knew about modern art, but this visit confirmed my feeling that I have been completely overtaken by the explosion of post-modern art since the 1980s. There has been a vast expansion in the numbers of artists and artworks and types and styles of practice over the last thirty years, as well as a massive expansion in the types of discourses available to make sense of new movements and artists from around the world.

Also there has been a significant movement to reconsider and revalue the past, especially as regards rediscovering or rehabilitating women artists – a process exemplified by the current The World Goes Pop exhibition, which is designed to promote hitherto little-known artists from around the world, and goes out of its way to foreground women artists and gender issues.

So this attempt to visit every room at Tate Modern felt like it shed a bit of new light on some old favourites and familiar faces, but mostly introduced me to new names. A lot of new names.

1. Citizens and States

  • Who doesn’t love Piet Mondrian? But I didn’t know he was a theosophist nor that the calm grids of black lines dividing rectangles of white or red or yellow or blue are representations of an ideal society. A psychologist was interviewed to say they’ve done experiments turning Mondrian squares onto the diagonal and people really don’t like them: there’s something powerful about horizontal and vertical lines, our brains react to them more deeply than to diagonals. Compare the impact, the pleasing sense of order and clarity in any Mondrian, with that of fellow De Stijl member Theo van Doesburg’s Counter-Composition VI (1925). Not nearly so pleasing.
  • Composition B (No.II) with Red 1935 The cool structured grids can be interpreted as a way of establishing order on a chaotic world. That aim reminded me of the images I saw recently in the British Museum, the wall paintings of Nebamun hunting and the friezes of king Ashurbanipal of Assyria’s lion hunt. In both, hunting is a way for aristocratic or royal man to establish order out of nature’s chaos and the painting re-enacts that function. Striking that the same impulse links painting from 800BC and 1940AD.
  • The movement he belonged to in Holland, de Stijl, is pronounced ‘dare stale’.
  • When Barbara Hepworth moved to Cornwall, ovals replaced circles in her work, which gave them two centres or focal points, instead of one, making them more complex and interesting. Oval Sculpture (No. 2) 1943, cast 1958
  • Tate had an exhibition of Hélio Oiticica back in 2007, which I was fool enough not to go to. The three abstracts by her here, from the 1950s, show not quite perfect geometric shapes jostling and balanced on plain backgrounds, creating a lovely impression of jazzy movement. Metaesquema 1958
  • Tate also had an exhibition of Saloua Raouda Choucair a few years ago, another show by a woman artist which I should have gone to. In room two I liked Composition with Two Ovals 1951. On the audio guide we hear her insisting her work comes from Islamic, not Western, sources of inspiration. A couple of her works were included in 2015’s Adventures of the Black Square show at the Whitechapel art gallery last year, where I liked Poem (1965).
  • Joseph Beuys was one of the dour Germans who put me off contemporary art in the 1970s and 80s. There are not one but two whole rooms devoted to him at Tate Modern, mainly documenting his tireless activities as an educator, organiser of student events, giver of marathon interviews, supporter of alternative political parties, green enthusiast and so on. How tiresome all that 1970s student politics looks now; how ultimately futile. The main artwork is the massive Lightning with Stag in its Glare (1958-85). The audio commentary usefully explained Beuys’s cryptic personal mythology: the metal sheet is the lightning, the ironing board is the stag, the clay lumps represent lumpish unintelligent creatures.
  • A lot more up to date, Theaster Gates’s Civil Tapestry 4 (2011) is a tapestry made of vertical strips taken from the fire hoses which were turned on civil rights protesters in the deep south of America in May 1963. Reminded me of Ai Weiwei’s enormous sculpture made of steel poles salvaged from the wreckage of schools destroyed in the Szichuan earthquake. A similar sense of unimpeachable righteousness.
  • Artur Zmijewski (b.1966) has made various films, including the one featured here, Democracies (2009), splicing together footage shot at a variety of political rallies in his native Poland, from feminist and environmentalist campaigners, to right-wing nationalist rallies. Watching the Catholic nationalist rallies, I recall political commentators interpreting last October’s election of the Law and Justice Party to government in Poland as a ‘lurch to the right’. Zmijewski’s film shows you why. It is an interesting documentary film but, like all film and video, I wonder about its relevance as ‘art’.
  • A room devoted to Latin American Photobooks, testament to the turmoil in Latin America throughout the 1960s, 70s and 80s, collected by British photographer Martin Parr.
  • I saw Richard Hamilton’s The Citizen (1981-3) in Tate Britain’s recent Fighting History exhibition. The audio commentary here made the neat point that the patterns the dirty protesters made with their own faeces on their prison walls echoed the patterns of Celtic designs – although what Celtic art is turns out to be hard to define, as the British Museum’s exhibition on Celtic Art and Identity showed. How genuinely subversive it would have been it Tate had bought an actual prison wall covered in IRA prisoner shit, and exhibited it, smell and all.
  • Sheba Chhachhi b.1958, was represented by Seven lives and a dream, photos inspired by the rape of an Indian woman in the 1970s, and other large b&w photos of Indian women.
  • Teresa Margolles (b.1963) is represented by Flag I, a big flag coloured with blood, earth and other matter from the murder sites of various people killed in Mexico’s bloody drug wars, a death rate which currently runs at around 20,000 a year.

