Barbican's Masculinity Exhibition Stops Short Of Addressing The Big Issues

Masculinities, Barbican ★★★☆☆

Barbican's Masculinity Exhibition Stops Short Of Addressing The Big Issues Masculinities, Barbican 3
Rather surreal portraits of Taliban fighters caught us off guard. © Collection T. Dworzak/Magnum Photos

Toxic masculinity, masculinity in crisis — masculinity gets a lot of negative coverage these days. But what does art have to say about masculinity and what can we learn from it? The Barbican has dedicated its latest exhibition to this.

Soldiers are often viewed as the epitome of masculinity, an idea which is flipped in this exhibition, with photos of Taliban fighters against scenic backdrops, a gun in one hand and vase of flowers in another. It’s so surreal, it could almost be part of a subversive US propaganda to damage the reputation of these fighters, and it shows that Western ideals of masculinity are far from universal.

The strongest works are those which challenge our own perceptions, such as Jeremy Deller’s film of a Welsh man from a mining town who became a cross dressing wrestler — two descriptions you don't often see in the same sentence. Similarly, youngsters posing in American football uniforms, may be all padded with puffed out chests, but it's clear they are still boys playing at being men.  

American football boys, playing at being men. © Catherine Opie, Courtesy Regen Projects, Los Angeles and Thomas Dane Gallery, London

The exhibition remains even-handed in its representation of what is deemed masculine by including non-binary, queer and female views of masculinity, ensuring it's not just about heterosexual men.

My favourite work explores the ridiculous lengths men will go to demonstrate their masculinity. Artist Richard Mosse challenged students at a Yale fraternity to compete in a screaming contest to win a keg of beer. The winner is as red as a tomato and sweating profusely, but refuses to give in and continues to scream at the camera. Alongside some sickening portraits of blood-spattered bullfighters, this show has the biggest impact when showing men at their most extreme, trying to prove themselves in some shape or form.

It’s the toxic side of masculinity that feels extremely relevant in today’s age, and I would like to see more of in this exhibition. While the touching and diverse sides of masculinity are thoroughly explored, it seems scared to venture too deep into the darkness.

© Sunil Gupta. All Rights Reserved, DACS 2019

The Incel subculture in America has been implicated in mass shootings. I know that as a man under 40, my most likely killer is staring at me in the mirror every morning. Yet these massively relevant issues don't get a look in — there must be photographers working on these topics today that could have been included in this exhibition.  

This show is a nuanced and selective slice of masculinity that ignores some elephant-sized issues in the room. There are powerful moments in this show, but when it comes to delivering the knockout blow it pulls its punches.

Masculinities: Liberation through Photography at Barbican Art Gallery is on from 20 February to 17 May 2020. Tickets are £15-17 for adults.

Last Updated 19 February 2020