For Simeon Barclay’s most recent iteration of his touring exhibition, Bus2move, The Turnpike has been ambitiously reconfigured to form a series of intersecting rooms. While the reconfiguration enables fluidity – the viewer moves almost seamlessly throughout the space – the accompanying lighting is deliberately disorientating. It fluctuates between harsh strobing and darkness, in which neon signs in blue, green and yellow leak shades of washed out subterranean-seeming light. These contrasts propagate the exhibition’s theatricality, emphasising a continual feeling of exiting and entering different settings. Such staging enacts the concerns of Barclay’s work, which explores how identity and movement, specifically dance, is influenced and shaped by different surroundings and social settings.
Barclay’s work is grounded in research into contemporary dance, informed here by a residency undertaken with Phoenix Dance Theatre (Leeds), and also by his own experiences of dance and masculinity in underground subcultural environments. For ‘Look No Hands’ (2018) scenes from an underground club are projected onto a large screen. The work is a reference to the Huddersfield-born artist’s own knowledge of the British Jazz Scene – a movement emerging in the 1970s that fused together dance genres such as reggae and ballet with martial arts. Dressed in blue jeans, diamond patterned sweaters and white t-shirts the dancers’ clothes, at first glance, suggest an informality of environment. Yet in one brief clip, a line of men, seemingly unconscious of their synchronised pose, look on in concentration as one of their peers, occupying the central area of the dance floor, improvises an intricate dance routine. Alongside exploring the execution of their choreography, Barclay’s work reveals the complex experiences and negotiations of masculinity that these club spaces entailed, often undetectable to outsiders. The work is accompanied by Beethoven’s ‘Symphony No7 in A Major’ (1812); heightening and formalising the dancers’ movements but also making them appear out of sync.
By focusing, blowing up, zooming in and slowing down sections of footage, Barclay simultaneously draws attention to gesture, movement and technique whilst also commenting on the history of erasure. As part of the same work the viewer arrives via a corridor to a room where a screen shows a clip of two tap dancers. The image has been slowed down and rendered in a blue wash, and although not explicitly referenced, these dancers could be the Nicholas Brothers, two African American siblings who performed in Hollywood films during the 1930s and 1940s. The brothers’ talent was insurmountable to their white counterparts — Fred Astaire venerated them as heroes of his — yet unlike Astaire, the brothers were never provided the opportunity to play romantic leads, constricted by segregation in Hollywood during this era. In slowing down the work, Barclay enhances the artistry of the dancer’s footwork. Adjacent to the video, a Neon sign reads ‘LOOK’, further emphasising the relationship between visibility and displacement.
Positioned in-between the two films comprising ‘Look No Hands’ is a raised platform surrounded by five mannequins wrapped in coats, scarves and boiler suits. The platform is made inaccessible by blue metal gridding on both sides of the space, and is reminiscent of a smoking area (one mannequin wears a gas mask) with the word ‘NO’ hung centrally. Here, the deft subtlety of Barclay’s other works is less present.
While the use of metal gridding reinforces the work’s attention to ideas of exclusion, the physical barriers are unable to separate the porousness of the music. In ‘Encounter in 5 movements’ (2015) a virtuosic dance move is projected simultaneously on fives screens, accompanied by a looped drumbeat echoing through the space. The sound reinforces the rigour and finality of the choreography on the screens (made more impressive, not less, through its repetition). The work is placed on the floor and appears inviting, level with the viewer’s own feet.
Across from this work is another, ‘Learn to Fail’ (2018) also exploring ideas of repetition and seriality. This piece is an enlarged black and white image of a group of young boys leaning against a fence, and although a seemingly casual scene, they look at the viewer distrustfully. The accompanying exhibition notes explain that the image was found by Barclay in a book researching different types of housing from the 1980s and has been simultaneously stretched out and compressed to fill two separate sides of the gallery’s walls. Following the riots of 1981, young people (especially young men) became a focus for media anxiety and the effect of this image’s treatment by Barclay is to make the faces of the young people seem taut and rigid, seemingly aware of having been co-opted to communicate a narrative they are not in control of. Where the darkness of the club enables transgression, daylight inflicts exposure. Alongside this image, large-scale bar codes have been imposed on the wall, chequering it; explicit in communicating the damage of stereotyping.
While ‘Learn to Fail’ creates a sense of entrapment, ‘Fail to Learn’ (2018), one of the first pieces that the viewer encounters on entering the exhibition, subverts the sense of imprisonment present elsewhere. Four Perspex boxes have been rendered in an acidic orange colour and are placed on the floor. Inserted within them are creased images of the pop artist Sanada Maitreya (formerly known as Terence Trent D’arby). In the 1990s D’arby was a self-proclaimed genius that refused classification, choosing instead to author and produce all of his own music. By folding the images, the viewer is denied any easy reading of them, and the work is simultaneously a reference to the props used in Calyx (2017), a dance piece selected from the Phoenix’s archive and shown next to the installation. By creating new elisions between Calyx and ‘Fail to Learn’, Barclay successfully transposes and transmutes different forms of staging to question narrative and imagery.
In Raymond William’s seminal work Keywords, in the entry for the etymology of the word ‘image’, he writes that it holds ‘a probable root relationship to the development of imitate… there is a deep tension between ideas of ‘copying’ and ‘ideas of imagination and the imaginary’’. Barclay’s work ‘2 Step’ (2018) is an enlarged fragment of Matisse’s infamous painting of a ring of dancers, ‘Dance II’ (1910). The exhibition handout describes how the painting was one that Barclay ‘struggled to imitate’ whilst studying art at night school after sixteen years of working in manufacturing and is rendered (with a nod to his own history) in steel and the acid-house colours of green and orange. In creating his own imaginary of Matisse’s work, shaped here in the form of a doorway, Barclay has produced a fragment that stands alone. It seems well placed, and pertinent to this bit of the world where one of the rules for Northern Soul, a dance movement that emerged out of nearby Wigan in the late 1960s, was to make ‘two steps in a single beat’[i].
Alongside other works in this exhibition, ‘2 Step’ epitomises the way Barclay’s body of work affectively destabilises cultural hierarchies, and in the process, creates new elisions between different art forms. The artist tells me that he experienced dance classes as a youth in school but that most of his experiences of dance and choreography ‘came from outside of any formalised situation’. While his work celebrates and reflects the importance of these non-formalised spaces – and the opportunity for self-expression they provided – it also reveals the hidden codes embedded within them. However, by bringing together different aspects of cultural history and by spotlighting the work of artists who transgressed such codes and expectations – D’arby, the Nicholas brothers, and the Phoenix Dancy Company, the work creates fresh perspectives on masculinity and identity.
Bus2move was originally planned to be open at The Turnpike 14 February – 18 April 2020, however the exhibition had to be closed from 16 March onwards following government guidance on the COVID-19 pandemic. The exhibition is a partnership with The Tetley, Leeds and Workplace Foundation, Gateshead and is supported by Arts Council England National Lottery Project Grants.
Isabel Taube is a researcher and writer based in Salford.
This review is supported by The Turnpike and Arts Council England.
[i] Tim Jonze. ‘How to Dance to Northern Soul’. The Guardian. 18 September 2014.