Reflections on Citizens and States – ie the failure of radical politics

It is my belief that the forces for radical change have everywhere been comprehensively defeated and, in fact, that even moderately liberal bourgeois democracy is itself under attack from religious extremists at one end and home-grown nationalists at the other. Neo-liberal capitalism defeated and buried not only the communist regimes of Russia and Eastern Europe but the very idea of any kind of socialist / communist alternative.

The student radicalism of the Joseph Beuys rooms, and in evidence throughout the Pop Art exhibition from the heady 1960s, is irrelevant to the world of Putin, growing right-wing forces in eastern Europe, to the Refugee Crisis, to the permanent collapse of big parts of the Middle East and the state of terrorist threat which we are going to have to live with indefinitely.

The economic engine of the world, China, whose meteoric industrialisation has been underpinning rising standards of living throughout the West for the last generation, is coming stuttering to a halt. If you haven’t done well over the past twenty years, that was a one-off golden age and chances are you’re going to get a lot worse off in the coming era.

And underlying everything is evidence that man-made climate change is kicking in now, unchangeable and unavoidable, with unforeseeable but potentially cataclysmic consequences.

Against this backdrop it’s hard to avoid thinking that much of the art in this section is trivial or, at best, irrelevant. Nothing is going to stop Mexicans (or Colombians) murdering each other over drugs. President Nixon announced his nationwide War on Drugs as long ago as 1971: how’s that war progressing? Nothing is going to stop Indian men raping Indian women. Sheba Chhachhi’s photographs were sparked by rapes in the 1970s but gang rapes by Indian men have been in the news for the past few years. And Theaster Gates’s sentiments about historical injustices in the Alabama of the 1960s might be impeccably correct, but seem irrelevant in light of the ongoing inability of American police to stop their officers beating up and shooting dead a seemingly endless stream of unarmed black men.

Activists have been protesting these issues for decades and not only has nothing changed, lots of things have got worse. Considered as political activism, then, most of this art is a complete failure. Considered as art, it relies so much on the worthiness and impeccable liberalism of its credentials, that the failure of its causes in the real world makes it almost comical. Nice flag. Shame even more Mexicans will be murdered his year. Nice hoses. Shame even more black men will be shot by police.

It was a relief to emerge from the politically charged, fraught, upsetting and ultimately depressing Citizens and States wing and cross over to the less contentious Making Traces.

2. Making Traces

  • Magda Cordell (Hungary 1921-2008). Woman artist, her Figure (Woman) is, according to the wall label, ‘an image of heroic femininity’.
  • Korean woman artist Lee Bul’s Untitled (Craving White) (2011) is a gargoyle assembly of sacks of fabric, with wood and steel, twisted into weird shapes. She wore it to do performances, the weird bulges and squiggles intended to ‘deconstruct ideals of the female body’.
  • Avis Newman, woman artist born 1946, is represented by The Wing of the Wind of Madness (1982).
  • Lee Krasner, woman artist apparently overshadowed in her lifetime by her husband, Jackson Pollock, is now being rediscovered with works like Gothic Landscape (1961).
  • Woman artist Hilla Becher (1931-2007) spent most of her adult career travelling with husband Bernd around Europe and America taking series of b&w photos of industrial buildings eg Coal bunkers (1974). I wonder whether they inspired the b&w photos of abandoned nuclear bunkers and wartime defences by Jane and Louise Wilson?
  • Woman artist Hedda Sterne made lovely semi-abstracts, including NY No. X (1948).
  • Joan Miro is a big name from the modernist mid-century and represented here by the large and colourful Letter from a friend. After the post-modern works in the previous gallery, this type of Modernism looks reassuringly old-fashioned.
  • At the heart of this display is the big room showing Mark Rothko’s Seagram paintings (1958-60). Rothko was commissioned to decorate the restaurant in the new Seagram building in New York and was half way through making them when he went along to the restaurant himself, and was horrified to find it full of ‘rich bastards’, as he described them, eating dinner. What did he expect? He turned down the commission, returned the money and was contacted by various museums who wanted to buy them, of whom he favoured Tate because of a sentimental fondness for British art. He committed suicide the same day in 1970 that the paintings arrived in London. The audio guide plays Perilous Night by John Cage, favourite composer of so many modern artists. Of the 8 or so works here, my favourite was Red on Maroon, Mural Section 4 (1959).
  • By complete contrast, woman artist Rebecca Horn (b.1944) specialised in making strange imaginative extensions of the human body, for example Cockfeather Mask (1973). A room is devoted to her strange inspiring creations. A film shows cockfeather being used to do a sort of fan dance-cum-striptease over a man’s penis, a rare appearance of the male member in these galleries.
  • Simryn Gill (b.1959) has a whole room devoted to a series of large colour photos he took in the Malaysian town of Port Dickson, A Small Town at the Turn of the Century (1999–2000) showing its citizens in normal or portrait style poses but with large fruits concealing their faces. I liked number 5, number 34, number 24.
  • The American artist Mark Bradford (b.1961) is represented by Riding the cut vein, an entrancing large image, owing something to the street layout of Los Angeles where, according to the wall label, freeways cut through the city dividing rich neighbourhoods from poor ones.
  • The last room in this mind-bending tour of 20th century art is devoted to six massive paintings by Gerhard Richter (b.1932) Cage I-VI, named after the American composer and philosopher John Cage, ever-popular with the avant-garde. Prepared for them to be dirty smears, I was in fact entranced. There’s a film showing Richter at work using a metre-wide squeegee to smear the paint across the surfaces, which sounds unpromising, but the results are actually full of countless details, imperfections, unknown unnameable elements, insights and peculiarities. Close up.

