BogeArt Review: Beauty and the Beard

Me and my bearded friend

Me and my bearded friend

Beards. Like ‘em, love ‘em or hate ‘em, Somerset house is bringing them to us in everyshape, size and colour. Only open for the month, BEARD is an exhibition showing a series of photographs taken by award winning photographer Mr Elbank. Elbank’s concept originated as a collaboration with his friend Jimmy Niggles, who is behind the charity Beard Season, which raises skin cancer awareness by encouraging men to grow beards.

The beards on show belong to the old, young, male and female. It largely addresses the beard as a trend/fashion statement/self-expression, with many of the subjects displaying other conscious fashion ‘statements’ in their appearance, such as tattoos, unusual hairstyles and bold clothing. They mention how beards have been ‘scorned, mocked, celebrated and legislated against. Worn by kings and warriors, radicals and revolutionaries they have symbolised power and intimidation or individuality and defiance’; but the images on display are firmly rooted in the 21st century (some of the subjects were found via Instagram) and the focus is on self-image.

The beard is a distinct look, and today one would assume to have a beard is more of a conscious effort than to not, but how did this begin? In a time before grooming (at least to the degree that we know it) surely having a beard must have been the norm for the male gender, as would long hair and pubic hair, it is only in recent history that is has become otherwise. Surely not shaving is more natural than shaving? Regardless, today clean shaven is common and beards have become distinct, and, as these photos show, one can experiment with them just as much as we can the hair on our heads.

The beard is a signifier of many things. Perhaps the most obvious one is masculinity. Women cannot grow beards. Beards are an outward extension of the body, like a penis. The bigger/stronger the beard, the more masculine you are. This exhibition showcases many beards of all shapes and sizes to illustrate a variety of masculinity, as would an exhibition of penis photographs. Mr Elbank draws attention to the usual phallic qualities of the beard, by the inclusion of a portrait of a drag queen sporting a strong beard and a female (The British lady Harnaam Kaur) who has grown one of the more competitive beards in the show. Surprisingly the portrait image of the woman manages to avoid having a circus vibe, instead she blends in quite well as one of the more beautiful bearded specimens to be photographed.

Whilst the beard is a symbol of masculinity, many of the ones displayed are so carefully thought through and groomed that they have gone past the point of masculinity and are verging on the point of feminine. Many of the beards photographed are more metrosexual than manly, and I think the exhibition manages to touch on the changing gender boundaries of the 21st century. What it means to be ‘male’ or ‘female’ is something that is constantly challenged today, with homosexuality, transvestites and transgenderism being accepted on a growing scale. What is expected of us, because of our gender, is, thankfully, losing its rigidity.

In addition the beard, to a modern viewer, has many connotations unrelated to gender. To what many are calling the ‘me-generation’, individuality and distinctiveness are central; and beards, no matter how common they are right now, remain distinctive. Beards can be a strong and bold fashion statement, but if the masses make strong and bold fashion statements, what are we left with? Right now beards seem particularly fashionable, and they do not rely on ‘god-given’ facial features to be successful, unlike the clean shaven look. All they require is testosterone.

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Theoretically it is an accessible trend (although I’m sure many of my male peers who struggle in the facial hair department would disagree), and if it can make the average male face a little more exciting its popularity is understandable. Many members of the older generation seem to find it a rather scruffy trend, but this is a very shallow association. Throughout history the beard has meant very different things, but I think the most relevant, and perhaps interesting, to the ‘me-generation’ would be its role as a symbol of anti-establishment. Not only do quirky beards feel like a stance against the systematic and faceless corporations that have defined economic life, but they have a place in anti-capitalist history. Karl Marx was identified by his thick dark beard and moustache; his writing partner Friedrich Engels held a ‘moustache evening’ with his peers in opposition to clean shaven bourgeois ‘philistinism’; and Che Guevara, fashion’s favourite communist, sported his signature facial hair. Note how only the trendy communists (China is not known for its facial hair) sported the beard.

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Self-image, especially in regards to the subjects of this exhibition, is a curation. The upkeep and grooming of the beards photographed requires commitment, as the grooming guide in the brochure explains, and I am confident that each person photographed is conscious about how they want to be perceived. Then again how can they not be when they are posing for a photograph? I doubt that any of them are consciously thinking about masculinity, anti-capitalism or Che Guevara every time they reach for the clippers, but the beard does imply all of these things. But some vein of these implications is present when a man (or woman) is curating their self-image, even if they just like the ‘look’ of beards.

Two qualities of the beard as an image I feel are not addressed by these photos (perhaps hinted at, but only by default) are the concepts of disguise and religion. Beards can be a disguise, as they prevent us from knowing the beard owners facial features exactly. There is an insincerity to them, the owner might be hiding something underneath the mass of hair. Beards have lots of religious connections, they’re an integral part of some religious practise, but ‘hair and religion’ would need its own exhibition, probably a bigger one than BEARD, and I’m beginning to think I’ve already taken too much from what is essentially a trendy charity exhibition.

