A night on the couch at the Barbican

Last Thursday, I traded my usual Milton Keynes Gallery Scratch night activities for an evening ‘On the Couch’ at the Barbican Surreal House exhibition.  I’ve always had a lot of time for Surrealism.  The first piece of art work to really transfix me was a painting by Rene Magritte which I remember sitting and staring at for a long time in a gallery in Sydney as a teenager.  I therefore look forward to any exhibition on surrealism with particular interest.

There were two events I attended at the Barbican Thursday night on the topic of Freud and Surrealism.  The first was a talk by Independent curator James Putnam who has curated a number of exhibitions with contemporary artists at the Freud Museum in Hampstead, including exhibits with Sophie Calle, Sarah Lucas and Mat Collishaw.  There was then an hour break to look through the exhibition.  Even an hour seemed a bit rushed for me to see the entire exhibition.  The ‘hook’ with this particular exhibition is the idea of the ‘house’, and the house as a metaphor in psychoanalysis for the mind.  There is a particularly impressive piano installation entitled Concert for Anarchy by Rebecca Horn which the exhibition guide describes as being ‘reminiscent of an airborne castle and is principal among the phantoms of the house.’ This had an interesting relevance for me considering a recent performance I attended at MKGallery staged by their current artist Giorgio Sadotti where the French whip cracker Fanny Tourette attacked a grand piano in the Middle Gallery.  I’m not quite sure what to make of these two different uses of pianos, but both certainly left an impression.

The main performance that evening was by recent Booker long listed novelist Tom McCarthy’s avant-garde performance group the International Necronautical Society (INS).  The group is described as creating ‘vehicles for interventions in the space of art, fiction, philosophy and media’ and create ‘manifestos, proclamations, reports, broadcasts, hearings, inspectorates, departments, committees and sub-committees.’  The evening’s performance was a hearing by the INS commission on Crypts: Architecture, Neurosis and Death.  Its panel included Tom McCarthy, the INS General Secretary, and two external assessors, novelist Chloe Aridjis and scholar Richard Martin.  They ‘heard testimony’ from architect Patrick Lynch and psychoanalyst Darian Leader.

What proceeded was essentially a panel discussion: two presentations by the architect and psychoanalyst giving evidence and then questioned by the panellists.  Taking the standard form of a panel discussion, the INS transformed this well known form into a performance.  But I struggle to see what the artifice of applying the interrogation tactics, or evidence gathering added to this particular talk.  To be fair, the venue didn’t help to create the ambience of a serious commission gathering evidence.  Cramped into the foyer of the exhibition, the discussion was often interrupted by crowds gathering outside the gallery having drinks, laughing and talking loudly.  The two hearing monitors, dressed in navy suits, severe hair styles and red lipstick gave the air of gravity attendant to the proceedings.  But by conducting an interrogation, the role of the audience became slightly unclear.  Were we to be silent observers? Was this the type of commission which under the circumstances created by their artifice would normally be done behind closed doors? By taking on this form, the audience wasn’t encouraged to participate or ask questions at the end. Rather, the performance/interrogation ended and Tom said, ‘well we can all now go get a drink.’

I liked the idea of playing with the form of the panel discussion.  It made it unique and memorable.  Perhaps taken with the INS’s other activities this particular commission’s performance would become more clear. But, it did make me question the relationship between panellists and audience members in panel discussions. I’ve concluded that while applying these different techniques to make the discussion into more of a performance, this can add interest for the audience members. However, if it’s not well explained it can actually distance audience members from the panellists and the proceedings. The audience likes to feel it has a stake in what’s going on, and be allowed to share their views.  If they’re not invited to participate then the unique dynamics of panellists and audience members learning and sharing with one another is lost.


Tom McCarthy: ‘To ignore the avant-garde is akin to ignoring Darwin (Guardian)

Welcome to the mad house: A monument to the world of the surreal (Independent)


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