Sunday, November 3, 2019

"Into the Night: Clubs and Cabarets in Modern Art @ Barbican, London

For an artist who teaches art history, writes art criticism and organizes exhibitions, you are right to think that I would be perpetually traipsing the art world looking for the latest new thing. Well, I don't. It is not my thing. No apologies. Which is to say that, because a lot of art bores me, I only get to see art exhibitions once in a while--never mind that New York is just down the road. When I do get to see shows, in Museums or galleries, I expect the trip to last just a short while. On the rare occasion, I find myself detained by an exhibit, and loving it!

Mbari Club Gallery

That's what happened in London last week. I went to see Into the Night: Cabarets and Clubs in Modern Art currently showing at Barbican Centre. I knew about plans for this exhibition (as I was, for full disclosure, commissioned to contribute an essay for the catalogue), but to see the idea manifest as a display in the Brutalist space of the Barbican was an awesome experience. It is one thing to read all the art history stuff about this or that modernist genius the singularity of whose creative imagination was all that mattered. But, what about the immediate physical and social spaces that, if not enabled, at least helped the art and artists thrive--even if for a very short while? This Barbican show answered this question with so much poise, sensitivity, and intelligence. 

It is not just that the exhibition is designed to a scale that is once intimate and appropriate, it deploys multiple media, crosses at will the boundaries of art and craft, and gives as much attention to objects as it does to their exhibitionary spaces and discursive contexts. And most importantly, it tells the story of the modern that sidesteps the usual Europe-US axis and demonstrates in a very compelling way the global dimensions of the modernism--as it emerged from the ideas and practices of avant-garde groups confronting modernity's political, cultural, social and epistemic ruptures.

It is a thrill to see manifestations of clubs and cabarets organized around art and design (enlivened and propelled by music, theatre, literature) in the heydays of modernism in Paris, Vienna, Berlin, Strasbourg, Rome, London, Mexico City, Lagos, Tehran from the late 19th to the mid-20th century. It is even more so, because none of these sites and the creative productions associated with them seem out of place or qualitatively distinctive as to merit more or less attention or to deserve an especial place in history. 

The Barbican and its curators (and their partners at the Belvedere, Vienna) show everything good about revisionist histories; they make us utterly aware of how small the view of the world presented in those histories. When they place in adjacent galleries Le Chat Noir (Paris, 1880s), Cabaret Fledermaus (Vienna, 1907), Cave of the Golden Calf (London, 1912), Cabaret Voltaire (Zurich, 1916), Bal Tic Tac (Rome, 1921), L'Aubette (Strasbourg, 1926-28), Mbari Club (Ibadan, 1960s), Rasht 29 (Tehran, 1966) they invite us to an expanded vista of modernist creativity across the 20th century. And when a single exhibition makes imaginative connections between artists such as Henri Toulouse-Lautrec, Oska Kokoschka, Gertrude Barrison, Wyndham Lewis, Hugo Ball, Giacomo Balla, Aaron Douglas, Ramon Alva de Canal, German Cueto, Jacob Lawrence, Ibrahim El Salahi, Uche Okeke, Colette Omogbai, Theo van Doesburg, Sophie Taeuber-Arp, Jeanne Mammen, Langston Hughes, Duro Ladipo, Parvis Tanavoli, Faramarz Pilaram etc., you want to spend more time taking it all in, sure that the experience will change your understanding of the modern. 
So, I went to see this show with two friends, El Anatsui and Elisabeth Lalouschek. They were both captivated by the exhibits, which included 1:1 scale reconstructions of some of these really fascinating cabaret and club environments. But I was the one who made us nearly spend our dinner time at Barbican.  

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