Telling someone you love them is hard enough. So how can it be defined in concrete form? Can art tell someone else, can art tell you that you are loved? For the most part, depicting or the chance to depict love in visual art rests in the body. The body as landscape, as a silent form of communication, or even as a vessel carrying text describing love has dominated the history of art, and arguably continues to do so. So long as we can think of and feel love, we will find a way to share it even beyond that which commands our affection.
I would gather that art is love and love is an art. That said, there have been institutional exhibitions addressing the nature of love on every continent on earth, and who knows when the first definitive show may have taken place? If we’re to understand that the first “exhibition” as we know it began with the first public opening of the Grand Salon (1734) in Paris, then love in art has a long and healthy history. Naturally, the Irish Museum of Modern Art (IMMA) had a great deal of space and material to contend with in mounting their latest exhibition What We Call Love: From Surrealism to Now. The question is, how did they “make out” (pun intended)?
The exhibition was set up chronologically, with works from Man Ray, Picasso, Meret Oppenheim, Dalí, Duchamp, and Ernst leading off. Sadly, the early Surrealist work on view wasn’t the most impactful throughout the breadth of the show. Dalí’s gilt-framed Couple With Their Heads Full of Clouds (1936) and Meret Oppenheim’s conjoined-at-the-toe boots sculpture Couple (1956) could evoke a brief smile, at best. Things became interesting, however, upon seeing Henrik Olesen’s 2003 slideshow Anthologie de l’amour sublime, adapted from Ernst’s La Femme 100 têtes (The Woman with 100 Heads, 1929). Ernst’s first original collage novel was intended to be a Surrealist play on the story of the Holy Virgin. Olesen further disrupts the pictorial with subtle references to sadomasochistic gay sex: phalluses appear out of doors, characters created by Tom of Finland appear as storybook heroes, and candid images of men in BDSM gear are interspersed with surprised Victorian visages. Not only does Olesen confront conventional attitudes towards love with his work, but also the way in which love and redemption were interpreted in what was thought to be “shocking” images of the Surrealists.
In the main hall, a full grid of photographs from Carolee Schneemann document a consecutive series of mornings whereupon her pet cat would kiss her on the mouth. An ante-room exclusively featured Wolfgang Tillmans’s softly-lit, tender photographic exchanges with several young men. Tillmans has become somewhat of a flag-bearer in his frank depictions of homosexual desire and interaction, starting from chance encounters at discotheques into the vacant spaces between distant, tired lovers. What these photographs offer is a gentle, uninterrupted look at how love can be expressed: the crease of a neck, the shape of an earlobe, and the peaks of a smile are all markers of a faultless, mythic kind of adoration that transcends both time and circumstance. In their contained space, they are a welcome pause in the exhibition’s relentless tempo. A familiar work from Mona Hatoum, Incommunicado (1993), conveyed the impossibility of a parent expressing their love for a child (other than in their own, self-comforting way) and that, consequently, an infant might only truly induce parental attention through screaming and crying. Hatoum’s work highlighted another familiar facet of Love in that it is realized through pain: even the most whole-hearted gestures are based in self-interest (sadder, still, is that this reaction is confirmed not by art, but by biological science) and the purest expressions of compassion are inevitably, and irreversibly, compromised by Life, itself. Possibly the most uproarious and bitingly witty expression within the massive show was Tracey Moffatt’s 2003 film collaboration with editor Gary Hillberg simply entitled Love. In the span of 21 minutes, a slew of iconic films from the 40’s, 50’s, 60’s and 70’s follow a rough arc from first meeting, forbidden lust, plateaued emotion, to violent abuse, culminating in deadly revenge. Collective notions of love and happy endings are mashed together to create a more recognizable, more realistic picture of love outside of the cinema hall: boring days, heated quarrels and loss of interest are seemingly all inherent in developing “true love”, but have been sanitized throughout the course of Hollywood’s grandiose Golden Age. Moffatt’s film is still a movie, in and of itself, but reads more like the pages of tabloid versus a glossy, drugstore romance novel.
After nearly two and a half hours, I was drained and decided to call it a day. The expansive grounds of IMMA (housed in the former Royal Hospital Kilmainham) had yet another separate wing where an El Lissitzky show was on view. I didn’t even dare to attempt it. What We Call Love surely had standout works, works that I recognized and strongly associated with notions of modern love. But like all sweeping group shows that try to tackle absurdly broad ideas like Death, War, Humour, Insanity, or whole nations/national identities, this one was too much to digest all at once. The curator’s ultimate goal was, apparently, to present, “in three chapters…Surrealism’s idea of love as “amour fou” (crazy love), new visions of love which emerged after the 60’s and the often problematic concerns of contemporary love.” I wonder if, had I gone a second or third time, would I feel that much more informed or invested in love as a singular entity? My guess is no. With so much material circulating in so many variant forms referring to the subject of love (and this is just within the core exhibition), it is logistically and physically impossible to corral the best possible visualized examples of the subject in one space. It would have been interesting, perhaps, to use satellite locations to support the main exhibition, which would carry the added benefit of drawing attention to other spaces around the city, and to allow the subject to shift and adapt to different surroundings. I have advocated for this kind of curatorial setup before, but respect that such a project requires double the planning, triple the staff, and quadruple the fiscal resources to successfully carry out. In fairness to the exhibition’s curators Christine Macel and Rachael Thomas, it was a valiant attempt. After all, this exhibition must have been, undoubtedly, a labor of love.
The exhibition is up until 7 February 2016