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Surreal House 04.08.11

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Untitled by Man Ray, 1920 (image: Man Ray Trust/ADAGP/DACS)

The surrealists make themselves at home in the Barbican. Isabel Stevens explores domestic innerspace

Andre Breton would be proud. For the duration of The Surreal House exhibition, his sparring partner Le Corbusier's "machine for living" has been turned into a machine for dreaming. A rebel, surrealist dwelling, designed by Carmody Groarke, has infiltrated the modernist concrete hulk of the Barbican.

Inside, the strange, grotesque, abstruse and erotic jostle side by side. The Surreal House is a wunderkammer of photography, painting, installation, film and ephemera by surrealists past and present, all interrogating the notion of home. In the upper galleries, with Carmody Groarke's jagged, higgledy-piggledy structure in view below, the focus turns to surrealist architecture itself.

In their quest to make the everyday into an unfamiliar, eerie dreamscape, the surrealists kept returning to the notion of home. Yet, with all its snug, bourgeois trappings, the domestic space was also their bête noir. True to this, the exhibition starts and ends with it under attack: a hapless Buster Keaton contends with exploding facades amid a hurricane in Steamboat Bill Jr and a burly fireball consumes a house in Andrei Tarkovsky's The Sacrifice. As the inclusion of such films demonstrates, surrealism is here interpreted broadly, with the likes of Dali and Magritte showing alongside some of the movement's little-known forebears. (It's hard to believe that Nicholas de Larmessin's bizarre engravings of men encased by the architecture of their trades were conceived more than two centuries before Guillaume Apollinaire's invention of the s-word in 1917).

Intriguingly, as well as being grouped thematically, the artworks are placed to suggest the different rooms of a house. Edward Keinholz's installation The Wait, featuring the skeleton of an old lady in an armchair next to a live budgerigar, becomes the living room while Czech director Jan Svankmajer's short film Down to the Cellar conjures an eerie basement. Items of furniture too decorate the house – Rachel Horn's ceiling-mounted erupting piano among them – function of course an irrelevance. Here, The Surreal House could easily disintegrate into the gimmicky, carnivalesque funhouse – but the overarching sense of eeriness, which starts when we are greeted by Rachel Whiteread's tomblike ash-coloured bathtub cast at the entrance, forbids this.

Carmody Groarke's exhibition design plays a huge role in the success of the show. The architectural darlings du jour 
are a surprising choice – only in their underground spa can one detect any tinge of surrealism. Fortunately, their creation at the Barbican shows off the artworks rather than overpowering them. Corners, corridors and small galleries where works can be considered close-up have been carved out of the gallery's large expanse. Black walls immediately plunge you into a very different space to the normal white cube, while creepy shadows and reflections are maximised by the lighting.

Strangely enough, relatively few constructed homes influenced by surrealism figure – there are just two here: OMA's Dalí-influenced Villa Dall'Ava and Curzio Malaparte's De Chirico-esque house on Capri. The choice to show these buildings through film as opposed to drawings and photographs is particularly apt – the camera becomes a ghostly presence floating along corridors of Villa Dall'Ava and one wishes the same had been done for Ferdinand Cheval's Palais idéal, of which, sadly, only two photographs are on display. With stones collected on his mail rounds, Postman Cheval constructed his lava-like palace over 33 years without any knowledge of the surrealist shenanigans in Paris. Indeed, one of the exhibition's most interesting revelations is how surrealism actually creeps into architecture where it's least expected: it's evident in the former decay of Le Corbusier's Villa Savoye for example (as documented by Bernard Tschumi) as well as Man Ray's photographs of urban ruins.

Perhaps the blueprint is just too rational a document. The drawings for Coop Himmelb(l)au's automatist house, designed with eyes scrunched shut, and Frederick Kiesler's elastic womb dwelling testify otherwise, but they remain firmly in the imagination. Reality, it seems, still isn't quite ready for the surreal house.


Concert for Anarchy by Rachel Horn, 1990 (image: Tate/DACS)

The Surreal House is at the Barbican, London, until 12 September



Isabel Stevens

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Black walls immediately plunge you into a very different space to the normal white cube, while creepy shadows and reflections are maximised by the lighting

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