Wednesday, 25 August 2010

The Surreal House

Review: A wall collapses here, a door upends over there. An egg-shaped abode hides a womb-like interior and there's a creeping suspicion that all is not well at home. 'The Surreal House' is an ambitious and rewarding, if necessarily sinister peek into some of the most bizarre dwellings imaginable - its scope grand enough to include art, architecture, film and photography, while its atmosphere close and cloying enough to induce moments of sheer terror and genuine delight. Film emerges as the most powerful medium in 'The Surreal House' with Jacques Tati's hapless 'Mon Oncle' and Jean Cocteau's 'La Belle et La Bête' contrasting the ridicule of modern living with a wildly romantic fairy tale fantasy - but both require that you watch them in their entirety in a specially built cinema. The show proper opens with Buster Keaton's famous slapstick sequence from 'Steamboat Bill Jr', in which his own house is blown down around his ears, and leads you to the objects contained within the Barbican's custom-built structure. Yet neither a pair of Duchamp's darkened French windows (called 'Fresh Widow') or his cheeky rubber-foam boob in place of a doorbell, give any real clues as to what's inside. The initial shock then comes when presented with a blacked-out bathroom, where Rachel Whiteread's sepulchral resin cast of the space under the tub greets visitors with our own grubby mortality. A spyhole refuses to reveal the secrets behind Sigmund Freud's front door, but the meister of repression's office chair is here in his stead. Alas, we soon get Freud's massively overused theory of what makes a surreal house a home for nasty memories practically shoved down our throats. His notion of the unheimlich, or unhomely, is appropriate in this context, but is little more than paying lip service to art-speak cliché - it's now shorthand for anything a bit 'strange' in contemporary art. The earliest spaces to mimic Freud's ideas were the original and best surreal houses: André Breton's elegant apartment shelves appear on camera, filled with a curio collection of the highest order (shamefully auctioned off piecemeal in 2003) and none other than the 'Great Masturbator' himself, Salvador DalÌ, created some of the most outlandish and unreal environments, not least his 'Dream of Venus' pavilion created for the 1939 New York World's Fair. Trying to marry DalÌ's paintings with later architecture is a major mistake, however, especially in the nonsensical pairing of his 1937 'Sleep' with Rem Koolhaas's villa on stilts from 1991, chiefly because it does the overarching theme no favours at all. Everything takes a surreal turn for the better when the curators play, not at intellectual ping-pong or tenuous connect-the-dots, but at impressive interior design. A crumpled, clanking piano by Rebecca Horn hangs from the parlour ceiling, a locked door guards an artist singing as he wipes on the toilet, a lonely window stares down on an unloved Sarah Lucas mattress in the bedroom, while Jan Svankmajer's troubling nursery of animated toys is a welcome burst of colour in an otherwise monochrome world. Not every allusion works - Maurizio Cattelan's sorely punished mannequin boy with pencils stuck through his hands is no more than a lame joke, as is Edward Kienholz's waiting room, in which the armchair resident has long ago been reduced to a dusty skeleton. Without the drama of the house motif to its layout, the upper floor suffers badly by comparison, although a trio of Joseph Cornell boxes significantly ups the dwindling masterpiece quota. Thankfully, the numerous female artists in the exhibition are not unfairly included here as inherently domestic beings or confined by any stereotype that they're unable to control their natural homemaker's urges. In fact, the most acute representations of domicile distress by Louise Bourgeois and Francesca Woodman effectively consign their male counterparts to the basement of the genre, although the last word goes to Russian auteur Andrei Tarkovsky and to his chosen form: art house film. The end sequence to Tarkovsky's 'The Sacrifice' of 1986, in which the protagonist burns down his house, thus freeing himself from the enslavement of nostalgia that his cups, dressers and tables inflicted upon him on a daily basis, is a telling reminder of what alienating, divisive and constrictive environments we live in. 'The Surreal House' is ultimately a metaphor for our unconscious mind. It's filled with knick-knacks and memories - some important, others not - but it's when something in there snaps or goes missing that the comfort and homeliness we crave lay bare that much darker place.

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