the SURREAL house.. a dwelling like no other.

September 4, 2010

“Art imagines the house, film ‘performs’ the house and architecture builds the house”.

This summer, the Barbican Gallery brings to life some of the surrealists’ most striking and immersive environments, in its latest exhibition – the ‘Surreal House’. The Surreal House is intended to ‘examine the relationship between surrealism and architecture” and this peculiar exhibition does exactly that. In particular, surrealism’s rejection of clean, white, modernist living spaces in favour of an exploration of the home as an analogy for the self.

The rooms in The Surreal House bear very little resemblance to those of a ‘typical’ home. Instead, they are filled with a mishmash of odd sculptures, like the ‘Femme Maison’ by Louise Bourgeois, artwork by the godfather of surrealism, Salvador Dali, and photography by Paul Nouge, Claude Cahun and Francesca Woodman, making for a somewhat disorienting yet absorbing journey.

Louise Bourgeois "Femme maison"

Claude Cahun - Self portrait (in cupboard)

Salvador Dali's - Sleep (circa 1973)

The exhibition is divided into two levels with the ground floor devoted to the exploration of ‘domestic interior space’ and the upper level representing the house ‘as seen from above’. Lighting throughout the whole exhibition is dim and moody, creating an eerie, dreamlike atmosphere as you explore between the ‘chambers’.

Things start ok. Upon entering the gallery, one is directed past a video loop showing Buster Keaton’s toppling house, via a Duschamp doorbell in the form of a suitably chosen part of the female anatomy, into the first room, in which Freud looms large: a large-scale blow-up of the hirsute ruminator’s Viennese house faces Rachel Whiteread’s ominous, segmented Black Bath.

Some of the exhibition spaces have been pointedly darkened.

The Surrealists believed that a house was more a “stage” than a “machine for living”, and such theatrical playfulness is evident in the mazey layout and sense of unpredictability. Moving through the spaces carved out of the gallery’s lower half, the voyeur comes across film projections, a chilling choir chanting from behind a toilet, and a femme maison, in which the work of Louise Borgeoius is mercifully rescued from the “spider woman” epithet so beloved of obituary writers late last month. Eerie aural intrusions come from Rebecca Horn’s Concert for Anarchy, an inverted mechanised piano suspended upside-down from the ceiling, seemingly innocent enough, but every two minutes, the piano spontaneously explodes, throwing the keys out of place and letting the lid hang loose, displaying the instruments interior, whilst simultaneously precipitating a cacophony of discordant keystrokes that echos through the space. The piano stays this way for a few minutes, before retracting all its parts back to ‘normal’, ready for its next impulsive outburst.

The Surreal House is both enchanting and intriguing, but with a disturbingly strange twist. The exhibition closes on September 12th, so get yourself down there for a such a unique exhibition.

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