In the cocktail of public opinion, cultural expectation and individual experience love comes out a richly unquantifiable concept. The curation of What We Call Love: from Surrealism to Now is mindful of the futility in pinning this down too tightly. The work is loosely organised into three successive chapters of surrealism, conceptual/performance art, and contemporary art, but it is not intent on illustrating progression – each chapter is instead to be seen as directly relative to ideas of love today, with the notion of love looked around rather than directly at.
This loose compartmentalisation aside, a survey exhibition will always face issues with cohesion and digestibility, and in this respect such a liberally quantified approach yields little benefit. Whilst somewhat chronological but not cumulative, the work within each chapter of What We Call Love is given the scope to exist without a pretext beyond its own catalyst. Yet embracing the sheer capacity of something as universal and indefinable as love makes for a roving exhibition, the downside of which being there are plenty of works that lack any strong purpose beyond an obligatory nod to the title, filling out the exhibition for the sake of hammering variety home. Would the alternative be formulaic and boring? Possibly. Nonetheless, the sheer volume of work in the exhibition in a relatively small space – publicised as nearly two hundred pieces – tempers the impact of some truly impressive, challenging work.
The first rooms are dedicated to the surrealist exploration of love, primarily “l’amour fou”, or “crazy love”. A small carved wooden sculpture of an embracing pair by Picasso sits in the shadow of Giacometti’s The Couple, a cubist bronze sculpture, in a conservative beginning. They are accompanied by Picasso’s painting The Kiss, two angular faces gnashing at each other with plaque in their teeth. Further on, there are key Breton texts under glass, and delicate Duchamp etchings based on the romantic works of artists such as Rodin and Ingres. Alongside these prints are strangely endearing and comical small sculptures by Duchamp, such as Wedge of Chastity and Dart Object, a bronze form enveloped in pink dental plastic and a fine, curved, almost phallic shape. Man Ray drawings and photographs swap female body parts and put wooden mannequin models in compromising positions.
Each successive room is increasingly crowded with work; mostly it is humorously corporeal, and markedly of a male viewpoint upon couplehood and women, as is to be expected from the Freud-inspired surrealists. A documentary film on Georges Sebbag – who knew the surrealists and wrote about them extensively – attempts to defuse this, bringing up the anti-conformist spirit that welcomed all to its circle, not just straight men. I wish the documentary wasn’t there; it feels like a pre-emptive deflection of any criticism, or healthy tension within the show.
There is, however, some playful discord and artistic re-contextualisation to be found in the final room of this chapter, with Henrik Olsen’s 2004 revision of Anthology of Sublime Love, originally by Benjamin Péret. The surreal segues into the disturbing, the comical and the somewhat horrific. A slideshow of the original work is spliced with illustrations and collages, motifs that become more ominous with each repetition – imploring tentacles, domineering gargoyles, and men that keep emerging from and revisiting the forest. Overtly re-writing history to explore its choice of presentation and what remained concealed – in this case, with imagery presented in a surrealist spirit to address homosexual narratives – can create the layers of politicisation and relevance that surrealism lacks when seen today.
In this way the work in the first chapter of the exhibition operates best as a backdrop for expanded interpretation rather than as an underpinning. Secluded around the corner is Rebecca Horn’s High Moon, a mechanical sculpture of guns rotating toward and away from one another, shooting blood-red liquid periodically in one another’s direction, perhaps from the wide, bulbous glasses that are suspended alongside. The liquid stains the walls and floors and sits in a trough along the ground, with an accompanying wall text describing a wild state between two undefined bodies. These actions, employed and mechanised without any body-based element, introduce a more removed look upon the feral and absurd than in the historical work that preceded it. This foil in turn allows more to be said: whilst the display or evocation of human bodies makes it easy to slot oneself in, body-based empathy can become a seductive yet limiting experience.
The conceptual/performance art chapter hosts a different kind of separation: predominantly, of artists from personal and/or artistic experience. Sentimental tokens, repetitive actions, marriage, and violence are displayed, isolated or staged in the name of art, to then take on a political role or statement. Love is disarmed through such an objective gaze, not so much in scepticism as through awareness and embrace of its uses or knife-edge into futility. One of the most potent is the suspended energy around a pristine bedroom set-up by Elmgreen & Dragset, with an accompanying video of a repetitive performance. In 24/7/365, two men repeat the action of undressing, spooning, and getting dressed over the course of 4 hours. Perfunctory actions of love, lust or familiarity make the bed appear as a blank slate, with motivation or background moot.
Chapters two and three seem to blend into one another, except for a more cynical and deviatory approach in the latter. Love is represented through even more removal – found objects and abstract shapes, and, unexpectedly, comparative brain scans by Jeremy Shaw, wherein different “types” of love, such as romantic or maternal, are mapped. Nan Goldin and Mona Hatoum offer familial and parental love in the photo series Marina and Jean Christian in bed with baby Elio and Hatoum’s Incommunicado, a metal cot with a cheesewire base. There is also several works by Louise Bourgeois, showcasing her standard combinations of soft bodily forms and hard industrial-type presentations.
Moving beyond romantic love demonstrates a contemporary shift in thinking beyond the single-mindedness and categorical nature of love; hierarchy is no longer necessary, roles within relationships are trying to move beyond their prescription. Perhaps this familial work is intended as a tonic to the male-centricity of the first chapter – if only the work included was more interesting or nuanced. When isolated from romantic love, as in HatoÖum’s work, parental love comes across as a rather out of place addition to the show, unsupported by any similar expansion into other relationship areas. There are however effective and equally visceral works that show the complications of the female perspective in a familial experience, such as Ferhat Özgür’s Women in Love, a documentary-style video of women discussing the painful and comical aspects of their marriage in matter of fact and humourous ways, along with Tracey Moffatt’s Love.
Love is an unexpected standout work, a small video between rooms. An edited compilation of soap opera and film, it shows a cycle of domestic violence, hammy and disturbing in equal measure, and turns into the trope of desperate women with guns. Seen on repeat, this cycle of how we choose to present the female experience in mainstream culture, reductive in narrative and revelling in abuse and revenge, is transfixing and sharp; the reduction to a narrative stereotype puts an alternative mirror to our own perceptions of roles and nature.
What We Call Love is an exhibition that revels in its uncertainty and insecurity, throwing the viewer about in a way that’s perhaps intentionally discombobulating. For better or for worse, what we call love is more complicated than ever, yet less margined or defined.
“What we Call Love” is exhibiting at the Irish Museum of Modern Art, Dublin, until the 7th February 2016.