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Dada's Boys: Identity and Play in Contemporary Art

27 May–16 July 2006, Fruitmarket Gallery, Edinburgh

Francis Picabia, 'La Sainte Vierge', (Blessed Virgin), 1920, illustration in 391, no. 12

Francis Picabia, 'La Sainte Vierge', (Blessed Virgin), 1920, illustration in 391, no. 12

Heterosexual men have been behaving badly for some time now. For some this is a fact of life, a genetic disposition that ensures a propensity for adolescent jokes and puerile banter. For others it’s a reflection of a deep-seated unease about the social, sexual and cultural status of the male. Curated by art historian David Hopkins, Dada’s Boys unapologetically aims to explore this crisis in masculinity, seeking to illuminate how a lineage of male artists, starting from the Dadaists, have sought to manage the riddle of the male self.
 

In the catalogue essay for the exhibition, Hopkins presents an engaging argument for revising the dominant perception of canonical New York Dadaists Marcel Duchamp and Francis Picabia. Contrary to the standard valuation of both artists as exemplary avant gardeists, Hopkins aims to reveal how their work was indented with an overlooked examination of the contradictions of masculinity. It’s the historical reverberations of their humorous, paradoxical toying with what Homi Bhabha called the ‘prosthetic reality’ of masculinity that informs the selection of the 12 contemporary artists in Dada’s Boys.
 

Creating the immediate context for the show, the first room features Duchamp and Picabia’s work alongside Douglas Gordon and Knut Åsdam. In Hopkins’ occasionally too illustrative curation, Gordon’s ironic picturing of a slippery self (‘Self-Portrait as Kurt Cobain as Andy Warhol as Myra Hindley as Marilyn Monroe’) is a historical echo and updating of Duchamp’s masquerade as Rose Selavy. Likewise Picabia’s heretical spurt of black ink, ‘The Blessed Virgin’ finds its abject, ‘feminine’ release of the body updated in Knut Åsdam’s short video of a man urinating into his trousers. However, while Picabia’s work highlights a strain of misogyny in New York Dada (Amelia Jones’s revisionist book on Baroness Elsa and her treatment by Duchamp and co offers a destabilising reading of this ‘canon’), Åsdam’s piece, as the catalogue implies, is included as a sign of new kind of male subjectivity. For Åsdam, bodily loss of control isn’t a sign of a loss of potency or power, but a moment of exultation.
 

The adoption of the kind of archetypal, male humour by Duchamp and Picabia is most obviously continued in Martin Kippenberger, Richard Prince and Hirst and Fairhurst’s work. Prince’s large-scale painting ‘The Black Joke’, characteristically invades the chic rectangle of monochrome with the racist, misogynist humour of the blue-collar man. In the eighties, Prince’s cool subversion of the politically correct was magnified and mirrored in Kippenberger’s ‘German Beer Hall Proletariat’, an assault on decorum. Here he is represented by a relatively downbeat, absurdist painting of the inside of a laughing sack that references Picabia’s machine drawings. The Hirst and Fairhurst video ‘A Couple of Clowns Eating a Cannibal (I Should Coco)’ features the two artists dressed as clowns spinning horrific tales of mutilation in an increasingly desperate attempt to top the other’s knowledge of misery. The power games behind male banter are here laid bare.
 

Keith Farquhar’s installation of mirrors and giant wine glasses is important because it’s one of the few works that slyly demonstrate the Dadaist tendency both to caress and to bite the hand that feeds. This is a tart satire of art-world pretension and social mobility.
 

Hopkins is interested in Dada’s neglected examination of the ‘poetics of masculinity’, and therefore absolves the show from offering archetypal explosions of Dadaist rage. Yet this means the exhibition is still broadly guilty of shying away from the more confrontational and ambiguous aspects of heterosexual male identity. In his catalogue essay, Hopkins refers to the ‘boys’ as an ‘unruly group of male artists who have little truck with conformism’, who delve into the murkier areas of male subjectivity—but the signs of this aren’t always there.
 

The chosen Paul McCarthy work, ‘Cultural Soup’, and John Bock’s video of culinary possession and chaos are relatively minor and restrained – at least by the excessive, baroque, vulgar, spectacular standards of these artists. Meanwhile the work chosen to represent Jeff Koons’ practice is simply puzzling. Hopkins is unquestionably correct in arguing that Koons offered a complex, ambiguous grasp of the intersections of class, sexuality and gender that deserves greater critical attention. However, the inclusion of one of his early basketball pieces negates this claim. What’s desperately needed here is one of Koons’ ‘pornographic’ works from the Made in Heaven series featuring his porn-star wife Cicciolina. The excessive, problematic picturing of male sexuality in these works would have offered a far darker, morally ambiguous view of the vortex of male desire, pleasure and power.
 

Male desire does rear up in the surprising choice of Roderick Buchanan’s video of footballers swapping shirts. Here the latent homosexuality of homosocial bonding surfaces in an amusingly pleasurable erotic spectacle for the male and female gaze, something that is a welcome deviation in this context. The inclusion of Sarah Lucas makes curatorial sense, but I can’t help feeling her series of ‘mannish’ photographs have simply lost their edge through over-exposure. Meanwhile the vacuous spectacular formalism of Matthew Barney’s institutional surrealism increases with every strut of his satyr. Barney only really qualifies in this context by virtue of his ability to exploit academic and critical desire to project meaning into an empty vessel —but his Dadaist joke is a hollow one as it’s ultimately at our expense.
 

Hopkins’ grouping of these artists, and his argument regarding their interconnections and shared heritage of Dada sensibility is an intelligent, welcome rebuff to the often rather unsympathetic, lazy responses their work frequently receives. Although the curation is at times illustrative and reliant on big names, the catalogue essay’s argument—that this work exhibits a stronger grasp of the lived experiences of masculinity than much of the academic and theoretical deconstruction of heterosexual masculinity—is convincing.
 

Hopkins deserves credit for being critical of the domination of masculinity by feminist, queer and psychoanalytical theories—I think he is right to conclude that such theoretical dissection did result in a form of male selfabnegation. Dada’s Boys, then, is an important development in a much-needed discussion of masculinity in Scotland. It deserves a bigger stage on which to strut.

Artist John Beagles is one half of the Beagles and Ramsay duo and teaches at Edinburgh College of Art