Yvon Lambert, Paris, France
‘Light and Dark. The Projections of Robert Barry 1967–2012’, is a comprehensive exhibition of the artist’s older and more recent video projections, monitor-based works and vinyl lettering pieces. The show opens with Red Seconds (1966–67), an archetype of structural film. Consisting of a reticently flashing red and warm rectangle, this 16mm film projection illuminates Barry’s sensibility of subdued rather than loud persistence. Red Seconds is a dry whisper compared to the grating flicker of concurrent films like, say, Peter Kubelka’s Arnulf Rainer from 1960 or Tony Conrad’s The Flicker from 1966. The work is unwaveringly spare compared to the gratifying rush of colour in Paul Sharits’s N:O:T:H:I:N:G (1968).
Another film projection, Scenes (1967), conversely consists of stoic suspense – empty film stock sparsely punctuated by a ghostly tunnels and glints of architectural surfaces. Applied on the gallery’s adjacent bookstore shop window, silver vinyl letters spell out the words SOMETHING THAT IS HAPPENING TO YOU RIGHT NOW AND POSSIBLY FOR ALL TIME (2012). Purposely forgoing the punch of Barbara Kruger or Jenny Holzer’s capital-lettered lessons, Barry opts instead for unsettling ambivalence.
A forever wanting series of words – ‘Unexpected’, ‘Expression’, ‘Realize’, ‘Inevitable’, ‘Understand’ etc. – appears on black and white videos of anonymous urban scenes continually in flux, presented on flat-screens: night traffic in Manhattan in Coming Over (2004), travelling a highway in Coming to an End (2003), a spiral staircase’s human traffic in Coming and Going (2) (2004). This imprinting feels no less detached and impersonal, even when gently interjected with slides of placid, orange-hued domesticity in Belmont (1967).
The show meanders on in a semiotic tour de force, leaving one as fogged as if having inhaled the gases released in the artist’s terrific ‘Inert Gas Series’ (1969, not shown here). An intermezzo of this conceptual ether comes by way of Love Songs (2012), a video projection featuring an older, uptown bohemian couple insouciantly plunking away four-handedly on their piano in a cosy apartment, textual snippets of said love songs pasted over them. This is how you want to retire, even if only after seeing Michael Haneke’s haunting film, Amour (2012).
Finally there is Art and War (2007), these very words stencilling out an otherwise black video projection revealing indecipherable fragments of people conversing. A later search online provided more specific data: Barry’s subjects are apparently survivors of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. Their barely audible conversations, recorded during their visits to art galleries, is invariably defined by their experiences at war. What exactly Barry aimed at with this precariously informative treatment of presumably traumatic content vis-à-vis the potentially representational, discursive devices of art escaped me. SOMETHING THAT CANNOT BE PUT INTO WORDS, Barry seems to infer: the same enigmatic words installed at the gallery’s entrance.
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