If you think a show about masculinity should be full of images of guns and cowboys and beer and beards, then you’re not going to be disappointed here. Unless you also want that show to be a celebration of those things, in which case you’re in for a rough ride. Because this exhibition doesn’t celebrate what it means to be a man, it undermines it, subverts it and totally reshapes it.
It’s a sprawling, long show, with sprawling, long captions: it has a lot to say, and a lot to subvert. Think boys don’t cry? Well, Bas Jan Ader films himself openly weeping in one of the show’s standout works. Think the army is the greatest expression of heterosexuality there is? Well, Adi Nes stages scenes of soldiers in intimate, charged, erotic situations. Think only men have great facial hair? Well, Ana Mendieta and Catherine Opie’s images of women with hair glued on to their mushes have something to say about that.
The show is full of moments where ideas and ideals of masculinity are flipped and reversed. Some of it works better than others. Thomas Dworzak’s collection of Taliban images nabbed from the backroom of a Kabul photography studio is brilliant: these supposedly terrifying men, sitting there with thick eyeliner, posing with flowers. Transgender Canadian artist Cassils documents their transformation into a bodybuilder, Annette Messager takes close-up photos of men’s crotches in the street, Karen Knorr hilariously sneers at men in fancy London members’ clubs. It’s a constant process of poking, prodding and tearing apart.
But in its desperation to foreground alternative views of masculinity, the show largely fails to look at masculinity itself. You could argue that art history is already all about masculinity, but the male gaze is an outward thing, and the moments here where things get introspective about what it means to be a man – where masculinity is explored rather than undermined – are some of the most interesting bits of the show. Masahisa Fukase’s chronicling of his and his father’s ageing bodies is painfully touching, Rineke Dijkstra’s portraits of bruised, battered bullfighting boys are shocking and joyful, Andrew Moisey’s fraternity book is idiotic, aggravating and brilliant.
Yes, the most masculine thing about the show is how it won’t stop lecturing you about what masculinity is. But the exhibition makes you walk away asking infinite questions. And in a society that’s constantly changing, where gender is constantly melting into an ever more fluid substance, questions are our best tools for trying to figure out how to navigate the world.