Rosa Barba: Subject to Constant Change
(with reference to ‘Turner’s Perspective: Selected by Rosa Barba’)
Turner Contemporary, Margate
1 February - 6 May 2013
Review by Francesca Laura Cavallo
Just as contemporary art commissions are being welcomed into traditional spaces, so too are the old masters finding homes in the midst of the contemporary art world, as seen at last year’s Frieze Masters. This approach begins to reconcile the apparent divorce between historical and contemporary art, opening up both to new reflections. Artefacts and artworks do not belong to linear time - that of history - but to an infinite cultural space where distances and proximities can be created and breached, dialogues formed and hundreds of years overcome.
‘Subject to Constant Change’, Rosa Barba’s current show at Turner Contemporary, is complemented by ‘Turner’s Perspective’, an exhibition of JMW Turner’s studio drawings selected by Barba from the Tate collection. ‘Turner’s diagrams and perspective drawings echo my thoughts about orchestrated and fragmented choreographies in space and how this experience can be approached from different perspectives’, says Barba. The two shows are strewn with references and resemble a distorted duet played by different instruments. The implicit conversation sees Barba’s almost musical attempts to render time through sculpture answer Turner’s investigations into the ‘invisible tricks’ of visual representation.
Staged in collaboration with Cornerhouse, Manchester (which showed a further selection of Barba’s work earlier this year) ‘Subject to Constant Change’ presents a fragmented choreography of filmic sculptures: analogue projectors, ‘colour watches’ and a typewriter are animated by moving strips of celluloid, noisily passing through looping trajectories. These living objects elude narrative, and encourage synesthetic divagations. In ‘Boundaries of Consumption’ (2012), ball bearings dance randomly on a passing filmstrip. As in much of Barba’s work, the screen blank and the only sound is that of the projector itself. The sapient positioning of spotlights reveals another space for projection beside the screen and highlights the magnified movement of the spheres reflected as shadows upon the wall. It’s as if the apparatus has abandoned its role as medium and become (finally!) the centre of attention, the subject of another, more rudimentary projection. The reference to Turner’s work is revealed in the next room, where the ball bearings are visually echoed in Turner’s investigation of light on curved surfaces, ‘Reflections in a Single Polished Metal Globe and in a Pair of Polished Metal Globes’ (circa 1810).
In ‘Focuspuller’ (2013) words projected on two mirroring screens alternately appear and dissolve forming a perspective experiment: the eye is forced to focus and un-focus and leaps between the two glasses following a controlled rhythm. This work emphasises the temporal element to which every image is forced to conform, negotiating its presence in time. A similar theme is addressed in three ‘Colour Clocks: Verticals Lean Occasionally Consistently Away from Viewpoints’ (2012), where the primary colours imprinted on celluloid are not projected as images, but imprisoned in the flowing cycle of what looks like the great wheel of a clock. These works enter into an almost synesthetic dialogue with Turner’s perspectival drawings, where he also tricks the eye with illusionistic compositions of geometrical forms and colours.
In ‘Coupez ici’ (2012), a strip of celluloid enclosed in a light box springs from a hole and folds into random waves before returning to its starting point and disappearing; written on it are the words ‘ne jamais couper cette amorce’ - never cut this strip. A beguiling visualisation of a self-generating process, this work invites contemplation; we follow the strip as it moves in cyclical labyrinths wondering if this is the way in which time itself unfolds. We trace in each curve the cycles and recycles of history, a never-ending process of regeneration, but we see also the destiny of celluloid itself, doomed to disappear in the transition from an analogue to a digital era.
Similarly, in ‘Subconscious Society’ (2013), a film shot on some of the last remaining reels of Fuji 35mm film, the obsolete medium seems almost to empathise with the Kent coastline it depicts, with its derelict boats, precarious oil rigs, and the ruins of the fun fair called Dreamland. This is the second half of a larger feature filmed between Kent and Manchester: the other part, displayed at Cornerhouse, depicts survivors of a ‘post- analogue’ era, stuck in the abandoned town hall and fiddling with machinery at the verge of obsolescence. Here again, the artist seems to have played with the medium of film to twist the linear perception of time, transporting the reality of her subjects into an almost mythological dimension.
A recent show of Barba’s in Zurich was appropriately titled ‘Time as a Perspective’: in a sense Barba’s work attempts to remind us that time itself is a medium to be played with. ‘Subject to Constant Change’ unfolds according to a syncopated tempo; a tempo that perhaps better reflects the way in which we discontinuously appropriate and abandon cultural artefacts and works of art from different times. Between pauses, accelerations, reminders, redirections and anticipations we are invited to grasp the essence of a disrupted symphony.
The initiative of inviting Barba to select Turner’s work fits the host organisation’s ambitions, which is expressly inspired by the old master’s work, and the two shows unveil some very interesting insights into both artists, bringing their contemporary and historical creative processes closer together. What strikes me however is how this kind of operation really seems congenial to Barba’s practice: the malleability of film as material has always been one of Barba’s greatest allies, allowing her to play with time at its own erratic pace. The inclusion of Turner’s drawing in her choreographic montage emphasises the artist’s capacity to stimulate trans-historical conversations.