There seems to exist a basic logic of subculture, that could be described as the attempt to re-contexualize dominant orders by means of performative reproduction. But what exactly do the artistic and political ges-tures of the Dada movement and its play with paradoxies, its refusal of logic and its desire for transgression have to do with gay identity or even a queer political agenda?
Curated by David Hopkins, Art History Professor at the University of Glasgow, "Dada's Boys" takes as its starting point the notion that New York Dada, and thus much contemporary art produced under its influence, was inscribed by a mischievous spirit of male camaraderie. In part, the exhibition is filtered through the gaze of (predominately white) mainstream heterosexual male identities, a gender studies subject that has gradually regained its profile since the late 1960s (before which period it was the only thing on the menu of British Cultural Studies). This being a dadaesque gathering, hyperbolic and idealised masculinities are consistently the butt of the joke, something to be camped up by femmes-hommes cross-dressing or the subject of a sick joke to be taken to extremes.
There is little in this exhibition that points to an explicitly queer, transvestite or androgynous sense of male gender identity and gender expression. There are lots of examples of men dressing up as women, but they are rather like 1970s British Glam Rockers and end of the pier comedians - proverbial builders in make-up. There's no performative or prosthetic sense in which we were to seriously take "Rrose Sélavy" (1920-21) as a woman; this was no drag act, the pun was paramount. This is a point that Douglas Gordon reiterates, with little added relish, in self-portraits such as "Staying Home and Going Out" (2005) and "Self-Portrait as Kurt Cobain as Andy Warhol as Myra Hyndley as Marilyn Monroe" (1996). The latter, featuring a stubbled Gordon in a bleach-blonde wig, hits all the right buttons as far as customary gender studies is concerned, hints of binaries including grungy expressionism/glammed-up pop affectation, virgin/whore, saint/witch. It tries hard to be both textbook and flip and is thus not remarkably funny. While alluding to the idea of gender and sexual fluidity, there is little more than a clichéd art game being played out verbatim. Among "Dada's Boys", nothing is ever really at stake as far as identity is concerned since identity is allegedly only art(ifice), and art is pure unfettered play. As much as art should provide an arena within which instrumentalist notions of responsibility take a back seat, this received notion of self as pure masquerade posits an idea about masculinity that is constricting; it is not simply a case of wearing heels and raising an eyebrow.
Similarly, with Sarah Lucas' well-known photographs of her adopting various macho poses (1990-98) we're never pushed to think that she is a he. Lucas doesn't bother with face paint or disguises, she just adopts the attitudes and expressions of young men desperate to prove their studhood. As Hopkins points out, Lucas' work was and remains inseparable from the revival of "ironic" straight male roles (and female roles in the guise of the Laddette). While she is lampooning the image of the male artist hero, as did many artists in the 1980s, she does so through the gaze of the British lad culture of the 1990s, not the ideological mythopoetic essentialism of Iron John, but a commercial culture led by the market for gadgets, supermodels and football, one which most closely resembles the American invention of the teenager as a consumer-self in the 1950s. As the market-driven backlash against metrosexuality intensified in the 1990s Lucas' work was certainly ironic, something that can't be said of Laddism, a retrosexuality that has continued apace in the UK over the past 15 years, turning back the clock to the early 1970s when the women's movement was first beginning to make a significant legal impact on civil rights in the West. In contrast Roderick Buchanan's "Tombez la Chemise" (2002) - a short film in which international football players are seen exchanging shirts - is a posteriori laddism with a whisper of sexual ambiguity. On the face of things this is a very straightforward work. Since this is a ritual, the film is a very blunt and illustrative way of examining a male rite. Buchanan has edited found footage together from TV coverage, an act that suggests either that he is a voyeur who furtively accrues homoerotica from the box, or that he is a typical anally fixated hetero male who collects and categorises football trivia. Either way, his own gaze plays a much bigger part in how we receive the film than its minimal appearance suggests. Ultimately, however, Heisenberg's Uncertainty Principle operates in so far as the film's eroticism depends on both the sexual orientation and biological sex of the viewer.
