Robert Barry: NOT THE ART OF WAR, BUT ART AND WARby Robert C. Morgan
Klemens Gasser & Tanja Grunert, Inc.
November 12 – December 20, 2007
Robert Barry is one of the most convincing conceptualists from the era of the late sixties and seventies. His word lists, wall and window pieces, his sound recordings, and DVD and slide projections, are focused on one central idea: language. Like an asterisk spinning through the void of space and time, Barry’s linguistic orientation traverses print and virtual imagery. Isolated words, laminated on the walls of various rooms in the gallery, move constantly in and out any coherent syntactical relationship giving the viewer the sense of experiencing a narrative in fragments. As you walk up the stairs to the second floor of Klemens Gasser & Tanja Grunert, Inc.—a temporary space that was once a domestic household on the edge of West Chelsea—you are immediately exposed to word WITHOUT on the left side of the entrance; following the staircase on the left and partially on the ceiling is the word DESPERATE. Typical of Barry’s style of installation—a style he has pursued for more than a decade—the words are composed of Helvetica typeface uniformly a foot in height. They appear randomly placed, often at diagonal intervals to the walls, ceilings, and floors. Even so, the position of the words in the rooms upstairs, including the hallways, do not conform to the architectural interior. They intervene illogically, as if to challenge the structure of the standard vertical and horizontal organization of the empty rooms.
Barry has randomly selected 21 words for this installation, entitled ART AND WAR. None of the words carry a specific meaning, nor do they refer to anything in particular. In addition the words in the rooms and corridors, there is also a DVD flat screen where they appear as part of a 13-minute loop. The DVD loop begins with the three words of the title compressed together—ARTANDWAR—as the horizon line on a darkened screen. This is followed by the appearance of each of the 21 words at various sequential intervals, also on a darkened screen. Within the letters of each word, one can see people standing or milling about—footage shot of visitors to Barry’s previous gallery openings over the past two years. The soundtrack is comprised of faint voices of American war survivors narrating their horrendous experiences in the ongoing wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Although it is not stated, it would appear that the 21 words—that are decontextualized throughout the gallery space—are, in fact, taken from these verbal descriptions of the war.
I have followed Robert Barry’s work for over thirty years. (It was part of my dissertation at New York University and the subject of my first book, published in Bielefeld, Germany, in 1986.) My experience of this exhibition attests to a consistency in his use of decontextualized language occupying everyday spaces and common, ordinary rooms. He has done similar installations for many years, mostly in Europe; he has shown in galleries on a regular basis in Germany, France, Belgium, Spain, England, Switzerland, and Italy, and many European museums have presented retrospectives over the years. Although he has been included in virtually all the major conceptual art exhibitions mounted in museums in the United States, his work is lesser known in this country. Nevertheless, Barry remains one of the most reflective of conceptualists in the sense that language is not finalized as an abstract concept. Rather, language constitutes a transport system, a kind of reflexive circuitry in which the process of engaging with the work draws the viewer into his or her own experiences. While his isolation of words may make the language appear fragmented and generalized (a practice that begins in the late sixties), a synaptic moment eventually arrives in which something clicks into place. This is not a guarantee, and it is unlikely to happen in a crowded space. On the other hand, it is possible to re-conceive the experience of being there in a crowded space and, through memory, to join the structural components together. In this way, one may grasp the experience of the work purely as memory. In the Heideggerian sense, it is about making a connection between the language of being and the arbitration of being there.
The title of this installation, ART AND WAR, so sparely designed and considered, combines two unlikely counterparts, as unlikely as bringing together the virtual range of experience with the tactile. This tactile/virtual fusion is a persistent theme throughout Robert Barry’s work, especially in his early “Marcuse piece” (1970), where he literally designates spaces, both mental and physical, where viewers are “free to think about what we are going to do.” For anyone who has read the ancient Chinese Taoist text “The Art of War,” authored by Sun Tzu, there is a similar shared reflection on time and nature, but the goal is always to conquer the adversary through the manipulation of deception and truth, the use of opposing forces at the right moment and the balancing of action with retreat and inactivity. In the structure of war, Sun Tzu shows how strength and invincibility can be achieved without battle when the principles of physics, politics, and psychology are accurately applied.
Still, from the position of the artist Robert Barry, the text of Sun Tzu is considered more in the context of predetermined strategy than as a reflection upon the devastating aftermath once battle proves inevitable and the wounded are forced to carry it in their minds and bodies. Barry’s ART AND WAR is about the linguistic structure of the aftermath, the diffusion of language when it is cast into fragments, and the human necessity to recompile the process of signification. It is about those moments in the course of time where the power of language achieves its abundant recourse to communicate.
ContributorRobert C. Morgan
Robert C. Morgan is a writer, international art critic, curator, poet, lecturer, and artist. His most recent book is Clement Greenberg: Late Writings (2003). He holds both an MFA in Sculpture and a Ph.D. in Art History. He is currently Adjunct Professor of Fine Art at Pratt Institute.