3. Energy and Process

The wall labels explain that this suite of rooms is based around the 1960s Italian art movement, Arte povera, which used industrial by-products, or found materials, to create large, generally abstract sculptures. It was deliberately distinct from the grandiosely ‘heroic’ American Abstract Expressionism of the 1950s, but also different from the American Minimalism of the 1960s, which is smooth and cerebral. The main works are in the big, well-lit room 3:

  • Lynda Benglis Quartered meteor (1969) This woman artist’s lump of dull lead is a deliberate riposte to the smooth geometric shapes of American minimalism.
  • Kishio Suga’s Ren-Shiki-Tai
  • Giuseppe Penone’s Tree of 12 Metres (1980–2)

According to the wall labels, Arte Povera ‘upset traditional ideas’ about how art should be distributed and displayed. Well, here they are being displayed in an international art gallery. Doesn’t seem to have upset or challenged that pretty traditional idea.

  • Niki de Saint Phalle (1930-2002) was a groovy French woman artist whose website shows the full range of her colourful imaginative oeuvre and who is represented here by one of her ‘shooting paintings’. She filled bags with colour pigment, attached them to a canvas and covered the lot in white plaster, hung the canvas outside on a wall and then invited friends to shoot it with .22 rifles. The colour bags exploded and spurted colour over the work. Shooting Picture (1961)
  • Michael Baldwin is represented by a board with a mirror attached, Untitled Painting (1965). The commentary tells us with a straight face that this work is ‘questioning a long-held action of painting transcending reality’. OK.
  • In a similar radical, subversive, revolutionary etc vein is the anti-art tea tray of Július Koller (1939-2007), Question Mark b. (Anti-Painting, Anti-Text) 1969. Here it is in a major art gallery, subverting away like mad. Funny in its way, but also funny in its quaint utopianism.
  • Lucio Fontana (1899-1968) experimented with lots of slits in otherwise untouched canvas. Spatial Concept ‘Waiting’ (1960).
  • In room ten is the rather marvellous motor engine covered in crystals of copper sulphate, known as Untitled 2006 by Roger Hiorns, born in 1975.
  • Nicholas Hlobo is a gay black man, born in 1975 in South Africa. I enjoyed the works where he’s used embroidery or sewing using pink ribbon onto canvas to create shapes and flows, although I was disappointed that the curators instantly say this work ‘challenges gender-based assumptions about the division of labour’. Does it? Really? Ikhonkco (2010)
  • A small room is devoted to Emilio Prini (b.1943), who took countless experimental b&w photos in the 60s and 70s. According to the label, ‘Throughout his career Emilio Prini was engaged intensively with photography and photographic processes.’ Not ‘experimented with photographic techniques’, but was engaged with… And not just engaged. Engaged intensively. Lots of photos of parts of his body.

In these rooms, as in various other exhibitions of 20th century art, you get a powerful feeling from the wall labels and commentary of the curators’ nostalgia and regret for an era when art really meant something, when it was part of wider social movements genuinely upsetting old traditions and assumptions.

Now, when there is more art and more artists than ever before, more women artists, more artists from around the world, working in every conceivable medium, all trying to establish a marketable brand which can be sold to Saudi oil and Russian mafia and Colombian drug lord investors, it is impossible to recapture the heady idealism of, in particular, the 1960s and early 70s.

These galleries reek not of revolutionary exhilaration, but of the mournful nostalgia for, and the comic over-excitement about, the truly ‘revolutionary’ art of a bygone era, on the part of a generation of curators and critics born too late to experience it.


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