The brief was to create an elegant exhibition design that spatially explores the idea of redefining masculinities, responds to the specific media of photography and film, and creates a design appropriate to the Barbican Art Gallery.
Unlike working in a neutral white cube exhibition space, the particular challenge of working in this gallery is to create an intervention that is not overwhelmed by or does not compete with the existing architecture, which has a strong presence due to its materiality of exposed concrete, and its layout, with a lower and upper gallery level arranged around a large central void space, punctuated by three oversized columns. The exhibition design draws on the existing architecture of the Barbican, which itself recalls certain qualities of masculinities through scale, proportion, texture and detailing, and also brings it into focus through the viewing frames.
In the double height open space of the gallery, display partition walls are sliced apart by seven tall black frames, which create visual connections between artworks in different curatorial sections, and which disrupt the datum line of the top of the partition walls by extending just below the coffered ceiling, drawing the visitor’s eye upwards, connecting the lower and upper level gallery spaces and drawing the gallery architecture into the frame. The tall frames question structure through their details which recall steel sections, and yet they do not support anything, standing just short of the soffit. The visible fixings on the frames recall the “nuts and bolts” on display in the photography of Karlheinz Weinberger.
The primary material of the exhibition design is black Valchromat, its tonal variation referencing the raw texture of the concrete in the space, and its black colour recalling photographic devices, as well as handrails and other details in the Barbican.
Interpretative text panels, dividing the show into six thematic sections – queer identity, the black body, power and patriarchy, female perceptions of men, heteronormative hypermasculine stereotypes, fatherhood and family – are also constructed in black Valchromat. They are designed as box frames and have the same thickness as the tall black frames, projecting out from the walls with a strong physical presence.
Black transparent acrylic partitions create darkened enclosures for video projections. Referring to camera film, these partitions reveal the moving image behind, whilst keeping the light out. The screens not only create tinted views of the projection behind but also creates reflections of artworks in front, resulting in layered views of artworks.
The strong architectural language of the black frames is counterbalanced by a series of small directional playful frameless cut-outs in the walls that frame views of specific artworks and visitors, intertwining different curatorial themes. One is a three-way viewing opening, another is a directional cut-out on the stair.
Specially for this exhibition, two glazed walls of the Barbican Art Gallery – normally concealed – were made visible by creating circular and square openings in the black window vinyl, filled with pint-tinted film, creating framed views of the Barbican Estate.
The exhibition design has prioritised sustainability. It is highly resourceful, using a paired back approach, minimising the quantity of material required. Half of the partition walls were reused from the previous exhibition to minimise waste. The primary material used in the show, Valchromat, is a sustainable material – a wood fibre panel, coloured with organic dyes, is recyclable and minimises waste in production.
The challenge of the exhibition design was to operate in the background to allow the artworks to be foregrounded, however at the same time to have an identity of its own that reinforces the issues at stake of the exhibition and to create a meaningful spatial experience through it in an engaging way. The design succeeds in synthesising the topic, the media and the context of the exhibition through a design that surpasses the requirements of the brief, breaking down boundaries between inside and outside, upper and lower galleries, foreground and background, art and architecture, to open up new definitions of masculinities.
Client: Barbican Art Gallery
Curators: Alona Pardo, assisted by Chris Bayley
Graphic Designers: Le Bon Ton