Much might be said of Jeff Koons' "One Ball 50-50 Tank" (1985) and "Zungul, Lord of Indoors" (1985), but Koons himself as a persona can't be taken out of the equation so easily since he plays such a central role model both as a salesman/theorist and as the somewhat camp and precocious personality depicted in "The New Jeff Koons" (1980). Koons' sales pitch was built on the trust all artists seek to establish between themselves and their audiences. Any sense of ambiguity has arisen only as audiences have regarded this as ironic manipulation, creating the distance needed to accept his products as art works rather than taking them for the boys-toys they often are. Koons, however, was never ambiguous. Having chosen the appropriate objects for his promotion, he played a consistently positive character, successfully selling consumer therapy and bourgeois white male heterosexuality to spectators schooled (in the 1980s at least) to be antagonistic towards such values. Happily accepting uncertainty over what can now be said to constitute an avant-garde gesture, Koons' audiences have acknowledged that his sense of male identity can be as fascinating as any other. Significanly, this places Koons more squarely in line with Duchamp since Duchamp was himself an effete master of manipulating and altering the rules of the game as well as an advocate of play and chance, bilateral inclinations that raises doubts about the dada affiliations of the other artists included in the show. Perhaps dropping "identity" and sticking with "play" would have focused attention on these issues and thus have been more curatorially manageable.
Given its overambitious subtext, "Dada's Boys" seems in danger of being a lecture meted out in material form, something "educational" (and not very dada). The exhibition installation is not without joie de vivre. Hopkins has a very keen eye and an encyclopedic knowledge of dada that allows him to find some exceptionally obscure visual similes, most notably between Keith Farquhar's "Kats Mask (Bum Hole Eyes)" (2001) poster and Duchamp's "Rongwrong" (1917) magazine cover. "Dada's Boys"' strength comes from those works that share a sense of humour that is, in Hopkins' words, both odd and poignant. With this in mind we get to see an old Angus Fairhurst/Damien Hirst video "A Couple of Cannibals Eating a Clown (I should Coco)" (1993). Fairhurst/Hirst's film is much more engaging than Paul McCarthy's "Cultural Soup" (1987), rooted as it is in everyday life - a couple of men in a pub sharing stories about horrific deaths - rather than performance art. The fact that Fairhurst and Hirst are dressed as clowns makes for some good black humour that is simultaneously touching in its credulity (children's entertainers are real grown men and behave accordingly). Martin Kippenberger's "Interior Life of A Laughing Sack" (1983), which shows a hollow mechanics at the heart of obligatory joviality, is better still at combining these qualities.
Hopkins' other favourite tropes - masturbation, facial stubble, cigarettes, bad jokes, alcohol, kebabs, sick stories, clowns, femmes-hommes, men cooking, sporting heroes, cowboys, shaving - are all there among the works. The spaces between the works, however, don't reveal these qualities so readily largely due to the fact that there are few surprises to encounter. With the exception of Farquhar's newly commissioned installation "The Rules of Attraction (White Wine White Cotton)" (2006) - a series of giant wine glasses which appear to be chatting each other up - all of the works are historical which adds to the feeling that we are witnessing a fait accompli, a male heritage from the eighties or nineties or, worse still, a remastering of the twentieth century canon from yet another methodological stance. Luckily Farquhar's take on Bret Easton Ellis' novel (with its echoes of Duchamp's "The Bride Stripped Bare") adds something genuinely idiosyncratic as does everything about Matthew Barney's "Cremaster 4" (1994). They share a similar sense of joy in the exploitation of in-jokes, amusingly overdetermined narratives and pataphysical system building found in the archival works by Duchamp, Picabia and Man Ray. Yet surely these proudly negligent forefathers mitigate against a familial inherited dada canon? In many cases the younger boys strip their Dadas oedipally, amplifying their foibles, producing spectacles that are the antithesis of dada's iconoclasm. Despite this, Hopkins' thesis on homosocial masculinity is fascinating and deserves to be tested and adapted through exposure to further examples of recent practice, dadaesque or otherwise.
"Dada's Boys: Identity and Play in Contemporary Art", Fruitmarket Gallery, Edinburgh, 27 May - 16 July 2006