Barbican’s Another kind of life: Really?

It’s vast, and it’s ambitious. A show dedicated to photography “on the margins of society.” But which society? Which margins?

This is what the exhibition’s press release says:

“Another Kind of Life features communities of sexual experimenters, romantic rebels, outlaws, survivalists, the economically dispossessed and those who openly flout social convention, the works present the outsider as an agent of change.”

Here at the Barbican, the idea is to gather landmark photographers that have created a specific language by exploring what in the 1980s art historians used to call “marginal art”. We watch how the old tree of social documentary photography has, in fact, split into different and multiple branches. This exhibition indeed focuses on the most protruding of these trends, as they were led by a few mainstream artists in the last decades.

The setting of the show is fantastic. Each of the artists has got an individual room, approached through dark corridors. It is like if we were all gay cruising in lower Manhattan in the 1980s. (Sorry, it is about “marginal” people, but we are not allowed to use our phones to photograph it).

Dayanita Singh’s Mona Ahmed

It is true that curator Alona Pardo has made the right choices. Bruce Davidson, Diane Arbus, Daido Moriyama are some of the names. Boris Mikhailov and Jim Goldberg are there too, as well as other exciting work, including Seiji Kurata, Paz Errázuriz, and Casa Susanna.

These three artists have specialised in the life of transgenders. Casa Susanna is not necessarily an ‘art project’ but a house where the so-called “cross-dressers” rambled free from society’s pressures in upstate New York and from which we stayed with the pictures of their social events.

In fact, the show dedicates a full chapter on transgenders. Having gender captured the modern imagination as a cornerstone of alternative realities, it is cogent that they should be here.

We have gracious records of their constructions and deconstructions. Dayanita Singh introduces the charming Mona Ahmed, “one of India’s most famous eunuchs”. She lays down on a couch as if she was going to fall asleep. It is a video of profound candidness in which she is as disarmed as we are.

On top of these highlights, the show matters more for what is not said and for those who are not there.

The “margins”

There are, perhaps, more philosophical issues than there are technicalities to address.

Whenever art tends to show “reality”, we should see “another kind of reality” as facts of life that surprise art curators, journalists, and liberal commentators. They are the ones to draw boundaries, as they are also those who allow these margins to re-appear.

In an invitation to look at “the margins”, there’s no hard-to-look excerpts from reality. “The margins” are more of a departure from an idealised every day in the bourgeois routine, in which watching transgression becomes part of the life of this conventional spectatorship and, therefore, it becomes bourgeois itself.

For example, young attendees that visited the show with me seemed to laugh at their encounter with people such as Diane Arbus. Who was that woman? Who were these people in motorcycle clubs or nudist resorts or drag queen nightclubs in Texas?

The work of Pieter Hugo portrays “alternative” gangs in a few African countries that make a living with wild animals, such as in the 19th-century London. While living in Africa is dense, complex, and triggers many negotiations between human beings, beasts and the other way around, Hugo introduces it as life, and that’s how the curatorship should have also approached it and sold it to its public.

The Hyena Men pieter hugoAbdullahi-Mohammed-with-Mainasara-Ogere-Remo-Nigeria-2007-1024x1024
Pieter Hugo

In other words, there is some work to do on the educational side – if that is not to wait too much for a mainstream artistic event.

Even though photographers extract narratives from the counter-hegemonic corners of society, there is a degree of sensitivity that one needs to build upon before we can drop the images of transgender, drug addicted, hyena tamers and so on.

The standing of these actors in portraits is far from self-explanatory. Hence, we are not sure if viewers are aware of these actors’  broader cultural significance or if the gaze to the exotic continues to be what was in last 500 years of white colonisation around the world, taken for what the audience wants it.

“Agents of change”

I dwell on this “agent of change” part of the curators’ discourse. It would be naive not to put this assumption in the context of commodity contemporaneity.

Gucci sells £700 feminist t-shirts and Instagram censors nudity. Isn’t anything out of this circuit somehow alternative and marginal? Are these portraits really conveying characters that are ‘agents of change’? Would photographers have portrayed them if they were so? Why is the exhibition so happy about them being “on the margins”?

After all, it is no irony to imagine it as a call to join the margins, if we want. Either by chasing these tribes on the Internet or by mocking them up. If we can join them, why do they matter? Do we need to see them in fine photographs to know them?

These are of course provocative questions. The real problem being the weakness of the past portraiture in the face of today’s use as distractions. But what is photography if not straightforward diversion?

The problem is, though, that I couldn’t stop noting that the public queueing up seemed to attest to the post-modern reasons in their enthusiasm. The issue then is not the distraction from the daring conditions of life, but its misuse by those who are happy at the mainstream.

While I saw the works of Walter Pfeiffer, for instance, I reflected on his documenting of the slow process of change that transgenders undergo. Pfeiffer has a long record of showing bodies and people’s transformations, but in fashion, as he is also a friend of Pharrell Williams’s.

I believe that the public has the right to know about this duality. Not everyone in line with this “marginal” portraiture is on the margins or represent the marginal population. There are many differences if we take Pfeiffer, for instance, with a Mikhailov.

Distance and proximity

Instead of margin and centre, my guess, after all, is that the Barbican’s show is about distance and proximity. Who is afraid of approaching the wolf of the non-conformity?

As we walk towards the end, we arrive at the artists working with subjects of our times. And that’s terrible news for photography on the margins. The more we see how contemporary tribes appear, the more the gaze of photographers stays on the surface.

Recent works such as that by Alec Soth engage in this cold witnessing of “these people,” – in his case, the case of American refugees from society. There is barely any action in his models. Shot from afar, they show no spontaneity, no scare but no happiness. Each angle strikingly contrasts with the organic sperm-dropping of the 1980’s underworld (ironically located downstairs).

Perhaps another kind of life is happening today at the frontlines of the war in Syria or Yemen, in North Korea or Rio de Janeiro’s favelas. Will these scenes base a similar exhibition in fifty years? Who would dare to be the 21-st century voyeur and confront the righteous online mobs of the future?

There is always the case of a few bright that, subtly, get their shoes dirty. It is the case of people like Magnum’s Matt Black, who has portrayed the hidden face of poverty in California, which, sadly, did not make into this exhibition.

Having emerged from an idea of social exclusion, is social documentary photography’s fate to stop absorbing life’s contradictions and move towards a common, shareable, spectacular language?

Eventually, this exhibition’s attempt to read the margins (of the world, of society, of ourselves) is less about models, subjects and their dramas and more how far we are from them. It demonstrates the power of black-and-white photography as the perfect medium for strategic forgetfulness.

“From reality to document as a way of no return”. It sounds like we have an alternative title for the Barbican’s exhibition.


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