The problem when people show you their holiday photos isn’t that it’s boring, it’s that you weren’t there. You didn’t experience that cocktail, that beach, that sunburn, so the photos have no nostalgic power over you. This is a whole exhibition of that feeling.
The idea is that by exploring the nightclubs, bars and discos that artists have flocked to for centuries, the Barbican can show you how essential partying is to creativity.
Each room is dedicated to a city and its clubs. There’s Strasbourg’s angular modernist masterpiece L’Aubette, Paris’s famous Chat Noir and Folies Bergère, Vienna’s technicolour Cabaret Fledermaus, Tehran’s heady, hectic Rasht 29. These were places where artists and thinkers congregated, partied, exchanged ideas, performed. Amazing spaces that only lasted a few months or years, but birthed countless ideas.
But not many people made art about those spaces. They went there, had a good time, then did other stuff. So this show doesn’t actually have much in it. There are designs for stage sets, architectural plans, programmes and posters, photos of people dancing: it’s documentation of long-gone clubs, and that’s just not that interesting as an exhibition.
Downstairs, they’ve recreated the Cabaret Fledermaus, the shadow theatre from the Chat Noir and the Nigerian Mbari Club. They’re nice spaces, but they totally miss the point of nightclubs. Without the people, the music, the smoke and – most importantly – the context, these recreated rooms are lifeless empty things that tell you nothing about what those clubs were like, what they meant, and what they birthed.
This is nostalgia for something none of us experienced, which is fine, but it makes for a much better book than an exhibition. Where’s the art? Where’s the performance? Where’s the vitality? The whole show feels like a nightclub when the smoke has cleared, the dancers have gone home and the sick’s being cleaned up.