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Olly, 20, French and German student

Why do you think the beard is so popular right now?

‘We all want to be unique- just like everyone else’

Isabella Bornholt; BogeArt

The Brutalist Nightmare

South Bank Centre Image Courtesy of The Daily Mail.

South Bank Centre
Image Courtesy of The Daily Mail.

If you’ve ever wandered along the South Bank, strolled down Bedford Way or walked around Barbican, chances are you’ve come across Brutalist architecture before. Those gigantic asymmetrical, concrete slabs, mounted together to create some of the capital’s most iconic modern buildings such as the National Theatre, surround the Londoner on a day to day basis. These buildings with their intimidating aesthetic, industrial appearance and overwhelming ratio of concrete are, right now, experiencing a Renaissance. Their cool and plain exteriors are becoming the basis for modern-day design and architecture, with some original Brutalist flats being privatised and selling for thousands of pounds.

However, this admiration for these monumental concrete buildings has only been recent. In fact, their introduction into London’s landscape wasn’t received with such high regard. It wasn’t long after they were built that the meaning of the word ‘brutal’ perhaps became too closely associated with these buildings in modern culture. The term ‘Brutalism’ was first coined in the 1950s and derived from the French word ‘brut’, meaning concrete: Nothing to do with the ‘brutal’ aesthetic that the movement is often associated with. The term refers to a specific architectural period in post-war Britain, still recovering from the destruction of World War II. Due to the cheap cost of concrete, the government were in favour of employing this new ‘brutalist’ style in order to rebuild social housing and public and government buildings. This meant that Brutalist architects, like Ernò Goldfinger, Sir Denys Lasdun and Peter and Alison Smithson designed their buildings with certain ideals in mind. These buildings needed to be above all functional for the people who inhabited them, as well as cheap and easy to build, giving them their plain and non-decorative exterior and frank materiality. Especially regarding social housing projects, Brutalist architects sought to provide a sort of social utopia and equal living standards. In high rise Brutalist buildings, flats were usually of equal size, and areas were built into the building complex which separated living and leisure activities such as shops, almost like a city within a city. Despite this, brutalist architecture became increasingly criticsed during the 1960s and 70s.

It wasn’t just its ‘ugly’ and ‘harsh’ exterior that appalled people (Prince Charles once said that when the Luftwaffe “knocked down our buildings, it didn’t replace them with anything more offensive than rubble”), it was also the state of the inhabitants’ wellbeing that was being questioned. Structural issues quickly began to arise, living conditions were cramped, and with no garden fence to chat to a neighbor over, people often became isolated and anti-social. These confined conditions lead to an overhanging cloud of claustrophobia and fear which soon resulted in vandalism and high crime rates. These once hopeful ‘utopian’ communities were increasingly becoming somewhat dystopian. Famous high rise buildings such as Goldfinger’s Trellick Tower (1972) became increasingly associated with anti-social behaviour (including reports on rape and attacks on children) and the Smithson’s Robin Hood Gardens (1972) also became synonymous with crime, causing its demolition to begin in 2013.

Trellick Tower. Image courtesy of the Telegraph.

Trellick Tower. Image courtesy of the Telegraph.

It’s hardly surprising then, that these once hopeful and functional buildings became the architectural backdrop for dystopian fiction in popular culture. J.G. Ballard’s 1975 dystopian novel High-Rise (soon to be made into a film by Sightseers director, Ben Wheatley) tells the tale of an über modern, luxurious set of high rise flats, closed off from the rest of the world with only its high-tech commodities to cater for everyones’ needs. This utopian beginning soon ends in its inhabitants, who, shut off from modern society, begin to segregate and turn on each other. To cut a long story short, this results in crime, murder and violence, which is not too dissimilar from the stories of Trellick Tower and Robin Hood Gardens. Then we have the cameo appearances that brutalist architecture appears in in dystopian film. Think back to Stanely Kubrick’s controversial 1972 film, A Clockwork Orange, where the Brunel University Lecture Centre becomes the setting for the authoritarian Ludovico Medical Facility. What was once seen as a Socialist dream in 60s and 70s Britain soon symbolised a totalitarian nightmare.

The Brunel University Lecture Centre in A Clockwork Orange. Image courtesy of http://www.collective-zine.co.uk/cboard/topic56559-brutalist-architecture.html

The Brunel University Lecture Centre in A Clockwork Orange. Image courtesy of http://www.collective-zine.co.uk/cboard/topic56559-brutalist-architecture.html

The irony of Brutalist architecture is huge, leaving it as one of the most misunderstood aesthetics in modern design. Its unfortunate that the monumentally terrifying, yet fantastic look of these London buildings became too closely associated with brutality and crime in general, not just within fiction but in the day-to-day lives of the people who lived there. However, as mentioned earlier, Brutalism is now experiencing a wave of nostalgic appreciation. Trellick Tower, the high rise building known for its violent crime rates, has privatised and gentrified its flats which sell for thousands and thousands of pounds. I suppose it just only goes to prove how one man’s utopia is another man’s dystopia. Maddy Martin; BogeArt