Art Review: Another Kind of Life, Barbican Centre ‘Great Content, Terrible Layout’

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This new photography exhibition at the Barbican is an exercise in trying to see the wood for the trees, for its content is superb – a wonderful array of images from twenty artists who have explored communities seemingly at odds with, or on the fringes of, the mainstream. However, its layout is horrendous. Labyrinthine, a little chaotic and bland. The photos are great, but the curation has done little to show them off at their best.

There was so much that I was looking forward to about this show so let’s at least start with the positives. Another Kind of Life looks at the continued fascination of artists with those on the margins of society through the photographic medium. These are photographers who’ve immersed themselves into the worlds of countercultures, protest groups, and subcultures. From the teddy boys of 1970s London to the eunuchs of New Delhi, from transgender sex workers in Mexico to Coney Island circus and burlesque acts, from street-level gangs in 1980s Paris to holiday resorts for men who choose to dress as women… The variety here is a wonder, and the transparency and insight they bring into often overlooked communities is a wonder and a revelation.

I would probably travel the word for a Paz Errázuiz exhibition and some of her most well-known images are on display here. She worked at a time when to shine a light on the margins of society under General Pinochet could have resulted in severe punishment, yet her photos here from the glorious ‘Adam’s Apple’ project are, of course, political but they bring such tendresse to her testimonial on male sex workers and transvestites in 1980s Chile.

Many in her photos were subject to terrible abuse and beatings by the State police, who were desperate to erase these people from society and there’s an undercurrent of resilience and bravery in these portraits of those trying to life their lives in the face of harrowing discrimination.

But as much as the familiar, it is the joy of finding something new that excites too.

Casa Susanna was the resort where both hetrosexual men and those who later identified as trans women could go and safely explore their gender-fluid identities. This safe haven was established by cross-dresser Susanna Valenti and her wife Marie but closed down at the end of the 1960s. However, in 2004, a collection of almost 400 photographs taken at the resort by visitors were discovered in a New York flea market, and some of them are on display here. And they are a spellbinding highlight.

These colour polaroids and snapshots, often taken by the subjects themselves, show such joy in the men and women dressed as showgirls, beauty pageant contestants, or in their swimsuits or dinner soiree party dresses. As you closely glance across each face, you can see an unrestrained joy, that sense of freedom in each pair of eyes as they find themselves unburdened by the stifling society they are confined to live in, if only for a moment.

I also had a LOT of love for Teresa Margolles’s blown-up vivid colour images of transgender sex works in the dangerous Mexican border town of Ciudad Juárez, dressed in their glad rags and party dresses whilst standing in the ruins of destroyed nightclubs (their former haunts). The demolition of the clubs a sign of the economic regeneration and investment in the city, yet Teresa has taken an interesting viewpoint, contrasting the capitalist investment and gentrification of the city with the communities on the margins that those at the top want to sweep away with the buildings. Yet here they stand, proud and defiant.

In truth, there are fascinating photos wherever you turn – Seiji Kurata’s images of a working-class district in Tokyo capture so much of the clubs and gambling dens, as well as the area’s violence, that often goes hidden; Phillipe Chancel’s photos of the Parisian gangs, the Vikings and the Panthers, take a usual theme of gangs but instead shows these left-leaning multi-ethnic groups that brought themselves together in the face of rising unemployment and fascism in the form of Jean-Marie Le Pen in the 1980s. On the surface, these seem to be something to celebrate, but the baseball bats and shotguns bring in the spectre of violence that haunts these images; and, similarly, Mary Ellen Mark’s work with the large number of homeless kids living on the streets of 1980s Seattle is remarkably frank, exposing lives so desperate as to see kids selling their own blood for cash and sex for money.

So, like I said, terrific images. Tremendous. If these were in a book, you’d be slavering over each page. But here, in this show, it does take an effort to get as much as you can from them.

For those familiar with the Barbican Art Gallery, you will appreciate that the upstairs floor is perfect for a multi-artist show – each alcove dedicated to a single artist. However, to recreate the same on the ground floor, a ridiculous number of MDF partition walls have been erected, creating not just a ridiculously complicated labyrinthine layout, but also an environment that feels cheap and bland. Each wall is washed in a pebble grey, no differentiation from one artist to the next, and none of it does the artwork any favours.

So, look, the work here is fantastic but it’s going to sap more energy than it should to get the most out of this show, and that really shouldn’t be the case.

Barbican Centre, London, to May 27, 2018
Admission £13.50 (concessions available)

Image credits:
1+2 Paz Errázuriz From the series La Manzana de Adán (Adam’s Apple), 1983 © Paz Errázuriz / Courtesy of the artist
3 Casa Susanna Collection. Attributed to Andrea Susan [Susanna at Casa Susanna], 1964-1969 © Art Gallery of Ontario
4 Philippe Chancel Untitled, 1982, From the series Rebel’s Paris 1982. Courtesy of Melanie Rio Fluency, France

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