Art Review: The Surreal House @ The Barbican

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Concert for Anarchy by Rebecca Horn

Rivalling the accommodation afforded denizens living under Big Brother’s yoke in weirdness is this summer show at the Barbican, which aims to locate Surrealism, that most solipsistic (not to mention over-exposed) of art movements, within the humbler confines of the household unit.

The curators of The Surreal House employed architects Carmody Groarke to re-purpose the art gallery’s lower floor into the titular house, dividing the space up into rooms based on living quarters distorted through Surrealism’s lens, and populated it with a list of singalong classics from the movement’s heyday: the likes of Dali, Magritte, and Breton are present and correct, along with fellow travellers like de Chirico and Edward Hopper, and more recent contributions from artists including Sarah Lucas and Ed Kienholz.

Things start well. Upon entering the gallery, one is directed past a video loop showing Buster Keaton’s toppling house, via a Duschamp doorbell in the form of a suitably chosen part of the female anatomy, into the first room, in which Freud looms large: a large scale blow-up of the hirsute ruminator’s Viennese house faces Rachel Whiteread’s ominous, segmented Black Bath. The Surrealists believed that a house was more a “stage” than a “machine for living”, and such theatrical playfulness is evident in the mazey layout and sense of unpredictability. Moving through the spaces carved out of the gallery’s lower half, the voyeur comes across film projections, a chilling choir chanting from behind a toilet, and a femme maison, in which the work of Louise Borgeoius is mercifully rescued from the “spider woman” epithet so beloved of obituary writers late last month. Eerie aural intrusions come from Rebecca Horn’s Concert for Anarchy, an inverted piano suspended above one room that periodically falls open, precipitating a cacophony of discordant keystrokes that echos through the space.

The house gambit peters out upstairs, as one of the main reasons for the Surrealism – architecture link is revealed: Salvador Dali’s Sleep, a 1937 painting that depicts a slumbering, tapering head propped up by canted crutches, is placed in context with Office for Metropolitan Architecture’s Villa dall’Ava, alongside a pious confession by OMA director Rem Koolhaas on his debt to Surrealism. The link between architecture and the Surreal is examined later on, less convincingly, in photographs of Le Corbusier’s Villa Savoye in its post-war dereliction, alongside a quote by Bernard Tschumi to the effect that architecture is at its “most alive, most meaningful, when on the point of collapse”.

The show’s overall effect is interesting enough, but it doesn’t quite add up to a coherent experience, and for all the efforts expended on transforming the drab concrete gallery into an enchanting, mesmerising maze, the Barbican crafted a more impressively surreal experience two years ago with their Viktor and Rolf installation. The curators might want to borrow a few soon-to-be superannuated props from Endemol next time they build a house of the uncanny.

The Surreal House runs until September 12th. Tickets cost £10 / £8, discounts if you book online.

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  • http://undefined M@

    Excellent review. I wonder if I can pay with lobster claws rather than pounds sterling?