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Issue 223

Rosa Barba’s Lyrical and Political Exercise in Imagination

At the Neue Nationalgalerie, Berlin, the artist's new show ‘In a Perpetual Now’ at the iconic Ludwig Mies van der Rohe-designed building articulates the kaleidoscopic possibilities of looking

BY Isabel Parkes in EU Reviews , Exhibition Reviews | 28 SEP 21

The first artist to exhibit at the newly renovated Neue Nationalgalerie – one of Modernist architect Ludwig Mies van der Rohe’s most iconic buildings – is particularly well suited to the task. Rosa Barba has dedicated years to an expanded filmmaking practice that explores light, transparency and reflection, all central concerns of the German architect, animated here through a parallel architecture installed in the subterranean floor of the celebrated museum. The resulting exhibition, ‘In a Perpetual Now’, proposes a complex form of co-operation between artist and architect, time and space, and articulates the kaleidoscopic possibilities of looking.

Rosa Barba, 'In a Perpetual Now', 2021, exhibition view, Neue Nationalgalerie, Berlin. Courtesy: the artist and Esther Schipper, Berlin; photography: Andrea Rossetti 

The exhibition’s core component, the steel-and-plexiglass Blind Volumes / Backstein (2021), takes its inspiration from a drawing by Mies van der Rohe of his unrealized Landhaus aus Backstein (Brick Country House, 1924), which Barba has translated into an installation that hosts 15 of her films and sculptural works. The most recent of these, Plastic Limits: For the Projection of Other Architectures (2021), both venerates and interrogates the recently reopened building. In one of the film’s most arresting images, fog fills the Neue Nationalgalerie’s steel-and-glass walls. The effect of this visual smokescreen is equally conceptual and material: it introduces chaos to a space that otherwise emphasizes clean lines, seemingly pitting Modernist ideals that linked transparency to freedom against a kind of liberation found in not being seen.

At times, Barba uses a Steadicam to rock the viewer gently and eerily side to side, as if tracing the outline of an ellipse. She uses her camera to highlight the fetishization as much as the craftsmanship of Mies van der Rohe’s building, while this cursive motion evokes the lines of the architect's original drawing. In a later scene, Barba pans alongside Nazi architect Albert Speer’s massive concrete cylinder, Schwerbelastungskörper, which was erected nearby to conduct feasibility studies for building on Berlin’s marshy ground and still stands today. Barba has flipped the image so that yellow weeds glide along the top of the frame, which she follows with a scene that depicts a blue, cloud-flecked sky. These juxtapositions of iconic architectures and natural elements – reflected (and not) in surfaces and collective memory – seem to hover in a space between celebration and critique.

Rosa Barba, From Source to Poem, 2016, film still. Courtesy: the artist and Esther Schipper, Berlin. © Rosa Barba / VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn 2021

‘In a Perpetual Now’ is a lyrical and political exercise in imagination. It calls us to connect disparate things that, particularly through the artist’s fluid combination of media – sound, sculpture and moving image – propose a more unified, cosmic perspective. In Boundaries of Consumption (2012), for example, two small metal spheres roll atop a stack of film cannisters as a modified projector beams light in their direction. The resulting shadow showcases a duet and chance encounter, enacted by physics and serendipity. On the opposite wall, Enigmatic Whisper (2017) situates viewers inside Alexander Calder’s Connecticut studio. Focusing on the early morning light that bounces off one of his archetypal mobiles – also on view in a concurrent exhibition, 'Minimal/Maximal', on the ground floor of the museum – Barba conjures the performative quality of filmmaking through the choreography required to swap in and out three-minute rolls of 16mm film in an ever-brightening environment.

Rosa Barba, 'In a Perpetual Now', 2021, exhbition view, Neue Nationalgalerie, Berlin. Courtesy: the artist and Esther Schipper, Berlin; photography: Andrea Rossetti 

Barba’s ability to deconstruct film in terms of its essential components – light, time, movement and space – and reconstruct it in relation to broader socio-historic formations – affect and objectivity, power and love, fame and speculation – urges us to move beyond systems that see for us, like screens and search engines. ‘In a Perpetual Now’ amplifies these formations particularly in public space by linking conversations that never took place, but that overlap in the everyday as much as in popular imagination. Barba focuses our attention on details while ensuring we don’t lose sight of awe. In doing so, she suspends us in a plan that is neither chaotic nor settled – a sprawling conversation between past, present and future.

Rosa Barba's 'In a Perpetual Now' is on view at the Neue Nationalgalerie, Berlin, until 16 January 2022.

Head image and thumbnail: Rosa Barba, Plastic Limits – For the Projection of Other Architectures, 2021, film still. Courtesy: the artist and Esther Schipper, Berlin. © Rosa Barba / VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn, 2021

Isabel Parkes is a writer and the deputy director of Callie's. She is based in Berlin.