Dada's Boys

The notion of questioned male identity is reflected in the works by the frankly stellar array of contemporary artists

Feature by Rosamund West | 15 Jul 2006

Curated by University of Glasgow History of Art professor David Hopkins, 'Dada's Boys' is an argument-led exhibition which sets out the curator's theories on the influence of Dadaism on the work of contemporary artists. The show offers a refreshing intellectual examination of recent work, casting aside the common thirty year exclusion zone of art historical discourse in order to place some potentially impenetrable works in a theoretical context, highlighting the common underlying themes in works created over the course of nearly a century.

Hopkins is primarily concerned with the 'Duchampian discourse around male identity' which he sees as deriving from the crisis of identity caused by the chaos of the First World War. Marcel Duchamp's experimentations with identity are illustrated by works such as Man Ray's Marcel Duchamp as Rrose Selavy of 1921, a photograph of Duchamp dressed as his female alter ego, her name a pun on the phrase 'Eros c'est la vie'. The notion of questioned male identity is reflected in the works by the frankly stellar array of contemporary artists.

Douglas Gordon's Self Portrait as Kurt Cobain as Andy Warhol as Myra Hindley as Marilyn Monroe is a self reflective aping of the iconography of these varied blondes. The artist appears unshaven, in a blonde wig with a Hindley-esque dour expression on his face. He has taken on the attributes of each of those mentioned in the title, forming a composite which loses the sense of identity of both them and him. He has played with the idea of iconic imagery, yet his choice of scale (the print is tiny, its small scale exaggerated by its positioning in the centre of a comparatively vast expanse of blank white paper) suggests that he believes he has rendered himself and his icons insignificant. The sheer number of identities referenced in his title also suggests that he considers his identity to be changeable, and fragile.

Much of the work on display is overtly concerned with the so-called 'lad' culture of the 1980s and 90s, a culture which Hopkins suggests is linked with the aftermath of the women's liberation movement of the preceding decades. This is an interesting theory, fascinating in its plausibility. As feminism led to women taking on previously masculine roles male identity was challenged leading to a heightened preoccupation with the baser signifiers of masculinity, at the time still uncontaminated by female involvement - football, lager, birds. Hopkins relates this to the post WW1 era of Dadaism, when the slaughter of untold millions of men had led to women filling previously male jobs and roles thereby leading to a crisis of identity for the returning soldiers.

Football as masculine signifier becomes a little questionable in Roderick Buchanan's Tombez La Chemise of 2002, a looped three minute video projection of footballers exchanging shirts at the end of matches in the last World Cup. The overt heterosexuality of the game, an essential component of lad culture, is subtly undermined by the swapping ritual, and by the accompanying embraces between hot topless men. The symbolic act of exchanging national shirts also references the idea that identity is fluid and liable to break down when the attributes denoting it are removed or changed.

American masculinity is also represented through sport in the work of Jeff Koons. His One Ball 50-50 Tank of 1985 is a basketball floating in the centre of a half filled tank of distilled water. The use of the readymade creates obvious parallels with Duchamp, while the gendered object of the (basket)ball suggests concerns of male identity. There is something a little uncomfortable however in Koons' choice of object, as the basketball of the black ghetto teen with aspirations is somewhat removed from the experience of the wealthy white former stockbroker [Koons].

Perhaps the strangest work on show (something of an achievement when the exhibition includes works by Matthew Barney and Paul McCarthy) is by Knut Asdam. His Untitled: Pissing plasma screen presentation shows exactly what the title suggests. The screen frames a close up of a white-clad crotch, initially pristine then slowly tainted by the slow seepage of urine. The image produces a strange mix of emotions - there is a natural abhorrence, but this is undermined by the strange cleanness of the white, and the vulnerability; the loss of control implied by the action. This duality reflects the dualities of maleness explored in the exhibition - the abhorrent and the sexual and the vulnerable simultaneously coexisting in a single pristine frame.

Hopkins has produced a fascinating argument, and in some ways lent validity to the sometimes baffling contemporary work which is so often displayed without adequate information. As always the Fruitmarket has provided plentiful reading materials, explanatory videos and gallery guides which allow the more eager visitor to fully explore the issues raised by Dada and beyond. I left the gallery with a vastly improved opinion of the work on display.

Fruitmarket Gallery, Edinburgh. Until July 16. Free.