The Surreal House
10 June 2010 - 12 September 2010
Barbican Art Gallery
I recently went, with much trepidation, to The Surreal House at the Barbican Art Gallery. While it’s not exactly the best gallery show I’ve been to it wasn’t nearly as bad as I’d been lead to believe and I actually found myself really enjoying the experience.
Despite the pretensions implied by the title, there is no real sense of “journey/concept” as you wander lazily through “The Surreal House”. It’s just gallery space but they’ve got some really nice stuff here. They have a couple of nice Dali’s, a couple of nice Magritte’s, some film and some architectural projects.
A stand-out for me was the inclusion of no less than three original copies, open at various pages, of the original pressing of Max Ernst’s “Une semaine de bonté”, a book which I’ve gifted people with for many years for now (chances are if you know me for a while, sooner or later, one of your Birthday or Christmas presents is going to be a reprint edition of Une semaine de bonté).
Another standout was the piano hanging from the ceiling. It looks kinda ominous and you wonder if the cable will hold the weight. But you have to go more or less under it (or very near to under it) to get into one of the many screens showing movies in the gallery. And of course, as I passed under it, there was a clash of strings and wood and the piano drops and bits fly noisily open (my timing was serendipitous)... I leapt out of my skin at that point. After a while the dropping piano reassembles itself, accompanied by the sound of the strings plucking... to lay in wait for some other unsuspecting soul.
Oooh... and another stand out was a tiny pile of junk/dust/rubble to the side of one of the rooms. A spotlight is being shone across it and the shadow it leaves on the wall is one of two rats copulating which does nothing to suggest the precise nature of the debris that is being “shadowed”. Absolutely brilliant.
If I had one objection to the show it is this... quite a bit of the stuff in it doesn’t really fall under the orb “surrealism”. For example, two of the films being projected are Jean Luc Godard’s Le Mepris and Andre Tarkovsky’s The Sacrifice (my least favourite Tarkovsky film as it happens). Now neither of these two filmmakers are in anyway surrealists I think... and perhaps more importantly, neither of them I’m sure would want to be considered as such (I can imagine Godard giving you the verbal equivalent of a punch on the nose if you were to suggest such a thing and I suspect Tarkovsky would be less than happy to be saddled with that kind of label). And if you wanted to perhaps push the point that certain elements of these directors works are at least a little surreal in execution, then I would certainly not have picked those two films. I think I’d have picked Week End and Nostalgia for a more obvious comparison (although I will go away and watch the DVD of Tarkovsky’s The Sacrifice again sometime soon).
Another thing which niggled me, and this is nothing to do with the show really, is that one of the paintings by Dali included the depiction a large spike passing through a woman’s breast. Now, I’m sorry, but since the passing of the really stupid “dangerous pictures” act and the hypocrisy and open endedness (or if you like, sloppy writing) of it, then this painting would not pass muster and you would be facing jail time for owning it... so why is it allowable in an artistic context? I don’t want to go into this to much here because under these new laws, even a horror movie at your local cinema is illegal to watch (seriously, read the damn thing, I’m not making this up) but this kind of exhibit (which I really liked by the way, Dali is one of my heroes) holds a candle up to the horror and nonsense involved in the creation of these knee jerk reaction laws.
All in all though, I wouldn’t let any of this deter you from going to see a quite good exhibition in a fairly large gallery space (I had the luxury of seeing this on a weekday morning mind you so it wasn’t exactly crowded) and it even has a little gift shop at the end.
I like a little shop.