June 11, 2010

"The Surreal House" at the Barbican, London

I must admit, I found the concept of an exhibition on "The Surreal House" a little hard to figure. But the more I heard about it the more intrigued I became. So last week I took the Eurostar train from the Gare du Nord in Paris, through the Chunnel, to the gorgeous St Pancras Station in London to go to the preview of the show.

Anyone familiar with the Barbican Complex in London's East End will wonder how this anonymous concrete structure could function effectively as an intimate art space. The success depends on two principals - the curator and the designer. In this case all the stars aligned in the form of Jane Alison, senior curator at the Barbican Art Gallery, working with the young and energetic architecture firm of Carmody Groarke, who transformed the cold, 1970's Brutalist interior into an intimate "maison Surréaliste".

The show is spread over two levels with the lower level set up as a sort of village of small houses, each devoted to exploring domestic interiors through themes like "Femme Maison", "Haunted House" and "Panic Space". The upper level offers a view of the "rooftops" and focus' mainly on the dialogue between art and architecture.

The exhibition turns the idea of "home" into a totally different place - a temple to the marvelous, the mysterious, the mischievous and the monstrous - far from comfortable and cosy! It doesn't take long to figure out that this is not a "Designer Show House". The first gallery features a nipple doorbell (Marcel Duchamp's "Prière de Toucher", 1947) which leads to Rachel Whiteread's unsettling bathtub cum sarcophagus "Untitled - Black Bath", 1996! Or the "Theatre of the Domestic" that is dominated by a grand piano suspended upside down from the ceiling that periodically opens and shuts, the creation of Rebecca Horn and titled "Concert for Anarchy", 1990.

Paintings by Salvador Dali and René Magritte are classics in the category, but Edward Hopper's "House by the Railroad", 1925, becomes totally Surreal in the category of "Haunted House". Joseph Cornell's enchanting boxes are "A Home for Birds" and add to the duality of freedom versus confinement. The medium of film is well represented with several amazing video clips from Buster Keaton's "Steamboat Bill, Jr", Jean Luc Goddard's "Le Mépris" and Cocteau's full length feature film "La Belle et la Bête" in an vintage movie theatre that evokes a dreamy atmosphere.

What is very special about this show, and adds considerably to its success, is the wide range of both mediums and artists on display. Paintings, sculpture, collage and photography are interspersed with film, architectural maquettes, installations and objects. Certainly the original Surrealists, the group of artists who worked with André Breton after he decried Dada with his Surrealist Manifesto in 1924, are the most well represented, but the show expands its reach to proto-Surrealists and several Contemporary artists and architects whose work can be taken in this context.

"The Surreal House" will certainly challenge your ideal of "Home Sweet Home", but isn't that what keeps life interesting?

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