Monday, 14 June 2010

Welcome to the mad house...

The Barbican Art Gallery’s new summer exhibition, The Surreal House, promises just this: a mad, eccentric, mysterious, dream-like dwelling within the gallery space that accommodates works stressing the home and particularly, architecture in relation to Surrealism. Imagine an insane inverted Ikea house. Lurking within the immense abode’s labyrinth of chambers, designed by the award-winning architects Carmody Groarke, are works from a range of Surrealists (and their precursors), architects and contemporary artists who have been inspired by the movement. As the accompanying booklet states, you’ll find in this exhibition that “art imagines the house, film ‘performs’ the house and architecture builds the house.” A very neat summary indeed.

Don’t let the advertising featuring a deathly dull Dali fool you into thinking this is a typical Surrealist show. It exposes work of the over-looked, the forgotten and the contemporary artists who continue the Surrealist legacy. Most notable amongst these are wonderful pieces by the late Louise Bourgeois, a rather timely homage. Then one comes to a set of 13 black and white photographs by the seldom-seen Francesca Woodman with themes of appearance and disappearance, via Rebecca Horn’s startling 'Concert for Anarchy' (1990), an upside down piano where the keys theatrically fall in and out creating eerie sounds throughout the gallery. Noble + Webster’s 'Metal Fucking Rats' (2006) perfectly depicts the humorous goings on in this house, and there are beautiful ceramic sculptures by Rachel Kneebone, which on close inspection, are entangled, sensual, warped ceramic body parts epitomising the themed room, ‘Mad Love’. The fantastically daring house structure created by Carmody Groarke, manages to escape the clutches of the usual modernist trappings of the white box and blocks up some of the gallery’s ugly concrete walls, resulting in a refreshing setting for such a broad range of works and themes. From the mischievous Marcel Duchamp nipple ‘door bell’, 'Priere de Toucher' (1947) to Louise Bourgeois’ 'No Exit' (1989) featuring stairs that go to nowhere, to the final scene of the burning house in Andrei Tarkovsky’s film 'The Sacrifice' (1986), the viewer is taken on a journey of the bizarre, and the amusing, through winding rooms, high ceilings and chambers full to the brim of the unusually uncanny.

There is sadly, however, a notable lack of British Surrealists, except for Christopher Wood (where are Eileen Agar and the indubitable Leonora Carrington?), and perhaps a general lack of cohesion to the exhibition possibly due to the fact that it is simply so enormous. Whilst the link between Surrealism and architecture is undoubtedly illustrated there does appear to be a separation between the art and architecture on show which at times seems to create two separate exhibitions. Perhaps it would have been more relevant to include further architectural references within the context of the surreal house built in the gallery to reinforce the theory behind the entire show. However, the architectural component certainly results in an often under-estimated interpretation of Surrealism including pieces by John Hejduk, Le Corbusier and intriguingly Ferdinand Cheval who turned his dream home into reality. The Barbican Art Gallery has always provided a challenging space for its curators, and they have astutely risen to this challenge by creating a house within, emphasising the nature of Surrealism. It is certainly a mad house, this surreal house, and well worth seeing. God knows what Kevin McCloud and Sarah Beeny would make of it but I suspect that for once, they might be lost for words.

The Surreal House, Barbican Art Gallery, 10th June – 12th September 2010
Tickets: £10 (concessions £8)

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