The City of Concrete Sets the Stage for a Greener Future
A Review of Re/Sisters: A Lens on Gender and Ecology
By Minna Church
Barbara Kruger, Untitled (we won’t play nature to your culture), 1983. Photograph taken from Barbican.org.uk.
It only takes 24 minutes from Vernon Square to discover a hidden city. Hop on the Northern Line two stops East, follow the underpass of Beech Street, turn right and you will find the Barbican. Characterised by a myriad of concrete bridges, pavilions and towers, and punctuated with green interventions of foliage, the Barbican represents every eco-Brutalist’s architectural fantasy. I am sure I am not the only Courtauld student to find serenity among its balance of grey and green, but for those that have not yet been it should be at the top of your list. Central to the escapist feel of the Barbican is the replication of a city in miniature, with housing, access to outdoor spaces (including a lake) and an abundance of art spaces, including cinemas, libraries and galleries. When the project was under construction, one of the press tag lines was ‘A concept for bringing life back to the heart of the city’. This ethos is manifested in the current central exhibition Re/Sisters: A Lens on Gender and Ecology, which is open now until the 14th January 2024 month.
Museums and galleries strive to cultivate environments wherein the viewer is free from the visual constraints of everyday life. Whether through spectacle, like the monumental stepped entrances of Nationals, or minimalism, like the White Cube, the physical host of the exhibition is as crucial to the works on display as istheir arrangement. Walking through the Barbican Centre with its zig-zagging floors and vast concrete walls,conjures images of dystopia. In what better psychological condition should a viewer be re-acquainted with the enduring environmental catastrophe that fails to make headlines unless it involves a can of soup? Re/Sisters: A Lens on Gender and Ecology is an outstanding exhibition that explores the inter-relationship between gender and ecology (the study of organisms and how they interact with the environment), in its focus on photography and the moving image. The arrangement is thematic, and the segment titles start with ‘Extractive Economies/ Exploding Ecologies’, and continues through ‘Muration: Protest and Survive’, ‘Earth Maintenance’, ‘Performing Ground’, ’Reclaiming the Commons’ and concludes with ‘Liquid Bodies’.
The Barbican Centre, 2019. Photograph taken by Max Colson.
Barbara Kruger’s Untitled (We won’t play nature to your culture) greets you upon entrance to the galleries; inherent in this piece are central focuses of the show; the construction of genders, theories of ecology and the responsibility of photography and gaze. Truly global in focus, the show consists of around fifty artists from across the world, with a large curatorial focus on the showing artists who work or are from the Global South, which experiences the immediate and devastating affects of global climate change disproportionately higher than the Global North. The show spans decades of work, including well known names of 1970s artists like Judy Chicago along with contemporary collectives like The People’s Archive of Rural India. Certain movements are showcased, in particular the Greenham Common. The construction of the galleries allows for a blending of curatorial layouts: the Barbican has two floors in the main galleries, a spacious ground floor and a mezzanine framing the edges, so visitors can see both floors from multiple angles. Different exhibitions will switch the introductory galleries, but Re/Sisters begins on the lower floor. A dialogue of two grids of photographs by Simryn Gill Channel and Eyes and Storm begins the first segment. These pieces introduce the concepts of micro and macro focus, which continues throughout. The mezzanine floor is organised with walled-off mini galleries. In such a way the exhibition grounds itself and does not allow the large number of voices to compete for attention, but rather it introduces the viewer to a plurality of perspectives, histories and experiences. It is worth noting that multiple works are film and moving image pieces, so it it worth investing an entire morning or afternoon to ensure you do not feel rushed. The galleries are spacious and there are many benches on the lower floor to allow time for reflection.
The exhibition continues the Barbican’s commitment towards wider gender inclusion in their programming. The past three exhibitions in the Barbican’s main gallery have all been monographic of female artists: Carrie Mae Weems: Reflections for Now (June-September 2023), Alice Neel: Hot Off the Griddle (Feb-May 2023), Carolee Schneemann: Body Politics (September 2022-January 2023). Whilst these exhibitions may appear high the total of is the equivalent of the number of female artists shown at Barbican for the entire decade of 2010-2020 (Lee Krasner: Living Colour, May-September 2019, Dorothea Lange/ Vanessa Winship June-September 2018).
Re/Sisters is bold, ambitious and essential for twenty-first century audiences. It is well worth making the 24 minute escape from Vernon Square and spending an afternoon emerged in radical architecture and radical art.
Re/Sisters: A Lens on Gender and Ecology is on at Barbican 5th October 2023-14th January 2024.