Artsdesk: What They Call Love

Posted October 5, 2015 in Arts & Culture Features

Mojo Rising
Bello Bar

An exhibition on the subject of love is currently on show in The Irish Museum of Modern Art. It features a blockbuster line-up of artists including Marcel Duchamp, Marina Abramović, Andy Warhol, and Yoko Ono, comprising almost 200 artworks with amorous themes. What We Call Love: From Surrealism to Now is one of the museum’s first major exhibitions to charge a cover fee (€8/€5 concession), and with the popularity of the artists and the crowd-pleasing theme sure to draw people in, the exhibition inadvertently demonstrates how romantic love can function as an instrument of capitalism, as well as a means of organising society.

The first two rooms feature works from the Cubist and Surrealist canon, including Pablo Picasso, Max Ernst, and Salvador Dalí. These works depict their female lovers, who are here subjected to the Cubist practice of rendering women’s biological accoutrements as geometric elements, intertwined in formal composition with masculine signifiers. This reductive collocating of ‘complimentary’ forms is the running visual metaphor for love in the show, replicated variously as the photographic diptych (Douglas Gordon), the double portrait (Félix González-Torres), the double bed (Elmgreem and Dragset, Yoko Ono), the embracing couple (Constantin Brâncuși, Louise Bourgeois), and the two perfectly interlocked circles (Jim Hodges). Even Cerith Wyn Evans’ three identical wall-mounted clocks entitled, Perfect Love, Plus One, posits the duo as love’s supreme embodiment.

This motif is undermined in Sophie Calle’s work, The Faux Marriage, a large-scale black and white wedding photograph of the artist and her then-husband. The accompanying text reveals that this photo of her wedding party is in fact constructed, which speaks to the contrived nature of all wedding photos, and disrupts the rigid meaning that such images typically offer. Positioned beside a corresponding photographic work The Divorce, it presents love as temporal, and finite, in contrast with majority of the work in the show, which envisions it as spatial and therefore eternal.

Kapwani Kiwanga


The best work here is that which reveals the inherently violent and exploitative aspects of love, which induces revulsion rather than sentimentality. In Picasso’s 1931 painting The Kiss (Two Heads), a man and women lie in a pale bed, eyes rolling, jaws unhinged and dark mouths devouring each other. Better still, the parasitical condition of love is unforgettably captured in Nan Goldin’s Marina and Jean Christian in Bed with Baby Ello, in which a woman lies in bed nude with her male partner and their infant child, both of whom compete for access to her breast milk.

The title of the exhibition, What We Call Love, implies that there exists a community of consensus on the subject. The press release suggests that post-referendum Ireland, with its newly expanding definitions, constitutes this community. By beginning in 1930s Paris and ending in contemporary Dublin, the new ‘city of love’, a self-congratulatory narrative of progress is presented. This is not reflected in the selection of work, most of which serves to only further glorify, like some insipid love song, an image of love that is cloyingly nostalgic and overwhelmingly normative.

What We Call Love: From Surrealism to Now runs at the Irish Museum of Modern Art in Kilmainham until Sunday 7th February 2016.

Words: Eimear Walshe


Kapwani Kiwanga, Turns of Phrase: Fig.1 (Upendo)

Zackary Drucker and Rhys Ernst, Relationship #19, “Three Years of ZackaRhys”, 2008-2013



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